Cooper v. Dist. of Columbia, Civil Action No. 19-1449 (JEB)

CourtUnited States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
Writing for the CourtJAMES E. BOASBERG, United States District Judge
Citation548 F.Supp.3d 170
Parties Samuel COOPER, Plaintiff, v. DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, et al., Defendants.
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 19-1449 (JEB)
Decision Date09 July 2021

548 F.Supp.3d 170

Samuel COOPER, Plaintiff,
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, et al., Defendants.

Civil Action No. 19-1449 (JEB)

United States District Court, District of Columbia.

Signed July 9, 2021

548 F.Supp.3d 174

Nesibneh Adrian St. Hill, Brian Keith McDaniel, McDaniel Law Group, PLLC, Washington, DC, for Plaintiff.

Kerslyn D. Featherstone, Asha Shawnique Bryant, Emma Lee Lomax, Office of Attorney General, Washington, DC, for Defendants District of Columbia, Karina Phillip.

Kerslyn D. Featherstone, Asha Shawnique Bryant, Emma Lee Lomax, Office of Attorney General, Public Interest Division, Washington, DC, for Defendant Wilmino Pantaleon.


JAMES E. BOASBERG, United States District Judge

Tequila and the summer heat often prove a troublesome pair. Here, though, tequila is not to blame for our Plaintiff's plight; rather, it is the conduct of Metropolitan

548 F.Supp.3d 175

Police Department officers in response to a small-scale open-container violation. On a warm May evening in 2018, Plaintiff Samuel Cooper planned to attend a cookout in his neighborhood. He was met, instead, with a violent police encounter that left him with serious injuries and led to this excessive-force suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and District of Columbia common law. While he initially identified numerous defendants, at this stage only Officer Karina Phillip and Officer Wilmino Pantaleon remain.

These Defendants now seek summary judgment, asserting that they are shielded from liability by qualified immunity because they acted as reasonable police officers when arresting Plaintiff. While many cases like this one can be resolved swiftly at this stage because of the ultimate neutral witness — body-worn-camera footage — officers here activated their cameras too late to capture the full encounter. Even without such clarity, the Court finds that Defendants have met their burden regarding some of the claims against them. On others, however, Cooper has raised sufficient facts suggesting unconstitutional use of excessive force to overcome Defendants’ qualified-immunity defense. The Court thus grants Defendants’ Motion in part and denies it in part.

I. Background

While BWC footage gives the Court a clear view of much of this incident, several critical points in this story remain in dispute. To fill such gaps, the Court views the facts, as it must, in the light most favorable to Plaintiff. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 255, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986).

A. Initial Encounter

On the evening of May 19, 2018, Cooper exited a car on 15th Street Northeast en route to a nearby cookout. See ECF No. 37-1 (Def. Statement of Facts), ¶ 1; ECF No. 39-2 (Pl. Resp. to Statement of Facts), ¶ 1. He was carrying an open bottle of tequila and a red solo cup. See DSF, ¶ 2; PRSF, ¶ 2. Plaintiff recalls that soon after leaving the car, he was approached by Officer Pantaleon, who remarked, "We're not going to have this today." ECF No. 39-5 (Deposition of Samuel Cooper) at 25:2. When it "dawned" on Cooper that the officer was referring to the open container of tequila he was carrying, he turned around to return it to the car. Id. at 35:22, 36:1–2. At this point, Officer Pantaleon "grabbed" him by the hood of his jacket and "slammed" him to the ground. Id. at 36:4.

The officers paint a different picture. According to Phillip, she noticed Cooper with the tequila, and Pantaleon exited their car to respond to it. See ECF No. 39-6 (Deposition of Karina Phillip) at 30:4–9. Phillip followed, remaining a bit behind. Id. at 32:6–12. After a conversation between Plaintiff and Pantaleon, the officer grabbed him, and Phillip tried to assist in restraining him. Id. at 32:3–22, 41:1–2, 14–16. Pantaleon testified that at this point Cooper was "pulling, pushing, doing everything he [could] to get away from [him.]" ECF No. 39-7 (Deposition of Wilmino Pantaleon) at 37:1–2. After Plaintiff refused to comply with commands that he place his hands behind his back, Pantaleon felt he had no choice but to conduct a "takedown" of Cooper. See ECF No. 37-2 (Defense Exhibits for MSJ), Exh. 2 (Pantaleon Responses to Interrogatories) at 6. Pantaleon describes a fairly intense struggle prior to the takedown, recalling that Plaintiff "started violently swinging his arms and body" while "actively resisting." Id. Phillip remained a beat behind her partner throughout this ordeal, providing surprisingly little clarity on exactly how Cooper

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ended up on the ground. See Phillip Dep. at 43:8–12 ("I don't know if he fell or ... if Pantaleon took him to the ground.").

