Bruner v. Brown
ORDER AND REASONS granting 15 Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim. For the foregoing reasons, plaintiff John Bruner's claims are DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE. Signed by Judge Sarah S. Vance on 5/1/2017. (cg)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF LOUISIANA
SECTION “R” (1)
ORDER AND REASONS
John Bruner brings Bivens claims against U.S. Navy Law Enforcement
Officer Scott Brown for alleged violations of Bruner’s Fourth Amendment
rights. Brown moves to dismiss Bruner’s claims, or in the alternative, for
summary judgment. The Court finds that Bruner’s allegations, taken as true,
cannot overcome Brown’s qualified immunity from suit.
Brown’s motion to dismiss is granted.
The following facts are taken from plaintiff John Bruner’s complaint.
Bruner alleges that on the afternoon of August 19, 2015, he was driving on
the U.S. Naval Air Station in Belle Chasse, Louisiana, when he was stopped
by defendant Scott Brown, a U.S. Navy law enforcement officer. 1 Brown told
R. Doc. 1 at 2.
Bruner that Bruner had been stopped for failing to wear a seatbelt.2 Bruner
put his seatbelt on, apologized to Brown, thanked Brown, and told Brown to
have a nice day.3 Brown responded by swearing at Bruner and demanding
Bruner’s license and registration. 4
After Bruner provided his license, Brown asked Bruner for his social
security number. 5 Bruner refused to answer.6 Brown then informed Bruner
that he was under arrest.7 Bruner did not resist, but told Brown that he had
a pre-existing shoulder injury.8 Bruner told Brown not to handcuff Bruner’s
hands behind his back, because doing so would severely aggravate the injury
and harm Bruner. 9 According to Bruner, Brown then “maliciously injured
[Bruner] while improperly handcuffing [Bruner] to cause [Bruner] pain and
Bruner was released from Brown’s custody at approximately 3:00 p.m.
the same day.11 He was issued two citations, one for Failure to Obey a Direct
Id. at 3.
Order and one for Failure to Wear a Seatbelt. 12 The citation for Failure to
Obey a Direct Order was later dismissed. 13 Following an MRI, Bruner was
diagnosed with tears of the 360-degree periphery of the cartilaginous lip of
the glenoid labrum. 14 Bruner alleges that Brown caused this injury when he
handcuffed Bruner, and Bruner will require surgery to repair his shoulder.15
Bruner sues Brown in his individual capacity.16 Bruner asserts that
Brown’s alleged actions constitute false imprisonment and excessive force
under the Fourth Amendment.17 Bruner seeks damages including medical
expenses, disability, pain and suffering, attorney’s fees, and punitive
Brown now moves to dismiss Bruner’s claims and argues in part that
Bruner’s claims are barred by qualified immunity. 19 Brown also moves, in
the alternative, for summary judgment on the same issues.20 Because the
Court finds that Bruner’s alleged facts, taken as true, cannot support a claim,
the Court does not consider the parties’ summary judgment evidence.
Id. at 4.
Id. at 1
Id. at 4.
Id. at 5
R. Doc. 15.
To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the plaintiff must plead
“enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft
v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 697 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550
U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A claim is facially plausible when the plaintiff pleads
facts that allow the court to “draw the reasonable inference that the
defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. at 678. A court must
accept all well-pleaded facts as true and must draw all reasonable inferences
in favor of the plaintiff. See Lormand v. US Unwired, Inc., 565 F.3d 228,
239 (5th Cir. 2009); Baker v. Putnal, 75 F.3d 190, 196 (5th Cir. 1996).
A legally sufficient complaint must establish more than a “sheer
possibility” that the plaintiff’s claim is true. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. It need
not contain detailed factual allegations, but it must go beyond labels, legal
conclusions, or formulaic recitations of the elements of a cause of action. Id.
In other words, the face of the complaint must contain enough factual matter
to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of each
element of the plaintiff’s claim. Lormand, 565 F.3d at 257. If there are
insufficient factual allegations to raise a right to relief above the speculative
level, or if it is apparent from the face of the complaint that there is an
insuperable bar to relief, the claim must be dismissed. Twombly, 550 U.S.
