388 F.3d 578 (8th Cir. 2004), 03-2534, Littrell v. Franklin

Docket Nº:03-2534, 03-2790.
Citation:388 F.3d 578
Party Name:Patricia LITTRELL, Appellant/Cross-Appellee, v. Daniel Jake FRANKLIN, in his official and individual capacities, Appellee/Cross-Appellant.
Case Date:November 02, 2004
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
 
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388 F.3d 578 (8th Cir. 2004)

Patricia LITTRELL, Appellant/Cross-Appellee,

v.

Daniel Jake FRANKLIN, in his official and individual capacities, Appellee/Cross-Appellant.

Nos. 03-2534, 03-2790.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

November 2, 2004

Submitted: May 14, 2004

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Susan T. Lusby of Rogers, AR. Doug Norwood of Rogers appeared on the brief.

Counsel who presented argument on behalf of the appellee was Jeannette Denham of North Little Rock, AR.

Before MORRIS SHEPPARD ARNOLD, BEAM, and MELLOY, Circuit Judges.

MELLOY, Circuit Judge.

On February 9, 2001, Officer Daniel Jake Franklin responded to a concerned motorist's report of possible drunk driving. When Officer Franklin arrived on the scene, he initiated a traffic stop of Patricia Littrell's vehicle. Ms. Littrell readily admitted she was intoxicated, and Officer Franklin attempted to place her under arrest. The apprehension ultimately resulted in a deep laceration on Ms. Littrell's forehead and a broken right arm. Believing she was the victim of the unconstitutional use of excessive force, Ms. Littrell filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Officer Franklin in federal district court. A jury found that Officer Franklin used excessive force but found that his conduct was not objectively unreasonable in light of clearly established law. The district court, therefore, entered judgment in favor of Officer Franklin on the ground that the qualified immunity doctrine shielded him from suit. Ms. Littrell appeals. Officer Franklin cross-appeals several evidentiary rulings made throughout the course of the trial. We believe the district court improperly submitted the legal question of qualified immunity to the jury. We affirm, however, because Ms. Littrell did not object to the district court's submission of the issue of qualified immunity to the jury, and under the final prong of the plain error test, this error was not "sufficiently fundamental to threaten the fairness or integrity or public reputation of the judicial proceeding." Gray v. Genlyte Group, Inc., 289 F.3d 128, 134 (1st Cir.), cert. denied, 537 U.S. 1001, 123 S.Ct. 485, 154 L.Ed.2d 397 (2002).

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

This is an appeal from the district court's entry of judgment as a matter of law in favor of Officer Franklin following a jury verdict that found he used excessive force when he apprehended Ms. Littrell. Officer Franklin stopped Ms. Littrell's vehicle after he received a report that she was driving erratically. Ms. Littrell testified that when she pulled her car over, she knew she was intoxicated and immediately put her arms behind her back in preparation for being handcuffed and arrested. She asserted that she did not struggle until after Officer Franklin broke her arm. At that point, she admitted that she resisted Officer Franklin's attempts to handcuff her because she was in extraordinary pain. Contrary to Ms. Littrell's account, however, Officer Franklin testified that Ms. Littrell was uncooperative and swung at him after he handcuffed her right wrist. He contended that he did not execute the "straight arm bar takedown" that broke Ms. Littrell's arm until she became confrontational.

In addition, Ms. Littrell maintains that she made clear she was seriously injured, yet Officer Franklin disregarded her obvious pain, handcuffed her, and put her in the squad car. The officer who assisted Ms. Littrell from the squad car at the emergency room testified it was immediately apparent to him that her arm was broken when he touched it. Officer Franklin denied having any indication that Ms. Littrell was injured. In spite of their different accounts of the incident, the parties agree that Officer Franklin's actions resulted in a complete break of Ms. Littrell's

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right humerus--the upper arm bone. The doctor who treated Ms. Littrell in the emergency room that night, Dr. Burton K. Bledsoe, testified that it is difficult to break a human bone and that a complete break, such as Ms. Littrell's, would be very painful.