During this sequence, no officer had activated a body-worn camera, in violation of Metropolitan Police Department policy. See Pantaleon Dep. at 15:9–17 ("I was supposed to turn [the body-worn camera] on ... as soon as I [was] getting ready to approach."); see also Phillip Dep. at 63:21–22 (officers are supposed to turn on their cameras "as soon as possible when [they] get a call for service"). The Court thus is left with the conflicting views of the principals, unaided by Phillip's lack of recollection.

B. Arrest

Once Plaintiff was on the ground, the cameras began rolling. The viewer is met with a scene of chaos: Cooper on his stomach pinned to the ground, bystanders screaming, and officers surrounding Plaintiff and kneeling on top of him, yelling at him. The majority of this struggle seems to involve officers’ efforts to get Plaintiff, who is lying on his arms, to release them for handcuffing. The officers testify that the situation escalated in part because they saw Cooper throw a gun under a nearby car during the struggle. See Pantaleon Interrog. at 6–7; Def. Exh. 3 (Phillip Responses to Interrogatories) at 6. Although Cooper denies ever having a gun, see Cooper Dep. at 44:12–21, he admits that he was always able to provide his arms and that they were never pinned under his body. Id. at 48:12–19. Officers nevertheless went to fairly aggressive lengths to complete the arrest, including, in Pantaleon's case, striking Cooper in the face at least twice. See Def. Exhs. 4–8 (Body Worn Camera Footage); Pantaleon Dep. at 40:12–19; ECF No. 39-8 (Samuel Cooper's Responses to Interrogatories) at 8; Phillip Dep. at 54:10–20. The struggle continued for several minutes until the officers were finally able to secure the handcuffs. See BWC Footage; Phillip Dep. at 59:3.

Officers then transported Plaintiff to Washington Hospital Center, where he was treated for injuries, including acute back pain, right shoulder pain, and a subconjunctival hemorrhage of the right eye. See Compl., ¶¶ 24–25; Cooper Interrog. at 15–16. That same evening, he was transported to a holding cell, where he was detained until he was charged with one count of Carrying a Pistol Without a License on May 21, 2018, and released after a preliminary hearing the next day. United States v. Cooper, D.C. Super. Ct., No. CF2 7634, 5/21/2018–5/22/2018 Entries; see also Compl., ¶¶ 27–29. Cooper was placed in the High Intensity Supervision Program until his preliminary hearing on June 11, see ECF No. 39-1 (Pl. Opp.) at 4, when the District of Columbia Superior Court dismissed the charge for lack of probable cause. Cooper, No. 2018 CF2 7634, 6/11/2018 Entries; see also Compl., ¶ 32.

C. Procedural History

This suit began with seven claims: (I) Section 1983 for excessive force in violation of the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments; (II) Section 1983 for malicious prosecution in violation of the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments; (III) common-law assault; (IV) common-law battery; (V) common-law false arrest/false imprisonment; (VI) common-law intentional infliction of emotional distress; and (VII) respondeat superior. See Compl., ¶¶ 49–123. The first six counts are alleged against the six officers Plaintiff was able to identify on the scene — Officers Pantaleon, Phillip, and four others. The District of Columbia is named only in the respondeat superior count. Id., ¶¶ 121–23. In August of 2019, the Court granted

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Defendants’ Partial Motion to Dismiss, tossing out Cooper's Fifth Amendment and respondeat superior claims. See 8/26/2019 Min. Order. In March of 2021, Cooper dismissed his claims against the four other officers. See 3/22/2021 Min. Order; see also ECF Nos. 33–36 (Notices of Voluntary Dismissal). Because the District is no longer a named defendant in any remaining count, the Court need only consider the allegations against Phillip and Pantaleon, who now move for summary judgment.

II. Legal Standard

While Defendants have filed concurrent Motions for Judgment on the Pleadings and for Summary Judgment, because the arguments fundamentally depend on facts contained in the record, the Court will consider only their Motion for Summary Judgment. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c), 56.

Courts must grant summary judgment if "the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a) ; see also Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 247–48, 106 S.Ct. 2505 ; Holcomb v. Powell, 433 F.3d 889, 895 (D.C. Cir. 2006). A...

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