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Love-Skinner v. City of Bridgeton

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

March 29, 2019

CITY OF BRIDGETON, et al., Defendants.



         1. This matter comes before the Court by way of motion for summary judgment filed by Defendants City of Bridgeton, Officer Ronald Broomall, and Officer James Riley (hereinafter, collectively, “Defendants”).[1] (See Motion for Summary Judgment [Docket Item 71].) The present motion is opposed by Plaintiff Jacqueline Love-Skinner. (See Plaintiff's Brief in Opposition to Motion for Summary Judgment (hereinafter “Pl.'s Opp'n”) [Docket Item 76].) Thereafter, Defendants filed a reply brief. (See Reply Brief (hereinafter “Defs.' Reply”) [Docket Item 79].)

         2. The Court has considered the submissions and held oral argument with regard to this motion on March 25, 2019. For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motion for summary judgment [Docket Item 71] will be granted in part, denied in part, and dismissed as moot in part. The Court finds as follows:[2]

         3. Standard of Review.

         At summary judgment, the moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating 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); accord Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once a properly supported motion for summary judgment is made, the burden shifts to the non-moving party, who must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986). In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the court is required to examine the evidence in light most favorable to the non-moving party and resolve all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007); Halsey v. Pfeiffer, 750 F.3d 273, 287 (3d Cir. 2014).

         4. A factual dispute is material when it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law, ” and genuine when “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. The non-moving party “need not match, item for item, each piece of evidence proffered by the movant, ” but must present more than a “mere scintilla” of evidence on which a jury could reasonably find for the non-moving party. Boyle v. Cnty. of Allegheny, Pa., 139 F.3d 386, 393 (3d Cir. 1998) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252).

         5. Discussion.

         Defendants move for summary judgment on seven separate bases, (see Defs.' Br. [Docket Item 71-2]), each of which is discussed below.

         a. Plaintiff has not shown any violation of her rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

         Defendants assert that they are entitled to summary judgment in their favor as to all claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, because Plaintiff has failed to show that she suffered a violation of her constitutional rights and that Defendant Broomall's use of force was reasonable under the circumstances. (Defs. Br. [Docket Item 71-2], 1-2.) Plaintiff responds that a genuine dispute of material fact exists as to this issue, because her expert opines that the alleged elbow strike to Plaintiff's neck was not reasonable under the circumstances. (Pl.'s Opp'n [Docket Item 76], 4-5.) Taking the version of events in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, as the non-moving party, the Court finds that the facts as testified by Plaintiff and Plaintiff's expert's testimony as to the reasonableness of Defendant Broomall's alleged use of force against Plaintiff's neck creates a genuine dispute of material fact and therefore summary judgment is inappropriate at this time. This portion of Defendants' motion shall therefore be denied.

         i. Amount of force used by Defendant Broomall was reasonable.

         In this case, Plaintiff Love-Skinner has alleged a violation of her Fourth Amendment rights to be free of excessive force during the course of an arrest. (See Complaint [Docket Item 1], ¶¶ 24-27.) There are significant factual disputes about the exact amount and type of force used against Plaintiff and the events which led up to the use of force by Defendant Broomall in arresting Plaintiff. Plaintiff's version of events is as follows: as she was exiting her vehicle in an apartment complex parking lot, Love-Skinner was called an expletive word by Ms. Adams, a woman she had never met, for no apparent reason. (Love-Skinner Dep. [Docket Item 71-4 at 14-42] at 20:7-21:2.) The two women started fighting (Id. at 23-24:10) and, a few minutes later, Defendants Broomall and Riley arrived at the scene. (Id. at 25:1-7.) According to Plaintiff, neither officer told Plaintiff or Ms. Adams to stop fighting with each other. (Id. at 27:18-28:5.) Instead, Defendant Broomall approached Plaintiff and, without warning, struck her from behind in the back of her neck with his elbow and Plaintiff fell to the ground, causing scarring to her face and a broken ankle. (Id. at 31:7-13.) As Love-Skinner was laying on the ground, Defendant Broomall handcuffed her, sprayed her in the face with mace, dragged her to the curb, and then sprayed her in the face with mace again. (Id. at 32:22-35:7.) At this point, Plaintiff was unable to see (id. at 35:8-9) and felt pain in her face, knees, and ankle. (Id. at 38:2-7.) Plaintiff Love-Skinner was subsequently arrested for fighting with Ms. Adams. (Id. at 36:2-4.) She was 53 years old at the time of the incident. (Pl.'s Opp'n [Docket Item 76] at 6.)

         Under Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989), a plaintiff has the burden of showing that the amount of force directed at him by an arresting officer was constitutionally excessive. What is “excessive” is determined under all the circumstances then confronting the arresting officer, considering the Graham factors, among others, namely: “[1] the severity of the crime at issue, [2] whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and [3] whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.” Graham, 490 U.S. at 396. The Third Circuit expounded upon the Graham factors in Sharrar v. Felsing, 128 F.3d 810 (3d Cir. 1997), stating that

[o]ther relevant factors include the possibility that the persons subject to the police action are themselves violent or dangerous, the duration of the action, whether the action takes place in the context of effecting an arrest, the possibility that the suspect may be armed, and the number ...

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