York v. City of Johnstown

Decision Date21 June 2022
Docket Number1:20-cv-01616 (MAD/ML)
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of New York

APPEARANCES: LAW OFFICE OF DANIEL R. SMALLS, PLLC Attorneys for Plaintiffs MURPHY BURNS LLP Attorneys for Defendants





On December 29, 2020, Plaintiffs Mazell York ("Plaintiff York") and Michael McDonald ("Plaintiff McDonald") commenced this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("Section 1983") against Defendants City of Johnstown (the "City"), City of Johnstown Police Department (the "Johnstown Police Department"), Police Officer Blaine Walker ("Officer Walker"), and Police Officer Jase Kollar ("Officer Kollar"). See Dkt. No. 1. Plaintiffs' amended complaint asserts five causes of action under Section 1983: (1) the unlawful seizure of Plaintiffs in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments against Officer Walker; (2) intentional infliction of emotional distress against Officer Walker and Officer Kollar;[1] (3) failure to intervene against Officer Kollar; (4) malicious prosecution against the City, Officer Walker, and Officer Kollar; and (5) municipal liability against the City and the Johnstown Police Department. See Dkt. No. 24 at ¶¶ 44-85.

Presently before the Court is Defendants' motion for summary judgment. See Dkt. No. 46. For the following reasons, Defendants' motion is granted in part and denied in part.


On December 30, 2019, at approximately 4:13 p.m., Plaintiff York was sitting in the driver's seat of his car, parked in front of a residence on Byard Street in the City of Johnstown. See Dkt. No. 46-9 at ¶ 1. Plaintiff York's vehicle had an object-a "replica water buoy"-hanging from his rearview mirror. See id. at ¶ 14. As Plaintiff York was sitting in his car, Plaintiff McDonald exited the front door of the Byard Street residence and began walking towards Plaintiff York's vehicle. See id. at ¶ 2. Officer Walker, who was driving down Byard Street in a marked vehicle, observed Plaintiff McDonald approaching the vehicle from the Byard Street residence and parked his police vehicle in a nearby parking lot where he could observe Plaintiffs. See id. at ¶¶ 3, 8. Officer Walker was familiar with Plaintiff McDonald through his work as a police officer, and knew that he had prior arrests and convictions for narcotic-related crimes. See id. at ¶ 4.[2]

Plaintiff McDonald returned to the Byard Street residence for a short period of time, and then reemerged and entered the front passenger seat of Plaintiff York's vehicle. See id. at ¶ 10. Plaintiff York, with Plaintiff McDonald as a passenger, then pulled away from the curb and began traveling westbound on Byard Street. See id. at ¶ 11. When Plaintiff York turned onto North Perry Street, Officer Walker initiated a traffic stop and pulled Plaintiffs over. See Dkt. No. 47 at 4. During the traffic stop, Officer Walker ordered Plaintiff York out of the vehicle and questioned both Plaintiffs. See id. at 5. At some point during the traffic stop, Officer Kollar arrived on the scene to assist Officer Walker. See Dkt. No. 46-9 at ¶ 19. Ultimately, Officer Walker issued Plaintiff York a traffic ticket for violating New York Vehicle and Traffic Law ("VTL") § 375(30), and concluded the stop without arresting either Plaintiff. See Dkt. No. 46-9 at ¶ 20.

VTL § 375(30) makes it

unlawful for any person to operate a motor vehicle with any object placed or hung in or upon the vehicle ... in such a manner as to obstruct or interfere with the view of the operator through the windshield, or to prevent him from having a clear and full view of the road and condition of traffic behind such vehicle.

The traffic ticket was subsequently dismissed by Johnstown City Court. See Dkt. No. 46-10 at 14 n.2.

Defendants now move for summary judgment, arguing that (1) Officer Walker had probable cause for the traffic stop; (2) Plaintiffs fail to allege a claim for malicious prosecution, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and municipal liability; (3) Officer Kollar had no obligation to intervene; and (4) both Officer Walker and Officer Kollar are entitled to qualified immunity. See Dkt. No. 46-10. In opposition, Plaintiffs argue that (1) there is a question of fact concerning whether Officer Walker had probable cause for the traffic stop; (2) Plaintiffs have stated a claim for municipal liability; and (3) Officer Walker and Officer Kollar are not entitled to qualified immunity. See Dkt. No. 47-2.

