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Morales v. Fry

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

March 25, 2014

MARIA J. MORALES, Plaintiff,
v.
SONYA FRY, et al., Defendants.

ORDER

JOHN C. COUGHENOUR, District Judge.

This matter comes before the Court on the motion for summary judgment of Defendants Sonya Fry, Brian Rees, and Michelle Gallegos ("Officer Defendants") (Dkt. No. 55), the City of Seattle's motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 52), and Plaintiff Maria Morales' motion for partial summary judgment against Officer Sonya Fry (Dkt. No. 43). Having thoroughly considered the parties' briefing and the relevant record, the Court finds oral argument unnecessary and hereby GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART the Officer Defendants' motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 55), DENIES Plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment (Dkt. No. 43), and GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART the City of Seattle's motion for the reasons explained herein.

I. BACKGROUND

This case arises out of the arrest and aborted prosecution of Ms. Maria Morales. On May 1, 2012, Ms. Morales attended a "May Day" march in downtown Seattle, Washington. As the day progressed, the march turned from a peaceful rally into a large demonstration that spanned downtown. Property was damaged and the protesters became difficult for SPD officers to effectively manage in the course of the day. Around 4:00 p.m., Ms. Morales and others witnessed police officers arrest an individual-later identified as Paul Campiche-who the officers believed to have thrown a bottle and attempted to run away from SPD officers. (Dkt. Nos. 46 at ¶ 10; 49 at ¶ 4.) To prevent other protesters from interfering with Mr. Campiche's arrest, SPD officers formed a bicycle circle around the arresting officers and Mr. Campiche as a barrier. ( Id.; see Dkt. No. 50-4, Ex. D.) SPD officers were trained to form such circles to prevent protesters from interfering with arrests and did so numerous times on May 1, 2012. The officers at this scene also directed protesters to move in various directions in order to clear individuals away from the ongoing arrest. (Dkt. Nos. 46 at ¶ 10; 50-3 at 6.)

Officer Sonya Fry was one of the officers who created the bicycle fence surrounding Mr. Campiche. She placed her police bicycle between herself and individuals watching the arrest, who included protesters and members of the news media. ( See Dkt. No. 59 at ¶ 7.) Officer Fry stated in her deposition that at that time, she did not witness the individuals near her being physical or physically attacking officers. (Dkt. No. 50-4 at 10 (describing the crowd that day as "agitated and screaming and yelling" but admitting that no protesters were physically attacking officers or doing anything physical).) At the time just before Ms. Morales' arrest occurred, Officer Fry ordered protesters to move in a westward direction; other officers ordered the same group of individuals to move in a different direction, resulting in some confusion amongst the individuals. (Dkt. Nos. 46 at ¶ 10; 50-3 at 6.) Ms. Morales was, like the other members of the public who witnessed Mr. Campiche's arrest, directed to move westward by Officer Fry. Ms. Morales passed immediately next to Officer Fry as she moved westward. Up to this point, Officer Fry had not seen Ms. Morales or taken note of any of Ms. Morales' conduct that day- Ms. Morales was simply another individual in the crowd. ( See Dkt. No. 50-4 at 11.)

As Ms. Morales passed, Officer Fry suddenly and forcefully pulled Ms. Morales by her head and shoulders over the bicycle fence, causing her to land backwards on the concrete and on top of a bicycle. ( See Dkt. No. 50-1.) According to Ms. Morales, she had very little room to pass by Officer Fry's bicycle due to the number of people confined in the tight space between the bicycle fence line and a wall behind the protesters. (Dkt. Nos. 46 at ¶ 11-12; 56-3 at 44.) In order to pass and continue obeying Officer Fry's directive to proceed westward, Ms. Morales states, she moved the handlebars of Officer Fry's bike. (Dkt. No. 56-3 at 44.) Another individual, Nigel Pendley, was standing immediately next to Ms. Morales. Mr. Pendley also states that there was very little room for the protesters to pass Officer Fry's bike, and that if Ms. Morales had not moved the handlebars, he would have had to do so. (Dkt. No. 50-3 at 9-12.) Mr. Pendley recorded the encounter on video. ( See Dkt. No. 50-1.) The video clip, however, did not surface until after Ms. Morales had been arrested and charged with assault based upon Officer Fry's description of the incident.

According to Officer Fry's arrest report, which she drafted shortly after the arrest, Officer Fry pulled Ms. Morales over the bicycle line and arrested her for assaulting a police officer. (Dkt. No. 50-5.) Officer Fry stated in that report that in front of her were photographers and members of the news media documenting an individual's arrest. ( Id. ) She stated that Ms. Morales began yelling at officers in the bicycle line when Officer Fry verbally requested that everyone move back. ( Id. ) At that point, Officer Fry stated, Ms. Morales yelled "Okay Bitch!" "less than one arm length away from [her] face" and "punched [her] in the chest with a closed fist." (Dkt. No. 50-5.) The report also states that Ms. Morales "struggled to get free by kicking officers" once she was on the ground. ( Id. ) Officer Fry made no mention in the report about either the movement of or impact from her bicycle handles allegedly caused by Ms. Morales.

