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Fuller v. Lee

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

December 9, 2014

CARYN LEE, et al., Defendants.


JAMES L. ROBART, District Judge.


This matter comes before the court on Defendants' motion for summary judgment. ( See Mot. (Dkt. # 37).) In this motion, Defendants City of Seattle ("City"), Sergeant Caryn Lee, and Kathryn Olson dispute Plaintiff Donald Fuller's claims that they unlawfully retaliated against him for filing a complaint with the Seattle Police Department Office of Professional Authority ("OPA"). Having considered the submissions of the parties, the balance of the record, and the relevant law, and having heard oral argument, the court GRANTS Defendants' motion for summary judgment.


Unless otherwise noted, the following facts are undisputed.[1] On March 6, 2009, two City of Seattle police officers stopped Mr. Fuller for crossing the street against a traffic signal. (Fuller Decl. (Dkt. # 47) ¶ 2, Ex. D ("Fuller Mot. to Vacate") Ex. 1 ("Police Rep.") at 41, 44.) Mr. Fuller denies that he was jaywalking. (Fuller Decl. ¶ 2.) The officers requested multiple times that Mr. Fuller provide identification so that they could issue him a citation. (Fuller Decl. Ex. B ("Fuller OPA Stmt."); Police Rep. at 41, 42.) Mr. Fuller admitted he was carrying identification, but refused to show it to the officers. (Fuller OPA Stmt.; Police Rep. at 41, 42.) The situation escalated into a physical confrontation during which Mr. Fuller was tased and handcuffed. (Fuller Decl. ¶ 2; Fuller OPA Stmt.; Police Rep.) At some point, Mr. Fuller struck Officer Willoughby near his right eye, cutting the officer's face and breaking his glasses. (Fuller Decl. ¶ 2; Police Rep. 41, 43.) Mr. Fuller denies that the contact was intentional. (Fuller Decl. ¶ 2.)

Five days later, Mr. Fuller went to OPA to file a complaint against the officers. ( Id. ¶ 4.) OPA is the arm of the Seattle Police Department that oversees the intake, classification, investigation, and disposition of complaints regarding Seattle Police Department employees. ( See Fuller Decl. Ex. 7 ("OPA Website").) Shortly after filing his complaint, Mr. Fuller received a form letter and brochure describing the OPA process. ( Id. ¶ 6.; Fuller Decl. Ex. A ("OPA Brochure").) The brochure stated, among other things: "The Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) Director... is responsible for the management and oversight of the investigative process and ensures the highest standards for documentation, investigation, reporting, and resolution of complaints." (OPA Brochure at 5.) The brochure also stated: "Filing a complaint does not affect other civil or criminal proceedings." ( Id. at 5.)

Sgt. Lee, who was a Sergeant Detective with OPA, was assigned to investigate Mr. Fuller's complaint. (Lee Decl. (Dkt. # 39) ¶ 6, Ex. A ("Case Summary"), Ex. B ("Follow Up Form").) As an investigator, her role was to collect the pertinent data regarding a complaint and to pass this information on to a lieutenant, who would make recommendations to the OPA Director regarding the ultimate disposition of a complaint. ( See Lee Decl. ¶ 4; Stockmeyer Decl. (Dkt. # 46-1) Ex. 2 ("Lee Dep.") at 12:13-14:12.) OPA investigators were not required or expected to make recommendations regarding the disposition of complaints. ( See Lee Decl. ¶ 4.)

Sgt. Lee began her investigation by speaking with Mr. Fuller on the phone. ( See Follow Up Form.) Sgt. Lee recalls that she instructed Mr. Fuller to submit his statement via email, and that he asked her to recover tape recordings of the incident. ( See id. ; Lee Dep. at 46:9-47:9.) In his deposition, Mr. Fuller testified that "I guess she was giving me that little song and dance that, you know, she was there to be helpful to me and, you know, just giving me the line that she's there to help me out." (Christie Decl. Ex. F ("Fuller Dep.") at 84:4-13.) Mr. Fuller now alleges:

I spoke on the phone with OPA investigator Caryn Lee and she told me she would fairly handle the investigation, and I could count on her to present my complaints and information fairly, and help get a just result for my complaint; she said what I described sounded like the officers did something wrong, and we really need to know how in detail this happened, ' and she asked me to provide more information.

(Fuller Decl. ¶ 9.)

A few days later, Mr. Fuller submitted two statements to Sgt. Lee. (Follow Up Form.) In these statements, he claimed that the officers engaged in racial profiling, detained him without cause, used excessive force against him, and withheld medical treatment. ( See Fuller OPA Stmt.; Fuller Decl. Ex. C ("Fuller OPA Add.").)

