White v. Town of Chapel Hill

Decision Date06 January 1995
Docket NumberCiv. No. 1:93CV00304.
CourtU.S. District Court — Middle District of North Carolina
PartiesWilliam K. WHITE, Plaintiff, v. TOWN OF CHAPEL HILL, a municipal corporation; Ralph V. Pendergraph, individually and in his official capacity as Chief of Police of the Town of Chapel Hill; Greg Jarvis, individually and in his official capacity as Captain with Town of Chapel Hill Police Department; John Doe, I, individually and in his official capacity as law enforcement officer under the command of defendants Pendergraph and Jarvis; John Doe, II, individually and in his official capacity as law enforcement officer under the command of defendants Pendergraph and Jarvis; John Doe, III, individually and in his official capacity as law enforcement officer under the command of defendants Pendergraph and Jarvis; and John Doe, IV, individually and in his official capacity as law enforcement officer under the command of defendants Pendergraph and Jarvis, Defendants.


John F. Nieman, Jr., Kinnaird & Nieman, Chapel Hill, NC, for plaintiff.

Kari L. Kusswurm, Dan M. Hartzog, Cranfill, Sumner & Hartzog, Raleigh, NC, for defendants.


BULLOCK, Chief Judge.

This case, brought under both 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law, requires the court to consider, in addition to the liability of a municipality for the alleged torts of its police officers, questions of the qualified immunity of the individual officers in the context of the Defendants' motions for summary judgment. After careful review, Defendants' motions will be granted on both the federal and state claims.


A review of the record in this case, including numerous depositions, reveal the following facts. Slightly after 5:30 p.m. on May 19, 1992, members of the Chapel Hill Police Department responded to a 911 call reporting a hostage situation in an apartment complex at an apartment occupied by Plaintiff William K. White and his then fiance, Rhonda Allen, two individuals with a history of substance abuse and mental illness. When the police arrived, Ms. Allen was outside the apartment. She related to James Hugerich, supervisor of the Crisis Unit and a trained police negotiator, that she had come home that day and found Plaintiff's journal notes expressing suicidal and homicidal thoughts. She had some of the notes with her. Hugerich read these notes which stated that Plaintiff wanted to drive down Interstate 85 and "blow away" certain persons and that Plaintiff could "blow his brains all over the wall," and which expressed Plaintiff's belief that Plaintiff was lethal to others. Hugerich was familiar with both Plaintiff and Ms. Allen, and had been to Plaintiff's apartment in 1991 as a result of an individual committing suicide in the apartment. At that time, Hugerich accompanied Plaintiff and Ms. Allen to the hospital emergency room so that they could be seen by a psychiatrist. As a result of that incident, Hugerich was aware that Plaintiff and Allen were allegedly alcoholics, and that she apparently suffered from a multiple personality disorder.

After showing Hugerich Plaintiff's journal entries, Allen explained to Hugerich that she was concerned that Plaintiff was dangerous, both to himself and others, and that after finding the journal she had confronted Plaintiff and called a psychiatrist at Duke Hospital and that Plaintiff had talked to the psychiatrist on the telephone. She said that Plaintiff had then become angry at her and began to choke and threaten her, and that she kicked him in the stomach and fled the apartment with the notes. She advised that he was carrying a .44 caliber revolver and handcuffs and had very little sleep or food for the last week and a half.

After reading the notes and conferring with Sabrina Garcia, a psychologist who also was a member of the Crisis Unit at the scene, Hugerich made telephone contact with the Plaintiff about 6:00 p.m. and asked him what had happened. Plaintiff advised Hugerich that Allen had been hospitalized two weeks previously and that her therapist advised him to make sure that he did not allow her to harm herself or Plaintiff, and since that time he had his .44 caliber revolver loaded and strapped to his side, in addition to his handcuffs. He confirmed that he had had very little sleep or food. He said that the day's episode began by Allen reading his notes, over-reacting and calling Duke Hospital, and threatening him with psychiatric hospitalization. A scuffle ensued, and Allen kicked him in the stomach where he had numerous staples from a surgery that removed a tumor and part of his pancreas and intestines. According to Plaintiff, Allen has a multiple personality disorder and, at the time of the scuffle, Allen had assumed one of her "alters," a 19-year-old, 6'3", 235-pound male, "Michael," whose physical strength Plaintiff could not match.

