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Case Number: 22-CV-209
Judge: Not available
Court: United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma (Oklahoma County)
Defendant's Attorney: Not available
Description: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma civil rights lawyers represented Plaintiff, who sued Defendants claiming that
defendants Rolke, Lewis, Morton, and Osten (collectively, “Firefighters”) are employees of the Oklahoma City Fire Department, and Defendant Lee is an Oklahoma City police officer, who responded to an emergency call regarding Plaintiff's decedent, Charles Lamar Vanlandingham (“Mr. Vanlandingham”). In this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Plaintiff claims that Firefighters and Officer Lee violated, conspired to violate, and failed to prevent others from violating, Mr. Vanlandingham's Fourth Amendment rights to be free from an unlawful seizure and excessive force.
Firefighters engaged in law enforcement conduct, Plaintiff now alleges that Firefighters did not arrive on the scene of Mr. Vanlandingham's seizure in response to his friend's 911 call for emergency medical assistance but, instead, responded to a call from paramedics to assist them after Mr. Vanlandingham resisted their treatment efforts. Plaintiff states that Firefighters and Officer Lee both received the paramedics' call, but Firefighters arrived first and immediately began working to restrain Mr. Vanlandingham. Plaintiff alleges that, from this time until Mr. Vanlandingham later became unresponsive, Firefighters and Officer Lee were not attempting to provide emergency medical assistance but were responding to his possible assault of the paramedics.
Specifically, the Third Amended Complaint relates the following version of events. The paramedics were employed by a private ambulance service, Defendant American Medical Response Ambulance Service, Inc. (“AMR”), and were first responders to a 911 call for medical help. Mr. Vanlandingham “was in a postictal state” of a grand mal seizure and “was disoriented and confused” but “conscious and verbally responsive.” See 3d Am. Compl. ¶¶ 19-21. A paramedic attempted to restrain Mr. Vanlandingham's arms behind his back (contrary to medical standards), but he did not want to be restrained and pulled away. “Paramedics for AMR then called for assistance from Oklahoma City Police Department and the Oklahoma City Fire Department falsely alleging that Mr. Vanlandingham was combative and aggressive with them.” Id. ¶ 27.
Firefighters arrived on the scene shortly after this call. Immediately upon entering the room where Mr. Vanlandingham was located, they “tackled him to the ground” without pausing “to assess the situation or speak with any involved parties.” Id. ¶¶ 30-31. Firefighters acted in haste on a mistaken belief that “Mr. Vanlandingham was being physically combative with paramedics for AMR” and he had “committed or attempted to commit some kind of assault and/or battery upon paramedics for AMR.” Id. ¶¶ 33-34.
Firefighters worked together to restrain Mr. Vanlandingham in an effort “to incapacitate, detain, and deter [his] movement.” Id. ¶¶ 39-41. They “pin[ned] Mr. Vanlandingham to the ground facedown” and acting together, “held [his] legs, sat on his lower back while pushing down on [his] upper back, placed a knee on [his] shoulder and neck area, and used their hands to press down on the back of [his] head.” Id. ¶¶ 42-44.
Officer Lee arrived after Mr. Vanlandingham was pinned facedown with all four Firefighters on top of him. “The last update Officer Lee heard from his radio when exiting his car was that Mr. Vanlandingham was being ‘combative.'” Id. ¶ 48. Firefighters immediately asked Officer Lee for handcuffs, and when he produced them, the firefighter sitting on Mr. Vanlandingham's back “use[d] a law enforcement technique to pry one of Mr. Vanlandingham's arms behind his back so that handcuffs could be placed on him.” Id. ¶ 55. While Firefighters held Mr. Vanlandingham's arms behind his back, Officer Lee applied the handcuffs, and he then “radioed that Mr. Vanlandingham was ‘in custody' and requested another unit to the scene.” Id. ¶¶ 56-57. Like Firefighters, Officer Lee was acting on a mistaken “belief that Mr. Vanlandingham attacked or attempted to attack paramedics for AMR.” Id. ¶ 58.
The prone restraint of Mr. Vanlandingham - under the weight of all four Firefighters pressing down on his legs, hips, back, and head - continued more than ten minutes. During that time, Mr. Vanlandingham “repeatedly screamed out in pain and attempted to yell for help.” Id. ¶ 76. During the last two or three minutes, Officer Lee had arrived and increased the level of restraint by handcuffing Mr. Vanlandingham and “adding the force and weight from [Officer Lee's] knee and hand to Mr. Vanlandingham's upper and lower back.” Id. ¶¶ 72, 83. Also during these two or three minutes, Firefighters and Officer Lee raised Mr. Vanlandingham's legs “to his butt . . . in a ‘hogtie' position. This facedown ‘hogtie' position, with hands cuffed behind his back, further restrict[ed] Mr. Vanlandingham's air flow.” Id. ¶¶ 84-85. At no time during the restraint did Mr. Vanlandingham receive a medical assessment or monitoring of his airway or breathing, and instead, the paramedics increased the dangerousness of the situation by administering a sedative drug. Mr. Vanlandingham lost consciousness and went limp. Firefighters and Officer Lee then got off Mr. Vanlandingham's back, and the group proceeded to discuss whether to “press charges” against him. Id. ¶¶ 97-98.
Plaintiff alleges that the following sequence of events ended the encounter:
Seconds after the discussion about seeking charges against Mr. Vanlandingham, paramedics for AMR and the individual Defendants discovered that Mr. Vanlandingham stopped breathing. This was the first and only time a medical assessment of Mr. Vanlandingham was conducted since his restraint began. Paramedics for AMR and the Defendant firemen then rushed to begin chest compressions to revive Mr. Vanlandingham. However, their efforts were delayed because Officer Brandon Lee had to take time to remove two sets of handcuffs he had placed on Mr. Vanlandingham before the medical resuscitation could begin. Mr. Vanlandingham ultimately died on the floor of his friend's home without ever being transported to a hospital.
Id. ¶¶ 100-104.
Plaintiff asserts the same § 1983 claims for Mr. Vanlandingham's injuries and death in the Third Amended Complaint that he brought in the Second Amended Complaint: First Claim, a violation of Mr. Vanlandingham's Fourth Amendment right to be free from unlawful seizure by restraining him “against his will without probable cause or reasonable suspicion” (id. ¶ 114); Second Claim, a violation of Mr. Vanlandingham's Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force when Firefighters held him “down with their body weight for over ten (10) minutes while they slowly suffocated him and stopped his heart” and when Officer Lee assisted them by “handcuffing Mr. Vanlandingham's arms behind his back, denying him the ability to use his arms to press up or turn to catch his breath” (Id. ¶¶ 123-24); Third Claim, a conspiracy among Firefighters and Officer Lee to deprive Mr. Vanlandingham of his constitutional rights to be free from unlawful arrest and excessive force (Id. ¶ 127); and Fourth Claim, a failure by “one or more of the Defendants” to intervene “during the constitutional violations described herein” to prevent a violation of Mr. Vanlandingham's constitutional rights by others, despite having a reasonable opportunity to do so. Id. ¶¶ 132-33.
Vanlandingham v. City of Okla. City (W.D. Okla. 2023)
Defendants moved for summary judgment claiming the they were entitled to qualified immunity.
The Court found that Plaintiff alleged sufficient facts to show Firefighters' and Officer Lee's alleged conduct violated the Fourth Amendment. Therefore, the Court finds the Third Amended Complaint states plausible § 1983 claims of unlawful seizure and excessive force against Firefighters and Officer Lee.
The second step in assessing the defense of qualified immunity requires a determination whether Plaintiff has shown the Fourth Amendment rights asserted in his § 1983 claims were clearly established in September 2019. Recall that a “clearly established” right must be “sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.” See Order at 8-9 (quoting Mullenix v. Luna, 577 U.S. 7, 11-12 (2015) (per curiam); District of Columbia v. Wesby, 138 S.Ct. 577, 590 (2018)). Because “specificity is especially important in the Fourth Amendment context” (Mullenix, 577 U.S. at 12), the Supreme Court has “stressed the need to identify a case where an officer acting under similar circumstances . . . was held to have violated the Fourth Amendment.” Wesby, 138 S.Ct. at 590 (quoting White v. Pauly, 580 U.S. 73, 79 (2017)).
