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Murphy v. Fields

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

October 23, 2019

Shakara Murphy, Plaintiff,
Benjamin Fields; Leon Lott, in his official capacity as the Sheriff of Richland County; Richland County Sheriff's Department; Richland County, Defendants.


          CAMERON MCGOWAN CURRIE, Senior United States District Judge.

         This matter is before the court on motions for summary judgment by Defendant Benjamin Fields (“Fields”) (ECF No. 42) and Defendants Leon Lott, the Richland County Sheriff's Department[1], and Richland County[2] (ECF No. 45). Plaintiff filed responses in opposition to the motions (ECF Nos. 53, 54) and Defendant Fields filed a reply (ECF No. 55). In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Civil Rule 73.02 (B)(2), D.S.C., this matter was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Paige J. Gossett for pre-trial proceedings and a Report and Recommendation (“Report”) on dispositive issues. On August 29, 2019, the Magistrate Judge issued a Report recommending the motions be granted in part as to abandoned claims, but denied as to the excessive force claim against Fields, and the negligence and gross negligence claims against the RCSD. ECF No. 59. The Magistrate Judge advised the parties of the procedures and requirements for filing objections to the Report and the serious consequences if they failed to do so. Defendants filed joint objections to the Report. ECF No. 60. Plaintiff filed a response in opposition to Defendants' objections. ECF No. 61.


         This case arises out of an incident at Spring Valley High School, in which a resource officer, Deputy Fields, was called to assist a teacher with an uncooperative student, Plaintiff Shakara Murphy. This incident occurred in teacher Robert Long's third period algebra class on October 26, 2015. ECF No. 42-4 at 51 (SLED Report). Long had noticed Plaintiff holding an electronic device prior to the start of class and asked her to put it away. ECF No. 42-2 at 12 (Long dep. at 19-20). Plaintiff placed the device in her book bag under her desk. Id. Long then instructed the students to open their laptops to complete an assignment. Id. at 15. Plaintiff asked to see her resource teacher, Ms. Bryant, for assistance with the assignment, pursuant to her individualized education program (“IEP”) for special needs. Id. at 10; ECF No. 42-5 at 16 (Plaintiff dep. at 58-59). Although Plaintiff's IEP stated teachers were required to allow Plaintiff to call for assistance from her resource teacher when she felt overwhelmed, Long denied this request.[4] ECF No. 42-5 at 59. Plaintiff then attempted to contact her resource teacher by email on her laptop, but Long closed the program from his own computer.[5] Id. at 59; ECF No. 42-2 at 16-19.

         After attempting approximately five questions without the aid of her resource teacher, Plaintiff stopped working on the assignment because she did not understand it. ECF No. 42-5 at 59. She testified she put her head down on her desk and started “fiddling with her fingernails” under her desk. Id. Long, however, believed she was using her electronic device[6] under her desk, and told her to put it away. Id. at 17-18. Plaintiff replied she did not have anything in her hand, but Long believed he saw a phone in her hand under the desk, told her to put it away, and threatened to write a disciplinary referral - despite Plaintiff's continued insistence she had nothing in her hand. Id. at 18. Plaintiff testified Long then began writing a referral and told her to leave the classroom, but called an administrator, KaRon Webb, to escort her.[7] Id.

         Webb came into the classroom and asked Plaintiff to leave with him, but Plaintiff protested because she believed she had not done anything wrong. ECF No. 42-3 at 8, 23-25 (Webb dep. at 13, 35-37). Despite Webb asking several times for her to leave the classroom, Plaintiff did not move from her desk. Id. Therefore, Webb called the school resource officer, Richland County Sheriff's Deputy Benjamin Fields, to assist in the classroom. Id. at 26. Webb and Fields discussed the situation outside the classroom before entering, and unsuccessfully attempted to contact a teacher or administrator familiar with Plaintiff to assist in defusing the situation. Id. at 27. Fields then decided to enter the classroom and remove Plaintiff. ECF No. 42-2 at 10 (Fields dep. at 11).

         When Fields entered the classroom, he engaged Plaintiff in conversation and asked why she would not leave her seat. Id. Plaintiff claimed she did nothing wrong, but Fields responded she was disrupting the class, had been asked several times to leave, and was being disrespectful. ECF No. 42-5 at 19-20. Fields asked her multiple times to get up and leave the classroom, but Plaintiff remained seated and did not say anything. Id. At that time, Fields testified he decided to arrest Plaintiff for disturbing schools because she had disrupted the classroom for so long. ECF No. 42-4 at 10. Fields testified Plaintiff was only passively resisting by holding on to her desk, and was not a physical threat to any person or property. Id. at 12. He testified he needed to “subdue” Plaintiff to effect the arrest, [8] and asked the student sitting in front of Plaintiff to move out of his seat. Id. at 10, 12.

