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Bettis v. Bean

United States District Court, D. Vermont

September 29, 2015

LORRAINE BETTIS and ROBIN POWERS, Administrators, Estate of Wesley Bettis, Plaintiffs,
v.
CHAD BEAN, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFFS' MOTION FOR PARTIAL SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND GRANTING DEFENDANT'S CROSS MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (Docs. 32 & 39)

CHRISTINA REISS, Chief District Judge.

Plaintiffs Lorraine Bettis[1] and Robin Powers, Administrators of the Estate of Wesley Bettis (hereafter "Plaintiffs"), bring this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Defendant Officer Chad Bean. They allege Officer Bean violated Wesley Bettis's Fourth Amendment rights by applying excessive force when he arrested Mr. Bettis in the course of a domestic disturbance. Plaintiffs seek damages for pain and suffering under Vermont's wrongful death and survivorship statutes, 14 V.S.A. §§ 1491, 1492.

Pending before the court is Plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment (Doc. 32) and Officer Bean's cross motion for summary judgment (Doc. 39). Plaintiffs seek partial summary judgment in their favor on the issue of excessive force. Officer Bean cross moves for summary judgment in his favor on Plaintiffs' excessive force claim, or, in the alternative, asks the court to find he is entitled to qualified immunity with regard to all of Plaintiffs' claims. On August 24, 2015, the court took the pending motions under advisement.

Plaintiffs are represented by David J. Williams, Esq. and Brooks G. McArthur, Esq. Officer Bean is represented by Nancy G. Sheahan, Esq.

I. The Undisputed Facts.

A. The Domestic Disturbance.

Plaintiffs' claims arise out of a domestic disturbance on June 26, 2012 at the Bettis residence in Montpelier, Vermont between Wesley Bettis and his wife. At the time, Mr. Bettis suffered from a bleeding disorder due to removal ofhis spleen in 1983, dementia, and Parkinson's disease. He also had rotator cuff and joint issues that made it difficult for him to lift his arms up parallel to the floor and then up over his head or up in front of him. However, during the only range of motion testing performed on his left shoulder, he could reach to the small of his back with reasonable strength and function. In 2005, Mr. Bettis had also been treated for problems with both of his shoulders. Defendant Officer Bean[2]had no prior contact with Mr. Bettis and was unaware of his medical conditions or mental health issues before the incident in question.

The incident began with a dispute over Mr. Bettis's request for additional antacids which Ms. Bettis refused to provide to him. In response, Mr. Bettis knocked the container of antacids out of her hand and they spilled on the floor. Ms. Bettis escorted him into the master bedroom of their home. Mr. Bettis became very angry and grabbed Ms. Bettis by the wrists so that he was holding her right wrist with his left hand and her left wrist with his right hand. Ms. Bettis was able to pull a phone lying on the bed over to her while Mr. Bettis was holding her wrists. With the phone still on the bed, she was able to call 911. Ms. Bettis had never previously called 911 to request police assistance.

Ms. Bettis's 911 call was recorded and the recording, which has not been altered, has been relied upon by both parties.[3]After speaking with Ms. Bettis, who was crying, the 911 operator contacted Capital West which is an emergency communications center located in the Montpelier Police Station. Capital West provides dispatching services to the Montpelier Police Department as well as dispatching services to a number of fire department and EMS services.[4]

During the 911 call, Mr. Bettis repeatedly told Ms. Bettis in a raised voice to hang up the phone. He also asked Ms. Bettis: "What's the matter with you, bitch?" (Doc. 32-4 at 3:19-25.)

While on the phone with the 911 operator, Capital West sent various dispatches to on-duty Montpelier police officers. An unaltered recording of those dispatches has also been relied upon by the parties. Initially, Capital West sent a dispatch asking if one or two officers "could slide up to 45 Pleasantview Street[.]" (Doc. 39-18 at 2:3-10.) The dispatch stated that an ambulance was "headed up there for an unknown 911 call" which was "was garbled, unintelligible" and that there was "somebody in the background saying they needed help." Id. The dispatch stated that it"[d]idn't sound like it was a fight, but they just sounded like someone was concerned." Id.

At the time of the first dispatch, Officer Bean and Montpelier Police Officer Kevin Moulton were patrolling in separate police cruisers. Montpelier Police Sergeant Wade Cochran was the sergeant in charge at the time and he was either on the road or going out on a call when the first dispatch was received. In a series of dispatches, Capital West provided the following additional information:

800-units, got an update on Pleasant View. It is sort of a domestic, maybe a mental health issue. Male in his sixties has his wife by the wrist. She is in pain. He's ordering her to get off the phone and she said he never acted like this before. He could be having some type of seizure.
***
He's yelling and swearing at her in the background.
*** Still ongoing.
***
800-units. Unknown weapons. She's not holding the phone anymore so we can't ask her. They're still yelling in the background. She's in pain.

