Lee v. City of San Diego

Decision Date02 October 2020
Docket NumberCase No.: 18-cv-0159 W(BLM)
Citation492 F.Supp.3d 1088
Parties Michael C. LEE, Plaintiff, v. CITY OF SAN DIEGO, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of California

Joseph Mark McMullen, Law Offices of Joseph M. McMullen, Michael R. Marrinan, Law Offics of Michael R. Marrinan, San Diego, CA, for Plaintiff.

Pamela C. Chalk, Murchison & Cumming, LLP, Seetal Tejura, Office of the San Diego City Attorney, San Diego, CA, for Defendants.


Thomas J. Whelan, United States District Judge

Pending before the Court are the partiescross-motions for summary judgment and partial summary judgment. The Court decides the matter on the papers submitted and without oral argument. See Civ. L.R. 7.1(d.1). For the reasons that follow, the Court GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART Defendantssummary-judgment motion [Doc. 42] and GRANTS Plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment [Doc. 43].


This lawsuit arises from the arrest of Plaintiff Michael Lee. Defendants are the City of San Diego, and San Diego Police Officers Robert Lawyer, Peter Larson, Steven Choy and Darrell Cox, who were each involved in varying degrees in the arrest.

Defendantsmotion seeks summary adjudication of all of Lee's causes of action. Because disputed issues of fact pervade the circumstances surrounding Lee's arrest, the Court finds under Lee's version of events, a reasonable jury could conclude the officers used excessive force. This finding is required under Blankenhorn v. City of Orange, 485 F.3d 463 (9th Cir. 2007), which is sufficiently analogous to notify the officers that the force used was not objectively reasonable under the circumstances. Accordingly, the officers are not entitled to qualified immunity for Lee's Fourth Amendment excessive force claim. Additionally, because a reasonable jury could find the officers used excessive force, Defendants’ motion is also denied as to Lee's state-law causes of action for negligence and battery, and his request for punitive damages. Disputed issues of fact also preclude summary adjudication of Lee's false arrest cause of action. However, because the record is devoid of evidence supporting an inference that the officers specifically intended to violate Lee's Fourth Amendment rights, summary adjudication of the Bane Act cause of action is warranted.

Lee's motion seeks a determination that San Diego Municipal Code ("SDMC") § 82.0203, which led to Officer Lawyer's decision to detain Lee, is unconstitutionally vague. The City asserts the ordinance prohibits obstruction of the sidewalks. However, as worded, the ordinance does not require an obstruction and makes it a crime for a pedestrian to stop in the middle of an uncrowded sidewalk to answer a cell phone or ask for directions. Because the ordinance fails to provide notice to the public and provides no guidance to officers, the Court finds SDMC § 82.0203 is unconstitutionally vague.


The following factual background primarily relates to the excessive-force claim. Thus, where the facts are in dispute, the Court must accept Lee's version of events to the extent it is supported by evidence. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378, 127 S.Ct. 1769, 167 L.Ed.2d 686 (2007).

On the evening of Saturday, May 28, 2017, Plaintiff Michael C. Lee was with several friends at Parq, a club in downtown San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter. (Lee Decl. [Doc. 44-1] ¶ 3.2 ) Lee had driven to the club with several friends, including Randall Evans, the designated driver. (Id. ¶ 4.)

As the club was about to close at approximately 1:45 a.m., Lee had become separated from his friends and began walking alone back to the car. (Lee Decl. [Doc. 44-1] ¶ 3.) While walking, Lee was talking on his cell phone with Evans, who had already reached the car and was driving to pick up Lee. (Id. ¶ 4.) Lee was trying to explain where he was located and eventually sent Evans a text pinpointing his location. (Id. ) Evans told Lee to stay put so he could pick him up. (Id. )

At the time, Lee was about 1½ blocks from Parq, stopped on the sidewalk along Fifth Avenue between two restaurant/bars called Sadaf and Casablanca. (Lee Decl. [Doc. 44-1] ¶ 3.) The area was crowded with people, some of whom were standing around talking. (See id. ¶ 5; Lawyer BC Video 0:00:00–0:00:50; Larson BC Video 0:01:05.3 ) This busy time of night is generally referred to as "bar break" because bars and restaurants stop serving alcohol as they kick people out. (Larson Depo. [Doc. 42-6] 030:2–23.4 ) Although cars usually are allowed to park along Fifth Avenue, on Friday and Saturday nights street signs prohibit parking and instead designate the area as a 3-minute passenger loading zone. (Larson Depo. [Doc. 44-5] 34:13–35:16.)

