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Johnson v. Courtois

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

December 21, 2018

Meghan Christina Johnson, Plaintiff,
v.
Officer Stephane Courtois, in his official and individual capacities as a police officer for the City of Minneapolis; and the City of Minneapolis, Defendants.

          Paul Applebaum, Applebaum Law Firm, St. Paul, MN, for plaintiff.

          Gregory P. Sautter, Office of the City Attorney, Minneapolis, MN, for defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Eric C. Tostrud United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Meghan Christina Johnson (“Johnson”) commenced this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 seeking to recover damages stemming from what she alleges were an unconstitutional arrest and use of force perpetrated upon her by Minneapolis Police Officer Stephane Courtois (“Courtois”). From start to finish, the material events giving rise to Johnson's claims occurred outside a Minneapolis bar and within about a forty-minute window in the early morning of May 18, 2014. Several undisputed facts provide a very general summary of what happened. While waiting outside to enter the bar, Johnson observed Courtois's partner, Officer Efrem Hamilton (“Hamilton”), arresting one of her friends. Johnson approached Hamilton and asked why her friend was being arrested. After a time (during which the parties dispute precisely what happened), Courtois shoved Johnson. Johnson responded to the shove with a two-sentence statement. The second sentence was two words long and began with a profanity. Very quickly after Johnson completed her statement, Courtois arrested Johnson, and he used physical force to complete the arrest. Johnson was charged with obstructing legal process under Minn. Stat. § 609.50.

         Courtois seeks summary judgment based on qualified immunity, and he asserts essentially two grounds to support this outcome. First, Courtois argues that Johnson admitted a dispositive fact by serving untimely answers to requests for admission and then failing to seek a court order permitting withdrawal of her admissions. Second, Courtois argues that, even if Johnson is permitted to withdraw her admissions, the undisputed facts still establish the reasonableness of his actions as a matter of law. As to the first argument, Eighth Circuit law tilts in favor of construing some of Johnson's filings as a motion to withdraw her admissions, and then granting that motion. As to the second argument, the evidence viewed in a light most favorable to Johnson would permit a reasonable fact-finder to conclude that Courtois's arrest and use of force were not objectively reasonable, precluding summary judgment in his favor on the basis of qualified immunity.

         I

         Courtois and Hamilton, both Minneapolis police officers, were working the bar beat shortly after midnight on May 18, 2014. Sautter Decl. Ex. 2 (“Hamilton Dep.”) at 9 [ECF No. 20-2]. They were in uniform working for Bar Louie in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis, where at least part of their duties entailed monitoring patrons as they waited in line to enter the bar. See Id. at 10, 16. Johnson was also outside Bar Louie that night, waiting in line with three companions, when she ran into an old friend whose first name is Duncan.[1] Sautter Decl. Ex. 1 (“Johnson Dep.”) at 33-34, 36, 38 [ECF No. 20-1]. Johnson and Duncan chatted briefly before Hamilton and Courtois approached. Id. at 36, 38.

         At the time, Johnson was unaware of the reason the officers approached. See Id. at 33. Apparently, shortly before Johnson arrived at Bar Louie, Hamilton had observed Duncan in line, pouring a substance Hamilton suspected was alcohol from a flask into a cup. Hamilton Dep. at 11. When Duncan saw Hamilton watching him, he set the cup down on a nearby bench and returned to the line. Id. at 12-13. Hamilton said something to get Duncan's attention, but Duncan ignored him. Id. at 13-14. At some point, Duncan sneaked back to the bench, took another drink, and again returned to the line. Id. at 14. Hamilton again tried to get Duncan's attention, this time shining his flashlight on the back of Duncan's head and calling out to him. Id. at 15. Eventually the two spoke, with Duncan saying everyone was doing it (“it” apparently meaning surreptitiously drinking while in line) and Hamilton telling Duncan to leave. Id. at 16. Duncan pretended he was leaving, but instead walked only to the end of the line. Id. at 16-18. Hamilton told him to come back, at which point Duncan walked away, toward the parking lot, “a little bit” intoxicated. Id. at 16, 19. Hamilton followed, and placed Duncan under arrest. Id. at 19. Duncan put his hands behind his back, and Hamilton grabbed them. Id.

         At that point, Johnson walked toward Hamilton and Duncan, with Courtois following behind Johnson. Id. at 18; Sautter Decl. Ex. 3 (“Courtois Dep.”) at 19 [ECF No. 20-3]. From there, participant and witness accounts diverge. Hamilton testified that Johnson somehow-and he is not exactly sure how-disconnected his hands from his grasp on Duncan, whom he had not yet handcuffed. Hamilton Dep. at 19-21. Hamilton says he told Johnson she needed to leave and that she could be arrested for obstruction, but that she continued standing where she was and telling Hamilton to wait. Id. at 21; Courtois Dep. at 20. Hamilton proceeded to escort Duncan to the squad car and to handcuff him. Hamilton Dep. at 22. Courtois observed that at this point Johnson was “[w]ithin a few feet” of Hamilton, Duncan, and himself, though he could not specify whether that meant a distance of one foot or somewhere short of six feet. Courtois Dep. at 22-23. Hamilton placed Duncan in the back of the squad car. Hamilton Dep. at 22. Because his attention was focused on Duncan, Hamilton did not see or hear anything more concerning Johnson or her interactions with Courtois until Johnson herself was being placed in the squad car following her own arrest a short time later. Id. at 23.

         Johnson denies she ever touched Hamilton. Johnson Dep. at 44-45. She testified that, as she watched his interaction with Duncan from her spot in line, she was concerned about why officers were arresting her friend because, based on what she knew at the time, “it seemed like it was completely out of the blue.” Id. at 33. She says by the time she reached Hamilton, he was already putting Duncan in handcuffs. Id. at 44. She asked Hamilton, “Why are you arresting my friend?” and when Hamilton ignored her, she repeated her question. Id. at 44-45. Johnson's deposition testimony reflects that it is at this point her encounter with Courtois began:

Q: Did he [Courtois] tell you anything?1
A: It's on the video. I don't remember verbatim what he said.
Q: What do you remember?
A: I remember him saying something on the lines of, “Do you want to be next, ” and then approaching me in a violent manner and shoving me.
Q: Did he tell you to walk away and leave them alone?
A: No.
Q: Did he tell you to leave?
A: He might have said something along those lines. And I think I may have said something like, “I have every right to stand right here, ” because I was nowhere near him, he started approaching me. And I was like, “Why are you approaching me? I have every right to stand right here.” So he was basically intimidating me to move for no apparent reason.
Q: Where was he and where was [Duncan] when he told you all this?
A: Well, I didn't know at the time, but he was handcuffed and he was on the police car. I didn't know that until after I had been arrested though.
Q: The officer who pushed you, was he between you and the other officer and [Duncan] --
A: No.
Q -- or was he somewhere else?
A: No. I had already started backing away from the situation, and he's the one who started aggressing me and pursuing me to the extent where he decided to come up and shove me.
Q: So [Duncan] was not --
A: No, he was not --
Q: -- behind him?
A: -- in my eyesight. He was not in the area in which this ...

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