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Bryant v. Mascara

United States District Court, S.D. Florida

May 16, 2017

VIOLA BRYANT, as Personal Representative of the Estate of GREGORY VAUGHN HILL, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
SHERIFF KEN MASCARA, in his Official Capacity as Sheriff of St. Lucie County and CHRISTOPHER NEWMAN, Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT FILED BY DEFENDANT MASCARA AND DENYING MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT FILED BY DEFENDANT NEWMAN

          ROBIN L. ROSENBERG, DISTRICT COURT JUDGE

         Defendant Christopher Newman-a Sheriff's Deputy-fatally shot Gregory Vaughn Hill, Jr. through Mr. Hill's garage door while responding to a noise complaint. This case, which arises out of Mr. Hill's death, was brought by Mr. Hill's estate through Ms. Viola Bryant. The Complaint contains claims against Defendant Newman in his individual capacity and against Sheriff Ken Mascara in his official capacity as Sheriff of St. Lucie County. Both Defendants have moved for summary judgment. The summary judgment motions are ripe for ruling. The Court has considered all relevant filings and the argument heard in this matter on May 4, 2017. Defendant Newman's Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED and Defendant Mascara's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART.

         I. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate 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). The existence of a factual dispute is not by itself sufficient grounds to defeat a motion for summary judgment; rather, “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 is genuine if “a reasonable trier of fact could return judgment for the non-moving party.” Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Fla. v. United States, 516 F.3d 1235, 1243 (11th Cir. 2008) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-48). A fact is material if “it would affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Id. (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-48).

         In deciding a summary judgment motion, the Court views the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draws all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. See Davis v. Williams, 451 F.3d 759, 763 (11th Cir. 2006). The Court does not weigh conflicting evidence. See Skop v. City of Atlanta, 485 F.3d 1130, 1140 (11th Cir. 2007). Thus, upon discovering a genuine dispute of material fact, the Court must deny summary judgment. See id.

         The moving party bears the initial burden of showing the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. See Shiver v. Chertoff, 549 F.3d 1342, 1343 (11th Cir. 2008). Once the moving party satisfies this burden, “the nonmoving party ‘must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.'” Ray v. Equifax Info. Servs., LLC, 327 F. App'x 819, 825 (11th Cir. 2009) (quoting Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986)). Instead, “[t]he non-moving party must make a sufficient showing on each essential element of the case for which he has the burden of proof.” Id. (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986)). Accordingly, the non-moving party must produce evidence, going beyond the pleadings, to show that a reasonable jury could find in favor of that party. See Shiver, 549 F.3d at 1343.

         II. BACKGROUND

         A. Events Preceding the Shooting.

         The Court begins with the undisputed facts leading up to Gregory Hill's death: On January 14, 2014, Ms. Stefani Mills was picking up her son and her nieces from Francis K. Sweet elementary school. DE 68-2 at 9:11-25, 10:19-24. Ms. Mills phoned in a noise complaint about music emanating from the garage of a home near the school. Id. at 12:1-9, 20:1-5. Deputy Sheriff Newman and Deputy Sheriff Lopez responded to the complaint. DE 68-1 at 20:19-25, 21:1-6. At approximately 3:00 p.m., Deputy Newman and Deputy Lopez arrived at 1501 Avenue Q, Ft. Pierce, Florida, Gregory Hill's residence. Id. at 22:21-25. When the officers arrived, the garage door was closed. Id. at 51:22-25. Deputy Newman and Deputy Lopez banged on the garage door. DE 68-1 at 25:9-11.

         Here, however, factual conflicts begin to emerge. The only two individuals able to offer a comprehensive account of the events that followed are Deputy Newman, one of the Defendants, and Deputy Lopez, who accompanied Deputy Newman to the residence. The only other witness to the entire series of events, Mr. Hill, was killed. Accordingly, the Court begins by laying out Deputy Newman's account of the shooting. The Court then addresses record evidence creating genuine disputes of material fact with regard to Deputy Newman's account and discusses the inferences the Court must draw in Plaintiff's favor in light of those disputes.

         B. Deputy Newman's Account of the Shooting.

         When no one responded, Deputy Newman walked to the front door. Id. at 25:13-14. Deputy Lopez remained near the garage. Id. at 25:13-15. Deputy Newman pulled the screen over the door open and knocked. Id. at 25:17-20. Deputy Newman “didn't hear anything.” Id. at 25:17-18. He then took out his “ASP”-a baton-and “used the end . . . to bang on the door so [Gregory Hill] could hear . . .” Id. at 25:18-20. The music got louder. Id. at 25:20-22.

         At that point, the garage door opened, id. at 25:20-22, revealing Gregory Hill-who was “a couple feet away from Deputy Lopez”-holding a gun in his right hand, id. at 25:22-25, 26:1-6. According to Deputy Newman, the garage door opened high enough that he could he could see “the whole garage” and “all of” Mr. Hill, who was “standing upright.” Id. at 44:2-16.