Brown is a federal law enforcement officer, and may therefore be liable
for damages for certain violations of the Fourth Amendment. See Bivens v.
Six Unknown Fed. Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388, 389 (1971). Brown is,
however, protected by qualified immunity. See Wilson v. Layne, 526 U.S.
603, 609 (1999).
Qualified immunity under Bivens is identical to the
immunity granted to individual defendants sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Id.
Accordingly, Brown is immune unless Bruner’s allegations, taken as true,
demonstrate that (1) Brown violated Bruner’s constitutional rights and (2)
Brown’s actions were objectively unreasonable in light of clearly established
law at the time of the alleged violation. Hinojosa v. Livingston, 807 F.3d
657, 669 (5th Cir. 2015). “A Government official’s conduct violates clearly
established law when, at the time of the challenged conduct, the contours of
a right are sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have
understood that what he is doing violates that right.” Ashcroft v. al–Kidd,
563 U.S. 731, 741 (2011) (internal quotations and modifications omitted); see
also Manis v. Lawson, 585 F.3d 839, 845 (5th Cir. 2009) (“Qualified
immunity shields from civil liability ‘all but the plainly incompetent or those
who knowingly violate the law.’” (quoting Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335,
A. Excessive Force
In the context of an excessive force claim, a plaintiff seeking to
overcome qualified immunity must show: “(1) injury (2) which resulted
directly and only from a use of force that was clearly excessive, and (3) the
excessiveness of which was clearly unreasonable.” Freeman v. Gore, 483
F.3d 404, 416 (5th Cir. 2007). Claims of excessive force are fact intensive
and they depend on “the facts and circumstances of each particular case.”
Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396 (1989).
‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the
perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20
vision of hindsight.” Id. This is an objective standard: “the question is
whether the officers’ actions are ‘objectively reasonable’ in light of the facts
and circumstances confronting them, without regard to their underlying
intent or motivation.” Id. at 397; see also Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 9
(1985) (court must determine whether “the totality of the circumstances
justified” the particular use of force). This test “allow[s] for the fact that
police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments—in
circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving—about the
amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.” Graham, 490
U.S. at 397.
Here, the Court finds that Bruner has failed to allege that Brown used
excessive force that was clearly unreasonable. Bruner alleges, in essence,
that Brown handcuffed Bruner’s hands behind his back, after being warned
that Bruner had a pre-existing shoulder injury. Although Bruner alleges that
the cuffing was “malicious”, the Court must objectively analyze Brown’s
actions “without regard to their underlying intent or motivation.” Id.
In the Fifth Circuit, it takes far more than handcuffing to run afoul of
the deferential “clearly excessive” standard. See Pratt v. Harris Cty., Tex.,
822 F.3d 174, 184 (5th Cir. 2016) (no excessive force where arrestee was hogtied and died due to asphyxiation); Davila v. United States, 713 F.3d 248,
260 (5th Cir. 2013) (surrounding car with guns drawn, handcuffing
plaintiffs, and forcing plaintiffs to kneel during traffic stop was not excessive
or objectively unreasonable use of force); Freeman, 483 F.3d at 416 (no
excessive force where “deputies twisted [plaintiff’s] arms behind her back
while handcuffing her, ‘jerked her all over the carport,’ and applied the
handcuffs too tightly, causing bruises and marks on her wrists and arms); see
also Glenn v. City of Tyler, 242 F.3d 307, 314 (5th Cir. 2001) (“handcuffing
too tightly, without more, does not amount to excessive force”). Accordingly,
the Court finds that cuffing Bruner behind his back was not a “clearly
excessive” use of force.
Brown’s preexisting injury does not change this analysis. “[A] plaintiff
may recover for aggravation of a preexisting injury if the use of excessive
force caused that aggravation.” Callaway v. Travis Cty., No. 15-103, 2016
WL 4371943, at *6 (W.D. Tex. July 28, 2016). But a prerequisite to such
recovery is that the force used by the officer be actually excessive. See
Freeman 483 F.3d at 416 (to overcome qualified immunity, injury must
“result directly and only from a use of force that was clearly excessive.”).
