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Graham v. Barnette

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

December 14, 2018

Teresa M. Graham, Plaintiff,
Sgt. Shannon L. Barnette, Officer Amanda Sanchez, Officer Mohamed Noor, and the City of Minneapolis, Defendants.



         Defendant police officers entered Plaintiff Teresa Graham's home and seized Graham so that she could be transported to the hospital for an involuntary mental health evaluation. Plaintiff filed this suit alleging constitutional violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and bringing state law claims. Citing qualified, official, and statutory immunities, Defendant police officers and the City of Minneapolis moved for summary judgment.

         For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants in part and denies in part Defendants' summary judgment motion. First, the Court finds that the officers are protected by qualified, statutory, and official immunities. Second, the Court sides with the weight of federal authority and concludes that seizures in the mental health context require probable cause. Third, the Court determines that the City of Minneapolis' policy on transport holds is facially invalid and that a reasonable juror could find that the officers implemented this unconstitutional policy when they seized Graham without probable cause. As a result, the motion is denied with respect to Count 5, which alleges that the City of Minneapolis deprived Graham of her Fourth Amendment seizure rights by maintaining an unlawful transport hold policy. The motion is granted in all other respects.


         Around 10 a.m. on May 25, 2017, Teresa Graham called 911 and reported that a man was smoking marijuana on a retaining wall behind her home. A police officer arrived at Graham's address, saw no one, and did not follow up with Graham about her report. Several hours later, Graham called the Fifth Precinct and left a voicemail for the Precinct's commander, Inspector Kathy Waite.[1] In the voicemail, Graham complained that officers did not respond to her call that morning. Graham also referenced an email she had sent earlier in the day to Inspector Waite, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, and other local government officials about the Minneapolis police department's failure to respond to a “vulnerable adult report” Graham had made previously concerning her disabled brother. Around 6 p.m., Lieutenant Dan May returned Graham's call to inform her that an officer had investigated Graham's report of the man in her backyard earlier that day.

         At 6:11 p.m., Graham's cousin called 911 and reported that Graham called him at work and threatened him and his family. Incident Detail Report No. 17-191155, ECF No. 95, Carter Decl., Ex. 2. The 911 call taker summarized the call for the responding officers in a comment to the Incident Detail Report: “CLRS COUSIN WHO JUST CALLED HIM AT WORK AND THREATENED HIM AND HIS FAMILY.” Id. The Incident Detail Report reflects comments entered by 911 call takers, police dispatchers, and the responding officers about an ongoing incident. The call taker also noted that Graham's cousin requested a welfare check on Graham and that Graham's mental health diagnosis was unknown.

         At 8:14 p.m., Officers Noor and Sanchez arrived at Graham's home to conduct a welfare check. Sanchez recorded the encounter with her body camera. When Graham answered the door, the officers explained that they were responding to a complaint that she had threatened a family member. Graham grew agitated, demanded to know who made the report, complained that she was being slandered and harassed, and asked the officers to leave. After leaving Graham's home, the officers reported that they were asked to leave before they were able to check Graham's welfare, but that she appeared “AOK.” Incident Detail Report No. 17-191155, ECF No. 95, Carter Decl., Ex. 2.

         At 9:05 p.m., a 911 call taker reported that Graham had called 911 three more times since the welfare check. Incident Detail Report No. 17-191393, ECF No. 95, Carter Decl., Ex. 14. Graham first called 911 at 8:20 p.m. to complain about the officers harassing her in retaliation for reporting a crime. The call taker described Graham during her first call as agitated, aggressive, and not making sense. Approximately fifteen minutes later, Sergeant Shannon Barnette returned Graham's call and the two spoke briefly about Graham's concerns. At 8:40 p.m., Graham called 911, asking to be transferred to the Edina police department. Twenty minutes later, Graham again called 911 and requested to be transferred to the Edina police department.

         Sergeant Barnette had previously interacted with Graham and was aware of “some mental health history.” Barnette Dep., ECF No. 95, Carter Decl., Ex. 12. Graham called the Fifth Precinct a year or two earlier to request an investigation into her sister's death at Abbott Northwestern Hospital. Barnette worried about Graham's mental state since she accused medical personnel of covering up the circumstances of her sister's death. Around this time, Inspector Waite informed Barnette that Graham had a mental health history and had been subject to harassment restraining orders that were sought by Hennepin County government employees. Barnette did not remember specifics.

         Relying on the officers' interactions with Graham described above, Barnette directed[2] Noor and Sanchez to place Graham in custody to transport her for an emergency mental health evaluation under Minnesota's Civil Commitment and Treatment Act (“MCTA”). At 9:05:53 p.m., dispatch reported: “PER SGT BARNETTE .. . OFCRS TO SIGN A HEALTH AND WELFARE HOLD ON THIS SUBJECT.” Incident Detail Report No. 17-191393, ECF No. 95, Carter Decl., Ex. 14. A similar entry was made at 9:06:11: “OFCRS TO SIGN HEALTHWELFARE HOLD PER 502, ” which is Barnette's squad. Id.

