United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma
MARY EASTER, as Special Administrator for the Estate of Billy Patrick, deceased, Plaintiff,
OKLAHOMA DEPARTMENT OF WILDLIFE CONSERVATION; and JARED CRAMER, in his individual capacity, Defendants.
OPINION AND ORDER
KIMBERLY E. WEST, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
matter comes before the Court on Defendants' Motion for
Summary Judgment (Docket Entry #58). On April 26, 2015,
Decedent Billy Patrick (“Patrick”), Carl Locke
(“Locke”), and Lyndi King (“King”)
went fishing at a pond in an area known as Sanders Flats
located in rural Adair County, Oklahoma at around 8:30 a.m.
They fished on the east side of the pond by their vehicle.
Patrick and King proceeded to the northwest corner of the
pond while Locke remained close to the vehicle. After fishing
for approximately one hour, Game Warden Cody Youngblood
(“Youngblood”) appeared at the pond near Patrick
and King. Youngblood wrote Patrick a ticket for fishing
without a license. Patrick walked to Locke's location and
told him what had happened. Game Warden Jared Cramer
(“Cramer”) heard on his radio that Youngblood was
in contact with at least two people and that they both had
warrants for their arrest out of the State of Arkansas. He
did not know the basis for the warrants. Cramer went to
Youngblood's location to assist him because the radio
traffic indicated Youngblood would be taking the subjects
into custody. Cramer approached from the west and pulled in
next to Youngblood on the passenger side of his truck. Cramer
exited his vehicle and asked Youngblood which subject had a
warrant. Youngblood indicated the individual with the white
t-shirt which would later be determined to be Patrick. Cramer
noted Patrick was pacing. Cramer drove to the other side of
the pond where Patrick and Locke were located.
asked Patrick to put his hands on the bed of Patrick's
truck and asked if he had any weapons on her person. He then
asked Patrick to place his hands behind his back and point
his thumbs up. Immediately after this instruction, Patrick
ran to Cramer's right toward the slope down to the pond.
Cramer pursued Patrick and tackled him with both individuals
falling to the ground. The two men rolled on the ground into
the water of the pond.
details of the altercation which occurred in the pond and on
its banks are in considerable dispute. Cramer testified that
Patrick resisted during the entire struggle, charged at
Cramer after regaining his feet, and tried to take Cramer to
the ground. Cramer states that Patrick tackled him into the
pond and Cramer landed on his back. Cramer testified that
Patrick was on top of him while Cramer's head was under
two feet of water and that Patrick would force him back into
the water every time he attempted to raise his head above the
water. Cramer stated he believed Patrick was trying to drown
him. Cramer testified Patrick was off of him and Cramer was
attempting to get to his feet and draw his weapon. Cramer
stated that when Patrick was “coming back to me”
and he fired his weapon at Patrick as he got to Cramer -
about half an arm's length away. Patrick died from his
wounds received from Cramer's weapon.
testimony concerning whether Cramer was justifiably in fear
of his life was offered by both King and Locke. King
testified Youngblood told her to get in his truck. She could
see Cramer in the water but not Patrick. She saw Cramer was
standing at the time of the shooting. She never saw Patrick
running at Cramer. She observed space between Cramer and
testified that Patrick was trying to get up out of the water
and away from Cramer and in trying to get up, Patrick pushed
on Cramer and Cramer went under the water. At counsel's
suggestion in Locke's deposition, Locke estimated the
duration of Cramer's submersion under the water
“like you're being baptized.” Patrick then
got to his feet and Cramer tried to knock Patrick's legs
out from under him from behind striking on the back of
Patrick's legs. Patrick dropped on his butt in the mud,
facing Cramer. Cramer regained his knees. Patrick tried to
turn and get away and was using Cramer to get himself out of
the water. He was on one knee and did not regain his feet
when Cramer shot him. Although Cramer and Patrick had a hold
on one another, Patrick did not look like he was doing
anything but trying to get away, according to Locke.
initiated this action on May 6, 2016, alleging Cramer
violated Patrick's constitutional rights under the Fourth
Amendment as enforced through 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by
employing excessive force in shooting and killing Patrick.
Plaintiff also asserted a claim for negligence against
Defendant Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation
(“ODWC”) under the Oklahoma Governmental Tort
Claims Act, contending that Cramer's use of force
exceeded the amount reasonably necessary under the
circumstances, causing Patrick's death.
filed the subject Motion asserting (1) Cramer is entitled to
qualified immunity because no violation of the Fourth
Amendment occurred and the law was not clearly established
that Cramer's actions violated the Constitution; and (2)
Cramer was not negligent and Plaintiff cannot recover against
ODWC under the Oklahoma Governmental Tort Claims Act.
Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary
judgment is appropriate "if the pleadings, depositions,
answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together
with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine
issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is
entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Universal
Money Centers v. A.T. & T., 22 F.3d 1527, 1529 (10th
Cir.), cert. denied, 513 U.S. 1052, 115 S.Ct. 655,
130 L.Ed.2d 558 (1994). The moving party bears the initial
burden of showing that there is an absence of any issues of
material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S.
317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2553-54, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). A
genuine issue of material fact exists when "there is
sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a jury
to return a verdict for that party." Anderson v.
Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249, 106 S.Ct. 2505,
2510-11, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). In determining whether a
genuine issue of a material fact exists, the evidence is to
be taken in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.
Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157,
90 S.Ct. 1598, 1608, 26 L.Ed.2d 142 (1970). Once the moving
party has met its burden, the opposing party must come
forward with specific evidence, not mere allegations or
denials of the pleadings, which demonstrates that there is a
genuine issue for trial. Applied Genetics v. Fist
Affiliated Securities, 912 F.2d 1238, 1241 (10th Cir.
1990); Posey v. Skyline Corp., 702 F.2d 102, 105
(7th Cir. 1983).
asserts qualified immunity and, in doing so, first asserts
that no violation of the Fourth Amendment occurred.
“Individual defendants named in a § 1983 action
may raise a defense of qualified immunity, ” Cillo
v. City of Greenwood Village, 739 F.3d 451, 459 (10th
Cir. 2013), which “shields public officials ... from
damages actions unless their conduct was unreasonable in
light of clearly established law, ” Gann v.
Cline, 519 F.3d 1090, 1092 (10th Cir. 2008)(quotations
omitted). Generally, “when a defendant asserts
qualified immunity, the plaintiff carries a two-part burden
to show: (1) that the defendant's actions violated a
federal constitutional or statutory right, and, if so, (2)
that the right was clearly established at the time of the
defendant's unlawful conduct.” Cillo, 739
F.3d at 460.
Fourth Amendment to the Constitution precludes an illegal
“seizure” of a citizen through the use of
excessive force. U.S.C.A. Const. Amend. IV. The
question to be answered in a qualified immunity context on
excessive force claims 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.” Graham
v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 397 (1989). Under the totality
of the circumstances approach, the court is required to
consider a balance of the factors of “the severity of
the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate
threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether
he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest
by flight.” Id. at 396. If the force employed
is deadly force, the officer's use of force is reasonable
only “if a reasonable officer in Defendants'
position would have had probable cause to believe that there
was a threat of serious physical harm to themselves or to
others.” Estate of Larsen ex re. Sturdivan v.
Murr, 511 F.3d 1255, 1260 (10th Cir. 2008); see also
Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 11 (1985). An important
aspect of the inquiry is “whether the officers were in
danger at the precise moment that they used force.”
Phillips v. James, 422 F.3d 1075, 1083 (10th Cir.
facts in this case are simply in dispute as to the level of
threat under which Cramer was under when an unarmed Patrick
tried to elude him during the attempted arrest. Undoubtedly,
Patrick laid hands upon Cramer during the course of the
struggle to free himself from Cramer's grasp. The
evidence is inexorably disputed, however, as to whether
Patrick was attempting to drown Cramer at the time Cramer
chose to shoot him and whether an objectively reasonable
officer would have determined that deadly force was the
appropriate use of force under the circumstances.
the reasonableness inquiry overlaps with the qualified
immunity analysis, ‘a qualified immunity defense [is]
of less value when raised in defense of an excessive force
claim.' [Medina v. Cram, 252 F.3d 1124, 1131
(10th Cir. 2001)] (citing Quezada v. County of
Bernalillo, 944 F.2d 710, 718 (10th Cir. 1991). Whether
an officer acted reasonably in using deadly force is
‘heavily fact dependent.' Romero v. Board of
County Comm'rs, 60 F.3d 702, 705 n. 5 (10th Cir.
1995) (quoting Wilson v. Meeks, 52 F.3d 1547, 1553
(10th Cir. 1995).” Olsen v. Layton Hills Mall,
312 F.3d 1304, 1314 (10th Cir. 2002). Given the considerable
dispute in the facts, this Court cannot determine that Cramer
is entitled to qualified immunity at this time.
second prong of the qualified immunity test requires that
this Court determine that the law was clearly established at
the time of the incident. In evaluating whether the right was
clearly established, the court considers whether the right
was sufficiently clear that a reasonable government employee
in the defendant's shoes would understand that what he or
she violated that right. Casey v. W. Las Vegas Indep.
Sch. Dist., 473 F.3d 1323, 1327 (10th Cir. 2007).
“A clearly established right is generally defined as a
right so thoroughly developed and consistently recognized
under the law of the jurisdiction as to be
‘indisputable' and ‘unquestioned.'”
Lobozzo v. Colo. Dept. of Corr., 429 Fed.Appx. 707,
710 (10th Cir. 2011). “Ordinarily, in order for the law
to be clearly established, there must be a Supreme Court or
Tenth Circuit decision on point, or the clearly established
weight of authority from other courts must have found the law
to be as the plaintiff maintains.” Currier v.
Doran, 242 F.3d 905, 923 (10th Cir. 2001). see also
Medina, 960 F.2d at 1498. On the other hand, the Supreme
Court has observed that it is generally not necessary to find
a controlling decision declaring the “very action in
question . . . unlawful.” Anderson v.
Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640 (1987). “In
determining whether the right was ‘clearly established,
' the court assesses the objective legal reasonableness
of the action at the time of the alleged violation and asks
whether ‘the contours of the right [were] sufficiently
clear that a reasonable official would ...