Cugini v. City of New York et al
ORDER granting 24 Motion for Summary Judgment. See attached. Defendants' motion for summary judgment is granted. The Clerk of the Court is directed to enter judgment in accordance with this order and close this case. Ordered by Judge Sterling Johnson, Jr on 4/10/2018. (Diouf, Marietou)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
15-CV-5517 (SJ) (ST)
CITY OF NEW YORK and
LEVENTHAL LAW GROUP, P.C.
45 Main Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
By: Edward Donlon
Attorneys for Plaintiff Donna Cugini
NEW YORK CITY LAW DEPARTMENT
100 Church Street
Special Federal Litigation Division
New York, NY 10007
By: Tobias Eli Zimmerman
Attorneys for Defendants
JOHNSON, Senior District Judge:
Plaintiff Donna Cugini brings this action against the City of New York and
New York City Police Officer Christopher Palazzola in his individual capacity
(collectively, “Defendants”) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Fourth and
Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and New York State law.
Presently before the Court is Defendants’ motion for summary judgment pursuant
to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. Based on the submission of the parties, and
for the reasons stated below, the Defendants’ motion is GRANTED.
None of the material facts of this case are in dispute. To the extent that they
are, the Court construes them in Plaintiff’s favor. On June 26, 2014, Plaintiff
voluntarily surrendered to police custody at the 121st Precinct on Staten Island,
where Officer Palazzola placed her under arrest in connection with a domestic
harassment complaint. Palazzola handcuffed Plaintiff, processed her arrest, led her
to the holding cells and removed the handcuffs. After approximately two hours in
the holding cell, Palazzola handcuffed Plaintiff again in order to move her to
Central Booking at the 120th Precinct. In so doing, Palazzola twisted Plaintiff’s
arms behind her back. Plaintiff exclaimed “ouch,” and physically shuddered while
Palazzola secured the handcuffs. In response Palazzola stated, “Don’t make me
hurt you.” Palazzola finished securing the handcuffs. Plaintiff exclaimed “ow.”
Once handcuffed, Palazzola moved Plaintiff to the back of a police car and drove
her to the 120th Precinct. Palazzola had difficulty removing the handcuffs at
Central Booking. A female officer interceded and removed the handcuffs while
Palazzola filled out paperwork. This was the last interaction between Plaintiff and
In total, Plaintiff was in handcuffs for approximately forty minutes.
Plaintiff did not tell anyone that the handcuffs were too tight or causing her pain
while they were on, nor did she ask anyone to adjust or loosen them after they were
secured. Plaintiff does not allege that she made any expression of pain while the
handcuffs were being removed. Plaintiff alleges, and for the purposes of this
motion, Defendants do not dispute, that she suffers from permanent nerve damage
in her wrists.
A. Summary Judgment Standard
It is well-settled that a party moving for summary judgment has the burden
of establishing that there exists no genuine issue of material fact and that the
moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c);
Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986); Ford v. Reynolds, 316
F.3d 351, 354 (2d Cir. 2003). Material facts are those that may affect the outcome
of the case. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. An issue of fact is considered
“genuine” when a reasonable finder of fact could render a verdict in favor of the
nonmoving party. Id.
In considering a summary judgment motion, “the court’s responsibility is
not to resolve disputed issues of fact but to assess whether there are any factual
issues to be tried, while resolving ambiguities and drawing reasonable inferences
against the moving party.” Knight v. U.S. Fire Ins. Co., 804 F.2d 9, 11 (2d Cir.
1986) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248). If the Court recognizes any material
issues of fact, summary judgment is improper, and the motion must be denied. See
Anthony v. City of New York, 339 F.3d 129, 134 (2d Cir. 2003). If the moving
party discharges its burden of proof under Rule 56(c), the nonmoving party must
then “set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Fed. R.
Civ. P. 56(e).
The nonmoving party opposing a properly supported motion for summary
judgment “may not rest upon mere allegations or denials of his pleading.”
Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256. Indeed, “the mere existence of some alleged factual
dispute between the parties” alone will not defeat a properly supported motion for
summary judgment. Id. at 247–48 (emphasis in original). Rather, enough evidence
must favor the nonmoving party’s case such that a jury could return a verdict in its
favor. Id. at 248; see also Gallo v. Prudential Residential Servs., Ltd., 22 F.3d
1219, 1224 (2d Cir. 1999) (“When no rational jury could find in favor of the
nonmoving party because the evidence to support its case is so slight, there is no
genuine issue of material fact and a grant of summary judgment is proper.”).
