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Author: Benjamin Sparks
Recently, in Taylor v. City of Milford, on August 19, 2021, the Seventh Circuit reversed a district court’s grant of qualified immunity at summary judgment, where a police officer responded to a 9-1-1 call requesting an ambulance in response to the dangerously low blood sugar of Steven Taylor, a 61-year-old diabetic.
Steven’s wife, Gloria, called 9-1-1 one week after Steven had come home from the hospital after being treated for a heart attack. When Gloria called 9-1-1, she requested an ambulance, reporting that Steven had dropped a plate and informed her that he was “having a sugar spell.” There are no full-time firefighters or EMS personnel in the City of Milford, but two volunteer EMTs responded to the dispatch, making their way to the fire station to collect an ambulance. On their way, they passed Officer Garrett—the sole full-time police officer in the City of Milford—who indicated he would respond because he was close to the Taylor residence. Officer Garrett was a certified paramedic, and had previously volunteered as an EMT in a different city.
The Seventh Circuit found that there were some factual disputes about what exactly transpired in the time between Officer Garrett’s arrival and the time that the ambulance arrived. However, it was undisputed that Officer Garrett confronted Steven in his bedroom and placed him in a prone restraint on the bed—with his chest and face on the bed and his knees on the ground. Steven then vomited and lost consciousness either before or shortly after EMTs arrived. He did not regain consciousness and died in the hospital 10 days later.
Officer Garrett testified that the reason he placed Steven in a prone position—which he did using pressure points and control techniques—was to stop Steven from being a harm to himself. Officer Garrett conceded that Steven did not pose a threat to him. However, he testified that he saw Steven stumbling into walls, and taking an aggressive stance such that he may pose a danger. Officer Garrett also testified that Steven seemed to be actively resisting as he was placed into and kept in the prone position. At some point, Steven asked for a glass of orange juice, which his niece retrieved, but Officer Garrett did not allow her to give it to Steven. Officer Garrett maintained that Steven was not making sense and was incoherent. The plaintiffs’ expert, Steven’s treating physician, testified that all of Steven’s conduct was consistent with the symptomatology of hypoglycemia.
Steven’s wife, individually and on behalf of his estate, sued Officer Garrett and the City of Milford under, among other theories, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). The district court dismissed the case at summary judgment. On appeal, the Estate challenged only the district court’s ruling that granted Officer Garrett qualified immunity.
Turning to the issue of whether Officer Garrett was entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law, the Seventh Circuit first held that “a reasonable jury could conclude that Garrett violated Steven’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures when Garrett applied deadly force to a non-suspect civilian who was not resisting arrest and did not pose an imminent threat to any officer, bystander, or himself.” The court reasoned that Officer Garrett seized Steven within the ambit of the Fourth Amendment, and it characterized the “nature and quality” of the seizure as “severe” because he “aggressively restrained Steven for several minutes using his full body and police tactics intended to inflict pain and induce submission to the officer’s will despite the fact that Steven was not a threat to him.” The court also noted that Officer Garrett did not check Steven’s vital signs, respond to alleged pleas by Steven that he could not breathe, or allow him to have a glass of orange juice.
The court next addressed whether the law was clearly established at the time of the incident. On this prong of the analysis, the Court found that there were several material issues of fact. However, the court went on to reason that, taking the plaintiffs’ version of the facts, clearly established Fourth Amendment case law in 2016 would have clearly prohibited Officer Garrett’s conduct.
First, the court referenced cases in which courts had previously identified hands-on use of force tactics as objectively unreasonable where the subjects of the force were innocent civilians who did not provoke law enforcement. Second, the court cited to cases where courts found force to be objectively unreasonable because the force was applied after any potential threat had been subdued. Third, the court went on to cite a line of cases establishing that, “[t]hough a medical emergency may in some cases justify the use of force when providing medical aid, we reject the notion that responding to a medical emergency gives police officers an absolute license to disregard the Fourth Amendment.” Taking these three groups of case law together, the court concluded that “it was clearly established by 2016 that an officer who forcibly restrained a civilian who was not a suspect of a crime and who did not pose a threat to those around him, resulting in vomiting and loss of consciousness before the officer released the civilian, violated that civilian’s Fourth Amendment rights.”
The Seventh Circuit further identified multiple disputes of fact that impacted how any one of these case law areas might apply to this case, including whether the force used was objectively reasonable, whether the tactics Officer Garrett used served any medical purpose, and whether Steven’s conduct posed any type of threat to Officer Garrett.
Following its denial of qualified immunity, the Seventh Circuit interestingly noted that this case was one of the “rare” classes of cases where an officer could apply for qualified immunity following trial. As such, the court advised the district court to use a “specific jury verdict form to probe the facts that the jury finds to aid on any post-verdict determination of qualified immunity.”
Finally, the court addressed Officer Garrett’s argument that the plaintiffs could not establish causation as a matter of law. The court held that causation—i.e., that Officer Garrett caused Steven’s death—did not require testimony in this case, although the plaintiff presented two experts on the topic. In that vein, the court noted that even to the extent that the defense experts could establish that the plaintiff’s pre-existing health conditions were the sole reason he could not regain consciousness, the common law “eggshell skull” (that a tortfeasor must take the victim as he or she presents at the time of the incident) coupled with the plaintiffs’ expert testimony sufficed to raise genuine disputes of fact on causation.