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Mendonca v. City of Providence

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

March 15, 2016


WILLIAM E. SMITH, Chief District Judge.

This case arises out of the 2009 arrest of Plaintiff Luis Mendonca, during which he was struck by a Providence Police officer, leaving him in a coma. Now before the Court are two motions for summary judgment: the Rhode Island School of Design's ("RISD") Motion for Summary Judgment as to all claims asserted against it and its public safety officers Justin Wall and William LaPierre (ECF No. 35), and the City of Providence's (the "City") and Providence Police Officers' ("PPD Defendants") Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (ECF No. 34). For the reasons set forth below, both motions are GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

I. Background

The series of events that led to Mendonca's arrest, assault, and hospitalization began on September 22, 2009. On that date, RISD public safety officials, including LaPierre, began investigating a theft of a student's phone from the RISD library. (RISD's Statement of Undisputed Facts ("SUF") ¶¶ 4-5, ECF No. 36.) Mendonca was identified by the victim as a participant in the theft and seen in library video footage on the night of the theft. (Id. ¶¶ 4-7.)

On October 20, 2009, Mendonca again tried to enter the RISD library. (Id. ¶ 16.) An employee recognized him from prior attempts to gain unauthorized access to RISD buildings and notified RISD public safety. (Id. ¶¶ 10-14; 16-18.) Wall, on patrol that evening, received the dispatch relating to Mendonca. (Id. ¶ 21.) The dispatch stated that a larceny suspect was in the area and provided a description of the suspect. (Id. ¶¶ 21-22.) Shortly thereafter, Wall passed Mendonca, who Wall believed fit the description in the dispatch. (Id. ¶¶ 22-23.)

The parties provide vastly different accounts of what happened next. Since this order considers RISD and the City's motions, the Court must resolve these disputed facts in favor of Mendonca, the non-moving party. Mendonca asserts that Wall, upon identifying him, drove his car full speed at Mendonca, nearly hitting him. (Pl.'s SUF ¶ 6, ECF No. 40.) When Wall exited his vehicle, Wall grabbed Mendonca by the shirt, slammed him against Wall's vehicle, told him to shut up, asked him for an ID, and inquired if he had any weapons. (Id. ¶ 6.) Wall then handcuffed Mendonca and ordered him to sit on the curb. (Id. ¶ 10; RISD's SUF ¶ 27, ECF No. 36.) During this interaction, Mendonca claims he complied with Wall's requests and that Wall initiated any contact that occurred between the two men. (Pl.'s SUF ¶ 11, ECF No. 40.)

LaPierre arrived at the scene after Wall placed Mendonca in handcuffs. (RISD's SUF ¶¶ 28-30, ECF No. 36.) He instructed Wall to remove the handcuffs and told Mendonca he was free to leave. (Pl.'s SUF ¶ 17, ECF No. 40; RISD's SUF ¶ 38, ECF No. 36.) During this interaction, LaPierre also recognized Mendonca as a suspect in the September 2009 phone larceny and asked for the Providence Police ("PPD") to respond to the scene. (RISD's SUF ¶¶ 35-36, ECF No. 36.)

Mendonca did not linger with the RISD officers. He began to walk away, but turned to see one officer lunging at him. (Pl.'s SUF ¶ 19, ECF No. 40; RISD's SUF ¶¶ 39-40, ECF No. 36.) No physical contact resulted. (Pl.'s SUF ¶ 19, ECF No. 40.) Mendonca then began to run from Wall and LaPierre and the two RISD officers pursued him. (Pl.'s SUF ¶¶ 19-20, 22, ECF No. 40; RISD's SUF ¶¶ 39, 41, 44, ECF No. 36.)

At some point, various members of the PPD joined the pursuit, though the parties never specify which of the twelve officers named in the Complaint participated. (City's SUF ¶ 3, ECF No. 34-1.) The search party eventually located Mendonca under a vehicle behind a property on Benefit Street. (Pl.'s SUF ¶ 25, ECF No. 40; City's SUF ¶ 3, ECF No. 34-1; RISD's SUF ¶ 52, ECF No. 36.) PPD Officer Frank Newton and Wall extracted Mendonca from under the car, at which point Mendonca asserts Newton assaulted him. (Pl.'s SUF ¶ 25, ECF No. 40; RISD's SUF ¶¶ 53, 55, ECF No. 36.)[1] Then, an undisclosed member of the PPD handcuffed Mendonca, and Newton, with Wall's assistance, began to escort Mendonca to a PPD cruiser. (RISD's SUF ¶¶ 56-57, ECF No. 36.)

Mendonca, however, never made it to the cruiser. PPD Officer Robert DeCarlo intercepted the three men and proceeded to strike Mendonca several times in the head with his flashlight. (Pl.'s SUF ¶ 26, ECF No. 40; RISD's SUF ¶ 57-58, ECF No. 36.) Mendonca sustained severe injuries from DeCarlo's blows. (Pl.'s SUF ¶ 30, ECF No. 40.)

