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Lynch v. Board of County Commissioners of Muskogee County

United States District Court, E.D. Oklahoma

March 21, 2018

HOLLY LYNCH and DAVID RAY LYNCH, as next of kin to DAVID CODY LYNCH, deceased, and as Co-Special Administrators of the ESTATE OF DAVID CODY LYNCH, Plaintiffs,
v.
BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS OF MUSKOGEE COUNTY, OKLAHOMA, ex rel. MUSKOGEE COUNTY SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JAMES H. PAYNE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Now before the Court is the Motion for Summary Judgment of Defendant Town of Porum [Dkt. # 74]. Plaintiffs, Holly Lynch and David Ray Lynch, as next of kin to David Cody Lynch, deceased, and Special Administrators of the Estate of David Cody Lynch, brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging the conduct of Defendant violated Cody Lynch's rights under the United States Constitution and Oklahoma law. Specifically, Plaintiffs allege Defendant's police officers used force against Cody Lynch that was excessive in violation of the Fourth Amendment and unlawfully deprived him of substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. Plaintiffs have also asserted violations of Cody Lynch's rights under the Oklahoma Government Tort Claims Act, Oklahoma Constitution, and common law. In its Motion for Summary Judgment, Defendant contends it is entitled to judgment on all claims that Plaintiffs have asserted against the Town. After consideration of the pleadings, affidavits, and briefs, the Court finds the Motion for Summary Judgment of Defendant Town of Porum should be GRANTED.

         BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         Plaintiffs commenced this action on May 16, 2016 in the District Court of Muskogee County. In their Petition, Plaintiffs named as defendants the Board of County Commissioners of Muskogee County ex rel. Muskogee County Sheriff's Department; Deputy Derek Apple of the Muskogee County Sheriff's Department; the Town of Warner ex rel. Warner Police Department; Officer Michael Shamblin of the Warner Police Department; the Town of Porum ex rel. Porum Police Department; and Officers Jerome Wildcat and Jack Denny of the Porum Police Department. Defendants jointly removed Plaintiffs' Petition to this Court on June 9, 2016. [Dkt. # 3]. On April 7, 2017, Defendant Town of Porum filed its Motion for Summary Judgment. [Dkt. # 74]. Plaintiffs filed their Response in Opposition to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment on October 27, 2017. [Dkt. # 160]. Defendant Town of Porum, along with its police officers, Defendants Jerome Wildcat and Jack Denny, jointly filed a Reply to Plaintiffs' Response on December 5, 2017. [Dkt. # 201]. Finally, Plaintiffs filed a Sur-Reply to the Reply on January 3, 2018. [Dkt. # 206].

         B. Factual Background

         On April 3, 2015, David Cody Lynch (“Decedent” or “Cody Lynch”) and his wife, Holly Lynch, attended a cookout at Holly's mother's house. Marshall Lynch (Decedent's brother), Alyssa Hafenbrack (Marshall's girlfriend), and their friend, Price Rogers, also attended the cookout. While at the cookout, Cody Lynch consumed alcohol and became intoxicated. It was later confirmed by his autopsy report that he was also under the influence of a significant amount of methamphetamine at the time of the subject incident. After the cookout, Decedent and his brother, Marshall, were doing “burnouts” and “donuts” in their trucks on a nearby highway. At some point, Decedent lost control of his truck, went across the ditch, crashed through a fence, and got the truck stuck in a wire fence. Someone called the police to report this activity.

         At approximately 11:35 p.m., Warner Police Officer Michael Shamblin responded to a call of a vehicle accident north of Warner, at State Hwy. 64 and E. 158 St. South, in Muskogee County, Oklahoma. Officer Shamblin arrived on the scene around 11:40 p.m. and saw two parked trucks. He spoke briefly to the two individual drivers and advised dispatch that Oklahoma Highway Patrol was not needed, but requested a deputy because one of the drivers, later identified as Cody Lynch, the Decedent, appeared to be intoxicated. Officer Shamblin asked Lynch numerous times to get out of the road and to step to the back of his vehicle where it was safe. Lynch eventually complied, and as Officer Shamblin was questioning him, he began to mumble incoherently. When Officer Shamblin leaned closer to Lynch to hear him, Lynch punched him in the face. A struggle ensued, and Lynch hit Officer Shamblin in the face at least two more times until the officer took him to the ground. The two rolled around on the ground struggling, and Officer Shamblin eventually got on top of Lynch, straddled his back, and tried to control Lynch's hands.

