Tolan v. Cotton

Decision Date05 May 2014
Docket NumberNo. 13–551.,13–551.
Citation134 S.Ct. 1861,188 L.Ed.2d 895,572 U.S. 650
Parties Robert R. TOLAN v. Jeffrey Wayne COTTON.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Martin J. Siegel, Law Offices of Martin J. Siegel, Houston, TX, for Petitioner.

William S. Helfand, Chamberlain, Hrdlicka, White, Williams & Martin, Houston, TX; Anthony S. Barkow, Jenner & Block, LLP, New York, NY, for Respondent.


During the early morning hours of New Year's Eve, 2008, police sergeant Jeffrey Cotton fired three bullets at Robert Tolan; one of those bullets hit its target and punctured Tolan's right lung. At the time of the shooting, Tolan was unarmed on his parents' front porch about 15 to 20 feet away from Cotton. Tolan sued, alleging that Cotton had exercised excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The District Court granted summary judgment to Cotton, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed, reasoning that regardless of whether Cotton used excessive force, he was entitled to qualified immunity because he did not violate any clearly established right. 713 F.3d 299 (2013). In articulating the factual context of the case, the Fifth Circuit failed to adhere to the axiom that in ruling on a motion for summary judgment, "[t]he evidence of the nonmovant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc ., 477 U.S. 242, 255, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). For that reason, we vacate its decision and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


The following facts, which we view in the light most favorable to Tolan, are taken from the record evidence and the opinions below. At around 2:00 on the morning of December 31, 2008, John Edwards, a police officer, was on patrol in Bellaire, Texas, when he noticed a black Nissan sport utility vehicle turning quickly onto a residential street. The officer watched the vehicle park on the side of the street in front of a house. Two men exited: Tolan and his cousin, Anthony Cooper.

Edwards attempted to enter the license plate number of the vehicle into a computer in his squad car. But he keyed an incorrect character; instead of entering plate number 696BGK, he entered 695BGK. That incorrect number matched a stolen vehicle of the same color and make. This match caused the squad car's computer to send an automatic message to other police units, informing them that Edwards had found a stolen vehicle.

Edwards exited his cruiser, drew his service pistol and ordered Tolan and Cooper to the ground. He accused Tolan and Cooper of having stolen the car. Cooper responded, "That's not true." Record 1295. And Tolan explained, "That's my car." Ibid. Tolan then complied with the officer's demand to lie face-down on the home's front porch.

As it turned out, Tolan and Cooper were at the home where Tolan lived with his parents. Hearing the commotion, Tolan's parents exited the front door in their pajamas. In an attempt to keep the misunderstanding from escalating into something more, Tolan's father instructed Cooper to lie down, and instructed Tolan and Cooper to say nothing. Tolan and Cooper then remained facedown.

Edwards told Tolan's parents that he believed Tolan and Cooper had stolen the vehicle. In response, Tolan's father identified Tolan as his son, and Tolan's mother explained that the vehicle belonged to the family and that no crime had been committed. Tolan's father explained, with his hands in the air, "[T]his is my nephew. This is my son. We live here. This is my house." Id ., at 2059. Tolan's mother similarly offered, "[S]ir this is a big mistake. This car is not stolen.... That's our car." Id ., at 2075.

While Tolan and Cooper continued to lie on the ground in silence, Edwards radioed for assistance. Shortly thereafter, Sergeant Jeffrey Cotton arrived on the scene and drew his pistol. Edwards told Cotton that Cooper and Tolan had exited a stolen vehicle. Tolan's mother reiterated that she and her husband owned both the car Tolan had been driving and the home where these events were unfolding. Cotton then ordered her to stand against the family's garage door. In response to Cotton's order, Tolan's mother asked, "[A]re you kidding me? We've lived her[e] 15 years. We've never had anything like this happen before." Id., at 2077; see also id., at 1465.

The parties disagree as to what happened next. Tolan's mother and Cooper testified during Cotton's criminal trial1 that Cotton grabbed her arm and slammed her against the garage door with such force that she fell to the ground. Id., at 2035, 2078–2080. Tolan similarly testified that Cotton pushed his mother against the garage door. Id., at 2479. In addition, Tolan offered testimony from his mother and photographic evidence to demonstrate that Cotton used enough force to leave bruises on her arms and back that lasted for days. Id., at 2078–2079, 2089–2091. By contrast, Cotton testified in his deposition that when he was escorting the mother to the garage, she flipped her arm up and told him to get his hands off her. Id., at 1043. He also testified that he did not know whether he left bruises but believed that he had not. Id., at 1044.

The parties also dispute the manner in which Tolan responded. Tolan testified in his deposition and during the criminal trial that upon seeing his mother being pushed, id., at 1249, he rose to his knees, id., at 1928. Edwards and Cotton testified that Tolan rose to his feet. Id., at 1051–1052, 1121.

Both parties agree that Tolan then exclaimed, from roughly 15 to 20 feet away, 713 F.3d, at 303,"[G]et your fucking hands off my mom." Record 1928. The parties also agree that Cotton then drew his pistol and fired three shots at Tolan. Tolan and his mother testified that these shots came with no verbal warning. Id., at 2019, 2080. One of the bullets entered Tolan's chest, collapsing his right lung and piercing his liver. While Tolan survived, he suffered a life-altering injury that disrupted his budding professional baseball career and causes him to experience pain on a daily basis.