B. Plaintiff’s Excessive Force Claim
The Court need not decide whether Palazzola violated the Fourth
Amendment when he handcuffed Plaintiff. Even assuming that a Fourth
Amendment violation occurred,1 Palazzola is entitled to qualified immunity.
1. Qualified Immunity
Federal law provides a plaintiff a private right of action for money damages
against state officials, acting “under color” of law, that violate a constitutional or
statutory right. See 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The doctrine of qualified immunity is a
defense that “shields public officials performing discretionary functions from civil
liability insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or
constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known, or insofar as
it was objectively reasonable for them to believe that their acts did not violate those
rights.” Bradway v. Gonzales, 26 F.3d 313, 317–18 (2d Cir. 1994) (citation and
quotation marks omitted). “[B]ecause qualified immunity is not only a defense to
liability, but also provides immunity from suit, an important part of its benefit is
effectively lost if a case is erroneously permitted to go to trial; thus, the defendant’s
While the Court need not decide whether Palazzola violated the Fourth
Amendment in order to resolve the instant motion, Defendants’ argument that
Plaintiff cannot present any evidence that Palazzola ignored her complaints of pain,
as “she never asked that the handcuffs be loosened, or otherwise clearly
communicated that they were causing her pain,” oversimplifies the inquiry. This
Court is reticent to impose a standard that would deny a plaintiff her day in court
simply because she did not utter the magic words. Such a result is not in the spirit
of the fact-specific inquiry the Fourth Amendment necessitates.
entitlement to qualified immunity should be resolved at the earliest possible stage
in litigation.” Lynch v. Ackley, 811 F.3d 569, 576 (2d Cir. 2016) (quoting Pearson
v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231–32 (2009)) (quotation marks omitted).
A public official is not entitled to qualified immunity “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.”
Terebesi v. Torreso, 764 F.3d 217, 230 (2d Cir. 2014) (quoting Ashcroft v. al-Kidd,
563 U.S. 731, 741 (2011)) (quotation marks omitted). Conversely, a “defendant is
entitled to immunity  if officers of reasonable competence could disagree on the
legality of the defendant’s actions.” Lennon v. Miller, 66 F.3d 416, 420 (2d Cir.
1995) (citing Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341 (1986)) (quotation marks
omitted). Put another way, qualified immunity attaches where “no rational jury
could [find] that the force used was so excessive that no reasonable officer would
have made the same choice.” Id. at 426. This is a high bar, as qualified “immunity
protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.”
White v. Pauly, 580 U.S. ___, ___ (2017)) (quotation marks omitted).
Summary judgment is appropriate on qualified immunity grounds when a
“court determines that the only conclusion a rational jury could reach is that
reasonable officers would disagree about the legality of the defendants’ conduct
under the circumstances.” Lennon, 66 F.3d at 421. In this case, no rational jury
could have found that the force Palazzola used was so excessive that no reasonable
officer would have made the same choice.
“It is well established that the right to make an arrest accompanies with it
the right to use some degree of physical coercion . . . [and] to be effective
handcuffs must be tight enough to prevent the arrestee’s hands from slipping out.”
Esmont v. City of New York, 371 F. Supp. 2d 202, 214–15 (E.D.N.Y. 2005)
(citations omitted). Nothing in the facts indicates that Palazzola used any force
other than that which was necessary to handcuff an arrestee—an act which
inherently involves a degree of discomfort. See id. Plaintiff’s brief physical and
verbal manifestations of tepid discomfort were followed by a prolonged period free
from any such expressions.
As it is far from the case that “no officer of reasonable competence could
have made the same choice in similar circumstances” (see Lennon, 66 F.3d 416,
420–21), Palazzola is entitled to qualified immunity and summary judgment is
granted as to Plaintiff’s excessive force claim.
C. Plaintiff’s State Law Claims
Since the Court finds that Palazzola is entitled to qualified immunity, there
are no more federal claims for trial. Accordingly, the Court dismisses the state law
claims. See Lennon, 66 F.3d at 426 (citing United Mine Workers v. Gibbs, 383
U.S. 715, 726 (1966)).
For the aforementioned reasons, Defendants’ motion for summary judgment
is GRANTED. Any of Plaintiff’s remaining arguments have been considered and
are without merit. The Clerk of the Court is directed to enter judgment in
accordance with this order and close this case.
Dated: April 10, 2018
Brooklyn, New York
Sterling Johnson, Jr. U.S.D.J.
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