Id. at 5:2-7; 8:2-3; 11:3; 17:2-5.

Upon hearing the first dispatch, Officer Bean activated his cruiser lights and siren which triggered a video and audio recording from his cruiser as he proceeded to the Bettis residence. Officer Moulton and Sergeant Cochran also separately proceeded to that location. Two members of the Montpelier Fire and Ambulance Department, both of whom were Emergency Medical Technicians ("EMTs"), also responded. The police officers asked the EMTs to wait outside the Bettis residence and did not ask whether they knew Mr. Bettis or had any prior experience with him.[5]Officer Bean, Officer Moulton, and Sergeant Cochran have been trained that domestic dispute calls are among the most volatile and deadly for police officers and that arrest is the preferred response.

Sergeant Cochran approached the back of the Bettis residence where he could hear raised voices that sounded like a fight. Officer Moulton went to the door by the garage which was locked. He could hear screaming from inside the residence. Officer Bean proceeded to the front door of the Bettis residence and knocked on it and rang the doorbell without receiving a response. As he did so, he could hear yelling from inside the residence. Ms. Bettis heard the officers' knocking and told Mr. Bettis that she needed to go to the door. Mr. Bettis did not let her do so and continued to hold her by the wrists. Mr. Bettis was yelling at Ms. Bettis at a distance of approximately eighteen inches from her face and stated: "I don't care who's at the door" and "I'm not taking any more of your goddamn abuse." (Doc. 32-4 at 9: 15-18.) ·When Officer Bean continued to hear yelling from inside the residence, he announced "Montpelier Police" and kicked in the front door.[6]

Officer Bean was the first to enter the Bettis residence, followed by Officer Moulton and then Sergeant Cochran. The officers drew their firearms and made their way upstairs, announcing their presence as they did so. From his vantage point in the hallway, Officer Bean was able to see Mr. Bettis, who was considerably bigger than Ms. Bettis, [7]holding and squeezing Ms. Bettis's wrists and yelling at her. Ms. Bettis was visibly upset and was crying. Officer Bean again announced "Montpelier Police" and ordered Mr. Bettis to "[l]et her go." Id. at 10:1-3. Mr. Bettis did not comply with this command. Although the officers had no prior experience with Mr. Bettis, from his behavior they determined that his mental health was compromised. Mr. Bettis repeatedly stated: "I'm not taking it." Id. at 10:4-5. They also all believed that Mr. Bettis was hurting Ms. Bettis because he was yelling at her, holding her by her wrists, and she was crymg.

As Mr. Bettis was in his underwear, the officers determined that he did not have a weapon on his person and so all three officers holstered their weapons. Officer Bean entered the bedroom first and instructed Mr. Bettis to "[g]et down." Id. at 10:6. Mr. Bettis did not comply with this order. Officer Bean then grabbed onto Mr. Bettis's left hand and pried his fingers from Ms. Bettis's right wrist. At approximately the same time, Officer Moulton attempted to pry Mr. Bettis's right hand away from Ms. Bettis's left wrist. Officer Moulton noted that he felt Mr. Bettis tense up and resist his attempts to remove his hand.

At that point, Officer Bean performed a rear wrist lock on Mr. Bettis's left hand, which he had been taught was a low-level force technique that uses pain compliance on a subject's wrist to assist officers in controlling an individual or facilitating handcuffing.[8] Officer Bean has neither been taught, nor has it been his experience, that a rear wrist lock exposes anyone, including senior citizens, to serious bodily injury. He did not use OC spray due to the small size of the bedroom, the proximity between Mr. and Ms. Bettis, and the likelihood that the OC spray would have contaminated Ms. Bettis as well as the police officers.

As Officer Bean performed the rear wrist lock by bringing Mr. Bettis's left hand behind his back to handcuff him, he felt Mr. Bettis resist and pull away. At approximately this same time, Officer Bean heard a snap and Mr. Bettis's left arm went limp. Mr. Bettis then exclaimed: "my f****n' ___ he just broke-he just broke-he just broke my arm[.]" Id. at 10:9-10. Mr. Bettis repeated this comment several times. The recording on the 911 call appears to indicate that Ms. Bettis mentioned the word "shoulder" as Mr. Bettis announced that his arm was broken. See Doc. 39, Ex. L at 4:30. Ms. Bettis later described the event as follows: "The officer, on his left arm, brought it from the back-or what I tried to tell him was he can't bring it up, because he was bringing it back, I said you can't do that, and it was too late. It was-he'd already-he broke it." (Doc. 32-8 at 23:9-13.)

Officer Bean instructed Mr. Bettis to give him his right hand. He also attempted to handcuff Mr. Bettis's left wrist but was unable to do so. After Sergeant Cochran told him it was unnecessary to proceed further with handcuffing Mr. Bettis, Officer Bean ceased his efforts. Officer Bean directed Mr. Bettis to his knees, and he complied. In doing so, Officer Bean did not ...


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