Prince George's Cnty. v. Morales

Decision Date30 November 2016
Docket NumberNo. 1308, Sept. Term, 2014,1308, Sept. Term, 2014
Citation230 Md.App. 699,149 A.3d 741
Parties Prince George's County, Maryland v. Steven Morales
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland

Tonia Y. Belton-Gofreed (M. Andree Green, Co. Atty., William A. Snoddy, Deputy Co. Atty., on the brief) Upper Marlboro, MD, for Appellant.

Terrell N. Roberts, III, (Roberts & Wood, on the brief) Riverdale, MD, for Appellee.

Wright, Arthur, James P. Salmon (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.

Salmon, J.

In this appeal, we apply lessons from scope of employment cases involving off-duty police officers, to a judgment stemming from an altercation between Steven Morales, appellee, and Dominique Richardson, an off-duty Prince George's County police officer who was working an "extra-duty" job as security at a college fraternity party, in violation of a police department policy prohibiting officers assigned to light duty from engaging in such employment. Alleging battery, excessive force, and other torts, Morales filed suit in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County, against Richardson and Prince George's County, Maryland ("the County").1 The County removed the lawsuit to the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, which dismissed the federal claims and remanded the remaining state law claims. See Morales v. Richardson , 841 F.Supp.2d 908, 914–15 (D. Md.), aff'd , 475 Fed.Appx. 894 (2012).

After the circuit court denied the County's motions to dismiss and for summary judgment, Morales's claims were tried before a jury from May 5–14, 2014. During trial, the court denied the County's motions for judgment. The jury found that Richardson used excessive force while acting within the scope of his employment by the County. The County was held liable, on a respondeat superior basis, for Richardson's use of excessive force in violation of Article 26 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights. The court later denied the County's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict ("JNOV") or a new trial. Judgment was entered against the County and Richardson jointly, in the full amount of the jury's award of $121,140.98.2

In this appeal, the County raises two questions:

I. Did the circuit court err when it denied the County's motion for summary judgment, motions for judgment at trial, and motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the issue of scope of employment?
II. Did the circuit court err when it gave jury instructions that were inapplicable to the facts of the case?

We shall hold that the trial court did not err in allowing the jury to decide the scope of employment question or in instructing the jury. There was sufficient evidence that the off-duty officer was acting within the scope of his employment as a police officer in taking police action against Morales, notwithstanding the fact that he violated the County's policy against officers working extra-duty employment while assigned to light duty.

I. FACTUAL AND LEGAL BACKGROUND

A. The Altercation

The University of Maryland at College Park chapter of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity hired Prince George's County Police Officer Dominique Richardson to provide security for a Halloween party to be held at an off-campus warehouse in Beltsville, on October 29–30, 2010. Richardson recruited several other officers and an acquaintance to help provide security at the event. Although Richardson drove his personal vehicle to the Halloween party, other officers arrived in police cruisers. Richardson wore his gunbelt and service firearm, handcuffs, his police badge on a chain around his neck, a shirt with "PGPD" lettering, a ballistic vest, and other gear issued by the Prince George's Police Department ("PGPD").

Richardson, who was supervising all the officers and security personnel throughout the event, initially established separate entry lines for fraternity members, those with advance tickets, and those who wanted to buy tickets at the door. Aware that the warehouse had reached capacity and that "[p]eople were starting to become obnoxious up front[,]" Richardson stationed himself at the front doors of the warehouse, which were at the top of a divided staircase. He stopped more people from entering, but "[p]eople were trying to push into ... the double doors, and they were all trying to force their way up the stairway." In an effort to move the crowd away from the front entrance, Richardson instructed other police officers to activate their cruiser lights and sirens.

Steven Morales and a friend arrived at the party around 12:40 a.m, when there were no longer any lines at the warehouse. There was, however, a large crowd in front of the steps to the entrance doors, which were closed and guarded by security officers. Morales, whose father is a police officer employed by the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department, saw security people wearing purple shirts and PGPD police officers wearing badges.