Shortly after the October 20, 2009 incident, the City charged Mendonca with two counts of assault relating to his interaction with the RISD public safety officers and with one count of resisting arrest. (City's SUF ¶ 4, ECF No. 34-1.) The City dismissed the resisting arrest charge prior to trial.[2] The City, however, successfully tried and convicted Mendonca in Rhode Island District Court for assaulting Wall and LaPierre. (Id.) Mendonca appealed both convictions to the Superior Court. The parties resolved the appeal in January 2015, when Mendonca pled nolo contendere to an amended charge of disorderly conduct. (Id.) The assault charges were dismissed pursuant to R.I. R. Crim. P. 48(a).

Mendonca commenced this civil action in Rhode Island Superior Court on October 12, 2012 and Defendants removed the case to this Court. (ECF No. 1.) On March 3, 2013, this Court dismissed all claims against the PPD (ECF No. 15), and on May 28, 2013, the Court dismissed Counts V and VI against former Police Chief Dean Esserman (ECF No. 21). The City and RISD filed the present motions on August 14, 2015 and August 21, 2015, respectively. (ECF Nos. 34 and 35.) Oral arguments were held on November 20, 2015.

II. Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). An issue of fact is only considered "genuine' if it may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party.'" Cadle Co. v. Hayes, 116 F.3d 957, 960 (1st Cir. 1997) (quoting Maldonado-Denis v. Castillo-Rodriguez, 23 F.3d 576, 581 (1st Cir. 1994)). When deciding a motion for summary judgment, the court must "examine[] the entire record in the light most flattering to the nonmovant and indulg[e] all reasonable inferences in that party's favor.'" Id. at 959 (quoting Maldonado-Denis, 23 F.3d at 581).

III. RISD's Motion

Mendonca brings five claims against RISD and the RISD public safety officers: Count II asserts an excessive force claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Wall and LaPierre; Count IV asserts a common law failure to train and supervise claim against RISD; Count V alleges that Wall and LaPierre were part of a civil conspiracy violative of 42 U.S.C. § 1983; Count XI alleges a common law false imprisonment claim against Wall and LaPierre; Count XII alleges common law assault and battery claims against Wall; and Count XIII alleges common law assault and battery claims against LaPierre. RISD, Wall, and LaPierre have moved for summary judgment on all claims. The Court considers each claim in turn.

A. Count II and Count V: 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Claims Against Wall and LaPierre

RISD principally argues that Counts II and V fail because RISD's public safety officers did not operate under the color of state law, and, thus, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 does not apply to Wall's and LaPierre's conduct. RISD is correct. To make out a viable § 1983 claim against a private entity, a plaintiff must show (1) that the conduct complained of transpired under color of state law, and (2) that a deprivation of federally secured rights ensued. Klunder v. Brown Univ., 778 F.3d 24, 30 (1st Cir. 2015) ("Klunder II"). Mendonca's § 1983 claims against the RISD Defendants fail on the first element, negating the need to consider the second.

Courts recognize three tests for determining if private conduct transpired under the color of state law. Id . The parties agree that the so called "public" or "exclusive" function test applies here.[3] Under this test, a private entity operates under the color of state law when it performs a "public function that has been traditionally the exclusive prerogative of the state." Id. at 31 (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). Both the Supreme Court and First Circuit have explicitly left open whether, and in what context, private security forces constitute state actors. Flagg Bros., Inc. v. Brooks, 436 U.S. 149, 163 n.14 (1978); Klunder II, 778 F.3d at 30 n.5. Other courts, however, have considered the subject and have held that private security officers act under the color of state law where they are "endowed by law with plenary police powers such that they are de facto police officers." Romanski v. Detroit Entm't, L.L.C., 428 F.3d 629, 637 (6th Cir. 2005). Generally, this requires two things: (1) that a government entity grant authority to a private security force; and (2) that the authority include at least one power exclusively reserved for the state. See id.

Romanski provides a good illustration of these requirements. There, the Sixth Circuit considered whether a private casino security guard acted under the color of state law when she detained a patron for violating a casino policy. Id . The court noted that security guards typically have many powers commonly associated with police, such as the power to detain trespassers and shoplifters, the ability to carry a firearm, and the ability to use the firearm in self-defense. Id. at 637-38. These, however, are not powers exclusively held by the state; they are powers that the common law and federal constitution also grant to private entities through doctrines like the shopkeepers' privilege, and the rights to effectuate citizens' arrests, to self-defense and to bear arms. Id . Accordingly, they are not powers that, alone, make a private security guard a state actor. Id . The court, however, went on to note that the security guard was also licensed under a Michigan statute that granted her "the authority to arrest a person without a warrant as set forth for public peace officers." Id. at 638. The court held that this "plenary arrest power" exceeded the authority the common law bestows on private entities and individuals; it was power traditionally held exclusively by the police. Thus, the guard acted under the color of state law and the patron who was detained could sustain a § 1983 claim. Id .; cf. Lindsey v. Detroit Entm't, LLC, 484 F.3d 824, 829-30 (6th Cir. 2007) (casino security guard did not act ...

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