Hunter v. City of Houston

Decision Date29 September 2021
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 4:19-cv-02521
Citation564 F.Supp.3d 517
Parties Eric HUNTER, Plaintiff, v. CITY OF HOUSTON, et al, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of Texas

Andre D'Shawn Evans, Andre Evans and Associates PLLC, Houston, TX, for Plaintiff.

Christy L. Martin, City of Houston Legal Department, Houston, TX, for Defendants.

OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Charles Eskridge, United States District Judge

The motions for summary judgment filed by Defendants City of Houston, Officer Matthew Singer, and Sergeant G.E. Reuther are granted. Dkts 53, 55, 57.

Defendant 3B Auto Sales, LLC is dismissed from this lawsuit for failure of service.

1. Background

This dispute arises from the repossession of a car belonging to Plaintiff Eric Hunter. He brings claims for violation of his civil rights against the City of Houston along with Officer Singer and Sergeant Reuther, both of whom are members of the Houston Police Department. He also brings claims under state law against 3B related to the repossession. Defendant Uval Vanunu is the owner of 3B and was previously dismissed from this lawsuit when Hunter failed to timely respond to his motion for summary judgment. Dkt 96.

The conduct at issue began with the repossession of Hunter's car by Carlos Benavides, a 3B employee. Hunter saw Benavides enter his car, so he got into the passenger seat and asked why his car was being repossessed. Benavides explained that Hunter had failed to make the required payments on his car loan. Hunter asked Benavides if he could drive him to his house so that he could pay the amount due. Benavides explained that he was required to drive straight to the 3B dealership but could drive Hunter home after that, if needed. Benavides thus towed Hunter's car to the dealership with Hunter in the passenger seat of the tow truck. Dkt 53-1 at 25 (Benavides affidavit).

Hunter asked if he could retrieve his personal belongings, which included his identification and other personal documents. Vanunu told Hunter that he would give him his belongings if Hunter signed a release form indicating his consent to the repossession. Dkt 53-1 at 23 (Vanunu affidavit). Hunter declined. Id at 23, 25. Vanunu and Benavides attest that Vanunu told Hunter to leave several times after he declined to sign the consent form. Ibid. Hunter purports to dispute this, but his affidavit is stricken as part of the rulings below. See Dkt 68-1 at 8. Regardless, at some point thereafter, Vanunu called the police and reported Hunter as trespassing. Dkt 53-1 at 25.

Officer Singer responded to the call and wore a body camera. That video was submitted with the motions for summary judgment. See Dkt 53-1 (Exhibit C).

Singer spoke to Hunter, who was standing inside the shop. He then spoke with Vanunu and Benavides. Bodycam, 0:02:52–0:04:27. Vanunu told Singer that this was Hunter's second repossession, and that he had asked him to leave. Id at 0:05:04–0:05:12. Benavides also stated that he had asked Hunter to leave several times. Id at 0:07:15–0:08:25. Singer then talked to Hunter again about the fact of repossession, which Hunter protested. Singer stated, "This is all civil stuff. It's got nothing to do with me. The only thing I'm here for is you being on the property, and they don't want you on the property." Id at 0:09:30–0:09:38.

Hunter requested that a supervisor be called to the scene. Id at 0:10:28–0:10:43. Singer agreed to make such a call, while twice telling Hunter explicitly, "You are trespassing on the property." Id at 0:10:43–0:10:48. Singer then called his supervisor, Sergeant Reuther. Reuther suggested Singer call the Houston Police Department's Auto Dealers Division to ensure that the repossession had been properly conducted. Id at 0:12:07–0:13:57. Singer explained that Hunter wasn't listening to him, and that he would try to resolve the situation without an arrest. Id at 0:12:18–0:13:40. Reuther advised that he didn't believe it was necessary at that time to personally respond to the scene. Dkt 77-1 at 12. Singer then called HPD-AD, who spoke with Hunter and Vanunu at length. Bodycam, 0:15:39–0:40:38.

Hunter then asked Singer what would stop him "from getting in my car and leaving with it?" Id at 0:41:18–0:41:23. Singer responded that such action would constitute theft because the car belongs to 3B. Id at 0:41:24–0:41:28. Hunter then stated that 3B "basically" kidnapped him, and that he wanted to file kidnapping charges. Singer said he would call the Harris County District Attorney's Office to see if they would take the charges. Id at 0:41:47–0:42:20.

At about this time, Reuther called Singer for an update. Singer explained that Hunter wasn't cooperating. Reuther advised Singer to contact the DA's Office before arresting him. Id at 0:44:06–0:45:17; Dkt 55-1 at 12. Singer then informed Hunter that he would call the DA's Office to provide both sides of the story, including that Hunter was trespassing. Before Stringer could make the call, Hunter asked him several questions, which included if he was going to be arrested. Singer explained that he would be arrested if he was still on the property when he called the DA's Office. Hunter went and stood just outside the entrance gate. Bodycam, 0:46:08–0:46:50.

Singer then called the DA's Office and explained the circumstances, recommended that he arrest Hunter for trespass, and relayed Hunter's kidnapping allegations. The bodycam video didn't record audio of the response, but the criminal trespass charges were apparently accepted by the DA's Office. See Dkt 53-1 at 12 (Reuther report); Bodycam, 0:47:31–0:52:07.

Singer then approached Hunter, who by then had apparently called 911, complaining of Singer's conduct and asking that another officer come to the scene. Singer directed Hunter to come toward him, but Hunter refused and stated that he was on the phone with the police. Singer attempted to arrest Hunter, telling him to put his hands behind his back. Hunter resisted, grabbing hold of the entrance gate to prevent Singer from placing handcuffs on him. Singer frisked him and, at a moment when Hunter removed his hand from the fence, took him to the ground, where Hunter continued to resist. Singer asked Benavides for help gaining control over Hunter, and the two eventually placed Hunter in handcuffs. Id at 0:56:48–1:00:26.

Singer then called for a supervisor on the scene regarding use of force. Id at 1:00:29. Reuther then arrived on the scene, generally interviewed Singer and Benavides, and approved Stringer's actions. Id at 1:17:26–1:24:07.

In August 2019, the DA's Office dropped the criminal trespass charges, explaining that it believed probable caused existed but couldn't be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Dkt 57-1 at 97 (state court motion to dismiss).

In February 2018, the HPD Internal Affairs Division investigated an administrative complaint by Hunter in which he alleged that Singer used excessive force. Dkt 53-1 at 28–32 (investigation summary). The investigation included a review of Singer's administrative statement and body-cam footage; Singer's response to resistance form; Reuther's response to resistance supervisor supplement, offense report, and after-action report; and affidavits by Vanunu and Benavides. The investigation report recommended Singer's exoneration. Id at 32.

Hunter brought this lawsuit in May 2019 in Texas state court. Dkt 1-1 at 2–24. Defendants removed, asserting federal question jurisdiction. Dkt 1. The operative pleading is Hunter's second amended complaint. Dkt 18. He subsequently voluntarily dismissed several claims as to the City of Houston, Singer, and Reuther. Dkt 48. Those remaining include claims under state law against 3B; a Section 1983 claim against the City of Houston for municipal liability; and Section 1983 claims against Singer and Reuther for individual liability.

The City, Singer, and Reuther now seek summary judgment. Dkts 53, 55, 57. Hunter also affirmatively moved for summary judgment on his claims. Dkt 62. But that motion was denied for reasons stated on the record at hearing pertaining to his failure to compile and present his supporting evidence in discernible form. See Minute Entry of 04/16/2021.

2. Legal standard

Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires a court to enter summary judgment when the movant establishes that "there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." A fact is material if it "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." Sulzer Carbomedics Inc. v. Oregon Cardio-Devices Inc. , 257 F.3d 449, 456 (5th Cir. 2001), quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). And a dispute is genuine if the "evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Royal v. CCC & R Tres Arboles LLC , 736 F.3d 396, 400 (5th Cir. 2013), quoting Anderson , 477 U.S. at 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505.

The summary judgment stage doesn't involve weighing the evidence or determining the truth of the matter. The task is solely to determine whether a genuine issue exists that would allow a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Smith v. Harris County , 956 F.3d 311, 316 (5th Cir. 2010), quoting Anderson , 477 U.S. at 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505. Disputed factual issues must be resolved in favor of the nonmoving party. Little v. Liquid Air Corp. , 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994). All reasonable inferences must also be drawn in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Connors v. Graves , 538 F.3d 373, 376 (5th Cir. 2008), citing Ballard v. Burton , 444 F.3d 391, 396 (5th Cir. 2006).

The moving party typically bears the entire burden to demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Nola Spice Designs LLC v. Haydel Enterprises Inc. , 783 F.3d 527, 536 (5th Cir. 2015) (quotation omitted); see also Celotex Corp v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317, 322–23, 106 S.Ct. 2548,...

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