Although Morales had purchased an advance ticket to the party, he waited outside in the cold for approximately forty-five minutes, unaware "that the party inside was too full[.]" During that time, he gradually moved toward the entrance as more people arrived and "the crowd start[ed] to really get rocked back and forth." While he waited, the police cruisers next to the entrance intermittently sounded its siren as a crowd control measure.

When Morales reached the front of the warehouse, he encountered Officer Richardson, who was wearing a Prince George's County Police "badge around his neck" and the same type of "BDU" blue pants that Morales's father wore to work. Richardson was standing on the first step of the stairs leading to the entrance doors. Richardson, at 6'5″ and 310 pounds, had experience as a boxer; Morales, at 5'7″ and 140 pounds, had no such experience.

Because Morales was being pushed around as the crowd was "surging back and forth," he held up his ticket and twice asked Richardson for help. The first time, Richardson told him "to get back in line[,]" even though "there wasn't any line" and Morales "was stuck with everybody" at the bottom of the steps. The next time, according to Morales, "Officer Richardson struck me without me doing anything to him."

At trial, Morales described the altercation as follows:

I was trying to show Officer Richardson, that, hey, I have a ticket. Can you get me in since I am right in front. But at no time, you know, no other words, no negative words were exchanged, just me asking for help. ...
He was on one of these steps. I believe it was the first step right here, and I am on the ground. Officer Richardson, he's a pretty big guy. So on top of him being a pretty big guy, he was already on one of the steps above me. So, there was no way of me trying to go around him, that the doorstep, the rails, it's not big at all, so where you can go around with another—I don't know how to say—a person of his size. So, especially not a police officer which I clearly ... identified him as one, I would never do something. ...
I saw his badge. He had a badge. ... PG County badge. ... It was on a chain. ....
Then the crowd ... pushed us or pushed, and I went forward. The next thing I felt was a hand go around my neck. ... It was Officer Richardson's hands. ...
He pulls me up, and I try to get his hand off of my neck. So, the next thing I see is he takes his right hand and he punches me in the mouth. ...
When he hit me, it was ... a hard hit. ... I remember my feet leaving the ground, and I flew back and hit my head on the concrete. ...
Well, my head hit and I kind of opened my eyes and sat up. I saw Officer Richardson come down from the step and come toward—come at me. He came at me. And after that, I remember us being on the ground. ... I saw him put his arm back up to strike me again, and ... I was like shielding my face because I didn't want that to happen again, to get hit in the face again.
So, I am kind of just trying to get away from him. And he gets a'hold of me and puts me in a chokehold, puts his right arm over my neck. I can't breathe at this point.

Morales said he was in the chokehold "for maybe like ten seconds" and "couldn't breathe" because "[h]e cut my air off[.]" Photos taken later that morning showed marks on Morales's neck where his rosaries had been pressed into his body during the hold.

When Richardson released Morales, PGPD Officer Luis Perez picked him up and put him against a police cruiser that was "right next to" him, causing Morales to believe that he was "getting arrested or detained[.]" As Morales had his "hands on the car," Richardson told Morales to "get the fuck out of here." Although Morales was bleeding and injured, Richardson did not ask his name or offer first aid.

Richardson gave a different account of how the altercation took place. That account is set forth below. He confirmed, however, that he punched Morales in the face, pinned him on the ground, and used an arm hold and other police-trained restraint techniques against Morales. According to Richardson, he announced to the crowd of people attempting to enter the party that no one else would be allowed inside because it was too crowded. When he first saw Morales, the latter was in the crowd of people who were pushing each other, and one woman had just fallen. Morales asked Richardson to let him in because he had a ticket. When Richardson told Morales he was not coming in, Morales kept saying, "[N]o, I have a ticket. I have a ticket; I'm coming in."

As Richardson was escorting the woman who had fallen, he felt "a push against" him. According to Richardson, Morales pushed him in an attempt to get past him into the warehouse. Using a "redirection" technique learned in his riot training, Richardson put his "hand up on [Morales's] chest "to keep him at bay" and told him he was "not coming in" and "there is nothing else to talk about." Morales replied, "F that, I have a ticket." When Morales again made an advance, Richardson "put [his] hand up again." Morales then slapped Richardson's hand off and said, "get the fuck off...

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