Third Circuit rules for Philadelphia officers in 'tragic' case

By Nicholas Malfitano | Apr 21, 2015

PHILADELPHIA – A November 2013 decision granting summary judgment to the City of Philadelphia and two Philadelphia police officers accused of preventing life-saving medical treatment was recently upheld.

On Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the lower court's decision in a lawsuit over the death of 15-year-old Tabitha Elaine Gonzalez.

On Aug. 19, 2009, Gonzalez suffered a severe asthma attack at her home in North Philadelphia. Her mother Lizette Vargas, the suit’s plaintiff, found her daughter lying on the sidewalk outside her residence, barely conscious and struggling to breathe.

While Vargas dialed 9-1-1 five times between 12:08 and 12:14 a.m., the suit claims Gonzalez’s cousin Maritza Rojas, Rojas’ boyfriend Erik Franklin and neighbors lifted Gonzalez into a car belonging to another of her cousins, Julia Diaz, so she could be transported to the hospital for medical treatment.

At approximately 12:14 a.m., Philadelphia police officers Keith White and Matthew Blaszczyk arrived on scene in response to Vargas’s 9-1-1 calls. What happened next was a matter of dispute between the parties involved.

Vargas claimed the officers parked their car parallel to Diaz’s, preventing Vargas from exiting the vehicle. The plaintiff further alleged the officers profanely instructed Diaz to turn her car off and exit the vehicle along with Vargas, as Diaz was attempting to explain the serious nature of Gonzalez’s medical emergency.

At that point, one of the officers is alleged to have opened the back door of Diaz’s vehicle, causing Gonzalez to partially tumble out of the backseat through the open door. Vargas claimed she went to run towards her daughter at this time, but was “blocked” from doing so by one of the officers.

Officers White and Blaszczyk told a different story, insisting at no time did they block Diaz’s vehicle, that they were not informed the emergency was a medical one and that Gonzalez was already lying prone on the sidewalk when they arrived on scene.

White testified that an effort between he and two Hispanic males at the scene to move Gonzalez into the backseat of Diaz’s car proved unsuccessful and he heard the siren of an ambulance approaching, so he recommended that everyone wait for that ambulance to arrive to transport Gonzalez.

White added two Hispanic females on site allegedly screamed at him the officers “don’t want to (expletive) help” and to “get the (expletive) away from her,” in reference to Gonzalez.

Blaszczyk corroborated White’s account and said those at the scene made similar remarks to him. He asserted at no time did the officers block or prevent anyone from administering medical treatment to Gonzalez.

According to City of Philadelphia dispatch records, a fire truck containing emergency personnel also arrived at 12:14 a.m., less than one minute after the arrival of officers White and Blaszczyk.

Emergency personnel extracted Gonzalez from the backseat of Diaz’s car, placed her back down on the sidewalk and began administering basic life support and CPR before the arrival of the ambulance at 12:15 a.m. At that point, Gonzalez was loaded into the back of the ambulance and CPR administration to her continued, as she was transported to Temple University Hospital.

Gonzalez arrived at the hospital at approximately 12:28 a.m., 20 minutes after Vargas’s initial 9-1-1 call. In the interim, Gonzalez suffered an anoxic brain injury due to oxygen deprivation. This led to her being taken off life support and passing away one week later on Aug. 26, 2009.

Individually and as administrator of Gonzalez’s estate, Vargas filed suit in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas in April 2011 and later filed an amended complaint that August, after the case had been removed to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

The amended complaint named the City of Philadelphia plus officers White and Blaszczyk as defendants, charging them with constitutional rights violations of unlawful seizure of Vargas at the scene; preventing her from obtaining medical care for her daughter; unlawful seizure, restraint and violating Gonzalez’s due process rights at the scene; failure to properly train police officers in responding to medical emergencies of this nature; and for false imprisonment of both Vargas and Gonzalez at the scene.

The City of Philadelphia disputed Vargas’ account and moved for summary judgment in the case.

In a 31-page decision released in November 2013, Judge Thomas O’Neill, Jr. of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, found Vargas failed in her testimony to prove her or Gonzalez’s constitutional rights were violated, that the City did not provide adequate training to police officers in responding to medical emergencies of this type or that she and Gonzalez were falsely imprisoned.