Plaintiff asserts that Firefighters and Officer Lee conspired among themselves and with other unidentified individuals to violate the Fourth Amendment. For the reasons stated in the prior Order, the Court's finding that Plaintiff's § 1983 claims against Firefighters are barred by qualified immunity requires the dismissal of the § 1983 conspiracy claim against them as well. Because Firefighters are entitled to qualified immunity on Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment claims “based on the absence of clearly established law, it necessarily follows that they are also entitled to qualified immunity on his conspiracy claim insofar as it alleges a conspiracy” to violate the Fourth Amendment. See Order at 11 (quoting Frasier v. Evans, 992 F.3d 1003, 1024 (10th Cir.), cert. denied, 142 S.Ct. 427 (2021)). That is, because it was not clearly established in 2019 that it was a violation of the Fourth Amendment for Firefighters to unlawfully arrest or use excessive force against Mr. Vanlandingham, “it ineluctably follows that the law was not clearly established that it was unlawful to conspire to engage in the same [violation].” Frasier, 992 F.3d 1024. Accordingly, the Court finds that Firefighters are entitled to qualified immunity from Plaintiff's § 1983 conspiracy claim.
The Court reaches the same conclusion, in part, regarding Officer Lee. Because Plaintiff has not shown that Mr. Vanlandingham's alleged unlawful arrest violated a clearly established right, Plaintiff has not shown the object of any conspiracy to arrest Mr. Vanlandingham was unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment. Therefore, Officer Lee is entitled to qualified immunity from liability for any such conspiracy.
Regarding an alleged conspiracy to use excessive force, however, the Court finds in the Third Amended Complaint sufficient factual allegations, viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, from which to find that Officer Lee conspired with others to engage in an unconstitutional use of force against Mr. Vanlandingham. See Bledsoe v. Carreno, 53 F.4th 589, 609 (10th Cir. 2022). Plaintiff has identified legal authority clearly establishing that any reasonable officer in Officer Lee's position would have understood the alleged object of the conspiracy - to use force against Mr. Vanlandingham as alleged in Plaintiff's pleading - violated the Fourth Amendment. In short, because Officer Lee is not entitled to qualified immunity on the underlying constitutional claim, he is not entitled to qualified immunity on the conspiracy claim.
For these reasons, the Court finds that Plaintiff has stated plausible § 1983 claims against Firefighters and Officer Lee based on alleged violations of Mr. Vanlandingham's Fourth Amendment rights. The Court also finds, however, that Plaintiff has failed to make a sufficient showing to overcome Firefighters' qualified immunity defense, and thus Plaintiff's action against Firefighters should be dismissed. Further, the Court finds that Officer Lee is entitled to qualified immunity with respect to Plaintiff's unlawful arrest and failure-to-intervene claims, and thus the First Claim and Fourth Claim of the Third Amended Complaint should be dismissed. Because this was Plaintiff's second attempt to state § 1983 claims against the individual defendants, the Court finds that any further opportunity to amend would be futile and the claims barred by qualified immunity should be dismissed with prejudice.
IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that Firefighters' Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Third Amended Complaint [Doc. No. 48] is GRANTED and Defendant Lee's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Third Amended Complaint [Doc. No. 49] is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part, as set forth herein. All claims against Defendants Rolke, Lewis, Morton, and Osten, and Plaintiff's First and Fourth Claims against Defendant Lee are DISMISSED with prejudice.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that in accordance with the Order of January 5, 2023 [Doc. No. 58], the remaining parties shall confer about appropriate deadlines and submit a proposed scheduling order consistent with the Court's standard case management schedule within 14 days from the date of this Order.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Vanlandingham v. City of Okla. City (W.D. Okla. 2023)