         Deputy Newman yelled “gun” and drew his service weapon. Id. at 27:8-11. He was “screaming at the top of his lungs, “gun, drop the gun” in an effort to make himself heard over the music. Id. at 26:8-11. Deputy Newman's service weapon was aimed at Mr. Hill. Id. at 27:13-14. Deputy Newman yelled “gun.” Id. at 26:14-15. Then “[he] screamed ‘gun' one more time as loud as [he] could, ‘drop the gun.'” Id. at 26:14-16. Deputy Newman testified that while he was yelling these commands, Mr. Hill's face was visible. Id. at 45:23-25; 46:1-14.

         Mr. Hill then began pulling the garage door down with his left hand as he raised the gun in his right hand. Id. at 27:16-22. Deputy Newman, fearing that Mr. Hill intended to shoot through the garage, fired his weapon. Id. at 26:24-25, 27:1-6. Deputy Newman fired four times through the garage door. Id. at 27:3-6. He fired the lowest shot first, tracking vertically. Id. at 27:10-20. Deputy Newman did not hear either Gregory Hill or Deputy Lopez say anything, id. at 28:14-19, a fact Deputy Newman attributed to the loud music, id. at 28:12-23. The only gun recovered from within the garage was found in Mr. Hill's back pocket. DE 71-16 at 49:3-11. Deputy Newman identified the gun found in Mr. Hill's back pocket as the same gun he had seen in Mr. Hill's right hand as the garage door was closing. Id. at 49:12-17.

         C. Evidence Giving Rise to Genuine Disputes of Material Fact with Regard to Deputy Newman's Account of the Shooting.

         According to Deputy Newman, when the garage door opened, id. at 25:20-22, it revealed Mr. Hill-who was “a couple feet away from Deputy Lopez”-holding a gun in his right hand, id. at 25:22-25, 26:1-6. Deputy Lopez also testified that when Mr. Hill raised the garage door he was holding the garage door up with his left hand and holding a gun in his right hand. DE 71-1-at 38:2-6. But Mr. Hill's daughter Destiny, who was sitting on a bench outside of Francis K. Sweet elementary school looking at the house, DE 71-12 at 22:6-13, testified that Mr. Hill was holding “[n]othing” besides the garage door. DE 71-12 at 21:22-25, 22:1-7.[1] Defendant urges to Court to “disregard” the “standalone testimony of this young child, ” DE 74 at 6, arguing that her account is not supported by reasonable inferences that can be drawn from the forensic evidence when it is viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff. Not so.

         The only gun recovered from the scene was found in Mr. Hill's right back pocket. Mr. Hill was shot twice in the abdomen and once in the head. DE 71-3 at 5-7. Dr. Anderson, M.D.- Plaintiff's expert-had no opinion as to the order in which the shots were fired. DE 71-14 at 47. But he did testify, based on the blow-back from the head wound and the path of the bullet, that Mr. Hill “was upright by the garage door when the bullet to the head occurred.” Id. at 46-47. The only record testimony about the sequence of the shots is Deputy Newman's testimony that “the lowest one was the first, and then two, three, four” because Deputy Newman had been “trained to track vertically, up” when firing. DE 68-1 at 27:10-20. Thus, the record supports the inference that the shot to the head was delivered last.

         According to Dr. Anderson, the shot to the head “perforat[ed] the brain through the right frontoparietal cerebrum, basal ganglia, and left temporal cerebrum.” Id. at 5. Dr. Anderson testified that because “the basal ganglia are where most of the motor fibers are coming through to connect the spinal cord from the brain itself . . .” this wound would have “cut all motor function, sensory function out immediately.” DE 71-14 at 41-42. Following the infliction of the head wound, Dr. Anderson opined that Mr. Hill “would not have had any motor activity”-“[h]e couldn't have done any purposeful movement . . .” Id. at 42. But until the head wound was inflicted, Plaintiff's expert agreed Mr. Hill would have been “capable, assuming he had a weapon in his hand, of putting it in his pocket.” Id. at 48. Defendant asks the Court to conclude that the gun having been found in Mr. Hill's back pocket is not inconsistent with Defendant Newman's testimony that Mr. Hill was holding it in his right hand as the garage door closed. Defendant emphasizes Dr. Anderson's testimony that Mr. Hill would have been physically capable of getting the gun into his pocket even after sustaining two gunshot wounds to the abdomen. DE 74 at 7. But that would require drawing an inference against Plaintiff, which this Court cannot do when considering Defendants' motions for summary judgment.

         The forensic evidence-viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff-supports the inference that the gun was never in Mr. Hill's right hand. Defendant does not dispute that Mr. Hill was highly intoxicated. See DE 74 at 7. The Medical Examiner's Report indicates an ethanol level of .328-for reference, the legal limit for operating a motor vehicle is .08. DE 71-3. Plaintiff's expert testified to the serious potential impact on Mr. Hill's motor function. See DE 71-14 at 60. And the shooting happened extremely quickly. At 15:23:24, the officers confirmed the address. DE 71-2. At 15:24:32 Deputy Lopez reported: “Shots fired. Shots fired. Black Male, Dreads, Armed with, with a Handgun . . .” Id. The entire incident spanned sixty-eight seconds, including the time it took for the officers to approach the house from their patrol cars (which were parked at the curb), knock on the garage and front doors, shoot Mr. Hill, and return to their patrol cars to call-in the incident. Finally, although “Gregory Hill could not be excluded as a contributor” to the mixture of DNA found on the gun, the examination was “negative for the identification of nucleated epithelial cells.” DE 71-13. In light of these facts, it is reasonable to infer (even assuming the shot to the head was delivered last) that the heavily intoxicated Mr. Hill did not move the handgun into his back pocket after the garage door closed. No evidence in the record indicates that either Deputy Newman or Deputy Lopez saw a gun anywhere other than in Mr. Hill's right hand before the shooting occurred. Thus, viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the record supports the inference that neither officer had reason to believe Hill was armed.[2]

         The Court now turns to whether Mr. Hill was ever ordered to drop the gun he was allegedly holding. The record supports the reasonable inference that he was not. Deputy Newman testified to yelling “gun” and drawing his service weapon. Id. at 27:8-11. He recounted “screaming at the top of his lungs, “gun, drop the gun” in an effort to be heard over the music. Id. at 26:8-11. Deputy Newman also recalled that after his service weapon was aimed at Mr. Hill, id. at 27:13-14, he yelled “gun” again. Id. at 26:14-15. Then “[he] screamed ‘gun' one more time as loud as [he] could, ‘drop the gun.'” Id. at 26:14-16. But none of the other witnesses heard Deputy Newman yell anything regarding a gun, despite the fact that some were clearly within earshot. For example, Destiny Hill heard an officer tell Mr. Hill to “cut down the music.” DE 71-12 at 23:16-23. And Joseph Hall, who was closest to the scene, heard an officer tell Mr. Hill to “get on the floor.” DE 71-7 at 10:20-22. Although he was standing nearby, Deputy Lopez only recalled hearing Deputy Newman say the word “hey.” DE 80-1 at 51:18-20. Deputy Lopez also testified to instructing Mr. Hill to drop the gun. See DE 80-1 at 40:3-10. But Deputy Newman did not hear Deputy Lopez say anything on the scene. Deputy Newman attributed difficulty hearing Deputy Lopez to loud music. DE 68-1 at 28:10-11. However, Joseph Hall testified that he did not recall hearing any loud music. DE 71-7 at 16:15-18. Moreover, even if music had been playing at a high volume, the fact that Joseph Hall and Destiny Hill could nonetheless hear statements made by the officers lends support to the reasonable inference that the music would not have prevented Deputy Lopez from hearing a command that Deputy Newman allegedly screamed at the top of his lungs.[3]

         Thus, the Court finds that the record evidence about the shooting itself, construed in the light most favorable to Mr. Hill, supports two key inferences: First, that neither officer had reason to believe Mr. Hill was armed and, second, that Mr. Hill was never ordered to drop the gun he was allegedly holding.[4]

         D. Events Following the Shooting.

         As noted above, when Deputy Lopez called in the shooting he reported: “Shots fired. Shots fired. Black Male, Dreads, Armed with, with a Handgun . . .” DE 71-2. The SWAT team responded to the scene, DE 71-17 at 7:7-10, after receiving a report of a “barricaded subject” following the earlier incident “with two Deputies at the front door where [Mr. Hill] had pulled a gun on them and shots were fired.” DE 80-19 at 17:21-23, 18:1-2; see also DE 80-20 at 28:20-24 (“Q: [W]hen you arrived at the scene, what information did you have about what was going on? A: That it was a police shooting and that the individual may be still inside armed.”); DE 68-4 (“I was told that the incident involved a barricaded subject with shots fired.”). After setting up a perimeter, the SWAT team deployed a Crisis Negotiation team. DE 71-17 at 12:9-12. Receiving no response, id. at 13:17-10, the SWAT team dispersed chemical agents into the home, id. at 15 at 15-24. A robot was then used to pierce the garage door and photograph the inside of the garage. Id. at 17:7-25. Officer Brian Hester testified that the SWAT team had intended to use the robot earlier, but that “it wasn't working for whatever reason.” Id. at 17:17-20. After the robot's camera revealed Mr. Hill lying on the garage floor, the SWAT team entered the garage. Id. at 18:1-24. The only gun recovered from the scene was found in Mr. Hill's right back pocket. See Id. at 26:3-4.

         This case, which arises out of Mr. Hill's death, was brought by Mr. Hill's estate through Ms. Viola Bryant. The Complaint was removed on ...


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