         The two ended up in a ditch - their heads were positioned up hill and their knees and feet were in the ditch. The two were wet and muddy, and the officer had a hard time maintaining a hold on Lynch because he was slick. Officer Shamblin soon became aware of several people present at the scene of the struggle because he could see their feet above him. Lynch repeatedly yelled for them to attack Officer Shamblin, who felt that he was beginning to lose control over Lynch. As a result, he told Lynch that if he did not comply with his directives, he was going to deploy his taser. Lynch, however, continued to threaten and struggle with Officer Shamblin, so the officer tased him for one or two seconds. Lynch continued to struggle nonetheless. Officer Shamblin threw the taser off to the left, was finally able to get on top of Lynch, and control one of his hands. While he was able to get one hand cuffed, Officer Shamblin could not get the other one cuffed because Lynch was lying on his stomach and his other hand was under his body. By this point, Officer Shamblin was exhausted. Officer Shamblin told the bystanders that he needed them to call 911 immediately or he was going to have to shoot Lynch. Alyssa Hafenbrack called 911 and held the phone down for Officer Shamblin to speak into it.

         Around the same time, Marshall Lynch had called Decedent's wife, Holly Lynch, and told her that Decedent had been pulled over and was not cooperating with the police. Marshall asked her to come to the scene to calm Decedent down. She arrived at the scene about four minutes later. Marshall also called Decedent's father, Plaintiff, David Ray Lynch, who was at home at the time. Marshall advised Plaintiff of Cody Lynch's encounter with Officer Shamblin, and requested that he come to the scene of the incident. David Lynch and his friend, Ruby Lindsey, immediately went to the scene. It took them only a matter of minutes to get there. David Lynch approached Cody Lynch and Officer Shamblin, who were still struggling, put his knee on Cody's back, slapped him in the face, and said, “Boy, give him your damn hand.” With David Lynch's assistance, Officer Shamblin was finally able to get both hands cuffed. Throughout these events, Cody Lynch continued to physically struggle and hinder Officer Shamblin's attempts to restrain him. Cody Lynch also continued to ask for the bystanders to help him with his struggle against the officer.

         When Officer Shamblin spoke to the dispatcher on Hafenbrack's phone, he advised that he needed help and requested back up immediately. At approximately 11:50 p.m., Muskogee County Sheriff's Deputy Derek Apple, after responding to the original call, was notified by dispatch that Officer Shamblin requested that he hurry because he needed immediate help. Deputy Apple arrived at the scene close to 11:58 p.m. Deputy Apple saw that Officer Shamblin's duty belt had been broken during his struggle with Decedent and his radio, extra magazine, and taser were scattered and missing. Upon arrival, Deputy Apple searched for Officer Shamblin's missing equipment, which took several minutes. Officers Jack Denny and Jerome Wildcat of the Porum Police Department responded to dispatch at approximately 11:54 p.m. and arrived at the scene around 11:58 p.m. Officers Denny and Wildcat then relieved an exhausted Officer Shamblin in attempting to maintain control of Lynch, who continued to struggle against their attempts. Officer Denny observed that Officer Shamblin was covered in mud and his eyes were almost completely swollen shut. It was later determined that Cody Lynch had fractured Officer Shamblin's left orbital eye socket.

         The Porum Police Department has written policies in place directing its officers to “use only the minimum necessary force to effect an arrest and take a person into custody.” At the time of the incident, Officers Denny and Wildcat of the Town of Porum Police Department were both CLEET certified law enforcement officers with extensive training in the use of force. In fact, there is no evidence in the record of any prior pattern of similar incidents involving Defendants Denny or Wildcat, or any other officer of the Porum Police Department. Based on their training and prior experience, Officer Denny placed one knee on Lynch's lower back and the other knee on the top of his shoulders while Officer Wildcat straddled Lynch's lower legs. Decedent continued to struggle, and Officer Denny repeatedly told him to stop fighting. While Officers Denny and Wildcat attempted to subdue Lynch, Officer Shamblin and Deputy Apple retrieved some additional restraints for transporting Lynch. The handcuffs placed on Lynch were to be attached to the waist belt, which would then attach to the chain between Lynch's ankles and hands. Lynch continued to be combative, yelling, cursing, and biting at Officer Denny's legs. There were two occasions when Officer Wildcat believed Lynch was grabbing for the firearm in his drop holster.

         As the officers were finishing the security of the additional restraints, Decedent abruptly became unconscious. He had continued to struggle against the restraints and been quite vocal up to the time he fell silent. Decedent had stopped breathing and the officers could not get a pulse. The officers quickly began CPR on Decedent. Ruby Lindsey, who had CPR training, believed the officers were not performing CPR correctly, and requested that the officers remove the handcuffs and lay Decedent flat on his back. They did so, and she again began to perform CPR on Decedent with the assistance of the officers. Alyssa Hafenbrack, who was in nursing school, also assisted in trying to resuscitate Decedent. Muskogee County Sheriff's Deputy Robert Jackson, who had arrived at the scene around 12:06 a.m., notified dispatch to alert EMS at 12:07 a.m. after he heard someone say, “He's not breathing.” Officer Shamblin and Hafenbrack continued to perform CPR on Decedent until EMS arrived. At approximately 12:14 a.m., EMS arrived and took over the scene. Decedent was then transported to the Eastar Hospital. Decedent was pronounced dead at the hospital at 1:07 a.m.