In May 2009, Cooper, Tolan, and Tolan's parents filed this suit in the Southern District of Texas, alleging claims under Rev. Stat. § 1979, 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Tolan claimed, among other things, that Cotton had used excessive force against him in violation of the Fourth Amendment.2 After discovery, Cotton moved for summary judgment, arguing that the doctrine of qualified immunity barred the suit. That doctrine immunizes government officials from damages suits unless their conduct has violated a clearly established right.

The District Court granted summary judgment to Cotton. 854 F.Supp.2d 444 (S.D.Tex.2012). It reasoned that Cotton's use of force was not unreasonable and therefore did not violate the Fourth Amendment. Id., at 477–478. The Fifth Circuit affirmed, but on a different basis. 713 F.3d 299. It declined to decide whether Cotton's actions violated the Fourth Amendment. Instead, it held that even if Cotton's conduct did violate the Fourth Amendment, Cotton was entitled to qualified immunity because he did not violate a clearly established right. Id., at 306.

In reaching this conclusion, the Fifth Circuit began by noting that at the time Cotton shot Tolan, "it was ... clearly established that an officer had the right to use deadly force if that officer harbored an objective and reasonable belief that a suspect presented an 'immediate threat to [his] safety.' " Id., at 306 (quoting Deville v. Marcantel, 567 F.3d 156, 167 (C.A.5 2009) ). The Court of Appeals reasoned that Tolan failed to overcome the qualified-immunity bar because "an objectively-reasonable officer in Sergeant Cotton's position could have ... believed" that Tolan "presented an 'immediate threat to the safety of the officers.' " 713 F.3d, at 307.3 in support of this conclusion, the cOURT RELIED ON THE FOLLOWING facts: the front porch had been "dimly-lit"; Tolan's mother had "refus[ed] orders to remain quiet and calm"; and Tolan's words had amounted to a "verba [l] threa[t]." Ibid . Most critically, the court also relied on the purported fact that Tolan was "moving to intervene in" Cotton's handling of his mother, id., at 305, and that Cotton therefore could reasonably have feared for his life, id., at 307. Accordingly, the court held, Cotton did not violate clearly established law in shooting Tolan.

The Fifth Circuit denied rehearing en banc. 538 Fed.Appx. 374 (2013). Three judges voted to grant rehearing. Judge Dennis filed a dissent, contending that the panel opinion "fail[ed] to address evidence that, when viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, creates genuine issues of material fact as to whether an objective officer in Cotton's position could have reasonably and objectively believed that [Tolan] posed an immediate, significant threat of substantial injury to him." Id., at 377.


In resolving questions of qualified immunity at summary judgment, courts engage in a two-pronged inquiry. The first asks whether the facts, "[t]aken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury, ... show the officer's conduct violated a [federal] right [.]" Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201, 121 S.Ct. 2151, 150 L.Ed.2d 272 (2001). When a plaintiff alleges excessive force during an investigation or arrest, the federal right at issue is the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizures. Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 394, 109 S.Ct. 1865, 104 L.Ed.2d 443 (1989). The inquiry into whether this right was violated requires a balancing of " 'the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual's Fourth Amendment interests against the importance of the governmental interests alleged to justify the intrusion.' "

Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 8, 105 S.Ct. 1694, 85 L.Ed.2d 1 (1985) ; see Graham, supra, at 396, 109 S.Ct. 1865.

The second prong of the qualified-immunity analysis asks whether the right in question was "clearly established" at the time of the violation. Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S....

To continue reading

Request your trial
3141 cases
  • UTE Indian Tribe of the Uintah v. Lawrence
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Utah
    • April 30, 2018 and that it considered those disputed facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Tolan v. Cotton , 572 U.S. 650, 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1863, 188 L.Ed.2d 895 (2014) (stating that "[i]n articulating the factual context of the case, the [court] failed to adhere to the axiom th......
  • Labarbera v. NYU Winthrop Hosp.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of New York
    • March 16, 2021
    ...making this determination, a court must view all facts "in the light most favorable" to the non-movant, Tolan v. Cotton , 572 U.S. 650, 656–57, 134 S.Ct. 1861, 188 L.Ed.2d 895 (2014), and "resolve all ambiguities and draw all permissible factual inferences in favor of the [non-movant]," Joh......
  • Duncan v. Bibb Cnty. Sheriff's Dep't, 7:19-cv-00447-LSC
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of Alabama
    • July 9, 2020
    ...alleged conduct was unconstitutional." Salvato v. Miley, 790 F.3d 1286, 1292 (11th Cir. 2015) (quoting Tolan v. Cotton, 572 U.S. 650, 134 S. Ct. 1861, 1866, 188 L.Ed.2d 895 (2014) ). "We do not require a case directly on point, but an existing precedent must have placed the statutory or con......
  • Cromartie v. Billings
    • United States
    • Virginia Supreme Court
    • January 16, 2020 the light most favorable to the plaintiff, was " ‘clearly established’ " at the time of the violation. Tolan v. Cotton , 572 U.S. 650, 655-56, 134 S.Ct. 1861, 188 L.Ed.2d 895 (2014) (quoting Hope v. Pelzer , 536 U.S. 730, 739, 122 S.Ct. 2508, 153 L.Ed.2d 666 (2002) ).i. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
11 books & journal articles

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT