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Coronado v. Olsen

United States District Court, D. Utah

February 15, 2019

FERNANDO CORONADO and TABETHTHA CORONADO, Plaintiffs,
v.
K. OLSEN and JACOB HILL, West Valley City Police Officers, and WEST VALLEY CITY, a political subdivision, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER DENYING MOTION TO DISMISS IN PART

          Clark Waddoups, United States District Judge

         Before the court is the motion to dismiss by the defendants K. Olsen, Jacob Hill, and West Valley City ("Defendants"), which seeks to dismiss all claims that the plaintiffs, Fernando Coronado and Tabeththa Corondao ("Plaintiffs") have filed against them. The motion has been fully briefed, and this court heard argument on the same on January 24, 2019. Having reviewed the pleadings and materials submitted and considered the arguments of counsel, the court now enters this order DENYING in part and GRANTING in part Defendant's motion to dismiss.

         BACKGROUND[1]

         On August 3, 2016, Tabeththa Coronado ("Mrs. Coronado") and her husband, Fernando Coronado ("Mr. Coronado") were having marital difficulties. Am. Compl. at ¶¶ 13-14, ECF No. 3. On that date, Mr. Coronado was depressed, "inebriated, disorientated, and in emotional distress" and had threatened suicide, and Mrs. Coronado called 911 for assistance. Id. at ¶¶ 13-16, 24. Officers from West Valley City's Special Weapons and Tactics ("SWAT") unit, including Defendants K. Olsen and Jacob Hill (the "Defendant Officers"), responded to Plaintiffs' residence, a fourth floor apartment. Id. at ¶¶ 17-18. Plaintiffs' apartment is accessed by an open-air cement landing, and open-air stairwells are located on the landing's north and south ends. Id. at ¶¶ 19, 34; see also Footage of Coronado Encounter, ECF No. 18-1, at 0:00-0:26. Up to a dozen officers in full armor and SWAT equipment positioned themselves on both stairwells. ECF No. 3 at ¶ 19. Officers spoke to Mr. Coronado through his closed apartment door for a period of time, and eventually Mr. Coronado exited his apartment and came out onto the landing. Id. at ¶ 18. When Mr. Coronado exited this apartment, he wore only a pair of shorts; he was barefoot, naked from the waste up, and clearly unarmed. Id. at ¶¶ 20, 22. Once Mr. Coronado exited his apartment, the officers began giving him overlapping orders, which he did not follow. Id. at ¶¶ 21, 23-27; see ECF No. 18-1 at 0:00-0:49. Mr. Coronado was never told that he was under arrest. ECF No. 3 at ¶ 28; see ECF No. 18-1 at 0:00-0:49.

         While Mr. Coronado was conversing with officers positioned on the stairwell closest to his apartment, the Defendant Officers came onto the landing via the opposite stairwell. See ECF No. 18-1 at 0:20-0:49. The Defendant Officers approached Mr. Coronado on the landing with their Tasers out and ready to deploy. ECF No. 3 at ¶ 31; see ECF No. 18-1 at 0:20-0:49. The overlapping events that commenced over the next five seconds serve as the basis for Plaintiffs' amended complaint and govern Defendants' motion to dismiss. See ECF No. 18-1 at 0:44-0:49.

         Once the Defendant Officers were on the landing, Mr. Coronado turned to them and took approximately three steps in their direction.[2] See ECF No. 18-1 at 0:44-0:49. As Mr. Coronado was taking those steps, the Defendant Officers ordered him to "get on the ground." See ECF No. 18-1 at 0:45-0:47. Mr. Coronado did not comply with the Defendant Officers' first two commands, and during the third recitation of the command, one of the Defendant Officers deployed his Taser, which struck Mr. Coronado in the torso. See id.; see also ECF No. 3 at ¶ 71. The other Defendant Officer deployed his Taser immediately thereafter, which also struck Mr. Coronado in the torso. See ECF No. 18-1 at 0:47-0:48. Mr. Coronado collapsed and fell forward, striking his head on the floor of the landing and a door. See ECF No. 18-1 at 0:47-0:49; see also ECF No. 3 at ¶¶ 72-73. Mr. Coronado suffered serious injuries from the fall.