         Fields then approached Plaintiff, still seated at her desk, grabbed her left arm and pulled her (and the desk) towards him. ECF No. 53-4 (cell phone videos 1 and 2). He then put his right arm under Plaintiff's chin, put his left hand under her left leg, and, standing behind Plaintiff, flipped her and the desk backwards. Id. As she was falling, Plaintiff's right hand struck Fields in the neck or head; however, it is unclear and disputed whether this was intentional or inadvertent. Id.; but see ECF No. 42-4 at 10, 39. Plaintiff landed on her back, still seated in her desk. ECF No. 53-4. Fields testified Plaintiff was resisting arrest by “fighting and flailing” at this point. ECF No. 42-4 at 41. Fields then grabbed her arm with his right hand and her left leg with his left hand and pulled her out of the desk and dragged or threw her to the front of the room.[9] ECF No. 53-4.

         Fields testified Plaintiff continued to punch him in the chest at the front of the classroom, and he was only able to handcuff one of her hands until another deputy arrived and assisted in applying the handcuffs.[10] ECF No. 42-4 at 45-46. Plaintiff suffered a hairline fracture to her right wrist and carpet burn on her head. ECF No. 53-2 at 13, 19 (Plaintiff dep. at 75, 112). She required physical therapy for her injuries, and counseling in the aftermath. Id. at 15, 17-18.


         The Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to this court. The recommendation has no presumptive weight, and the responsibility to make a final determination remains with the court. See Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261 (1976). The court is charged with making a de novo determination of any portion of the Report of the Magistrate Judge to which a specific objection is made. The court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the recommendation made by the Magistrate Judge or recommit the matter to the Magistrate Judge with instructions. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b).

         Summary judgment should be granted 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). It is well established that summary judgment should be granted “only when it is clear that there is no dispute concerning either the facts of the controversy or the inferences to be drawn from those facts.” Pulliam Inv. Co. v. Cameo Properties, 810 F.2d 1282, 1286 (4th Cir. 1987). The party moving for summary judgment has the burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, and the court must view the evidence before it and the inferences to be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962).


         1. Defendant Fields' Motion

         a. Conceded claims

         Plaintiff has conceded she does not oppose summary judgment on the following issues: probable cause to arrest, qualified immunity as to an officer's decision to make an arrest, and her SCTCA claim against Fields in his individual capacity. ECF No. 53 at 6. Therefore, as recommended by the Magistrate Judge, summary judgment is granted as to these claims and they are dismissed with prejudice.

         b. Excessive Force claim

         Plaintiff alleges Defendant Fields used excessive force in effecting her arrest, in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Fields argues he is entitled to qualified immunity. The Magistrate Judge found Fields did not establish he is entitled to qualified immunity because a reasonable officer would understand the force used in this case - if Plaintiff's version of the facts is accepted by the jury - violated her Fourth Amendment rights. ECF No. 59 at 17.

         Qualified immunity shields government officials from liability in a § 1983 lawsuit unless their conduct violates “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” E.W. by and through T.W. v. Dolgos, 884 F.3d 172, 178 (4th Cir. 2018) (citing Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009)). “To determine whether an officer is entitled to qualified immunity, the court must examine (1) whether the plaintiff has demonstrated that the officer violated a constitutional right and (2) whether that right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation.” Id.

         In his objections, Fields argues the Report conflates the two prongs of this test, and concludes the “report never analyzes the facts and circumstances of a case to demonstrate that the state of the law in 2015 clearly indicates that Fields' conduct was objectionably unreasonable.” ECF No. 60 at 3-4. Fields further argues the Report did not properly consider the “totality of the circumstances during the incident and measure the proportionality of the force in light of the circumstances, ” and that the cases cited in the Report are not specific enough to qualify as clearly established law governing Fields' conduct. Id. at 9-14.

         In response, Plaintiff argues the Report's conclusion regarding qualified immunity is correct, as precedent with identical facts is not required to clearly establish a constitutional right, and the cases cited in the Report are analogous to the facts of this case. ECF No. 61 at 3-8.

         i. Violation of ...

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