While Lee was standing talking on his cell phone to Evans, he noticed a "commotion or argument" involving two African-American men in front of Sadaf, which ended quickly. (Lee Decl. [Doc. 44-1] ¶ 5.) Lee was not involved in the commotion. (Id. ¶¶ 5, 6.) However, "[s]hortly after seeing the commotion ..., a large African American man wearing a backward baseball cap appeared near [Lee]." (Id. ¶ 7.) The man, named Alexander Stinnett, "spoke to [another] African-American man ... who seemed upset, then [Stinnett] began to talk to [Lee]." (Id. ) A few seconds later, "a second large man joined" the conversation. (Id. ) Unbeknownst to Lee, the men were security guards and told Lee they were "clearing the sidewalk." (Id. ¶ 8.) Lee told them he was waiting for a ride and refused to leave. (Id. )

Officers Larson, Lawyer, Choy and Cox were stationed in the area. (Larson Depo. [Doc. 42-6] 033:14–25). Officers Larson and Lawyer were observing the two security guards telling Lee to leave the area, while Lee was on the phone. (Id. 035:10–19, 037:6–25, 040:14–19, 041:2–7.) As they observed the interaction, Officer Lawyer told Officer Larson, "so right now we can cite him ..., we can cite him for being on the sidewalk," in reference to SDMC § 82.0203. (Lawyer BC Video , 0:00:31-0:00:35; Lawyer Depo. [Doc. 44-6] 74:3–22.5 ) Although Lee was refusing to leave, Officer Larson acknowledges that at no time was there any physical fighting or "verbal argument occurring." (Larson Depo. [Doc. 42-6] 038:2–15.)

When the security guards could not convince Lee to leave, they motioned to the officers. (Lawyer BC Video 0:00:47–0:00:49.) Officer Larson approached Lee, who was still on his cell phone with Evans, and said "come here and talk to me, come here and talk to me." (Larson BC Video 0:00:47–0:00:48; Lee Decl. [Doc. 44-1] ¶ 10.) At about the same time, an unidentified man in a yellow shirt stepped in and began to move/push Lee from behind away from the security guards. (Larson BC Video 0:00:48–0:00:58; Lee Decl. [Doc. 44-1] ¶¶ 10, 11.) Although the man claimed to know Lee, Lee denies knowing him. (Larson BC VIdeo 0:00:48–0:00:50; Lee Decl. [Doc. 44-1] ¶ 10.)

After moving about 10 feet, Lee stopped near a parking meter and told the man that he "was going to stay right here." (Larson BC Video 0:01:00–0:01:03; Larson Depo. [Doc. 42-6] 044:12–14.) Officer Lawyer, who was following close behind, told Lee "let's go dude, off the sidewalk. You gotta move." (Lawyer BC Video 0:01:13-0:01:16.) Lee took a few more steps, then stopped and asked the officers, "to be real, what am I doing right here?" (Id. 0:01:20-0:01:23.) The officers did not respond and instead Officer Lawyer grabbed Lee's right wrist, which was holding Lee's cell phone to his ear. (Id. 0:01:23–0:01:25.) As Officer Lawyer pulled Lee's wrist in a downward motion, the officer said "do me a favor, put your hands behind your back." (Id. ) At the same time, Officer Larson grabbed Lee's left arm and the two officers moved Lee onto the street. (Lawyer BC Video 0:01:23-0:01:30; Larson BC Video 0:01:20–0:01:41.)

Lee claims he was surprised when Officer Lawyer grabbed his "right wrist and yanked it down from where it was located near my right ear ...." (Lee Decl. [Doc. 44-1] ¶ 14.) The officers repeatedly ordered Lee to put his hands behind his back, while Lee repeatedly asked, "what did I do, what did I do?" (Id. ) As the officers stepped onto the street, Officer Choy also grabbed Lee. (Cox BC Video 0:00:27–0:00:33.6 ) After a few seconds, Officer Choy grabbed Lee around the head and moved him down toward the ground. (Id. 0:00:37–0:00:48; Lee Decl. [Doc. 44-1] ¶ 16; Cox Depo. [Doc. 42-8] 84:10–22; Choy Depo. [Doc. 42-10] 122:11–123:20.7 )

As Lee was taken to the ground, he hit his head causing a large bump. (Lee Decl. [Doc. 44-1] ¶ 16.) The officers then struggled to move Lee onto his stomach. (Cox BC Video 0:00:50–00:01:47.) Once Lee was forced onto his stomach, Officer Cox knelt down on Lee's left arm and pinned his bicep. (Cox Depo. [Doc. 42-8] 97:14–25.) Other officers also appear to be helping pin Lee down. (Cox BC Video 0:01:47–00:01:58.) Officer Cox then grabbed Lee's left arm, which was pinned under Lee's body, and pulled it in a lifting motion and "torqued" it behind his back so the officers could handcuff Lee. (Id. ; Cox Depo. [Doc. 42-8] 97:14–98:19; Lee Decl. [Doc. 44-1] ¶ 18; McClain BC Video 0:03:34–0:03:44.8 ) Officer Cox testified that "it looked like [Lee's] left hand was down toward his waistband," which was "a huge red flag." (Cox Depo. [Doc. 42-8] 97:15–19.) The officers then handcuffed Lee. (Id. [Doc. 44-8] 101:18–20.)

As Officer Cox was pulling and torqueing Lee's arm behind his back, the officer heard a pop. (Cox Depo. [Doc. 44-8] 98:16–101:8.) Lee contends at that point he immediately felt severe pain in his left arm and shoulder. (Lee Decl. [Doc. 44-1] ¶ 18.)

Lee was taken to the county jail and booked on charges of being drunk in public and resisting arrest. (Defs’ P&A [Doc. 42-1] 8:4–5; Pl.’s Opp'n [Doc. 44] 4:4–6.) The charges were eventually dropped. (Lee Decl. [Doc. 44-1] ¶ 19.)


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