Bartley v. City of High Point, 359A20

Docket Nº359A20
Citation2022 NCSC 63
Case DateJune 17, 2022
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Carolina



CITY OF HIGH POINT and MATT BLACKMAN in his Official Capacity as a Police Officer with the City of High Point, and Individually.

No. 359A20

Supreme Court of North Carolina

June 17, 2022

Heard in the Supreme Court on 23 March 2022.

Appeal pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7A-30(2) from the decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, 272 N.C.App. 224 (2020), affirming a trial court order partially denying defendant's motion for summary judgment entered on 21 October 2019 by Judge Eric C. Morgan in Superior Court, Guilford County.

The Deuterman Law Group, by Seth R. Cohen, for plaintiff-appellee.

Poyner Spruill LLP, by David L. Woodard and Brett A. Carpenter, for defendant-appellant.


¶ 1 The sole question we consider in this appeal is whether the Court of Appeals erred in affirming the trial court's denial of Defendant Officer Matt Blackman's (Officer Blackman) motion for summary judgment with respect to Plaintiff Bruce Bartley's (Mr. Bartley) claims against him in his individual capacity based upon the defense of public official immunity, concluding that genuine issues of material fact


exist as to whether Officer Blackman acted with malice when he arrested Mr. Bartley for unlawfully resisting, delaying, or obstructing a public officer in discharging or attempting to discharge a public duty in violation of N.C. G.S. § 14-223. We hold that when viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Mr. Bartley, genuine issues of material fact do exist as to whether Officer Blackman acted with malice in the performance of his duties when he allegedly used excessive force in arresting Mr. Bartley. Therefore, Officer Blackman is not entitled to summary judgment based upon the defense of public official immunity. We affirm the Court of Appeals' affirmance of the trial court's order.

I. Background

¶ 2 Mr. Bartley was driving to his home in the afternoon on 23 August 2017 when he crossed a double yellow line to pass the pickup truck that was traveling on Old Mill Road directly in front of him. Mr. Bartley testified in his deposition that he believed passing the slow-moving truck on a double yellow line was legal because the car was traveling at a low rate of speed and impeding traffic. Officer Blackman, a police officer with the City of High Point, testified in his deposition that he was traveling behind Mr. Bartley in an unmarked patrol car when he observed Mr. Bartley pass the truck over the double yellow line. Officer Blackman testified that at that point he activated his blue strobe lights, air horn, and siren, and began catching up to Mr. Bartley's car. Mr. Bartley testified that he did not see anyone


behind him when he looked in the rearview mirror, that he did not see blue lights flashing, and that he did not hear a siren or air horn as he proceeded in the direction of his home.

¶ 3 When Mr. Bartley eventually reached his driveway, he parked, got out of the car, and walked toward the back of his car to retrieve his pet cat. At that moment, he heard someone, whom he identified as a male dressed in plainclothes, twice order him back inside his car. While Officer Blackman testified that he was wearing his departmental issued handgun on his right hip, handcuffs, and an additional ammunition magazine on his left side, that he was carrying his department issued radio in his left hand, and that his badge was on his belt and visible from the front, it is uncontested that Officer Blackman was not dressed in his police uniform and that he did not immediately identify himself as a police officer when he approached Mr. Bartley's driveway and issued commands. Mr. Bartley testified that because he had no reason to know that the person giving him a command was a police officer, he thought that he had done nothing wrong, and suspected that perhaps Officer Blackman was at the wrong address, Mr. Bartley told Officer Blackman that he was on private property and that he was not going to get back into his car.

¶ 4 Officer Blackman testified that after Mr. Bartley twice ignored his command, Officer Blackman used his hand radio to report the traffic stop to law enforcement communications. He gave a description of his location, Mr. Bartley,


and Mr. Bartley's vehicle. Officer Blackman further testified that he requested backup because he believed that there was an officer safety issue based on Mr. Bartley's response to his command to get back into his vehicle "in the face of a traffic stop." Mr. Bartley testified that when he turned his back on Officer Blackman after telling Officer Blackman, who from Mr. Bartley's perspective, was an unidentified trespasser, that he was on private property and that he would not get back into his car, "the next thing" [Mr. Bartley] knew, he was "body slammed" against the trunk of his vehicle, handcuffed, and told he was being detained.