The concerned motorist who initially contacted the police about Ms. Littrell's driving, Robbie Freeman, watched the scene unfold. He testified that Officer Franklin was very aggressive and slammed Ms. Littrell into her car's back window. In addition, Mr. Freeman testified that he thought Officer Franklin had "gone too far" and felt he needed to call the police again--this time to report Officer Franklin. Mr. Freeman characterized Officer Franklin's actions as a "vicious attack." Contrary to Mr. Freeman and Ms. Littrell's testimony, Officer Franklin testified that he was calm throughout the arrest, that Ms. Littrell did not complain of pain in her arm, and that he did not slam Ms. Littrell into the rear window of her car.

Following trial, a state court convicted Ms. Littrell of resisting arrest. The district court in the present civil case provisionally granted Ms. Littrell's motion in limine and excluded evidence of her state conviction. The district court did allow the parties and witnesses to testify as to their observations and perceptions. During cross-examination, Ms. Littrell volunteered that she "resisted arrest." She stated that, after Officer Franklin injured her arm, she "totally resisted arrest" and fought to keep him from handcuffing her because she was experiencing horrific pain. Thereafter, Ms. Littrell stipulated to the admission of her state court conviction for resisting arrest.

Prior to trial, the district court dismissed an official capacity claim against Officer Franklin. That ruling is not at issue in this appeal. The case proceeded to trial. Even though it would have been preferable for Officer Franklin to have sought a pre-trial ruling on the issue of qualified immunity, Officer Franklin did not raise the issue until trial, when he asserted it as a defense. The district court presented the qualified immunity question to the jury in the form of an interrogatory. The verdict form posed four questions. The first asked, "Do you find, from a preponderance of the evidence, that defendant Franklin used excessive force when he arrested plaintiff on February 9, 2001?" The jury responded, "Yes." The second interrogatory asked, "Do you find, from a preponderance of the evidence, that defendant Franklin reasonably believed that his conduct on February 9, 2001, with respect to the plaintiff, was objectively reasonable in light of the legal rules clearly established at that time?" Again, the jury responded, "Yes."

Because of its affirmative response to the second interrogatory, the jury was instructed not to answer the third and fourth questions on the verdict form, which pertained to damages. In accordance with the jury's response to the second interrogatory, the district court entered judgment in favor of Officer Franklin, finding that he was entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the basis of qualified immunity. These appeals followed.

In Ms. Littrell's appeal, 1 she argues that the district court's submission of the second

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interrogatory to the jury was erroneous because the reasonableness of an officer's actions in light of clearly established law is a question of law for the court, and not the jury, to determine. Officer Franklin concedes this point, but counters that the district court made an independent finding that Officer Franklin was entitled to qualified immunity. Officer Franklin also cross-appeals and contends that several evidentiary rulings constituted reversible error. Because we affirm the district court's entry of judgment as a matter of law in favor of Officer Franklin, we need not address his challenge to the district court's adverse evidentiary rulings.

II. Discussion

"Qualified immunity shields government officials from suit unless their conduct violated a clearly established constitutional or statutory right of which a reasonable person would have known." Yowell v. Combs, 89 F.3d 542, 544 (8th Cir. 1996); accord Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982) ("We therefore hold that government officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known."). "What this means in practice is that 'whether an official protected by qualified immunity may be held personally liable for an allegedly unlawful official action generally turns on the "objective legal reasonableness" of the action, assessed in light of the legal rules that were "clearly established" at the time it was taken.' " Wilson v. Layne, 526 U.S. 603, 614, 119 S.Ct. 1692, 143 L.Ed.2d 818 (1999) (quoting Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 639, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 97 L.Ed.2d 523 (1987)). The Supreme Court has generously construed qualified immunity protection to shield "all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law." Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341, 106 S.Ct. 1092, 89 L.Ed.2d 271 (1986). In other words, "officials are not liable for bad guesses in gray areas; they are liable for transgressing bright lines." Maciariello v. Sumner, 973 F.2d 295, 298 (4th Cir. 1992).

Courts employ a two-part inquiry to determine whether a lawsuit against a public official can proceed in the face of the official's assertion of qualified immunity. See Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201, 121 S.Ct. 2151, 150 L.Ed.2d 272 (2001); Coleman v. Parkman, 349 F.3d 534, 537-38 (8th Cir. 2003) (describing qualified immunity inquiry as a two-part test); Tuggle v. Mangan, 348 F.3d 714, 720 (8th Cir. 2003) (same); Meloy v. Bachmeier, 302 F.3d 845, 848-49 (8th Cir. 2002) (same); Ware v. Morrison, 276 F.3d 385, 387 (8th Cir....

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