Atlanta Federal Court Rules Officer Immune From Suit Under Discretionary Analysis

photo_781_20060111Although the courthouse typically serves as a venue for resolving legal disputes, occasionally it can be the setting for their creation. For instance, the Atlanta Division of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia recently addressed liability arising from a scuffle between an attorney and a Fulton County Sheriff’s Deputy at the entrance to the Fulton County Courthouse in its ruling in West v. Davis.

The events leading to this litigation occurred on December 9, 2010, when the plaintiff in this case, an attorney, arrived at the Fulton County Courthouse to represent a client in a domestic relations status conference. When the plaintiff arrived, she placed her belonging in a bin and proceeded through the metal detector, which sounded as she passed through. A security officer, the defendant in this action, approached the plaintiff and told her to remove her jacket. The plaintiff objected, saying that the jacket was part of her suit and that removing it would expose her undergarments. The Fulton County Sheriff’s Office, which provides security to the courthouse, has an unwritten policy that members of the public need not remove jackets at the metal detector and that officers are to use discretion in determining whom to ask to remove their jackets.

The defendant told the plaintiff that if she failed to comply and remained in the courthouse, she would be arrested. Thereafter, the plaintiff asked to speak to a supervisor and stated that the defendant put his hands on his handcuffs and glared at her menacingly. The plaintiff took out her cellphone and called her husband and the client with whom she was supposed to meet. The defendant then approached the plaintiff and told her to get off her phone. Rules do prohibit cellphone use in the area near the magnetometer and x-ray machines at the courthouse. The plaintiff states that when she refused to comply, the officer “grabbed her hand, squeezed it, jerked it towards him, wrenched it back and forth, and then forcibly removed the cell phone and flung it into her purse.” The defendant, however, maintains that he took her phone without grabbing her hand or using force. Shortly thereafter, the supervisor arrived and permitted the plaintiff to enter the courthouse after directing the defendant to use a metal wand detector in lieu of having the plaintiff remove her jacket.

The plaintiff then brought suit, alleging the defendant used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and was otherwise liable under Georgia state law for battery, negligence, and excessive use of force in violation of the Georgia Constitution. In a prior order dated October 15, 2013, the court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant, finding that the defendant’s conduct did not amount to a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. However, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, finding that the District Court had analyzed the plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment claim using the “shock the conscience” standard applicable to Fourteenth Amendment violations rather than the proper Fourth Amendment objective reasonableness standard. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals remanded the case to the District Court with instruction to review the plaintiff’s claim using the proper standard.

Unfortunately for the plaintiff, the District Court still found that summary judgment was the appropriate outcome. Generally, to prove the use of excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment, one “must allege (1) that a seizure occurred and (2) that the force used to effect the seizure was unreasonable.” Troupe v. Sarasota Cnty., Fla., 419 F.3d 1160, 1168 (11th Cir. 2005). In determining whether the use of force is unreasonable, the court typically looks to the following four factors:  “1) the need for … force, (2) the relationship between the need and the amount of force … (3) the extent of the injury inflicted and, (4) whether the force was applied in good faith or maliciously and sadistically.” Hadley v. Gutierrez, 526 F.3d 1324, 1329 (11th Cir. 2008). However, the key issue in this case was not whether the officer’s conduct amounted to “excessive force” but rather whether qualified immunity shielded him from liability even if his conduct amounted to excessive force.

Simply put, qualified immunity shields an officer exercising discretionary authority from individual liability as long as his conduct did not amount to a violation of a clearly established statutory or constitutional right. Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). Once the defendant officer establishes that he was acting in a discretionary capacity, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show that qualified immunity should not be applied because the conduct violated a constitutional or statutory right and the right violated was clearly established rather than uncertain at the time. See Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001). In this case, the District Court held that the law was not clearly established to a degree “that a reasonable official would understand what he is doing violates [a] right.” Vaughan v. Cox, 343 F.3d 1323, 1332 (11th Cir. 2003). The court acknowledged that the plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights were likely violated but found the cases cited by the plaintiff to be distinguishable because she was both in an area where the officer was acting within the scope of permissible authority and, from the perspective of a reasonable officer, was uncooperative and might have posed a risk to others. Accordingly, the court concluded that the conduct was not so outrageous that it broached the “hazy border between excessive and acceptable force” so as to deprive the defendant of qualified immunity. Lee v. Ferraro, 284 F.3d 1188, 1198-99 (11th Cir. 2002).

Although the plaintiff can take some satisfaction from winning her appeal, this case illuminates the heavy burden one can face when she tried to obtain recovery for the violation of  her rights. Indeed, qualified immunity may bar recovery even when the conduct in question does amount to the violation of a right. Accordingly, if you believe you’ve been injured while your constitutional rights are being violated, you should seek representation from well-qualified counsel who have experience overcoming the many hurdles you’re likely to encounter. The Atlanta premises liability attorneys at the Simon Law Firm have experience representing injured clients in cases before state and federal courts for both tort and constitutional claims. If you’ve been injured and are curious about your legal options, feel free to contact us for a free case consultation.

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