         Under the MCTA, an officer may place a person in custody under a health and welfare hold and transport that person to “a licensed physician or treatment facility if the officer has reason to believe . . . that the person is mentally ill . . . and in danger of injuring self or others if not immediately detained.” Minn. Stat. § 253B.05 Subd. 2(a) (2017). The Minneapolis police department (“MPD”) policy on transport holds summarizes the authorizing statute. The policy allows an officer to take a person with mental illness into custody “if there is a reason to believe the person poses a threat to himself or others.” 7-1005 Transport Holds Policy, ECF No. 133, Kushner Decl., Ex. D. The policy further directs that “[t]he threat does not have to be imminent.” Id.

         At 9:06:49 p.m., dispatch informed the officers that one of Graham's family members had called to warn the Edina police department that Graham may fight with the police. Id. Subsequently, dispatch reported that Barnette would support Noor and Sanchez at Graham's home. Id.

         Around 9:40 p.m., Barnette, Noor, and Sanchez arrived at Graham's home. Before arriving, the officers reviewed the above-referenced Incident Detail Reports. All officers wore body cameras that recorded the encounter. Graham opened the interior door and left the storm door locked and shut. Graham told the officers that she did not call them for help, angrily demanded that the officers leave her property, and slammed the door. The officers described Graham as agitated, argumentative, and uncooperative.

         Barnette removed the screen from the storm door to allow entry should Graham reopen the interior door. The officers told Graham that they would leave if she opened the door and allowed them to make sure that she was okay. Through the door, Graham told the officers that she was fine. Graham then called 911 to complain about the officers at her front door.

         Eventually, Graham opened the interior door to her home. Barnette and Noor entered the home through the screenless front door and held Graham by each arm in an escort hold for about six minutes. Graham repeatedly told the officers that the hold was causing pain to pre-existing injuries in her left shoulder and wrist. The officers directed Graham to sit in a chair and released her arms when she complied. During the encounter, Graham did not physically resist or threaten harm, but she did criticize, insult, swear at, and threaten to sue the officers.

         The paramedics arrived and escorted Graham to the ambulance. Once Graham was in the ambulance, Officer Sanchez completed the emergency transport hold application required by the MCTA[3] and provided the form to the paramedics. The officers listed the following reason to take Graham into custody: “Female continuously called 911 and per dispatchers female was verbally agitated and not making sense. [P]er [Barnette], a hold was placed[d] on the female.” Emergency Hold Application, ECF No. 133, Kushner Decl., Ex. B. Graham was then transported to Southdale Fairview Hospital and released after being examined by a doctor.


         Summary judgment is proper “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). A genuine dispute exists “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). To support an assertion that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed, a party must cite “to particular parts of materials in the record, ” show “that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, ” or show “that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A)-(B). In determining whether summary judgment is appropriate, a court views the record and all justifiable inferences in favor of the non-movant. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 255.

         Defendants have moved for summary judgment on qualified immunity and related grounds. Discussed below are Graham's § 1983 claims against Sergeant Barnette and Officers Noor and Sanchez, her § 1983 claims against the City of Minneapolis, and her state law claims against all Defendants.

         I. Section 1983 Claims Against the Officers

          “On summary judgment, a defendant official is entitled to qualified immunity unless ‘(1) the facts, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, demonstrate the deprivation of a constitutional or statutory right; and (2) the right was clearly established at the time of the deprivation.'” Walton v. Dawson, 752 F.3d 1109, 1116 (8th Cir. 2014) (quoting Howard v. Kan. City Police Dep't, 570 F.3d 984, 988 (8th Cir. 2009)). “District courts may consider these two questions in any order.” Id. (citing Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009)). Where the law is not clearly established, courts may grant qualified immunity on that basis “without resolving the often more difficult question whether the purported right exists at all.” Reichle v. Howards, 566 U.S. 658, 664 (2012).

         “To be clearly established, a legal principle must have a sufficiently clear foundation in then-existing precedent.” District of Columbia v. Wesby, 138 S.Ct. 577, 589 (2018). It is not enough for the legal principle to be “suggested by then-existing precedent.” Id. It must be settled law dictated by “‘controlling authority' or ‘a robust consensus of cases of persuasive authority.'” Id. at 589-90 (quoting Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 741-42 (2011)). Consequently, a reasonable officer should be able to interpret this precedent “to establish the particular rule the plaintiff seeks to apply.” Id. at 590.

         The “clearly established” standard also requires “that the legal principle clearly prohibit the officer's conduct in the particular circumstances before him.” Id. The “‘specificity' of the rule is ‘especially important in the Fourth Amendment context.'” Id. (quoting Mullenix v. Luna, 136 S.Ct. 305, 308 (2015) (per curiam)). The Supreme Court has repeatedly stressed that courts should not “define clearly established law at a high level of generality, since doing so avoids the crucial question whether the official acted reasonably in the particular circumstances that he or she faced.” Id. (quoting Plumhoff v. Rickard, 134 S.Ct. 2012, 2023 (2014)). Accordingly, courts should “identify a case where an officer acting under similar circumstances as [Defendant officers] was held to have violated the Fourth Amendment.” Johnson v. City of Minneapolis, 901 F.3d 963, 971 (8th Cir. 2018) (quoting White v. Pauly, 137 S.Ct. 548, 552 (2017)). While the case need not be “‘directly on point,' existing precedent must place the lawfulness . . . ‘beyond debate.'” Wesby, 138 S.Ct. at 590 (quoting al-Kidd, 563 U.S. at 741).