In the meantime, Mr. Fuller's criminal case file had been assigned to Detective Nathan Janes for a charging decision. ( See Janes Decl. (Dkt. # 38) ¶ 3.) After discussing the case with a King County prosecutor, Det. Janes booked Mr. Fuller on misdemeanor assault, obstruction, and resisting arrest charges and submitted the case to the Seattle City Attorney's Office to allow that office to decide whether to file misdemeanor charges in Seattle Municipal Court.[2] ( See id. at 5.) While waiting to receive Mr. Fuller's statement, Sgt. Lee attempted to contact Det. Janes to determine the status of the criminal case and to verify Mr. Fuller's address. (Follow Up Form.) Sgt. Lee had noticed that the address listed on Det. Janes' form differed from the address Mr. Fuller had provided in his OPA complaint. ( Id. ) Additionally, Sgt. Lee knew that OPA investigations are usually tolled during the pendency of related criminal cases. (Lee Decl. ¶ 5; Olson Decl. (Dkt. # 40) ¶ 3).)

A few days later, Det. Janes had still not responded to her queries, so Sgt. Lee visited his office in the homicide department. (Follow Up Form; Lee Dep. at 48:24-49:22.) Det. Janes informed her that he did not know whether the case had been filed or declined; his office had faxed the case to the City Attorney's Office and that was the last he had heard of it. (Follow Up Form; Lee Dep. at 49:9-50:10.) The next day, Sgt. Lee submitted Mr. Fuller's incident report to the receptionist at the City Attorney's Office. (Follow Up Form; Lee Dep. at 50:11-53:19; Stockmeyer Decl. Ex 13 ("Lee Ethics Interview") at 54.) She states that she did so because "nobody seemed to know where the case physically was. And because sometimes when paperwork is faxed, sometimes it doesn't get to the exact person you want it to go to." (Lee Dep. at 51:19-53:2.)

About one month later, Sgt. Lee contacted the City Attorney's Office to check on the status of the case and spoke with Suzanne Hatfield. ( See Follow Up Form.) She learned that the case had been declined. ( Id. ; Lee Dep. at 54:22-55:14.) When she requested clarification of the filing decision, Ms. Hatfield offered to investigate and return her call. (Lee Dep. at 54:22-55:14; Lee Ethics Interview at 58.) A few hours later, Ms. Hatfield copied Sgt. Lee on an email to Rocio Guerro, the City attorney originally staffed on Mr. Fuller's case. ( See Fuller Mot. to Vac. Ex. 2 ("Hatfield Email").) The email stated that the case had been declined for "insufficient evidence" and requested that an attorney contact Sgt. Lee. ( See id. ; Lee Dep. at 64:2-25; see also Stockmeyer Decl. Ex. 10 ("Decline Memo").) That afternoon, assistant City Attorney Marc Mayo, who was at that time overseeing Mr. Fuller's file, called Sgt. Lee. (Lee Ethics Interview 58; Follow Up Form; Lee Dep. at 55:16-56:22.) He told Sgt. Lee that his office was concerned that the officers' initial detention of Mr. Fuller was not legal. (Follow Up Form; Lee Dep. at 56:5-21.) Sgt. Lee disagreed that the stop was unlawful, and explained to Mr. Mayo why she thought there was probable cause for the stop. ( See Follow Up Form; Lee Dep. at 58:17-19; Lee Ethics Interview at 58.) By the end of the conversation, Mr. Mayo agreed that the detention was legal, and told Sgt. Lee that his office would file charges for obstruction and possibly assault. ( See Lee Dep. at 21:2-22, 60:10-22; Follow Up Form.) A few days later, Mr. Mayo called Sgt. Lee again and informed her briefly that he intended to file obstruction, assault, and resisting arrest charges against Mr. Fuller. ( See Follow Up Form; Lee Ethics Interview at 62.)

Sgt. Lee testifies that she engaged Mr. Mayo in a conversation regarding probable cause because the legality of the officers' stop had significant implications for the investigation she was conducting regarding the officers' use of force. (Lee Dep. at 19:2-23:6.) She claims that she only expressed disagreement with Mr. Mayo's assertion that the officers' initial detention was unlawful, not with Mr. Mayo's decision not to file charges. ( Id. at 17:18-19:16; 58:2-11.)

Mr. Mayo testifies that he agreed to reconsider the case after he received a call from a sergeant at the Seattle Police Department, whose name he does not recall. (Stockmeyer Decl. Ex. 4 ("Mayo Dep.") at 41:18-42:2; 68:1-5.) He does not remember the substance of the conversation other than that he agreed to reconsider the case because, although it "was fileable technically, " they "disagreed as to whether it was a great, good case." ( Id. at 45:4-13.) During reconsideration, he reviewed at least the police incident reports, and more probably than not also reviewed the officers' Certificate of Determination of Probable Cause, which was a type of form his office normally reviewed. (Mayo Dep. at 42:3-8; 43:15-22; 53:5-19; 88:4-23.) Upon reconsideration, he determined first that the case was "fileable" based on the incident reports alone. ( Id. at 42:9-14, 42:20-43:5.) A "fileable" case, according to Mr. Mayo, is one in which "all the reasonable foreseeable facts and reasonable foreseeable defenses and evidence that would be admitted... would lead a reasonable trier of fact to find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt." ( Id. at 43:2-5.) Nonetheless, he decided to interview the officer who had been struck to determine exactly what the officer's testimony would be. ( Id. at 42:9-14; 42:20-43:5.) When interviewing Officer Willoughby, Mr. Mayo asked whether Mr. Fuller's contact could have been accidental. ( Id. at 75:22-76:4.) Officer Willoughby confirmed that Mr. Fuller "slugged" him on purpose, breaking his glasses. ( Id. at 75:23-76:14.) Based on this information, Mr. Mayo decided to charge Mr. Fuller with obstruction and assault. ( Id. at 74:4-21; Fuller Mot. To Vac. Ex. 12 ("Crim. Compl.").)

Mr. Mayo states that he reconsidered the case because he believes it is his "obligation to reconsider when someone asks me to reconsider." (Mayo Dep. at 63:4-11; 73:14-20.) Mr. Mayo was not aware that Sgt. Lee worked for OPA when he talked to her. ( Id. at 44:25-46:14.) He does not recall whether he was aware that Mr. Fuller had filed a complaint with OPA at the time. ( Id. at 57:18-22.) He explains that if anyone, whether a victim or an officer, asked his office to take a second look at a case, the case "would almost always be reconsidered." ( Id. at 10:19-13:7.)

Sgt. Lee sent the results of her OPA investigation to an OPA lieutenant on May 28, 2009. (Lee Ethics Interview at 60.) The lieutenant recommended exonerating the officers on all claims. ( See Olson Decl. Ex. B ("Cert.").) Ms. Olson, who was the OPA Director at the time, reviewed the completed investigation file. (Olson Decl. ¶ 4.) After noticing that OPA had "contact[ed] the Prosecutor's Office with questions regarding charging decisions, " she discussed with the OPA Auditor the importance of avoiding the appearance of conflicts of interest. (Olson Decl. Ex. A ("Olson Email").) In September, 2009, she disseminated a Certification of Completion and OPA Disposition ("Certification") exonerating the officers on all claims and closing Mr. Fuller's OPA case. (Cert.) With respect to OPA contact with prosecutors, the Certification advised:

Though contact is sometimes necessary to gather information relevant to an investigation, care must be taken to avoid even the appearance that OPA-IS is attempting to influence a prosecution involving an OPA-IS complainant. After discussion with the OPA Auditor and Captain Gleason, it was agreed that at a minimum, where there is a filing recommendation regarding the complainant, the recommendation should be reduced to writing and approved through the OPA chain of command.

( Id. )

In June, 2009, Mr. Fuller was officially charged with obstructing a public servant under Revised Code of Washington 9A.76.020 and with assault under Seattle Municipal Code 12A.06.010. ( See Crim. Compl.; Christie Decl. (Dkt. # 42) Ex. H ("Municipal Court Dkt.") at 57-58.) The Municipal Court Judge responsible for reviewing the charges against Mr. Fuller evaluated the incident reports and made an independent determination that there was probable cause to proceed to trial on the charges of obstruction and assault.[3] (Christie Decl. Ex. H ("Bonner Decl.") ¶ 2.) After a trial in March, 2010, a jury found Mr. Fuller guilty of obstruction and not guilty of assault. ( Id. at 62-63; Christie Decl. Ex. J ("Verdict Form").) Mr. Fuller appealed. (Christie Decl. Ex. L ("Appeal").) The King County Superior Court upheld the verdict in January, 2011. ( Id. )

In September, 2012, after learning of Sgt. Lee's interactions with Mr. Mayo, Mr. Fuller moved to vacate his conviction. (Fuller Mot. to Vac.) Shortly thereafter, in October, 2012, the City brought an independent motion to vacate the judgment and to dismiss its complaint against Mr. Fuller.[4] (Christie Decl. Ex. N. ("City Mot. Vac.").) In its motion, the City maintained that Mr. Fuller was guilty of obstructing an officer and denied that he had been charged because he filed a complaint with OPA. ( Id. at 112.) The City nevertheless requested that the court vacate the conviction because:

[T]he circumstances of this situation might deter other citizens from engaging or participating in the OPA complaint process. The government should not prosecute a person for the purpose of deterring him from exercising his right to protect official misconduct. Avoiding this potential "chilling effect" is the reason... justifying vacation of the judgment.

( Id. ) Accordingly, the Seattle Municipal Court vacated Mr. Fuller's conviction and entered a judgment of dismissal. ...

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