A. Standard of Review

A court may grant a motion for summary judgment only if it determines that there is no genuine issue of material fact to be tried and that the facts as to which there is no such issue warrant judgment for the movant as a matter of law. See Chambers v. TRM Copy Ctrs. Corp., 43 F.3d 29, 36 (2d Cir. 1994) (citations omitted). When analyzing a summary judgment motion, the court "'cannot try issues of fact; it can only determine whether there are issues to be tried.'" Id. at 36-37 (quotation and other citation omitted). Moreover, it is well-settled that a party opposing a motion for summary judgment may not simply rely on the assertions in its pleadings. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c), (e)).

In assessing the record to determine whether any such issues of material fact exist, the court is required to resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. See Chambers, 43 F.3d at 36 (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986)) (other citations omitted). Where the non-movant either does not respond to the motion or fails to dispute the movant's statement of material facts, the court may not rely solely on the moving party's Rule 56.1 statement; rather the court must be satisfied that the citations to evidence in the record support the movant's assertions. See Giannullo v. City of New York, 322 F.3d 139, 143 n.5 (2d Cir. 2003) (holding that not verifying in the record the assertions in the motion for summary judgment "would derogate the truth-finding functions of the judicial process by substituting convenience for facts").

"'Assessments of credibility and choices between conflicting versions of the events are matters for the jury, not for the court on summary judgment.'" Jeffreys v. City of New York, 426 F.3d 549, 553-54 (2d Cir. 2005) (quotation omitted). "However, '[t]he mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the plaintiff's position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff.'" Id. (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252). "To defeat summary judgment, therefore, nonmoving parties 'must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts,' ... and they 'may not rely on conclusory allegations or unsubstantiated speculation.'" Id. (quotations omitted).

B. Unlawful Seizure / False Arrest

"To prevail on a claim of false arrest under New York law, the plaintiff must show that: (1) the defendant intended to confine him, (2) the plaintiff was conscious of the confinement, (3) the plaintiff did not consent to the confinement, and (4) the confinement was not otherwise privileged." Wright v. Musanti, 887 F.3d 577, 587 (2d Cir. 2018) (citing Broughton v. New York, 37 N.Y.2d 451, 456 (1975)). Defendants concede the first three elements of the claim. As to the fourth element, "[a]n arrest of a criminal suspect by a law enforcement officer with probable cause is a 'privileged' confinement even if it is non-consensual." McKay v. City of New York, 32 F.Supp.3d 499, 505 (S.D.N.Y. 2014). Thus, "'[t]he existence of probable cause to arrest constitutes justification and is a complete defense to an action for false arrest, whether that action is brought under state law or under § 1983.'" Gonzalez v. City of Schenectady, 728 F.3d 149, 155 (2d Cir. 2013) (quoting Weyant v. Okst, 101 F.3d 845, 852 (2d Cir. 1996)). "The burden of establishing the absence of probable cause rests on the plaintiff." Nelson v. Hernandez, 524 F.Supp.2d 212, 220 (E.D.N.Y. 2007) (citing Brown v. City of New York, 306 F.Supp.2d 473, 479 (S.D.N.Y. 2004)).

"The Fourth Amendment permits brief investigative stops, including traffic stops, when 'a law enforcement officer has a particularized and objective basis'-also known as a 'reasonable suspicion'-to 'suspect[ ] the particular person stopped of criminal activity.'" United States v. Churchill, 792 Fed.Appx. 39, 41 (2d Cir. 2019) (quoting Navarette v. California, 572 U.S. 393, 396-97 (2014)). "[R]easonable suspicion of a traffic violation provides a sufficient basis under the Fourth Amendment for law enforcement officers to make a traffic stop." United States v. Stewart, 551 F.3d 187, 193 (2d Cir. 2009). "While the reasonable suspicion standard requires 'considerably less than proof of wrongdoing by a preponderance of the evidence, and obviously less than is necessary for probable cause,' ... it does entail 'some minimal level of objective justification.'" United States v. Diaz, 802 F.3d 234, 238-39 (2d Cir. 2015) (quotations omitted); see also United States v. Patterson, 25 F.4th 123, 135-36 (2d Cir. 2022).

Here the Court cannot conclude that Officer Walker had reasonable suspicion to suspect Plaintiff York of violating VTL § 375(30) because there is conflicting testimony on Officer Walker's ability to see the object hanging from the vehicle's rearview mirror prior to the traffic stop. Officer Walker testified that, "[a]s the vehicle...

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