Plaintiff indicated he wanted the police to go away and leave him alone, and that, although he had no explanation for his journal notes, he was not suicidal or homicidal. Plaintiff insisted that he had a right to possess his gun and to remain in his apartment. Hugerich agreed and assured him that the police were not going to rush the apartment. Hugerich advised Plaintiff that the police were concerned for Plaintiff's own safety and for others in the crowded apartment complex. Hugerich had several telephone discussions with Plaintiff over a period of nearly six hours concerning securing the gun and getting help for Plaintiff. Plaintiff stated that he did not have to come out of his apartment in the absence of a warrant, and Hugerich assured the Plaintiff that the police did not have an arrest warrant for him, that he had done nothing wrong, and that they only wanted to help him. Finally, Plaintiff indicated that he had been working with Dr. Reisner of Duke Hospital towards a psychiatric commitment and gave Hugerich permission to talk to Dr. Reisner. Hugerich contacted Dr. Reisner, who arranged for the Plaintiff to be seen by a psychiatrist at the Duke emergency room. Hugerich advised Plaintiff of his arrangements with Dr. Reisner, and Plaintiff also talked with Dr. Reisner on the telephone.

Plaintiff testified that the pain in his side became more intense and that because of the pain he agreed to come out of his apartment and to go with Hugerich to the hospital for treatment of his injuries. Plaintiff and Hugerich agreed that Plaintiff would come out of the sliding glass door to the apartment with his finger through the open chamber of the pistol and with his hands up, that Hugerich would drive up in front of the apartment, open the trunk to his car, Plaintiff would put the pistol in the trunk, and that they would drive to the Duke Hospital emergency room.

Hugerich testified that at the agreed upon time, 11:15 p.m., he drove to the designated spot in front of the apartment and got out of his car. He said that Plaintiff was delayed in exiting the sliding door, that Plaintiff turned toward the door and remained facing the door for approximately sixty seconds, and that when Plaintiff turned around and faced the car, his hands were down at his sides and the gun was not visible. At that moment, other officers took Plaintiff to the ground and secured him with handcuffs. Plaintiff was taken to the Duke Hospital emergency room, where he was seen by Dr. Mary Soderstrom, who evaluated Plaintiff, made findings, and ordered that Plaintiff be involuntarily committed.

Plaintiff filed this action against the Town of Chapel Hill, and against Chief Ralph Pendergraph, Captain Greg Jarvis, both of whom were present at the scene, and law enforcement officers John Doe I-IV, individually and in their official capacities.1 Plaintiff pleads one federal constitutional claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 with three bases—violations of the First, Second, and Fourth Amendments. Plaintiff also pleads four state-law claims—assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, false imprisonment, and defamation.

Defendants have moved for summary judgment, arguing that no unconstitutional or tortious conduct occurred, and that even if Plaintiff's constitutional rights were violated, the Town of Chapel Hill is not liable under Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978), and the individual Defendants have qualified immunity.


In examining a motion for summary judgment, the court must determine whether Defendants have shown "that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that they are entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). In considering the evidence, all reasonable inferences are to be drawn in favor of the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2513-14, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). A non-movant may survive summary judgment by producing "evidence from which a jury might return a verdict in his favor." Id. at 257, 106 S.Ct. at 2514. Summary judgment doctrine is not "to be skewed from its ordinary operation" in qualified immunity cases. Pritchett v. Alford, 973 F.2d 307, 313 (4th Cir.1992). However, "qualified immunity questions should be resolved at the earliest possible stage of a litigation." Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 646 n. 6, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 3042 n. 6, 97 L.Ed.2d 523 (1987). Summary judgment is particularly appropriate in determining an official's entitlement to qualified immunity. See Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 817-18, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 2737-38, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982); Torchinsky v. Siwinski, 942 F.2d 257, 261 (4th Cir.1991).

I. Town of Chapel Hill's Liability

A suit against municipal officers in their official capacity is a suit against the municipality itself. See Spell v. McDaniel, 824 F.2d 1380, 1385 (4th Cir.1987), cert. denied sub nom. City of Fayetteville v. Spell, 484 U.S. 1027, 108 S.Ct. 752, 98 L.Ed.2d 765 (1988). A local government is liable for the constitutional...

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