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Sauers v. Borough of Nesquehoning

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

October 2, 2018

MICHAEL SAUERS, Individually and as Administrator of the Estate of Carola R. Sauers, deceased
v.
BOROUGH OF NESQUEHONING; CHIEF OF POLICE SEAN SMITH; OFFICER STEPHEN HOMANKO Officer Stephen Homanko, Appellant

          Argued June 4, 2018

          On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania (D.C. No. 3-16-cv-00811) District Judge: Hon. James M. Munley

          Joshua M. Autry [ARGUED] Frank J. Lavery, Jr. Lavery Faherty Patterson Counsel for Appellant

          Michael B. Kaspszyk [ARGUED] Merwine Hanyon & Kaspszyk Counsel for Appellee

          Before: AMBRO, JORDAN, and VANASKIE, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

          JORDAN, Circuit Judge.

         This case arises out of a tragic car accident that injured Michael Sauers and killed his wife. The crash resulted from the criminally reckless driving of police officer Stephen Homanko. Sauers later brought this suit against Homanko and others pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law for, among other things, violating his and his wife's Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights. Homanko moved to dismiss the § 1983 claim for failure to state a claim and, in the alternative, he sought qualified immunity. The District Court denied the motion and Homanko appealed. Because we conclude that it was not clearly established at the time of the crash that Homanko's conduct, as alleged in the complaint, could give rise to constitutional liability under the Fourteenth Amendment, we will vacate the District Court's denial of qualified immunity. We hope, however, to establish the law clearly now.

         I. Background[1]

         On May 12, 2014, Sauers and his wife were driving southbound on Route 209 in the Borough of Nesquehoning, Pennsylvania. At the same time, Homanko was on patrol on Route 209 and traveling in the same direction when he observed the driver of a yellow Dodge Neon commit a summary traffic offense in the northbound lane. Based on that observation alone, he turned around and began to pursue the Dodge. At some point he took the time to radio ahead to the police in the neighboring borough to request that officers there pull the Dodge over when it reached their jurisdiction.[2]

         Homanko then decided that catching the Dodge himself was important enough to warrant a chase at speeds of over 100 miles-per-hour. Several members of the public observed him driving recklessly. During the pursuit, Homanko lost control of his police car while going around a curve. His car began to spin, crossed the center line into southbound traffic, and crashed into Sauers's car. The accident seriously injured Sauers and killed his wife. Homanko was subsequently charged and pled guilty to vehicular homicide, which requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt of reckless or grossly negligent driving, and reckless endangerment.[3]

         The criminal case was not the end of Homanko's legal trouble. Sauers - individually and as the administrator of his wife's estate - initiated the present lawsuit against him, setting forth federal and state law causes of action, including a claim under § 1983.[4] Sauers premised his § 1983 claim on a "state-created danger" theory of liability. Homanko moved to dismiss only that claim. He argued that the complaint did not plausibly allege a state-created danger claim and, in the alternative, that he was entitled to qualified immunity because it was not clearly established in May 2014 that negligent or reckless police driving could give rise to a constitutional cause of action. The District Court denied Homanko's motion as to both liability and qualified immunity.

         As to liability, the Court determined that the complaint adequately pled a state-created danger claim, a determination that Homanko does not now appeal. The Court further concluded that the law was clearly established in May 2014 that "any reasonable officer would have known that pursuing a potential traffic offender in excess of 100 miles-per-hour under the[] circumstances [alleged in the complaint] gives rise to a state-created danger claim." (App. at 21.) That determination is the subject of this appeal.

         II. Discussion[5]

         Qualified immunity protects government officials from civil damages for conduct that "does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009) (citation omitted). Thus, courts assessing a claim of qualified immunity must answer two questions. One is whether the defendant's conduct violated a statutory or constitutional right. The other is whether the right at issue was clearly established when the conduct took place. We have discretion to address either inquiry first. Id. at 236.

         In its recent decisions addressing qualified immunity, the Supreme Court has "repeatedly told courts … not to define clearly established law at a high level of generality." Kisela v. Hughes, 138 S.Ct. 1148, 1152 (2018) (citation omitted). The question in this case therefore cannot be framed simply in terms of recklessness generally. Homanko's request for qualified immunity must be assessed within the context of the case law that has developed from accidents caused by high-speed police pursuits that injure third parties.

         A. Sauers's Complaint Pleads a Plausible State-Created Danger Claim.

         Homanko has not appealed the District Court's determination that the complaint adequately describes a constitutional violation, and for good reason. The pleadings describe a police officer driving at speeds over 100 miles-per-hour on a two-way, undivided road to catch someone who had committed a minor traffic infraction. There was no emergency at all, and Homanko likely did the most that was warranted when he radioed the police in a neighboring jurisdiction to stop the offender. His hyper-aggressive decision to chase the Dodge cannot be justified. Nonetheless, to determine whether his conduct violated a clearly established constitutional right, we must take the time to define that right and explain why the conduct violated it.

         Defining a right at the appropriate level of specificity is often the most critical aspect of a qualified immunity analysis. In undertaking that task, we are guided by the Supreme Court's repeated instructions to do so in light of the particular facts of the case at hand. See Kisela, 138 S.Ct. at 1152; White v. Pauly, 137 S.Ct. 548, 552 (2017); Mullenix v. Luna, 136 S.Ct. 305, 308 (2015). We accordingly define the right at issue here as one not to be injured or killed as a result of a police officer's reckless pursuit of an individual suspected of a summary traffic offense when there is no pending emergency and when the suspect is not actively fleeing the police.

         As earlier noted, Sauers's complaint relies on the state-created danger theory of liability to establish his right to be free from what Homanko did. That doctrine embodies the principle that the government has an obligation under the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause "to protect individuals against dangers that the government itself creates." Haberle v. Troxell, 885 F.3d 170, 176 (3d Cir. 2018). Establishing a claim under that doctrine requires a plaintiff to plead four elements:

(1) [t]he harm ultimately caused was foreseeable and fairly direct;
(2) a state actor acted with a degree of culpability that shocks the conscience;
(3) a relationship between the state and the plaintiff existed such that the plaintiff was a foreseeable victim of the defendant's acts, or a member of a discrete class of persons subjected to the potential harm brought about by the state's actions, as opposed to a member of the public in general; and
(4) a state actor affirmatively used his or her authority in a way that created a danger to the citizen or that rendered the citizen more vulnerable to danger than had the state not acted at all.

Id. at 176-77 (citation omitted). It is clear, we think, that the complaint adequately alleges elements one, three, and four. Whether Homanko's alleged conduct shocks the conscience is a closer call.

         The level of culpability required "to shock the contemporary conscience" falls along a spectrum dictated by the circumstances of each case. County of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 847-49 & n.8 (1998). Our case law establishes three distinct categories of culpability depending on how much time a police officer has to make a decision. Haberle, 885 F.3d at 177. In one category are actions taken in a "hyperpressurized environment[.]" Id. (citation omitted). They will not be held to shock the conscience unless the officer has "an intent to cause harm." Id. (citation omitted). Next are actions taken within a time frame that allows an officer to engage in "hurried deliberation." Id. (citation omitted). When those actions "reveal a conscious disregard of a great risk of serious harm" they will be sufficient to shock the conscience.[6] Id. (quotation marks and citation omitted). Finally, actions undertaken with "unhurried judgments," with time for "careful deliberation," will be held to shock the conscience if they are "done with deliberate indifference." Id. (citation omitted). Our case law is clear that this "shocks the conscience" framework for analysis applies to police-pursuit cases. Brown v. Pa. Dep't of Health & Emergency Med. Servs. Training Inst., 318 F.3d 473, 480 (3d Cir. 2003); cf. Kedra v. Schroeter, 876 F.3d 424, 432, 448 (3d Cir. 2017) (relying on pre-2014 case law to conclude that the state-created danger doctrine was a clearly established theory of liability in September 2014).

         The District Court rightly interpreted the complaint to allege that Homanko "had at least some time to deliberate" before deciding whether and how to pursue the traffic offender. (App. at 16.) That places the fact-pattern in the second category of culpability, requiring inferences or allegations of a conscious disregard of a great risk of serious harm. That conclusion is supported by the allegation that Homanko, at some point, had time to call the neighboring police department as he was contemplating his actions. It is further supported by an obvious inference from the nature of the Dodge driver's mild provocation: there was no emergency arising from a simple traffic violation. The liability question thus becomes whether deciding to pursue a potential summary traffic offender at speeds of over 100 miles-per-hour, after ...


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