         On February 21, 2018, Plaintiffs initiated this civil rights action against Defendants, alleging excessive force and unconstitutional policies under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, flagrant violation of rights under Article I, § 14 of the Utah Constitution, and loss of consortium. Defendants ask this court to dismiss each of Plaintiffs' claims.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         "To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Emps. 'Ret. Sys. of R.1. v. Williams Cos., Inc., 889 F.3d 1153, 1161 (10th Cir. 2018) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Free Speech v. Fed. Election Comm 'n, 720 F.3d 788, 792 (10th Cir. 2013) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). In assessing Defendants' motion, this court must "accept as true 'all well-pleaded factual allegations in a complaint and view these allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff" Schrock v. Wyeth, Inc., 727 F.3d 1273, 1280 (10th Cir. 2013) (quoting Kerber v. Qwest Grp. Life Ins. Plan, 647 F.3d 950, 959 (10th Cir. 2011)).

         DISCUSSION

         A. The Defendants Officers' use of force was not objectionably reasonable.

         Claims of excessive force are evaluated using an objective-reasonableness standard, where a court must ask "whether the officers' actions are 'objectively reasonable' in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to their underlying intent or motivation." Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396-97 (1989). "The 'reasonableness' of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight" and "depends on whether the totality of the circumstances justified the conduct at issue." Id. at 396 (internal citations omitted). The Supreme Court has instructed courts tasked with determining the reasonableness of officers' actions to pay "careful attention to the facts and circumstances of each particular case" and has provided three factors that should be considered in making the decisions: "the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight." Id. (citing Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 8-9 (1985)). Defendants assert that Plaintiffs' claims should be dismissed because as a matter of law, the Defendant Officers' use of a Taser against Mr. Coronado in this situation was objectively reasonable. This court disagrees.

         On a motion to dismiss, this court must accept as true all of Plaintiffs' well-pled factual allegations and view those allegations in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs. See Schrock, 727 F.3d at 1280. Thus, for purposes of this motion, the court accepts Plaintiffs' assertion that "[Mr.] Coronado neither expressed nor exhibited any aggression toward the officers" and rejects Defendants allegation that Mr. Coronado "aggressively lunged towards" the officers. Compare ECF No. 3, at ¶ 37 with ECF No. 18, at p. 5, ¶ 10. Defendants attempt to minimalize the importance of this distinction, asserting that "[ultimately, how the parties characterize [Mr. Coronado's] actions is not relevant to the motion. As shown in the video and alleged in the Amended Complaint, [Mr. Coronado] moved towards the officers. That is all that is necessary for the West Valley Defendants' motion." See Defs.' Reply in Supp. of Mot to Dismiss, ECF No. 29, at p. 5. This court refuses to find that as a matter of law, it is objectively reasonable for officers to taser any suspect who moves towards them-such a broad sentiment does not pay homage to "the facts and circumstances of [a] particular case." See Graham, 490 U.S. at 396. Rather, the reasonableness of the Defendant Officers' conduct must be determined by analyzing the specific facts and actions of this situation under the three Graham factors.

         The first Graham factor concerns the severity of the crime at issue. See Id. Defendants assert that this factor weighs in their favor because Mr. Coronado was "a threat to himself and others," was "drunk, disoriented and mentally disturbed," "had threatened suicide," "refused to comply with repeated instructions by officers to get on the ground and surrender," and "subsequently[] pled guilty to threatening with or using a weapon in a fight." See ECF No. 18, at p. 9. Clearly, it was not a crime for Mr. Coronado to be disoriented and mentally disturbed, nor was it a crime for him to be drunk in his own home. Further, because reasonableness of force "must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene" only the knowledge that the officers gained from Mrs. Coronado's 911 call or from their observations on the scene are relevant. See Graham, 490 U.S. at 396 (emphasis added). Mr. Coronado's subsequent guilty plea to threatening with a weapon could not have been known to the officers at the time they tased Mr. Coronado and is therefore irrelevant to this analysis. While Mr. Coronado's refusal to comply with officers' instructions may have amounted to a misdemeanor, this minor offense is at least partially mitigated by the fact that during his interactions with Defendants, Mr. Coronado was never told that he was under arrest. See ECF No. 3 at ΒΆΒΆ 28, 32. While threatening suicide is a serious matter, it is not a crime, and the severity of this offense was diminished by the fact that Mr. ...


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