Rebalko v. City of Coral Springs, 110320 FLSDC, 19-60569-CIV

Docket Nº19-60569-CIV
Opinion JudgeROY K. ALTMAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Party NameLEE REBALKO, et al., Plaintiffs, v. THE CITY OF CORAL SPRINGS, et al., Defendants.
Judge PanelHunt, Judge Before the Hon. Roy K. Altman:
Case DateNovember 03, 2020
CourtUnited States District Courts, 11th Circuit, Southern District of Florida

LEE REBALKO, et al., Plaintiffs,

v.

THE CITY OF CORAL SPRINGS, et al., Defendants.

No. 19-60569-CIV

United States District Court, S.D. Florida

November 3, 2020

Hunt, Judge

Before the Hon. Roy K. Altman:

ORDER

ROY K. ALTMAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

Lee Rebalko, a 62-year-old cancer survivor, was turning out of his neighborhood onto a busy highway when he found himself blocked by an unmarked police SUV. Although the officer who had been driving that SUV saw Mr. Rebalko struggling to avoid the obstruction, he instructed Mr. Rebalko to turn (blindly) into oncoming traffic. When Mr. Rebalko alighted his vehicle to ask the officer for help-introducing himself as an attorney and then offering only “mild” criticism- the officer immediately arrested him and then, “for no reason, ” threw him aggressively to the ground. The officer (and his colleague) later fabricated their arrest reports to reflect the (now-discredited) narrative that the arrest had occurred within the officers' jurisdiction. Based on these falsified reports, the State Attorney's Office (“SAO”) prosecuted Mr. Rebalko for two years- before the case was finally tossed as meritless.

These are Mr. Rebalko's central allegations-which, true or not, this Court must accept as true. On the back of these averments, Mr. and Mrs. Rebalko assert a gallimaufry of constitutional, statutory, and common-law claims against the officers and their employer, the City of Coral Springs (collectively, the “Defendants”). The Defendants have now moved to dismiss. As set out below, some of the Rebalkos' claims will survive-and some will not.1

THE FACTS2

Lee Rebalko (“Mr. Rebalko”) and Ruth Evans Rebalko (“Mrs. Rebalko”) (collectively, the “Rebalkos”), both in their sixties, have lived in the City of Parkland for some twenty-five years. See Compl. [ECF No. 51] ¶¶ 4-5. Mr. Rebalko, a head- and neck-cancer survivor, suffers from certain cognitive and physical deficits resulting from sustained doses of radiation and chemotherapy. Id. ¶¶ 241-42. These deficits include, for example, a decreased range of motion in his neck and substantially delayed reactions. Id. Mrs. Rebalko has been her husband's caregiver since he fell ill in 2007. Id. ¶ 12.

The Rebalkos have a long-standing feud with the City of Coral Springs (the “City”)-a municipality adjacent to Parkland-over the City's use of their neighborhood's private roadway, Godfrey Road. Id. ¶ 165. The Rebalkos, along with their neighbors, own Godfrey Road, the sole means of access to their neighborhood. Id. ¶ 6. Godfrey Road is therefore designated as a private road. Id. ¶ 7. For over twenty years, Mr. Rebalko-a lawyer-has been both president and legal counsel for the road association that governs Godfrey Road. Id. ¶ 27. The Rebalkos allege that the subject of this suit-the City's decision to arrest and prosecute Mr. Rebalko-stems (in part) from “an ongoing course of contentious interactions between these parties over the City's contended misuse of Godfrey Road.” Id. ¶ 165.

Which brings us to the events that gave rise to this action. On March 4, 2015, two City police officers-Robert Coupe (“Officer Coupe”) and Jesse Perez (“Officer Perez”)3-were assigned to a retail-theft surveillance operation at a Target store located within the City's jurisdiction. Id. ¶ 18. At some point that day, however, the Officers stopped a vehicle on Godfrey Road in Parkland-outside their Coral Springs jurisdiction and “miles” away from the Target they had been surveilling-for a moving traffic violation. Id. ¶¶ 30, 212.

As the Officers approached the (now-stopped) vehicle, they detected the odor of burnt marijuana emanating from the car. Id. ¶ 32. This odor, in turn, triggered an extensive drug search that lasted nearly an hour. Id. ¶ 45. Although the search took place outside their jurisdiction, neither Officer attempted to secure authority to act in Parkland. Id. ¶ 44. During their hour-long drug search, the Officers parked their large, unmarked SUV at the intersection of Godfrey Road (a private street) and Wiles Road (a four-lane highway), blocking Godfrey Road's only access point and causing traffic to build up at the intersection-all in violation of the police department's rules. Id. ¶¶ 45-46, 52; see also Motion at 6.

As mentioned, the search had gone on for almost an hour by the time Mr. Rebalko approached the intersection. Compl. ¶ 48. By then, the Officers had secured the scene and cleared any viable threats. Id. ¶ 51. On reaching the intersection, Mr. Rebalko noticed the large police SUV and the traffic congestion it had caused. Id. ¶ 52. He came to a stop at the stop sign and tried to leave his neighborhood by turning onto the main highway. Id. ¶ 53. But Mr. Rebalko could not see through or around the police SUV, which was both much larger than his car and equipped with dark reflective windows. Id. ¶ 54.

As Mr. Rebalko strained to turn out onto the highway, Officer Coupe watched him struggle. Id. ¶ 55. Rather than help him, Officer Coupe repeatedly directed Mr. Rebalko to turn into oncoming traffic. Id. In response to these directives, Mr. Rebalko briefly expressed his safety concerns-that he could not see past the SUV and that he feared turning out onto the busy highway-and asked Officer Coupe to help him by momentarily halting traffic. Id. ¶¶ 56-57. Officer Coupe didn't respond. Id. ¶ 57.

So, Mr. Rebalko-who was boxed in by a car from behind and felt unsafe sitting idly at the busy intersection-stepped out of his car in the hopes of securing some help. Id. ¶ 61. To gain credibility, Mr. Rebalko introduced himself as an attorney. Id. ¶ 133. He then explained to Officer Coupe the hazardous situation he had found himself in and, in so doing, voiced only “mild criticism” of the Officers. Id. ¶ 62. While Mr. Rebalko's intrusion was minimal (indeed, the scene had long been secured, and Officer Perez, not Officer Coupe, was leading the search), id. ¶¶ 51, 118, 150, Officer Coupe's reaction was swift and severe, id. ¶ 134. He immediately responded: “Oh an attorney, hands behind your back.” Id. ¶¶ 62, 134.

Officer Coupe placed Mr. Rebalko under arrest. Id. ¶ 62. As Officer Coupe was handcuffing him, Mr. Rebalko fully complied, did not attempt to flee, and did not resist in any way. Id. ¶¶ 64-66. And yet, even after Mr. Rebalko was fully secured, Officer Coupe aggressively and painfully jerked and dragged him by the handcuffs. Id. ¶ 67. He then-“for no reason at all”- shoved Mr. Rebalko to the ground. Id. ¶¶ 67, 298. Officer Coupe also threatened Mr. Rebalko, declaring that he was “poised” and “tempted” to deploy a taser on him. Id. ¶ 68.

A few minutes after Mr. Rebalko's arrest, Mrs. Rebalko arrived on the scene. Id. ¶ 73. Mrs. Rebalko asked Officer Coupe why her husband was being arrested. Id. In response, Officer Coupe admitted that Mr. Rebalko had not been aggressive towards him. Id. ¶ 75. Nevertheless, he (repeatedly) exclaimed that “[h]e is going to jail!” Id. ¶ 74. According to the Complaint, Officer Coupe's tone was overbearing. Id. ¶ 78. With her husband now under arrest, Mrs. Rebalko-citing Mr. Rebalko's health issues-asked Officer Coupe to release him with a simple “notice to appear.” Id. ¶ 76. Officer Coupe rejected this request. Id. ¶ 77. Notably, up to this point, there is no allegation that Officer Perez participated (in any way) in Mr. Rebalko's arrest. Id. ¶¶ 71, 80.

Mr. Rebalko was incarcerated for a few hours at the City's jail before he was transferred to Broward County's main jail, where he spent the night. Id. ¶¶ 89, 91, 94. During this time, he was stripped of his clothes, body searched, left in a cold cell, and chained to a group of prisoners. Id. ¶¶ 90, 92, 94. Although Mr. Rebalko never fell ill while in custody, id. ¶¶ 89-97, he and his wife were left distressed by his imprisonment, id. ¶¶ 95, 97.

Following the incident, the Officers orchestrated and carried out a scheme to cover up their jurisdictionally invalid arrest. Id. ¶ 82. First, the Officers dispensed with their original suspects by allowing them to go free with a mere traffic violation. Id. ¶ 83. Then, the Officers drafted a series of false arrest documents, which misrepresented the location of the stop as being within, as opposed to beyond, the City's jurisdictional limits. Id. ¶ 84.

The Officers submitted their falsified reports to the SAO with the intent of having formal charges filed against Mr. Rebalko. Id. ¶ 98. At the request of Mr. Rebalko's criminal defense counsel, the SAO did not take the reports at face value but (instead) conducted its own independent investigation of the arrest. Id. ¶ 99. Based on that investigation, the SAO found the Officers' account to be (in its words) “dubious” and determined that they lacked “the needed jurisdictional and legal authority to arrest Mr. Rebalko.” Id. ¶¶ 100-01.

On learning of the SAO's decision, Mr. Rebalko delivered a standard statutory claim letter to the City-together with a complaint about the Officers' misuse of Godfrey Road. Id. ¶ 102. Thereafter, for reasons that are neither clear nor documented, the SAO reversed course and decided to file a formal obstruction-of-justice charge against Mr. Rebalko. Id. ¶ 103. At this same time, the SAO's files note a conversation with Officer Coupe, in which the Officer claimed to have been deputized by Parkland-a claim that would have supplied the missing jurisdictional link for Mr. Rebalko's arrest. Id. ¶¶ 104-05. But, after prosecuting Mr. Rebalko for over two years, the SAO questioned Officer Coupe again and (this time) determined that, in fact, he was never so deputized. Id. ¶ 106. As a result, the SAO declined to contest Mr. Rebalko's motion to dismiss, which a state judge granted on June 30, 2017. Id. ¶¶ 107-08.

THE...

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