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Waters v. Stewart

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Florence Division

March 13, 2019

Thomas Bradford Waters, Plaintiff,
Lake City Police Officer John Stewart and Lake City Police Officer Mark Strickland, Defendants.



         Plaintiff Thomas Bradford Waters brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 asserting claims relating to his arrest and detention on March 12, 2015. Before filing this action, Plaintiff had been indicted, tried, and convicted in this District for being a felon in possession of a firearm; his conviction stemmed from the March 2015 arrest. The Court issued an order granting Defendants' motion for summary judgment as to Plaintiff's unlawful seizure and civil conspiracy claims, reserving a ruling on his excessive force claims, and permitting the two remaining Defendants-Lake City Police Officers John Stewart and Mark Strickland-to supplement their motion as to the excessive force claims. See ECF No. 184. Defendants then filed a supplemental motion with additional argument and evidence. See ECF No. 206. Plaintiff filed a response in opposition. See ECF No. 222.

         The matter is now before the Court for consideration of Plaintiff's objections to the Report and Recommendation (“R & R”) of United States Magistrate Judge Thomas E. Rogers, III, who recommends granting Defendants' supplemental motion for summary judgment and dismissing the excessive force claims with prejudice.[1] See ECF Nos. 228 & 232.

         Legal Standards

         I. Review of the R & R

         The Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to the Court. The Magistrate Judge's recommendation has no presumptive weight, and the responsibility to make a final determination remains with the Court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270-71 (1976). The Court must conduct a de novo review of those portions of the R & R to which specific objections are made, and it may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the recommendation of the Magistrate Judge or recommit the matter with instructions. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b).

         The Court must engage in a de novo review of every portion of the Magistrate Judge's report to which objections have been filed. Id. However, the Court need not conduct a de novo review when a party makes only “general and conclusory objections that do not direct the [C]ourt to a specific error in the [M]agistrate [Judge]'s proposed findings and recommendations.” Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982). In the absence of specific objections to the R & R, the Court reviews only for clear error, Diamond v. Colonial Life & Acc. Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005), and the Court need not give any explanation for adopting the Magistrate Judge's recommendation. Camby v. Davis, 718 F.2d 198, 199-200 (4th Cir. 1983).

         II. Summary Judgment

         Summary judgment is appropriate when no genuine issue of material fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Reyazuddin v. Montgomery Cty., Md., 789 F.3d 407, 413 (4th Cir. 2015); see Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a) (“The court shall grant summary judgment 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.”). “A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by: (A) citing to particular parts of materials in the record . . .; or (B) showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). The facts and inferences to be drawn from the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, Reyazuddin, 789 F.3d at 413, but the Court “cannot weigh the evidence or make credibility determinations.” Jacobs v. N.C. Admin. Office of the Courts, 780 F.3d 562, 569 (4th Cir. 2015).

         Moreover, “the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986). “A dispute of material fact is ‘genuine' if sufficient evidence favoring the non-moving party exists for the trier of fact to return a verdict for that party.” Seastrunk v. United States, 25 F.Supp.3d 812, 814 (D.S.C. 2014). A fact is “material” if proof of its existence or nonexistence would affect disposition of the case under the applicable law. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

         At the summary judgment stage, “the moving party must demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Once the moving party has met his burden, the nonmoving party must come forward with some evidence beyond the mere allegations contained in the pleadings to show that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Baber v. Hosp. Corp. of Am., 977 F.2d 872, 874-75 (4th Cir. 1992) (internal citation omitted). Summary judgment is not warranted unless, “from the totality of the evidence, including pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and affidavits, the [C]ourt believes no genuine issue of material fact exists for trial and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Whiteman v. Chesapeake Appalachia, L.L.C., 729 F.3d 381, 385 (4th Cir. 2013); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986).


