case law update

Grant of Qualified Immunity Reversed in § 1983 Claim of Excessive Force and Denial of Medical Care

The First Circuit reversed a grant of summary judgment on a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim of excessive force, supervisory liability, and denial of medical care in violation of defendant’s Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

On April 10, 2007, Officers William Pérez Ortiz and Orlando Rivera Lugardo observed Christopher Rojas Miranda driving his vehicle at a high speed, running stoplights, and swerving. After a brief chase, the officers stopped Rojas and asked him to exit and place his hands on his vehicle. Rojas began to scream uncontrollably that someone was following him and intended to kill him.

When Officer Pérez proceeded to place Rojas under arrest, Rojas then turned around and knocked Officer Rivera’s portable radio out of his hands. A brief scuffle ensued between Rojas and the officers, causing all three to fall to the ground. After being secured, Rojas sat quietly for some time until he again burst into shouting.

The officers placed Rojas in the patrol car, albeit with some difficulty as Rojas continued to scream and spread his legs in an attempt to avoid being forced into the car. The officers and a bystander noted Rojas’s appearance as sweaty and pale with a purplish tint to his forehead, temples, and cheeks. When Sergeant Miguel Rodríguez Crespi appeared, he recommended the officers take Rojas to the hospital. However, the officers contended Rojas was better off at the police station given his potential to harm others.

The desk officer at the station did not observe any injuries or bruises on Rojas’s body. However, she noticed that his face and lips were purple. When being placed in the cell, Rojas continued to scream and once again spread his legs to avoid being forced in. Once secured, Officer Pérez noted that Rojas stopped speaking. Though attempts to bring in paramedics were made, Rojas did not exhibit any vital signs by the time they arrived.

The paramedics found Rojas with blood dripping from his mouth as well as lacerations, contusions and abrasions throughout his body, face, chin, shoulders wrists, and legs. Rojas also had a subarachnoid hemorrhage in his brain. The autopsy report listed Rojas’s cause of death as bodily trauma and cocaine intoxication.

Rojas’s family and estate brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the arresting officers violated his Fourth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment  right against excessive use of force and right to urgent medical care. The district court granted the officers summary judgment based on insufficient evidence and qualified immunity.  The family and estate then challenged the district court’s decisions on excessive force and denial of medical care.

The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reviewed the district court’s grant of summary judgment de novo. It noted that summary judgment is properly granted if the officers can demonstrate there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the officers are entitled to judgment as a matter of law.  A “genuine” dispute exists if a jury could reasonably interpret the evidence in the Rojas’s estate’s favor.  

The court of appeals reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment on the excessive force claim against Officer Pérez. Under the facts, the court utilized the objectively reasonable standard of the Fourth Amendment to determine whether any action taken by the officers could be considered excessive force. While the undisputed description of Rojas’s behavior warranted some level of force to compel him to get into the patrol car and holding cell, there existed enough evidence of excessive force that a reasonable inference could be made in the estate’s favor. Among that evidence included photos of Rojas’s body, the autopsy report of Rojas’s injuries, and expert opinion. The court found it worth comment that no injuries were reported on Rojas’s face at the arrest site, but multiple abrasions, contusions, and lacerations all over his body and face were found at the time the paramedics arrived. Further, because a genuine issue of material fact existed as to the use of excessive force, the court of appeals extended its rationale in this regard as to whether Sergeant Rodríguez could have intervened.

The court of appeals also reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment on the denial of medical care claims. As stated by the court, Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process requires the government to provide medical care to persons being apprehended by the police, and this duty extends “at least as far as the protection that the Eighth Amendment gives to a convicted prisoner.” Government officials violate the Eighth Amendment if they display a “deliberate indifference” to a prisoner’s “serious medical needs.” This requires the officer to draw an inference that a substantial risk of serious harm exists. Based on Rojas’s appearance and Sergeant Rodríguez’s suggestion that the officers take him to a medical facility, a reasonable inference existed that Rojas needed medical attention and that the officers were aware of this risk.

Despite contentions that the officers be granted qualified immunity on both the excessive force and denial of medical care claims, the court of appeals disagreed. A qualified immunity determination is made by looking at whether a violation of a constitutional right occurred and whether the right at issue was clearly established at the time of the officer’s misconduct. Because there existed sufficient evidence to make out an excessive force claim and denial of medical care claim, there was enough evidence to demonstrate the violation of a clearly established right. Likewise, the court of appeals found that a reasonable officer would know that using more force than necessary and denying medical care violated clearly established constitutional rules.

Thus, the court of appeals reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment on the family and estate’s excessive force, supervisory liability, and denial of medical care claims.

Read the full case: Miranda-Rivera v. Toledo-Davila



This case law update was written by Michael J. Sgarlat, associate attorney, Shaw Bransford & Roth, PC.

For thirty years, Shaw Bransford & Roth P.C. has provided superior representation on a wide range of federal employment law issues, from representing federal employees nationwide in administrative investigations, disciplinary and performance actions, and Bivens lawsuits, to handling security clearance adjudications and employment discrimination cases.

Posted in Case Law Update

Tags: case law update, michael j sgarlat


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