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Trujillo v. City of Hobbs

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

January 14, 2020

NATHANIEL TRUJILLO, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF HOBBS, et al ., Defendants.

          ORDER ADOPTING CHIEF MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S PROPOSED FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDED DISPOSITION

          J. Thomas Marten, Judge.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Chief Magistrate Judge Carmen E. Garza's Proposed Findings and Recommended Disposition (Doc. 81), Defendants' Objections to the same (Doc. 82), and Plaintiff's Response to Defendants' Objections (Doc. 84).

         In the Proposed Findings, the Chief Magistrate Judge recommended that Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support (Doc. 35) be denied. (Doc. 81 at 15). Defendants timely objected to the Proposed Fndings and Plaintiff timely responded to Defendants' objections. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(B)(2). Following a de novo review of Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment, the Proposed Findings, Defendants' Objections, and Plaintiff's Response, the Court will overrule the Objections, adopt the Proposed Findings and Rcommendations, and deny Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment.

         1. Background

         In the early morning of January 17, 2015, Officer Royal Hopper with the Hobbs Police Department was dispatched to a bar in Hobbs, New Mexico. (Doc. 82 at 1); (Doc. 84 at 2). The parties dispute what happened after Officer Hopper arrived on the scene, including what Officer Hopper announced before he fired his duty weapon at Plaintiff Nathaniel Trujillo, whether Trujillo had his hands on the weapon and how far he stood from the suspect brandishing the firearm, and whether Trujillo complied with Officer Hopper's verbal commands. (Doc. 82 at 6). It is undisputed, however, that Officer Hopper arrived on the scene without deploying his patrol vehicle's lights or sirens, approached Trujillo and the suspect with the firearm without the use of a flashlight, uttered an announcement, and fired his duty weapon “four or five” times, hitting Trujillo twice in the upper thigh. (Doc. 82 at 5); (Doc. 84 at 2); (Doc. 67 at 16); (Doc. 1 at 6).

         At this stage in litigation, Trujillo has four remaining claims arising from Officer Hopper's January 17, 2015, use of force: two claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Officer Hopper and the City of Hobbs, and two claims under the New Mexico Tort Claims Act (NMTCA) for battery against both Defendants. (Doc. 1 at 27-32). In their Motion for Summary Judgment, Defendants argue Officer Hopper is entitled to qualified immunity on both Trujillo's claims for battery under the NMTCA and excessive force under Section 1983. (Doc. 35 at 13-18). In addition, Defendants contend that because no claim can be established against Officer Hopper in his individual capacity, no liability can be imputed to the City of Hobbs under either the NMTCA or Section 1983. Id. at 19.

         In the Proposed Findings, the Chief Magistrate Judge recommended that summary judgment be denied on both Trujillo's Section 1983 and NMTCA claims because several issues of material fact remain disputed. (Doc. 81 at 12, 14). In addition, the Chief Magistrate Judge recommended that because issues of fact remain as to the reasonableness of Officer Hopper's conduct, the derivative-liability claims against the City of Hobbs should remain viable. Id. at 15. The Chief Magistrate Judge therefore recommended that Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment be denied on the merits. Id. at 16.

         Defendants have objected to the Chief Magistrate Judge's Proposed Findings on two grounds. First, Defendants contend the Chief Magistrate Judge committed legal error when she determined “there is a clearly established right that police officers are not entitled to defend themselves from the threat of a firearm pointed at them.” (Doc. 82 at 3); id. at 5 (“The [Chief] Magistrate Judge's decision that persons pointing a firearm and persons in their vicinity have a clearly established right for the officer not to defend himself is in error.”). Second, Defendants argue no material facts remain genuinely disputed which preclude a finding of qualified immunity for Officer Hopper. Id. at 5-13. As a result, Defendants contend the derivative-liability claims against the City of Hobbs must also be dismissed at the summary judgment stage. Id. at 13-14.

         In response, Trujillo contends Defendants frame the “clearly-established prong of the qualified immunity standard” using “self-serving” evidence and testimony provided by Officer Hopper, ignoring the legal mandate that the evidence be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-movant. (Doc. 84 at 7-8) (citing Tolan v. Cotton, 572 U.S. 650, 657-60 (2014); Pauly v. White, 874 F.3d 1197, 1218 (10th Cir. 2017)). In addition, Trujillo alleges the facts Officer Hopper boasts as “immaterial” are those which inform the difference “between a potentially justified shooting and a clearly established violation of the Garner rule.” (Doc. 84 at 6). In conclusion, Trujillo argues Officer Hopper is not entitled to qualified immunity because “there are varying accounts of what happened from different witnesses, including wildly inconsistent accounts from Hopper himself.” Id. at 15.

         2. Legal Standard

         When resolving objections to a magistrate judge's recommendation, the district judge must make a de novo determination regarding any part of the recommendation to which a party has properly objected. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C). Filing objections that address the primary issues in the case “advances the interests that underlie the Magistrate's Act, including judicial efficiency.” United States v. One Parcel of Real Prop., With Bldgs., Appurtenances, Improvements, & Contents, 73 F.3d 1057, 1059 (10th Cir. 1996). Objections must be timely and specific to preserve an issue for de novo review by the district court or for appellate review. Id. at 1060. Additionally, issues “raised for the first time in objections to the magistrate judge's recommendation are deemed waived.” Marshall v. Chater, 75 F.3d 1421, 1426 (10th Cir. 1996); see also United States v. Garfinkle, 261 F.3d 1030, 1031 (10th Cir. 2001).

         3. Analysis

         When a government defendant acting under color of state law raises the defense of qualified immunity in a summary judgment proceeding, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to prove that (1) a reasonable jury could find facts supporting a violation of a constitutional right, and the right (2) was clearly established at the time of the defendant's conduct. Estate of Booker v. Gomez, 745 F.3d 405, 411 (10th Cir. 2014). The Court has discretion to decide which of the two prongs of the qualified immunity test to address first. Id. at 412. Once the plaintiff has met their initial burden of proof, the defendant must then demonstrate that “no material issues of fact remain as to whether his . . . actions were objectively reasonable in light of the law and the information he . . . possessed at the time.” Zuchel v. Spinharney, 890 F.2d 273, 274 (10th Cir. 1989). If the defendant can demonstrate that his actions were objectively reasonable under the circumstances, only then is he entitled to summary judgment based on qualified immunity. Id.

         Here, Defendants first contend the Chief Magistrate Judge erred in analyzing the second prong of the qualified immunity analysis, that “there is a clearly established right that police officers are not entitled to defend themselves from the threat of a firearm pointed at them.” (Doc. 82 at 3). Defendants' formulation of the right, and the evidentiary prism in which they frame it, relies on their recitation of the facts and the “persuasive picture” they have painted to justify Officer Hopper's use of force. See Zuchel, 890 F.2d at 275. However, as the nonmovant, the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to Trujillo. See Walker v. City of Orem, 451 F.3d 1139, 1155 (10th Cir. 2006) (explaining ...


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