         Graham alleges several constitutional violations. Graham asserts several claims under the Fourth Amendment against the officers: (1) they entered her home without exigent circumstances; (2) they lacked probable cause to seize her for a mental health evaluation; and (3) they used excessive force in the process. Graham also claims that the officers violated her Fourteenth and Fourth Amendment rights when they forced their entry and damaged her front door. Additionally, Graham alleges that the officers conspired to violate her Fourth Amendment rights. Finally, Graham claims that the officers retaliated against her exercise of her free speech right to complain about police actions.

         The officers assert that they are entitled to qualified immunity on all claims.

         A. Warrantless Entry

         Graham claims that the officers' warrantless entry into her home violated her Fourth Amendment rights. Warrantless entry into the home without consent or exigent circumstances is presumptively unreasonable. Groh v. Ramirez, 540 U.S. 551, 559 (2004). The “emergency aid” and “community caretaking” exceptions are two such exigent circumstances. These exceptions are “similar in nature, but not identical.” Burke v. Sullivan, 677 F.3d 367, 371 (8th Cir. 2012). Under the “emergency aid” exception, officers may enter a home without a warrant when they have an “objectively reasonable basis for believing . . . that a person within the house is in need of immediate aid.” United States v. Quarterman, 877 F.3d 794, 797 (8th Cir. 2017) (quoting Michigan v. Fisher, 558 U.S. 45, 47 (2009) (per curiam)). Under the “community caretaking” exception, police officers perform community caretaking functions “to ensure the safety of the public and/or individual, regardless of any suspected criminal activity.” Winters v. Adams, 254 F.3d 758, 763 (8th Cir. 2001). As community caretakers, officers may enter a home without a warrant when “the officer has a reasonable belief that an emergency exists requiring his or her attention.” United States v. Quezada, 448 F.3d 1005, 1007 (8th Cir. 2006). The reasonable belief standard “is a less exacting standard than probable cause.” Burke, 677 F.3d at 371.

         Although Graham argues that the emergency aid exception applies to the officers' entry into her home, the Court finds that the community caretaking standard is appropriate since the officers entered the home on a welfare check. In Burke, the Eighth Circuit applied the community caretaking exception to an officer's welfare check in the home.[4] Id. at 371-72. The Eighth Circuit found that an emergency requiring the officers' entry existed when the resident, who was “home alone with a violent suspect, ” did not respond after the officers attempted to contact her. 677 F.3d at 372. Similarly, the emergency in Quezada involved facts that would lead a reasonable officer to conclude that “someone was inside but was unable to respond for some reason.” 448 F.3d at 1008.

         Defendants contend that a mental health emergency justifies entry into the home. For example, in Van Raden v. Larsen, the court held that officers could enter the home to check on the welfare of a suicidal male, pursuant to their community caretaking function. No. CIV. 13-2283, 2015 WL 853592, at *1, *4 (D. Minn. Feb. 26, 2015). Defendants also cite Winters for the proposition that the community caretaking function includes acting out of concern for someone's mental condition. 254 F.3d at 760-63.

         The community caretaking cases discussed above do not address whether Graham's conduct justifies entry into her home. In Winters, the officers observed a man acting erratically in his car-not in his home. Id. And although Burke, Quezada, and Van Raden did involve officers entering a home, these cases are distinguishable. This is not a case where officers believed someone in the home was unable to respond; Graham opened the door and told the officers to leave. There was no suicidal report; Graham did not threaten to harm herself. These differences are notable since the Supreme Court generally affords heightened protection to the sanctity of the home. See Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 585 (1980) (“[T]he physical entry of the home is the chief evil against which the wording of the Fourth Amendment is directed.”). Because of these distinctions, it would not have been clear beyond peradventure that the facts of the present case justified the officers' warrantless entry into Graham's home.

         “Officials are not liable for bad guesses in gray areas; they are liable for transgressing bright lines.” Davis v. Hall, 375 F.3d 703, 712 (8th Cir. 2004) (quoting Maciariello v. Sumner, 973 F.2d 295, 298 (4th Cir. 1992)). Because of the dearth of community caretaking cases, there are few bright lines and officers should not be faulted for guessing. Here, the officers believed a mental health emergency existed because: (1) Graham had recently threatened her cousin on the phone; (2) Graham had repeatedly called 911 and appeared argumentative, agitated, and uncooperative; (3) Graham had a history of restraining orders; and (4) Graham's family member warned the police department that she may fight with officers. Given these facts, Eighth Circuit precedent does ...

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