¶ 5 Mr. Bartley testified repeatedly that "[Officer Blackman] slammed me against the back trunk lid of my vehicle and handcuffed me." Officer Blackman testified that he put Mr. Bartley in handcuffs because (1) Mr. Bartley ignored his commands and told him that he was on private property, which Officer Blackman believed to create a safety issue because he had no way of knowing Mr. Bartley's intentions, and (2) Officer Blackman believed that Mr. Bartley's refusal to comply with Officer Blackman's commands to get back in the car constituted probable cause to charge Mr. Bartley with resisting, delaying, or obstructing a public officer. Officer Blackman denied that he body slammed and tightly handcuffed Mr. Bartley when he carried out the arrest.

¶ 6 Mr. Bartley testified that following his arrest, he remained in handcuffs in his driveway in full view of his neighbors for 20-25 minutes even after he was patted


down by Officer Blackman and even though a backup officer had been called to the scene. Mr. Bartley further stated that he asked Officer Blackman to loosen the handcuffs because they were too tight and were hurting his wrists, but Officer Blackman refused and insisted that if Mr. Bartley had done as he was initially told, then he would not have been in this situation. Mr. Bartley claims that the forcefully applied handcuffs left red marks and bruises on his wrists, which he photographed on the day of the incident.

¶ 7 Mr. Bartley was charged with violating N.C. G.S. § 14-233 (resisting, delaying, and obstructing a public officer) for exiting his vehicle and refusing to obey commands.[1] He also was cited for passing another vehicle in a prohibited passing zone over a double yellow line pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 20-146(a). Mr. Bartley hired an attorney who advised him to take a driving class and complete twenty hours of community service, both of which he did. It is uncontested that the charges against Mr. Bartley were dismissed.

¶ 8 On 20 December 2018, Mr. Bartley filed a civil suit against Officer Blackman, in both his official and individual capacities; and against the City of High Point; for malicious prosecution, false imprisonment/arrest, and assault and battery.


Defendants answered the complaint on 25 January 2019, asserting the defenses of governmental and public official immunity, among others. In his complaint, Mr. Bartley alleged that he was forcibly thrown against the trunk of his car, handcuffed, and charged with resisting an officer in the driveway of his residence after passing a slow-moving vehicle on Old Mill Road and being followed by Officer Blackman, a plain-clothes High Point police detective driving an unmarked vehicle.

¶ 9 On 19 September 2019, defendants filed a general motion for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure on the grounds that there was no genuine issue as to any material fact and that defendants were entitled to judgment as a matter of law. On 21 October 2019, the trial court dismissed with prejudice Mr. Bartley's claims against the City of High Point and Officer Blackman in his official capacity on the ground that sovereign immunity barred those claims. The trial court denied defendants' summary judgment motion as to the claims against Officer Blackman in his individual capacity "finding that there are genuine issues of material fact as to these claims that preclude summary judgment as a matter of law." Officer Blackman appealed from the order partially denying his motion for summary judgment as to the claims against him in his individual capacity.

II. Court of Appeals Opinion

¶ 10 On appeal, Officer Blackman argued that the trial court erred in denying his


motion for summary judgment based upon the defense of public official immunity. He also asked the Court of Appeals to address the merits of the claims against him. On 7 July 2020, a divided panel of the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's order, concluding that Officer Blackman was not entitled to summary judgment on the ground of public official immunity, and declined to reach the merits of the underlying claims because Officer Blackman had no right to interlocutory review on the other issues he sought to raise. Bartley v. City of High Point, 272 N.C.App. 224 (2020). The court explained that "[p]olice officers engaged in performing their duties are public officials for the purposes of public official immunity [and] enjoy absolute immunity from personal liability for discretionary acts done without corruption or malice." Id. at 227-28 (cleaned up). The court noted that a police officer is therefore generally "immune from suit unless the challenged action was (1) outside the scope of official authority, (2) done with malice, or (3) corrupt," id. at 228, and ultimately concluded that the facts of this case as alleged with respect to each claim were sufficient to raise an issue of genuine material fact as to whether Officer Blackman acted with malice.

¶ 11 In dissent, Judge Tyson...

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