Skop v. City of Atlanta, Ga, 06-14294.

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (11th Circuit)
Citation485 F.3d 1130
Decision Date03 May 2007
Docket NumberNo. 06-14294.,06-14294.
PartiesLaura SKOP, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. CITY OF ATLANTA, GA, Officer Timothy Brown, in his individual capacity, Sergeant Thomas L. Padgett, in his individual capacity, Defendants-Appellees.

William J. Atkins, Parks, Chesin & Walbert, P.C., Craig Thomas Jones, Edmond & Jones, LLP, Atlanta, GA, for Skop.

Cleora S. Anderson, Dennis M. Young, City of Atlanta, Law Dept., Atlanta, GA, for Defendants-Appellees.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

Before HULL and MARCUS, Circuit Judges, and BARZILAY,* Judge.

MARCUS, Circuit Judge:

This § 1983 civil rights case presents the question whether Timothy Brown, an Atlanta police officer, was entitled to qualified immunity for his arrest of Laura Skop, a woman who asked him to move his patrol car so that she could access her driveway during a heavy thunderstorm. The district court entered summary judgment for Officer Brown, who was blocking the street because a fallen tree had downed some utility lines, on the grounds that he had arguable probable cause to make the arrest. After thorough review, we reverse the district court's entry of final summary judgment for Brown and remand Skop's claims against him for further proceedings. As for Skop's claims against Sergeant Padgett, Brown's supervisor, and the City of Atlanta, however, we affirm the district court's entry of summary judgment.

I. Factual and Procedural History

Taking the evidence in the light most favorable to Laura Skop ("Skop"), the appellant, as we are required to do in reviewing the district court's summary judgment order, the essential facts are these. Skop drove home after work during a summer thunderstorm in Atlanta on the evening of July 10, 2003. She arrived home to find the entrance to her driveway blocked, although only by about a foot, by the patrol car of Officer Timothy Brown ("Brown"), appellee, of the Atlanta Police Department (APD). Brown had parked his patrol car diagonally across the street to block traffic; an earlier storm had knocked down a large tree on Skop's street, and several utility lines had been downed by the tree. The downed tree was some 110 feet from Skop's driveway. Brown was parked diagonally across the street, with the driver's side of his car angled down the street towards the downed tree. Brown was sitting inside the patrol car, doing some paperwork and observing the scene. Only the rear passenger quarter of Brown's patrol car was blocking Skop's driveway; the area of the street that Brown was obstructing lay farther down the street, beyond Skop's home.

Not surprisingly, Skop wanted to park in her garage, which was located behind an electronic gate and attached to her home, for reasons of personal security and on account of the storm. When she realized that she could not get past Brown's patrol car, she used her turn signal to indicate that she was seeking to get into the driveway. The patrol car did not move. Skop then honked her horn, and again failed to elicit any response. She could not see into the patrol car and was not even certain if there was an officer inside. She then rolled down her window on the passenger side — the side of her car closest to the patrol car — in an attempt to communicate with anyone inside. Officer Brown then rolled down the passenger-side window of his patrol car, and Skop attempted to tell Brown that she needed to get into her driveway. Skop could not hear any response from Brown, and she assumed that he could not hear her, either.

Skop then exited her car and walked around to the driver's side of the patrol car. She stood outside the car and, when Brown did not acknowledge her, tapped on his rolled-up window. Before Skop was able to tell Brown that she wanted him to pull his car forward a foot or two to allow her access to her driveway, Brown rolled down his window and yelled at her that she was in a dangerous area. Without giving Skop a chance to respond, he rolled up his window and went back to his paperwork. The same thing happened again — Skop tapped on the window, Brown rolled it down and yelled about the downed tree, and Brown rolled up his window before Skop could respond.

Frustrated, Skop mouthed a request for Brown's name and badge number at Brown through the closed window. At this, Brown jumped out of his car, slammed the door, and advanced on Skop. Skop tried to tell him that his car was blocking her driveway, both orally and by gesturing at her driveway. She said, "This is my driveway, can you please move up a foot?" and testified that she was "frantically pointing towards [her] driveway, saying, `I live here, I just need you to move up a foot.'" Skop Depo. 75. According to Skop, Brown then yelled, "Do you realize I can arrest you for obstruction?" Skop replied, "But this is my driveway. I just need to ask you to move up a foot." Id. at 76. Brown appeared angry and reached for his handcuffs as he advanced towards Skop, who backed away in fear and attempted to contact a neighbor. Brown then arrested Skop, handcuffed her, and placed her in the patrol car.

Brown claims that he was not aware that Skop wanted to enter her driveway, and instead believed that she wished to drive down to the end of the blocked street in the direction of the downed tree. Brown also testified that he had asked Skop to park her car at the curb and walk to the house, and that he did not learn where Skop lived until after her arrest. Notably, Skop denied ever hearing any instruction from Brown to park her car at the curb and walk to her home. See Civil Service Appeal Transcript 33-39; Skop Depo. 73-80. Indeed, she said that if she had been given any instruction from Brown she would have fully complied. Brown also admitted that Skop's tone was normal but "a bit demanding." He does not claim that she ever threatened him or even raised her voice.

Sometime after the arrest but before leaving the scene, Brown called Sergeant Thomas Padgett, the watch commander, to inform him of the arrest. Brown also requested permission to impound Skop's car, as required by APD regulations. Skop claims that Padgett suggested to Brown during this conversation that Brown add on an additional charge — refusing to obey an officer directing traffic. Doug Kollme, a neighbor of Skop's who had witnessed part of the arrest, asked Officer Brown if Brown would let him move Skop's car out of the street into her driveway and have her keys so that he could care for her dog. Skop, who was now handcuffed with her arms behind her back in the rear seat of the patrol car, also asked Brown if the neighbor could pull her car forward into the driveway. Brown refused both requests, and he decided to take Skop in for booking.

While Brown waited for the tow truck and a police van to transport Skop for booking, Skop says that Brown repeatedly yelled at her. See Skop Depo. 82-83 ("He got into the car — he yelled at me. Said that I obstructed him. Said that I was going to jail. He was going to impound my car. . . . He continued to yell at me over and over again that I obstructed him . . . . I said I didn't obstruct you. But that made him angrier . . . .") When the tow truck arrived, Brown backed his patrol car into Skop's driveway, and Skop's car was towed away.

The police van was delayed, so Brown drove Skop to the police station to wait. Skop, who was kept handcuffed with her hands behind her back while in the police station, said she felt humiliated by the stares of passing male officers; her summer blouse had been soaked through by the heavy rain, and her breasts were visible through the wet fabric. The police van driver arrived at the station at about 10:00 p.m. and immediately removed the handcuffs. Skop was then taken to the Atlanta Pretrial Detention Center and detained until about 3:00 a.m.

Criminal charges were filed against Skop on the two misdemeanor counts of obstructing an officer, Ga.Code Ann. § 16-10-24, and refusing to obey an officer directing traffic, Ga.Code Ann. § 40-6-2. The charges were eventually dropped more than a year later, but, as of June 2006, she had been unable to expunge the arrest from her record. Skop said that she suffered a damaged rotator cuff and two herniated disks in her back during the arrest. She also claimed that she was fired from her job as a technology consultant when her employer became uncomfortable with the fact that her arrest appeared in background checks that she was required to undergo in order to work on security-sensitive projects for financial institutions.

The Atlanta Police Department began to investigate the incident shortly after it occurred. Joseph Spillane ("Spillane"), an APD major and the commander responsible for the area of the city where Skop lived, investigated the scene the day after Skop was arrested. Spillane spoke to Skop's neighbors, who were upset by Officer Brown's decision to arrest her when he could have simply pulled his car forward a few feet to allow her access to her driveway. On a subsequent occasion, Spillane asked Padgett, Brown's supervisor, to go to the scene with him. Spillane testified that he asked Padgett "how a woman could drive down the street and end up being arrested when she simply wanted to pull in her driveway. I had concerns." Spillane Depo. 69. In response to the claim that Skop's driveway was somehow unsafe for her to enter, Spillane pointed to the fact that Brown himself had parked his patrol car in Skop's driveway, with Skop handcuffed in the back seat, while Skop's car was being towed from the scene.

Formal disciplinary proceedings were initiated against Officer Brown by the Atlanta Police Department. Following the conclusion of these proceedings, which involved an investigation including statements from Skop and a number of her neighbors, Brown received a written reprimand and a two-day suspension without pay for violating APD work rules. The APD's...

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