By Taylor Anderson
On January 11, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued its published opinion regarding the civil case Estate of Ronald Armstrong v. Village of Pinehurst. The estate of Ronald H. Armstrong (“Appellant”), appealed the district court’s order granting summary judgment to various appellees, including the Village of Pinehurst, North Carolina (“Pinehurst”), Lieutenant Jerry McDonald (“Lieutenant McDonald”), Sergeant Tina Sheppard (“Sergeant Sheppard”), and Officer Arthur Gatling, Jr. (“Officer Gatling”). The Fourth Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment in appellees’ favor, holding that the appellees were entitled to qualified immunity in this case.
Police Intervene After Ronald H. Armstrong’s Hospital Incident
On April 23, 2011, Ronald H. Armstrong (“Armstrong”), who suffered from bipolar and paranoid schizophrenia, had been off of his prescribed medication for five days and was acting strange. His sister, Jinia Armstrong Lopez (“Lopez”) convinced Armstrong to accompany her to Moor Regional Hospital (“Hospital”) in Pinehurst, North Carolina. Armstrong willingly went to the Hospital and checked in, but during the course of evaluation, Armstrong became frightened and fled the emergency department. The examining doctor determined Armstrong to be a danger to himself and issued involuntary commitment papers to compel Armstrong’s return.
Lieutenant McDonald, Sergeant Sheppard, and Officer Gatling (collectively, “Appellees”) responded to this dispatch. When the Appellees arrived at Armstrong’s location, they engaged in conversation with Armstrong because the commitment order had not yet been finalized. As soon as the Appellees learned that the commitment papers were complete, they surrounded and advanced toward Armstrong. Armstrong reacted by sitting down and wrapping himself around a post that was supporting a nearby stop sign. The Appellees struggled to remove Armstrong from the post.
After about thirty seconds or so after struggling to remove Armstrong from the post, Appellees tasered Armstrong five separate times over a period of approximately two minutes. Shortly after the tasing ceased, Appellees removed Armstrong from the post and laid him facedown on the ground. During the struggle, Armstrong complained that he was being choked; however, no witness saw the police apply any chokeholds. Because of Armstrong’s continued resistance, Appellees handcuffed Armstrong and shackled Armstrong’s legs too. Appellees stood up to collect themselves and left Armstrong facedown in the grass. When the Appellees flipped Armstrong over, they saw that Armstrong’s skin had turned a bluish color and he did not appear to be breathing. Two of the Appellees administered CPR and the other radioed dispatch to send Emergency Medical Services. Armstrong was pronounced dead shortly after arriving to the hospital.
Based on the foregoing event, Appellant filed a complaint, suing each police officer involved in Armstrong’s seizure, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Appellees used excessive force. The district court granted summary judgment to Appellees, reasoning that “[i]t is highly doubtful that the evidence establishes a constitutional violation at all, but assuming it does, the defendants are entitled to qualified immunity.” Appellant filed a timely notice of appeal.
Appellant Established the Violation of a Constitutional Right
The Fourth Circuit began its “qualified immunity analysis” by pointing out that this analysis involves two inquires: (1) whether the plaintiff has established the violation of a constitutional right, and (2) whether that right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation. Appellant’s case would survive summary judgment only if the Fourth Circuit answered both questions in the affirmative.
Turning to the first inquiry, the Fourth Circuit held that the Appellees conduct violated Armstrong’s Fourth Amendment right. Using the “objective reasonableness” standard as well as the factors enunciated in Graham v. Connor, the Fourth Circuit held that the level of force Appellees chose to use was not objectively reasonable because Appellees were merely confronted with a situation involving a few exigencies that justified only a limited degree of force. Tasing Armstrong exceeded this permissible, limited degree of force. The Fourth Circuit stated, “[i]mmediately tasing a non-criminal, mentally ill individual, who seconds before had been conversational, was not a proportional response.” For this reason, Appellees were not entitled to summary judgment on the question of whether they violated the Constitution because, viewing the record in the light more favorable to Appellant, Appellees used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit answered the first question of its “qualified immunity analysis” in the affirmative.
Appellees Entitled to Qualified Immunity
Turning to the second inquiry, the Fourth Circuit held that Armstrong’s specific Fourth Amendment right was not “clearly established” at the time of Appellees’ alleged violation. For this reason, the Fourth Circuit held that Appellees were entitled to qualified immunity; therefore, the Fourth Circuit nevertheless affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to Appellees.
Using Fourth Circuit precedent, the court stated that qualified immunity shields government officials from liability for civil damages, provided that their conduct does not violate “clearly established” statutory or constitutional rights within the knowledge of a reasonable person. The inquiry into whether a constitutional right is “clearly established” required that the Fourth Circuit first define the precise right into which it was inquiring. After defining that right, the court had to determine whether that right was clearly established at the time Appellees acted. A right satisfies this standard when it is “sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.” Therefore, if the constitutional right was “clearly established” at the time Appellees acted, Appellees were not entitled to qualified immunity.
The Fourth Circuit had no trouble in defining the precise right into which it was inquiring. The constitutional right in this case was Armstrong’s right not to be subjected to tasing while offering stationary and non-violent resistance to a lawful seizure.
However, once the Fourth Circuit turned to the second question as to whether this constitutional right not to be tased was “clearly established,” it held that the defined constitutional right was not so settled at the time that Appellees acted such that every reasonable official would have understood that tasing Armstrong was unconstitutional. The Fourth Circuit looked to tasing cases from other circuits when discussing how the law—in relation to tasing and excessive force—was unsettled at the time Appellees tased Armstrong; thus, not every reasonable official would have understood tasing was unconstitutional in this situation. For this reason, the Fourth Circuit concluded that Armstrong’s right not to be tased while offering stationary and non-violent resistant to a lawful seizure was not “clearly established” on the date he was seized. For this reason, the Fourth Circuit held that Appellees were entitled to qualified immunity.
The Fourth Circuit held that Appellees used unconstitutionally excessive force when seizing Armstrong, but the Fourth Circuit, nevertheless, agreed with the district court that Appellees were entitled to qualified immunity. For this reason, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s order granting Appellees’ motion for summary judgment.
One judge concurred in part as to the majority’s analysis of the Appellees’ qualified immunity defense; however, this judge wrote a concurring opinion to express his concern over the majority’s discussion on the merits of the excessive force claim. This judge felt as though the excessive force discussion was unnecessary and unwise.