Subsequently, Officer Fry hedged from this position in her deposition and in her supporting declaration. She explained that she did not actually see Ms. Morales punch her, but merely felt an impact from an unknown source in her chest area. ( See Dkt. Nos. 50-4 at 13; 59 at ¶ 11.) She assumed that Ms. Morales must have punched her because, Officer Fry stated, Ms. Morales was the closest person to her at the time. (Dkt. Nos. 50-4 at 23-24; 59 at ¶ 11.) Officer Fry also conceded in her deposition that she did not see Ms. Morales say "Okay Bitch!" just before allegedly punching her, and does not recall whether Ms. Morales made that statement said it in a high or low voice. (Dkt. No. 50-4 at 22.) Notably, one cannot hear Ms. Morales utter the alleged statement to Officer Fry or otherwise see her punch Officer Fry in the video of the arrest. ( See Dkt. No. 50-1.) Mr. Pendley also states that he did not hear Ms. Morales say "Okay Bitch!" or see her punch Officer Fry. (Dkt. No. 49 at ¶¶ 7-8.) Finally, Officer Fry conceded in her deposition that she did not see Ms. Morales move her bicycle handle, cannot recall whether her bicycle impacted her, and did not actually see Ms. Morales kick any of the officers as her report had stated. (Dkt. Nos. 50-4 at 15, 26.)

Officer Fry pulled Ms. Morales over the bicycle fence line by her head and shoulders. Ms. Morales' body turned while falling, and she ultimately landed on her back on the concrete and on top of a bicycle. Officers Rees, Gallegos, Fry, and one other officer converged upon Ms. Morales, who states that she was moving after she hit the ground in an attempt to get space from the officers since she had been abruptly attacked. (Dkt. Nos. 46 at ¶¶ 12-13; 56-3 at 71-72.) The officers state that Ms. Morales was resisting arrest. ( See Dkt. No. 59 at ¶ 14.) After Ms. Morales landed on the ground, Officer Gallegos assisted with the arrest. Officer Gallegos states that she stepped on Ms. Morales' leg or foot in order to get her upper body on the ground. (Dkt. No. 60 at ¶ 23.) Officer Gallegos also alleged after the incident that Ms. Morales deliberately kicked her in the leg, and told the officers at the prisoner processing van to add a second charge of assault against Ms. Morales. ( Id. at ¶ 24.) No further acts by Officer Gallegos are discussed.

In the moments after Ms. Morales was pulled inside of the bicycle circle-while multiple officers surrounded her-Officer Brian Rees dispersed his pepper spray in Ms. Morales' face and onto her shoulder. (Dkt. Nos. 46 at ¶ 13; 61 at ¶ 5.) The dispersal was brief-a fraction of a second-and also contacted Officer Gallegos, but all parties agree that pepper spray was dispersed and that it made contact with Ms. Morales' face. Officer Rees states that his use of the pepper spray was accidental, and stated on a previous occasion that he did not even know that he had dispersed his pepper spray until told that he did so afterwards. (Dkt. No. 61 at ¶ 5.) His accounts of his use of pepper spray have also been inconsistent as time as passed from May 1, 2012 to the date of this lawsuit. ( See Dkt. No. 67 at 18-23.) Like Ms. Morales' initial arrest, Officer Rees' action was also recorded on video. (Dkt. No. 69.) That clip shows Officer Rees extending his right arm with his pepper spray directly towards Ms. Morales' shoulder and face, and the pepper spray being dispersed. ( Id. ) After the pepper spraying occurred, Officer Rees assisted in handcuffing and subduing Ms. Morales. Ms. Morales was ultimately handcuffed with two pair of handcuffs that she alleges were tightened in a manner that caused her pain and injured her thumb. (Dkt. Nos. 21 at ¶ 24; 46 at ¶ 13.) Officers also bent Ms. Morales' legs against her buttocks and put their knees against her back while she was lying face first on the ground to prevent her from resisting arrest. After being handcuffed, Ms. Morales was led further down the street to the SPD processing van and was ultimately transported to a holding cell. (Dkt. No. 46 at ¶¶ 14-16.)

On May 17, 2012, Ms. Morales was charged with Assault in the Fourth Degree. ( Id., Ex. A.) At some point after the May Day demonstration, Mr. Pendley's video of Ms. Morales' arrest was posted on the Internet. Ultimately, the King County Prosecutor's Office requested that all charges against Ms. Morales be dismissed and on August 17, 2012, the presiding King County judge dismissed the state's case against Ms. Morales with prejudice in the interest of justice. ( Id., Ex. B.) According to Defendants, the Seattle Police Department thereafter conducted two separate investigations into the officers' use of force against Ms. Morales. The first was a standard use of force investigation that is conducted after all uses of force; the second was an Internal Affairs ("OPA") investigation prompted by the complaint of an uninvolved third party who found Mr. Pendley's video on the Internet. ( See Dkt. No. 62 at ¶ 55.) The investigations found that probable cause existed to arrest Ms. Morales, but Officer Rees was given a training referral for the "accidental" use of his pepper spray. (Dkt. No. 54-1.)

