Easley v. City of Riverside

Decision Date18 May 2018
Docket NumberNo. 16-55941,16-55941
Citation890 F.3d 851
Parties Michael EASLEY; Stephania Session, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. CITY OF RIVERSIDE; Sergio Diaz; Silvio Macias; Does, 1 to 10, inclusive, Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

Dale K. Galipo (argued ) and Hang D. Le, Law Offices of Dale K. Galipo, Woodland Hills, California, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

Alana H. Rotter (argued ) and Timothy T. Coates, Greines Martin Stein & Richland LLP, Los Angeles, California; John M. Porter, Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, San Bernardino, California; Neil Okazaki, Deputy City Attorney; Gary Geuss, City Attorney; Office of the City Attorney, Riverside, California; for Defendants-Appellees.

Before: Consuelo M. Callahan and Jacqueline H. Nguyen, Circuit Judges, and Robert W. Pratt,* District Judge.

Dissent by Judge Pratt


CALLAHAN, Circuit Judge:

On December 22, 2011, Michael Easley ("Easley") was shot three times by Officer Silvio Macias ("Macias") following a traffic stop. Based on his resulting injuries, which include permanent physical disability and paralysis, Easley filed this action alleging that Macias violated 42 U.S.C. § 1983 through the use of excessive force. The district court sua sponte ordered an evidentiary hearing regarding Macias' entitlement to qualified immunity. Following the two-day hearing, the district court ruled Macias was entitled to qualified immunity and granted summary judgment in his favor. Easley appeals, challenging the district court's sua sponte grant of summary judgment as procedurally impermissible and arguing that the record construed in the light most favorable to Easley reflects that genuine issues of material fact remain as to Macias' entitlement to qualified immunity. We affirm because the district court properly considered qualified immunity sua sponte and because, viewing the record in the light most favorable to Easley, Macias' use of deadly force was objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.


On the night of December 22, 2011, at around 8:20 p.m., Macias and his partner, Officer Anthony Watkins ("Watkins"), were on patrol in the 12th Street area of Riverside, California, in their police car. They noticed a pink Chevrolet Monte Carlo with what appeared to be illegally-tinted windows. Macias thought he recognized the driver, Stephania Session ("Session"), from a prior encounter. Easley, her husband, was a passenger in the car. As the Chevrolet passed the police car, Macias shone his flashlight into the car and the passenger leaned back in the seat.

Macias and Watkins began following the Chevrolet, which made a U-turn, sped up, and entered a strip mall parking lot. When the Chevrolet sped across the parking lot, fishtailing and barely avoiding hitting another car, the officers activated the patrol car's lights and sirens. The Chevrolet did not initially heed the lights and sirens, but then it suddenly stopped.

Easley bolted out of the car and, clutching the waistband of his pants with his right hand, ran away from the patrol car. Macias and Watkins exited their patrol car and Watkins shouted "Gun" or "He's got a gun."1 Macias pursued Easley on foot.

Easley continued to clutch his waistband with his right hand. However, with his left hand he removed an object, later determined to be a gun, from his right pants' pocket and flung the item to his left. Macias fired three shots, striking Easley twice in the right arm and once in the back. Easley was shot within two to four seconds of throwing the gun.


Easley and Session filed this action in California state court alleging, among other claims, the unreasonable and excessive use of force in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, made actionable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The case was removed to the United States District Court for the Central District of California. Plaintiffs filed a First Amended Complaint, which Macias answered asserting that his actions "were objectively reasonable under the circumstances" and that he was entitled to "qualified immunity from suit, liability and damages."

The parties negotiated a partial dismissal of some of the claims in the complaint and Macias agreed not to seek summary judgment on the remaining claims. On February 29, 2016, the district court conducted a pretrial status conference and sua sponte raised the issue of Macias' entitlement to qualified immunity. The district court ordered an evidentiary hearing on the issue, which was held on April 7 and 8, 2016. The court heard testimony from Macias, Easley, and several fact and expert witnesses. On June 1, 2016, the district court issued its order determining that there remained no genuine issue of material fact for determination by a jury and that Macias was entitled to qualified immunity and judgment as a matter of law. Easley and Session filed a timely notice of appeal.


We review a district court's summary judgment determination de novo. Longoria v. Pinal Cty. , 873 F.3d 699, 703 (9th Cir. 2017) ; see also Glenn v. Wash. Cty. , 673 F.3d 864, 870 (9th Cir. 2011) ("We review a district court's decision to grant summary judgment de novo, considering all facts in dispute in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.").


