Police officer's motion to dismiss excessive force claim against him denied by judge

Jon Campisi Nov. 22, 2011, 10:36am

A federal judge in Philadelphia has denied a municipal police officer’s motion to dismiss a claim of excessive force against him by a man who the officer had arrested during a prior incident, and who himself is the subject of separate litigation initiated by the officer and municipal officials.

John Morozin, a police officer with the Buckingham Township, Pa. Police Department, brought an action of negligence and willful misconduct against Mark L. Johnson as a result of incidents surrounding the arrest of Johnson last summer.

Johnson answered the complaint and subsequently filed a counterclaim against Morozin and the Buckingham Township Board of Supervisors alleging civil rights claims, according to the Nov. 18 ruling by Judge William H. Yohn, Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

According to background information contained in the judge’s ruling, Morozin had arrested Johnson on July 8, 2010 for allegedly driving under the influence of alcohol.

Morozin transported Johnson to Doylestown Hospital where, according to Johnson’s version of events, Morozin had refused to explain why Johnson was taken to the hospital and what procedures he was expected to undergo.

When Johnson refused to have his blood drawn, Morozin allegedly released Johnson’s handcuffed arm, pulled him out of a chair, twisted Johnson’s arm behind him, and forced Johnson to the floor, at which time Johnson allegedly suffered a very deep laceration to his arm that was bleeding profusely.

Despite the physical injury, Morozin took Johnson out of the hospital without medical treatment and booked him at the police station.

Johnson was subsequently charged with aggravated and simple assault, resisting arrest and driving under the influence of alcohol, all of which except aggravated assault he eventually pleaded guilty to.

As a result of the physical altercation, Morozin filed the civil complaint of negligence and willful misconduct against Johnson in Bucks County Common Pleas Court.

Johnson filed a notice of removal in April of this year. Morozin immediately filed a motion to remand that the courts subsequently denied.

On June 9 of this year, Johnson answered the complaint against him and asserted counterclaims against Morozin and the board of supervisors, alleging Fourth Amendment violations of excessive force. Johnson also accuses the board of supervisors of failing to properly train Buckingham Township police and for “deliberate indifference to a pattern of excessive force used by Morozin.”

On July 11 of this year, Morozin and the supervisors filed a joint motion to dismiss Johnson’s counterclaim for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

In the motion to dismiss, Morozin argues that, among other things, he should be granted qualified immunity, asserting that his actions were “privileged.”

In his ruling, Yohn states that it’s too early in the litigation to make the proper determinations to whether or not Morozin should be granted qualified immunity.

The judge wrote that at this early stage of litigation, he cannot grant the counterclaim defendants’ motion to dismiss on the basis of qualified immunity since the immunity cannot be established in light of the record before him.

“Although I agree that Johnson’s guilty plea establishes that Morozin was justified in using ‘substantial force’ against him, it does not follow that Morozin was justified in using ‘excessive’ force or that no amount of force could be considered unreasonable,” Yohn wrote. “Once again, I find the record insufficient to warrant a finding of reasonableness at this stage, and cannot now conclude that the force Morozin used is privileged.”

On the request to dismiss the punitive damages claim against the officer and municipal officials, the judge also ruled against the counterclaim defendant’s.

While the officer and supervisors correctly stated that, by law, punitive damages are not recoverable against a municipality or an officer sued in his official capacity, the judge said the counterclaim defendants’ misread Johnson’s actual counterclaim.

First off, there are no punitive damages sought against the supervisors, the judge wrote. And secondly, Johnson’s counterclaim does not state a claim against Morozin in his official capacity, but rather alleges that he acted under color of state law.

“I will not dismiss Johnson’s claim for punitive damages against Morozin, because punitive damages are recoverable in individual-capacity suits against state actors for ‘reckless or callous disregard for the plaintiff’s rights, as well as intentional violations of federal law,” Yohn wrote.

Johnson’s claims that Morozin dragged him out of the hospital chair, forced him to the ground, inflicted a deep wound, and then removed Johnson from the hospital without offering him medical treatment, is a claim that may plausibly rise to the level of ‘reckless’ or ‘callous’ conduct, the judge ruled.

The counterclaim defendants’ motion to dismiss the battery count was also denied, with the judge ruling that Morozin’s actions in the hospital room that led to Johnson’s injuries could, in fact, suffice as a state claim for battery.

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