         In the Medical Examiner's Report, Dr. Cheryl Niblo concluded that Decedent's cause of death was "asphyxia due to physical restraint." Dr. Niblo, however, stated under oath that she cannot point to objectively observable physical conditions to support a conclusion on Decedent's cause of death. Specifically, Dr. Niblo testified to and found no evidence of petechiae (pinpoint round spots) that are found in the vast majority of asphyxiation cases, visible bruising on Decedent's neck, muscle tears or cartilage damage to Decedent's neck, or any injury or trauma to Decendent's larynx, trachea, or pharynx. Moreover, Dr. Niblo found that Decedent's hyoid was intact, his airway unobstructed by dirt, grass or mud, and that his lungs were healthy and normal. Dr. Niblo further testified that the officers could not have known that Decedent had an enlarged heart or that he was under the influence of a significant amount of methamphetamine. Finally, Dr. Niblo testified that any pressure on Decedent's back or neck was not hard enough to cause damage to the trachea or larynx, rupture any ligaments, or break any bones. Any such pressure, she testified, would not be hard enough to do anything but produce a small hemorrhage that, in itself, did not produce Decedent's death. In fact, Dr. Niblo calls Decedent's death a "perfect storm, " meaning that many factors converged to produce a highly unusual and unexpected result.

         DISCUSSION

         Summary judgment pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 is appropriate where there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-323 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986); Kendall v. Watkins, 998 F.2d 848, 850 (10th Cir. 1993). Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c) “mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp, 477 U.S. at 322. A fact is “material” if it pertains to an element of a claim or defense; a factual dispute is “genuine” if the evidence is so contradictory that if the matter went to trial, a reasonable jury could return a verdict for either party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

         “When the moving party has carried its burden under Rule 56(c), its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no ‘genuine issue for trial.' ” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986) (citations omitted). “The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the plaintiff's position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the [trier of fact] could reasonably find for the plaintiff.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252. In essence, the inquiry for the Court is “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that the party must prevail as a matter of law.” Id. at 251-252. In its review, the Court construes the record in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment. Garratt v. Walker, 164 F.3d 1249, 1251 (10th Cir. 1998).

         To survive summary judgment, a plaintiff “must go beyond the pleadings and designate specific facts so as to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case.” Serna v. Colorado Dep't of Corr., 455 F.3d 1146, 1151 (10th Cir. 2006) (internal quotation marks omitted). “Summary judgment procedure is properly regarded not as a disfavored procedural shortcut, but rather as an integral part of the Federal Rules as a whole, which are designed ‘to secure the just, speedy and inexpensive determination of every action.' ” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 327.

         A. Excessive Force Claim Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983

         Plaintiffs assert their claims against Defendant Town of Porum under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Specifically, Plaintiffs allege that Decedent's rights under the Fourth Amendment were violated by the alleged unlawful use of excessive force. Plaintiffs also assert a claim for the alleged violation of Decedent's right to substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. Substantive due process claims, however, when predicated upon an alleged violation of a more particularized constitutional right, must be analyzed in terms of the more specific right. Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 395 (1989). Accordingly, there is no need to address Plaintiffs' substantive due process claims apart from their excessive force claim. Therefore, the primary issue is whether Defendant's police officers used excessive force against Decedent in violation of the Fourth Amendment pursuant to any policy, practice or custom of the Porum Police Department and that force was the cause of Plaintiffs' alleged harm. Here, the undisputed facts show the conduct of Defendant's police officers was not excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

         Section 1983 creates no substantive civil rights, but rather only provides a procedural mechanism for enforcing rights established elsewhere. See Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 271 (1994); Gallegos v. City and Cnty. of Denver, 984 F.2d 358, 362 (10th Cir. 1993). See also Miller v. Hawver, 474 F.Supp. 441, 442, n.1 (D. Colo. 1979) (§ 1983 is not a general or common law tort claims statute). To sustain a § 1983 claim, Plaintiffs must present “specific allegations of fact indicating a deprivation of rights, instead of a litany of general conclusions that shock but have no meaning.” Barr v. Abrams, 810 F.2d 358, 363 (2nd Cir. 1987).

         1. There is No. Underlying Constitutional Violation Against Defendant's Police Officers, Jerome Wildcat and Jack Denny.

         To establish liability against the Town of Porum, however, Plaintiffs must first show an underlying violation of Decedent's constitutional rights by some employee or office of Defendant before municipal liability can be imposed against the Town of Porum. In Hinton v. City of Elwood, the Tenth Circuit held that “[a] municipality may not be held liable where there was no underlying constitutional violation by any of its officers.” 997 F.2d 774, 782 (10th Cir. 1993) (citations omitted). This is so “regardless of whether the municipality's policies might have ‘authorized' such harm.” Id. (citing City of Los Angeles v. Heller, 475 U.S. 796, 799, (1986)). See also Walkerv. City of Orem, 451 F.3d 1139, 1152 (10th Cir. 2006) (a plaintiff suing a county under section 1983 for the actions of one of its officers must demonstrate that a municipal employee committed ...


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