Before addressing the merits, we consider whether the district court erred by raising sua sponte the issue of qualified immunity. We have held that "[d]istrict courts unquestionably possess the power to enter summary judgment sua sponte even on the eve of trial." Norse v. City of Santa Cruz , 629 F.3d 966, 971 (9th Cir. 2010). In so ruling, we followed the Supreme Court's command. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317, 326, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986) ("[D]istrict courts are widely acknowledged to possess the power to enter summary judgments sua sponte , so long as the losing party was on notice that she had to come forward with all of her evidence.").

Easley questions the district court's ability to raise the matter of qualified immunity sua sponte, and alternatively argues that Macias waived his right to raise qualified immunity as a defense. Neither argument is persuasive. Although qualified immunity is an affirmative defense, see Siegert v. Gilley , 500 U.S. 226, 231, 111 S.Ct. 1789, 114 L.Ed.2d 277 (1991) ("Qualified immunity is a defense that must be pleaded by a defendant official."), a district court is not proscribed from directing the parties to brief the issue when it has been properly raised. Here, Macias raised qualified immunity as a defense in his answer, and he never waived or abandoned his claim of qualified immunity. Macias did not move for summary judgment, but reasonably asserted qualified immunity when directed by the district court to brief the issue.

The district court did not err by raising the issue of qualified immunity sua sponte and addressing it on summary judgment.


"The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials ‘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.’ " Stanton v. Sims , 571 U.S. 3, 4–5, 134 S.Ct. 3, 187 L.Ed.2d 341 (2013) (per curiam ) (quoting Pearson v. Callahan , 555 U.S. 223, 231, 129 S.Ct. 808, 172 L.Ed.2d 565 (2009) ). The doctrine is designed to balance "two important, competing interests: the need to hold public officials accountable for irresponsible actions, and the need to shield them from liability when they make reasonable mistakes." Morales v. Fry , 873 F.3d 817, 822 (9th Cir. 2017) ; see Ashcroft v. al-Kidd , 563 U.S. 731, 743, 131 S.Ct. 2074, 179 L.Ed.2d 1149 (2011) ("Qualified immunity gives government officials breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments about open legal questions."); Green v. City & Cty. of S.F. , 751 F.3d 1039, 1051 (9th Cir. 2014). "When properly applied, it protects ‘all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.’ " al-Kidd , 563 U.S. at 743, 131 S.Ct. 2074 (quoting Malley v. Briggs , 475 U.S. 335, 341, 106 S.Ct. 1092, 89 L.Ed.2d 271 (1986) ).

Courts engage in a two-pronged analysis to determine whether qualified immunity applies: "[O]fficers are entitled to qualified immunity under § 1983 unless (1) they violated a federal statutory or constitutional right, and (2) the unlawfulness of their conduct was ‘clearly established at the time.’ " District of Columbia v. Wesby , ––– U.S. ––––, 138 S.Ct. 577, 589, 199 L.Ed.2d 453 (2018) (quoting Reichle v. Howards , 566 U.S. 658, 664, 132 S.Ct. 2088, 182 L.Ed.2d 985 (2012) ). The second prong requires us to analyze two discrete sub-elements: "whether the law governing the conduct at issue was clearly established" and "whether the facts as alleged could support a reasonable belief that the conduct in question conformed to the established law." Green , 751 F.3d at 1052.

On de novo review of a district court's summary-judgment ruling, this Court "must view the evidence, including all reasonable inferences, in favor of the nonmoving party." Reed v. Lieurance , 863 F.3d 1196, 1204 (9th Cir. 2017) ; see Sharp v. Cty. of Orange , 871 F.3d 901, 909 (9th Cir. 2017). Consequently, at summary judgment, an officer may be denied qualified immunity in a § 1983 action only if (1) the facts alleged, taken in the light most favorable to the party asserting injury, show that the officer's conduct violated a constitutional right; and (2) the right at issue was clearly established at the time of the incident such that a reasonable officer would have understood his conduct to be unlawful in that situation. See Pearson , 555 U.S. at 232, 129 S.Ct. 808.

Courts are "permitted to exercise their sound discretion in deciding which of the two prongs of the qualified immunity analysis should be addressed first in light of the circumstances in the particular case at...

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