Village Denied Summary Judgment in Domestic Violence Suit Alleging Violation of Due Process Rights by Police Department

Holding a municipality liable in negligence for personal injuries sustained as a result of a third-party is often a difficult task because the plaintiff must show a “special relationship” between the plaintiff and the police department – a multi-prong test that is difficult to satisfy. The plaintiff circumvented these problems by bringing a 42 U.S.C. 1983 action alleging violation of her Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that the victim of domestic abuse alleged sufficient facts from which a jury could find that it had implicitly but affirmatively sanctioned abuse of a wife by her husband in violation of her rights to due process, and that the municipal and certain individual defendants, if found liable, would not be entitled to qualified immunity. In Okin v. Village of Cornwall-On-Hudson Police Dept., — F.3d —-, 2009 WL 2500197 (2009, Michele Okin sued claiming that she was a victim of domestic abuse by her husband Roy Sears. Okin alleged that beginning in May of 2001 Sears began to abuse her physically.

Okin alleges that Sears was well known to local police officers with whom he socialized at a tavern of which he was part owner, the Leprechaun Inn, and she claims that Sears often bragged that he could get away with what he wanted in Cornwall. The record demonstrates an escalating series of incidents that followed the officers’ response to Okin’s first complaint of domestic violence. The Court found that the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, shows that she complained repeatedly about domestic violence over a fifteen-month period, and that moving defendants repeatedly treated her with indifference or disdain, failed to advise her of her rights as a domestic violence victim or even to characterize the incidents as domestic violence.

The Court held that Okin raised a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the Village of Cornwall-on-Hudson is subject to municipal liability on both theories of an unconstitutional custom and a failure to train. In analyzing the issue of unconstitutional custom, the court stated that the record shows more than a dozen contacts between Okin and the Village, that involved a number of officers, including high-ranking officials, and that recurrently concerned complaints of domestic violence.

These incidents suggest a consistent pattern of failing to adequately respond to Okin’s complaints, to implement the New York mandatory arrest statute, to interview the alleged abuser, or to file domestic incident reports, a pattern which may have encouraged further violence. The Court thus found sufficient evidence in the record to create a genuine issue of fact as to whether the officers’ conduct indicates a practice, tacitly endorsed by the Village, that “was so ‘persistent or widespread’ as to constitute ‘a custom or usage with the force of law.’ ”

The Court found that municipal liability could also be premised upon on a failure to train employees. “We have no trouble in finding that policymakers would know that officers will confront domestic violence situations, that training assists officers to employ criminal justice strategies attuned to the complexities of domestic violence, and that in Okin’s case, the record indicates a history of mishandling her complaints. There is also a strong likelihood that the officers’ repeated failures to meaningfully respond to Okin, potentially enhancing the risk of violence, qualifies as a pattern of misconduct that would frequently cause violations of a citizen’s constitutional rights and that suggests training so inadequate as to give rise to an inference of deliberate indifference.

The failure-to-train theory was successfully withstood summary judgment because Okin identified a specific deficiency in the city’s training program (as opposed to a particular officer having been inadequately trained or the program negligently administered) and established that that deficiency is closely related to the ultimate injury, such that it actually caused the constitutional deprivation. The Court reversed the district court’s ruling on municipal liability with respect to Village of Cornwall-on-Hudson and affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Okin’s municipal liability claims as to the Town of Cornwall.

As to the individual police officers under The State-Created Danger Doctrine, it was not enough for a constitutional violation that they failed to act notwithstanding their knowledge of the domestic abuse. The plaintiff had to and did establish that officers implicitly encouraged Sears’s domestic violence. The officers’ conduct both in response to that first complaint and thereafter, where the officers and Sears had discussed sports, and the officers openly expressed camaraderie with Sears and contempt for Okin, could be viewed as ratcheting up the threat of danger to Okin.

The court held that a reasonable factfinder undoubtedly could conclude that defendants, by their affirmative conduct, enhanced the danger to Okin because they conveyed to Sears that he could continue to engage in domestic violence with impunity, and that the defendants thus violated Okin’s due process rights. The court found the record supported the conclusion that Okin raised a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the defendants’ affirmative creation or enhancement of the risk of violence to Okin shocks the conscience. The serious and unique risks and concerns of a domestic violence situation are well known and well documented, and the officers’ deliberate indifference is the requisite state of mind for showing that defendants’ conduct shocks the conscience.

The Court rejected the defense of qualified immunity “that is a police officer who has an objectively reasonable belief that his actions are lawful is entitled to qualified immunity. The Court stated that it cannot accept that an “officer of reasonable competence,” would fail to understand that discussing football scores with Sears after Okin’s complaints that he had beaten and tried to choke her, repeatedly failing to interview or arrest Sears, or to file domestic incident reports, despite Okin’s numerous complaints of abuse and statements of fear for her life, and Sears informing Chief Williams that he could not “help it sometimes when he smacks Michele Okin around,” would affirmatively communicate to Sears that he could continue to beat and threaten Okin without fear of police intervention, and would contribute to the vulnerability of the complainant by emboldening her abuser.

The Second Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment on Okin’s equal protection claims. The Court found that the plaintiff did not meet the standard for equal protection claims in the domestic violence context, that is that the plaintiff must adduce evidence sufficient to sustain the inference that there is a policy or a practice of affording less protection to victims of domestic violence than to other victims of violence in comparable circumstances, that discrimination against one sex was a motivating factor, and that the policy or practice was the proximate cause of plaintiff’s injury.

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