Reasonable force, even reasonable force leading to severe injury, is
Because the alleged handcuffing was an application of
reasonable force, Brown is shielded by qualified immunity. See Wells v.
Bonner, 45 F.3d 90, 96 (5th Cir. 1995) (qualified immunity barred claim that
handcuffing behind back exacerbated existing shoulder injury); see also
Dunn, 79 F.3d at 403 (explaining Wells decision: “The aggravation of the old
injury was not attributable to the excessive component of the force used.
Rather, aggravation of Wells’s old shoulder injury was claimed to have been
caused by handcuffing his hands behind his back, a routine police
procedure.”); Royster v. Nichols, 698 F.3d 681, 690-91 (8th Cir. 2012)
(upholding grant of summary judgment where officer cuffed arrestee’s hands
behind his back despite arrestees’ request that the officer cuff him in the
front because of an old back and shoulder injury).
B. False Arrest
The right to be free from false arrest is protected under the Fourth
Amendment. Eugene v. Alief Indep. Sch. Dist., 65 F.3d 1299, 1305 (5th Cir.
1995). The Fourth Amendment, however, “does not guarantee that only the
guilty will be arrested.” Mangieri v. Clifton, 29 F.3d 1012, 1017 (5th Cir.
1994) (quoting Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 145 (1979)). A warrantless
arrest, such as that alleged here, must be based on probable cause. United
States v. Ho, 94 F.3d 932, 935 (5th Cir. 1996). Probable cause exists for a
warrantless arrest “when the totality of the facts and circumstances within a
police officer’s knowledge at the moment of the arrest are sufficient for a
reasonable person to conclude that the suspect had committed or was
committing an offense.” United States v. Cannon, No. 03-119, 2003 WL
21406180, at *2 (E.D. La. 2003) (quoting Ho, 94 F.3d at 935-36). Even a
very minor offense may support a lawful arrest. Atwater v. City of Lago
Vista, 532 U.S. 318, 354 (2001) (“If an officer has probable cause to believe
that an individual has committed even a very minor criminal offense in his
presence, he may, without violating the Fourth Amendment, arrest the
Even if an officer erred in concluding that probable cause existed for
an arrest, he is entitled to qualified immunity if his decision was reasonable,
albeit mistaken. Lampkin v. City of Nacogdoches, 7 F.3d 430, 435 (5th Cir.
1993). Thus, if “a reasonable officer could have believed” that the arrest was
lawfully based on probable cause, the officer retains qualified immunity.
Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 641 (1987). In that event, the officer
is entitled to summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds even if the
officer violated an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights. Estep v. Dallas
County, Texas, 310 F.3d 353, 360 (5th Cir. 2002).
Here, Bruner concedes that he was not wearing a seatbelt when Brown
stopped him. Bruner attaches a “violation notice” to his complaint, which
identifies Louisiana Revised Statutes section 295.1 as the “Basis for Charge.”
Under section 295.1, a driver “shall have a safety belt properly fastened about
his or her body at all times when the vehicle is in forward motion.” La. Stat.
Probable cause that a motorist has committed a seat belt
violation is sufficient to support a lawful arrest. See Ramdath v. Favata, No.
11-0395, 2014 WL 12586843, at *6 (N.D.N.Y. July 23, 2014) (granting
summary judgement on false arrest claim where officer handcuffed arrestee
after observing arrestee not wearing seatbelt); Poole v. City of Burbank, 632
F. Supp. 2d 847, 851 (N.D. Ill. 2009) (dismissing false arrest claim where
defendant had been convicted of seatbelt violation). Bruner pleads facts
demonstrating that Brown had probable cause to arrest Bruner for a seatbelt
violation, and his allegations therefore cannot support a claim for false
arrest. Because“[c]laims for false arrest focus on the validity of the arrest,
not on the validity of each individual charge made during the course of the
arrest,” Price v. Roark, 256 F.3d 364, 369 (5th Cir. 2001), the Court need not
consider whether Brown also had probable cause to arrest Bruner for failure
to obey an order.
For the foregoing reasons, plaintiff John Bruner’s claims are
DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.
New Orleans, Louisiana, this _____ day of May, 2017.
SARAH S. VANCE
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?