This lawsuit followed Ms. Morales' arrest and prosecution. She brings claims the following claims[1]: (1-2) § 1983 unlawful arrest and excessive force claims against Officers Fry, Gallegos, and Rees; (3) a § 1983 malicious prosecution claim against all defendants; (4) a § 1983 Monell claim against the City of Seattle; (5-8) state law assault, battery, false arrest, and malicious prosecution claims against all defendants; and (9) a respondeat superior claim against the City of Seattle. (Dkt. No. 21.) Now before the Court are the following motions: (1) Plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment against Officer Fry on her § 1983 unlawful arrest, excessive force, and malicious prosecution claims; (2) the Officer Defendants' motion for summary judgment on all claims; and (3) the City of Seattle's motion for summary judgment on all municipal liability claims. The Court addresses each motion below.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Summary Judgment Standard

Pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, "[t]he court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(a). In making such a determination, the Court must view the facts and inferences to be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-50 (1986). Once a motion for summary judgment is properly made and supported, the opposing party "must come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). Material facts are those that may affect the outcome of the case, and a dispute about a material fact is genuine if there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248-49. Ultimately, summary judgment is appropriate only against a party who "fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986).

B. Plaintiff's § 1983 Claims and the Officers' Qualified Immunity Motion

"Qualified immunity shields government officials from civil damages liability unless the official violated a statutory or constitutional right that was clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct." Acosta v. City of Costa Mesa, 718 F.3d 800, 824 (9th Cir. 2013) (citing Reichle v. Howards, ___ U.S. ___, 132 S.Ct. 2088, 2093 (2012)). Ultimately, "[a]ssessing whether an official is entitled to immunity is a two prong inquiry[, ]" and the Court may address the prongs in whichever order it deems appropriate under the circumstances. Id. Under the first prong, the Court determines whether, "[t]aken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury, [] the facts alleged show [that] the officer's conduct violated a constitutional right[.]" Id. (quoting Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001)). Under the second prong, the Court determines whether the right allegedly violated was "clearly established." To be clearly established, "the contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right." Id. (quoting Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 639 (1987)). Here, the Officer Defendants-Officers Fry, Rees, and Gallegos-each move for summary judgment. They argue that they committed no constitutional violations and that even if the Court finds that violations occurred, they are each entitled to qualified immunity. (Dkt. No. 55.) The Court addresses the arguments, which necessarily encompass an analysis of Plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment on Officer Fry's liability, in turn.[2]

1. Plaintiff's Unlawful Arrest Claim Under § 1983

The Court begins with Ms. Morales' claim that the officers arrested her without probable cause. The Fourth Amendment protects individuals against "unreasonable searches and seizures." U.S. Const. amend. IV. A warrantless arrest, which constitutes a "seizure, " is "unreasonable" and thus unconstitutional if it is not supported by probable cause- i.e., if "the facts and circumstances within [the arresting officer's] knowledge are [not] sufficient for a reasonably prudent person to believe that the suspect has committed a crime." Rosenbaum v. Washoe County, 663 F.3d 1071, 1076 (9th Cir. 2011). Thus, to prevail on a § 1983 claim for false arrest, a plaintiff must demonstrate that based on the facts known to the officer at the time of the arrest, there was no probable cause to arrest her. Norse v. City of Santa Cruz, 629 F.3d 966, 978 (9th Cir. 2010) (en banc). "[P]robable cause does not exist where a police officer arrests an individual for activities that do not constitute a violation of the law." Beier v. City of Lewiston, 354 F.3d 1058, 1065-66 (9th Cir. 2004).

The Ninth Circuit has summarized the requisite qualified immunity analysis in the context of a false arrest claim. The Court first determines whether there was probable cause for the arrest, without which the arrest is unconstitutional. Rosenbaum, 663 F.3d at 1076. Even if an unconstitutional arrest occurred, however, an officer may still be entitled to qualified immunity if "it is reasonably arguable that there was probable cause for arrest-that is, whether reasonable officers could disagree as to the legality of the arrest such that the arresting officer is entitled to qualified immunity." Rosenbaum, 663 F.3d at 1076 (emphasis in original); see Norse, 629 F.3d at 978 ("a government official is entitled to qualified immunity on a false arrest claim if a reasonable officer in his position could have believed that probable cause existed"). Ultimately, the "linchpin of qualified immunity analysis is the reasonableness of the officer's conduct." Rosenbaum, 663 F.3d at 1076. For the reasons explained below, the ...


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