“A person is ‘seized’ only when, by means of physical force or a show of authority, his freedom of movement is restrained,” O’Neill wrote.

O’Neill cited the Mendenhall test with respect to what constitutes a show of authority, insofar as not whether an individual was restricted in their movement, but whether an officer’s words and actions would have conveyed that to “a reasonable person.” In her testimony, Vargas said the officers instructed her to “move back” away from her daughter and to “calm down.”

“Plaintiff was free to move anywhere except into the area where Gonzalez lay,” O’Neill wrote. “A reasonable person would have understood that she was free to leave the area and plaintiff apparently did because she admits that she ‘moved away from them [officers] after that.’ Therefore, I find that there was no seizure of plaintiff.”

With regards to the charge that Gonzalez was also seized, O’Neill pointed to precedence established by other federal appeals court that an unconscious individual is not capable of being seized.

“I find that because Gonzalez in her unconscious state was incapable of submitting to any show of authority she was not seized," he wrote.

On the point of the city’s officers not possessing proper training to respond to medical emergencies like that of Gonzalez, O’Neill wrote:

“The officers here are presumed to be familiar with the procedures and actions available to address a medical emergency. Showing merely that additional training would have been helpful in making difficult decisions does not establish municipal liability. While additional training may have aided defendant officers in providing medical assistance to Gonzalez, its absence is insufficient to establish municipal liability.”

As to Vargas’ claim of false imprisonment of herself and Gonzalez, O’Neill pointed to Pennsylvania law, which requires the plaintiff to prove “one acts intending to confine another with boundaries fixed by the actor, such act results in such confinement of the other, and the other is conscious of the confinement or is harmed by it.”

“Her testimony that she was able to ‘move away’ from the officers indicates that she was not confined within any demarcated boundaries allegedly set by the police officer,” O’Neill said in his decision.

“Therefore, I do not find that plaintiff was falsely imprisoned. Similarly, Gonzalez could not have been falsely imprisoned when unconscious and incapable of perceiving any confinement or of making a request to leave of the police officers.”

O’Neill ruled in favor of the City of Philadelphia and entered a decision for summary judgment against Vargas on all counts.

Vargas appealed to the Third Circuit, before circuit judges D. Michael Fisher, Kent A. Jordan and Joseph A. Greenaway, Jr.

In a 26-page opinion released on Friday, Jordan concurred with O’Neill’s ruling on all counts.

“Although the parties devote significant effort to addressing the difficult question of whether a seizure occurred in this case, we need not resolve that issue because, even if there were a seizure, the undisputed facts show that any such seizure was reasonable and therefore not a constitutional violation,” Jordan wrote.

“The undisputed facts show that the actions of Officers Blaszczyk and White were reasonable. They were responding to a volatile situation which they did not initially know involved a medical emergency, and any brief seizure that may have occurred was a result of the officers’ concern for the safety of everyone involved.”

Jordan further explained the officers faced a pressure-filled environment where time was of the essence, so their decision to ascertain the circumstances of the scene and instruct those on site to wait for the imminent arrival of paramedics was a correct one.

“It is a stretch to say that these facts rise even to the level of negligence, let alone to deliberate indifference or an intent to harm. While the officers’ behavior and language, as described by Vargas, may have been less than polite or compassionate, it was not actionable,” Jordan wrote.

With respect to Vargas’ claim of the City failing to properly train its officers to respond to medical emergencies, Jordan also dissented, saying that without a proven constitutional rights violation, no basis of municipal liability existed for this claim.

“There was no violation for which the City of Philadelphia could be held responsible,” Jordan opined.

On the final claim of false imprisonment, Jordan said that the officers’ conduct was protected by immunity under Pennsylvania’s Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act (PSTCA).

“The PSTCA provides immunity to municipalities and its employees for official actions unless the employee’s conduct goes beyond negligence and constitutes ‘a crime, actual fraud, actual malice, or willful misconduct,” said Jordan, who found no such misconduct occurred in this case.

“Although the underlying circumstances of the case are tragic, the District Court’s legal conclusion was correct, and we will affirm,” Jordan wrote.


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