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Estate of Armstrong v. Village of Pinehurst

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

January 11, 2016

THE ESTATE OF RONALD H. ARMSTRONG, by and through his Administratrix, Jinia Armstrong Lopez, Plaintiff - Appellant,
THE VILLAGE OF PINEHURST; OFFICER JERRY MCDONALD, In his official and individual capacity; OFFICER TINA S. SHEPPARD, In her official and individual capacity; OFFICER ARTHUR LEE GATLING, JR., In his official and individual capacity, Defendants - Appellees, and TASER INTERNATIONAL, INC., Defendant

Argued October 28, 2015

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, at Greensboro. (1:13-cv-00407-CCE-JLW). Catherine C. Eagles, District Judge.


Karonnie R. Truzy, CRUMLEY ROBERTS, LLP, Greensboro, North Carolina, for Appellant.

Dan McCord Hartzog, CRANFILL SUMNER & HARTZOG LLP, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellees.


David J. Ventura, CRUMLEY ROBERTS, LLP, Charlotte, North Carolina, for Appellant.

Dan M. Hartzog, Jr., CRANFILL SUMNER & HARTZOG LLP, Raleigh, North Carolina; Michael J. Newman, VAN CAMP, MEACHAM & NEWMAN PLLC, Pinehurst, North Carolina, for Appellees.

Before WILKINSON, KEENAN, and THACKER, Circuit Judges. Judge Thacker wrote the opinion, in which Judge Keenan joined. Judge Wilkinson wrote a separate opinion concurring in part.


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THACKER, Circuit Judge:

The Estate of Ronald H. Armstrong (" Appellant" when referring to the estate, or " Armstrong" when referring to the decedent) appeals an order granting summary judgment to the Village of Pinehurst, North Carolina, and Lieutenant Jerry McDonald, Sergeant Tina Sheppard, and Officer Arthur Gatling, Jr., of the Pinehurst Police Department (" Appellees" ). The district court determined that qualified immunity bars Appellant's claim that Appellees used excessive force when executing an involuntary commitment order, which required Armstrong's immediate hospitalization.

On review, we hold that Appellees used unconstitutionally excessive force when seizing Armstrong, but we, nevertheless, agree with the district court that Appellees are entitled to qualified immunity. We, therefore, affirm the grant of summary judgment in Appellees' favor on the grounds explained below.


We review the district court's grant of summary judgment de novo. See Henry v. Purnell, 652 F.3d 524, 531 (4th Cir. 2011) (en banc). We " determine de novo whether the facts . . . establish the deprivation of an actual constitutional right," Leverette v. Bell, 247 F.3d 160, 166 (4th Cir. 2001), and " [w]e review de novo an award of summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity," Durham v. Horner, 690 F.3d 183, 188 (4th Cir. 2012). " Summary judgment is appropriate only if taking the evidence and all reasonable inferences

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drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, 'no material facts are disputed and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'" Henry, 652 F.3d at 531 (quoting Ausherman v. Bank of Am. Corp., 352 F.3d 896, 899 (4th Cir. 2003)).



Ronald Armstrong suffered from bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia. On April 23, 2011, he had been off his prescribed medication for five days and was poking holes through the skin on his leg " to let the air out." J.A. 675.[1] His sister, Jinia Armstrong Lopez (" Lopez" ), worried by his behavior, convinced Armstrong to accompany her to Moore Regional Hospital (" Hospital" ) in Pinehurst, North Carolina. He willingly went to the Hospital and checked in, but " [d]uring the course of the evaluation he apparently became frightened and eloped from the [emergency department]." Id. Based on that flight and Lopez's report about his odd behavior over the previous week, the examining doctor judged Armstrong a danger to himself and issued involuntary commitment papers to compel his return. Armstrong's doctor could have, but did not, designate him a danger to others, checking only the box that reads " [m]entally ill and dangerous to self" on the commitment form. Id.

The Pinehurst police were called as soon as Armstrong left the Hospital, and three members of the department -- all Appellees in this case -- responded in short order. Officer Gatling appeared on the scene first, followed a minute or two later by Sergeant Sheppard. Lieutenant McDonald arrived about ten minutes after Sheppard. Armstrong had not traveled far when Gatling arrived. He was located near an intersection near the Hospital's main entrance.

When the police arrived, Armstrong's commitment order had not yet been finalized.[2] Therefore, Gatling and Sheppard engaged Armstrong in conversation. By all accounts, the parties were calm and cooperative at this point in time.

Armstrong was acting strangely, however. When Officer Gatling first initiated conversation, Armstrong was wandering across an active roadway that intersects with the Hospital's driveway. Gatling successfully convinced him to withdraw to the relative safety of the roadside, but Armstrong then proceeded to eat grass and dandelions, chew on a gauze-like substance, and put cigarettes out on his tongue while the police officers waited for the commitment order.

As soon as they learned that the commitment papers were complete, the three police officers surrounded and advanced toward Armstrong -- who reacted by sitting down and wrapping himself around a four-by-four post that was supporting a nearby stop sign. The officers tried to pry Armstrong's arms and legs off of the post, but he was wrapped too tightly and would not budge.

Immediately following finalization of the involuntary commitment order, in other words, ...

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