         As explained in the Court's two prior orders, [2] Plaintiff's only remaining claims are his excessive force claims and the only remaining defendants are John Stewart and Mark Strickland (collectively, “Defendants”), the two Lake City police officers who arrested him on the evening of March 12, 2015. See ECF Nos. 184 & 220. Specifically, as the Magistrate Judge explains, “the only issues left in this case are Plaintiff's claims of excessive force during [1] his arrest and [2] then after their arrival at the detention center.” R & R [ECF No. 228] at p. 10. The Magistrate Judge recommends granting Defendants' supplemental motion for summary judgment as to both excessive force claims. Id. at pp. 10-19. Plaintiff has filed objections to the R & R. See Pl.'s Objs. [ECF No. 232].[3] Defendants have not filed a response to Plaintiff's objections.

         Again, Plaintiff alleges two instances of excessive force: (1) tasing and handcuffing at the arrest scene and (2) tasing at the jail. See Verified Complaint [ECF No. 1]. The Court will address each claim below in conjunction with Plaintiff's objections.

         I. First Claim: Use of Force at Arrest Scene

         A. Applicable Law

         The Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable seizures bars the use of excessive force on free citizens, whether it be “in the course of an arrest, investigatory stop, or other ‘seizure.'” Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 395 (1989); see Wilson v. Prince George's Cty., 893 F.3d 213, 219 (4th Cir. 2018). The Court must apply an “objective reasonableness” standard in determining whether an officer has used excessive force when seizing a free citizen. E.W. by & through T.W. v. Dolgos, 884 F.3d 172, 179 (4th Cir. 2018). “The question is whether a reasonable officer in the same circumstances would have concluded that a threat existed justifying the particular use of force.” Anderson v. Russell, 247 F.3d 125, 129 (4th Cir. 2001).

         This objective inquiry is based on the totality of the circumstances, and it requires an examination of the officer's actions in light of the facts and circumstances confronting him, without regard to his underlying intent or motivation-subjective motives, intent, and/or propensities are irrelevant. Dolgos, 884 F.3d 179. The Court “must give careful attention to the facts and circumstances of each particular case, including three factors in particular: [1] the severity of the crime at issue, [2] whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and [3] whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.” Smith v. Ray, 781 F.3d 95, 101 (4th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted) (“Graham factors”). “Evaluating the reasonableness of the officer's actions requires a careful balancing of the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual's Fourth Amendment interests against the countervailing governmental interests at stake.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

         B. Analysis

         Plaintiff and Defendants agree that Plaintiff was tased and handcuffed at the arrest scene. However, the parties disagree as to certain facts about the tasing and handcuffing.

         Plaintiff's version of the facts is located in his verified complaint[4] and testimony at the suppression hearing in his criminal case.[5] See Ver. Compl. at p. 3; United States v. Waters, No. 4:15-cr-00158-BHH-1, Suppression Transcript [ECF No. 96] at pp. 75-82 (D.S.C.). Plaintiff alleges he was standing in his yard when Stewart and Strickland jumped out their cars, ran up to him with their guns pointed at him, and told him to get on the ground. Ver. Compl. at p. 3; Suppr. Tr. at p. 76-77, 80. He claims both Defendants “shot me multiple times all from the back while I was face down on the ground. I was hit 4 times with an electronic stun gun/taser. This was done while I was unarmed[, ] on the ground[, ] and not being a threat to either officer.” Ver. Compl. at p. 3. Plaintiff asserts he was tased “once in the back, once in the back of my right hand, once in the back of my left hand, and once in the back of my right leg.” Id. He further alleges that “Stewart also put the handcuffs on super tight cutting my wrist all up, and makeing [sic] me lose feeling in both of my hands for hours.” Id. Plaintiff has also submitted photographs of his alleged injuries. See ECF Nos. 1-1 & 15-1.[6]

         Defendants' version of the facts is located in their summary judgment affidavits, testimony at the suppression hearing, and testimony at Plaintiff's criminal trial. See Stewart Affidavit [ECF No. 206-3]; Strickland Affidavit [ECF No. 206-4]; Suppr. Tr. at pp. 3-64; United States v. Waters, No. 4:15-cr-00158-BHH-1, Trial Transcript [ECF No. 142] at pp. 38-85.[7] They assert Plaintiff had a gun, refused to get on the ground or raise his hands, resisted Stewart's efforts to handcuff him, reached for a gun in his back ...

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