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Brown v. Cobb

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

June 26, 2019

PATERSON BROWN, SR. and KATHY M. BROWN, Co-Administrators of the Estate of Paterson Brown, Jr., Deceased, Plaintiffs,
v.
DAVID L. COBB, individually and in his Official Capacity as a Police Officer for the City of Richmond, Virginia, and CITY OF RICHMOND, Defendants.

          OPINION

          JOHN A. GIBNEY, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This case arises from the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Paterson Brown, Jr., by an off-duty Richmond police officer, David L. Cobb. The administrators of Brown's estate, Paterson Brown, Sr., and Kathy Brown (collectively, the "plaintiffs"), filed this action against Cobb and the City of Richmond (the "City"). The Court denied the City's motion to dismiss the plaintiffs' § 1983 claim for failure to train, but allowed the City to seek early summary judgment on the issue, which the City has done.[1] Because the plaintiffs cannot show that the City's training policy demonstrates deliberate indifference concerning police officers' use of force, much less that the policy caused the tragic incident in this case, the Court will grant summary judgment for the City.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On October 17, 2015, Cobb, an off-duty Richmond police officer, brought his girlfriend's car to a car wash in Chesterfield, Virginia. After Cobb left the car unattended, he saw Brown get into the car. When Cobb realized that Brown did not work for the car wash, he approached the car with his gun drawn and opened the driver-side door. Cobb identified himself as a Richmond police officer, and, paradoxically, told Brown both to get out of the car and not to move. Cobb also asked a bystander to call 911 to request backup from Chesterfield police. Brown did not have a weapon.

         At one point, Brown tried to close the driver's side door of Cobb's car, prompting Cobb to move closer to the car with his gun drawn. When Brown tried to close the door a second time, Cobb stood in the way with his gun drawn, within two or three feet of Brown, and pulled Brown's left arm to prevent the door from closing. This caused Brown's foot to come off the brake, and the car moved forward. Cobb then shot Brown, either because he thought Brown was trying to drive away when the car inched forward, or because he felt that Brown had disobeyed the order not to move. The gunshot struck Brown in an artery near his left pelvis. After shooting him, Cobb pulled Brown out of the car and placed him face down on the ground, but did not pat him down for a weapon. An ambulance transported Brown to a hospital, where he died later that day. A jury later convicted Cobb of voluntary manslaughter and he served three months in jail.

         Cobb acknowledged in his answer to the complaint that "all of his relevant actions in this matter comported and complied with the training he received" from the Richmond Police Department (the "RPD"). (Dk. No. 22, at 7.) In support of its summary judgment motion, the City submits training documents, policies and guidelines on the use of force, and the testimony of RPD Officer Michael Musselwhite from Cobb's criminal trial. Essentially, the documents show that the City uses various methods to train officers on the use of force at the police academy and twice a year thereafter. The City's program includes training on weapons and vehicular contacts as well.

         The City argues that the plaintiffs cannot present sufficient evidence of deliberate indifference in its training program. In response, the plaintiffs offer an expert report from Kenneth Miller, the Chief of Police for Petersburg, Virginia.[2] Chief Miller identifies four problems with the City's training, which the plaintiffs argue create genuine disputes of material fact and thus preclude summary judgment for the City.

         II. DISCUSSION[3]

         A. Monell Liability and the Failure to Train

         In relevant part, § 1983 provides,

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State... subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress[.]

42 U.S.C. § 1983. To establish liability under § 1983, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant acted under color of state law, violated the plaintiffs federal constitutional or statutory rights, and caused injury. Brown v. Mitchell, 308 F.Supp.2d 682, 692 (E.D. Va. 2004). A plaintiff cannot sue a local government "under § 1983 for an injury inflicted solely by its employees or agents." Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. of N.Y., 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978). In other words, "the municipality itself`[must] cause the constitutional violation" to establish liability; vicarious liability will not attach to a municipality under § 1983. City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 385 (1989). Instead, a locality faces liability only when officers inflict injury while executing the locality's custom, usage, or policy. Monell, 436 U.S. at 694.

         Specifically, a locality can be liable for failing to train employees. Connick v. Thompson, 563 U.S. 51, 61 (2011). To recover under this "tenuous" theory, id., a plaintiff must prove that "(1) the [local government] subordinates actually violated the plaintiffs constitutional or statutory rights; (2) the [local government] failed to train properly the subordinates thus illustrating a 'deliberate indifference' to the rights of the persons with whom the subordinates come into contact; and (3) this failure to train actually caused the subordinates to violate the plaintiffs rights." Mitchell, 308 F.Supp.2d at 701. Causation in this context means that a training deficiency made the violation basically "bound to happen." Spell v. McDaniel, 824 F.2d 1380, 1390 (4th Cir. 1987). Courts require an "affirmative link ... to avoid imposing liability on municipal decisionmakers in the absence of fault and causation." Carter v. Morris, 164 F.3d 215, 218 (4th Cir. 1999).

         The deliberate indifference element creates "a stringent standard of fault." Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs v. Brown,520 U.S. 397, 410(1997). To establish this element, a plaintiff must identify a "specific deficiency rather than general laxness or ineffectiveness in training," Spell, 824 F.2d at 1390, and show that the municipality disregarded a known or obvious consequence of its training decision, Brown, 520 U.S. at 410. In other words, "mere negligence on the part of policymakers is not sufficient." Spell, 824 F.2d at 1390. Liability does not attach when one employee "happen[s] to apply the policy in an unconstitutional manner," or when a city fails to satisfactorily train one officer. City of Canton, 489 U.S. at 387, 390. "Neither will it suffice to prove that an injury or accident could have been avoided if an officer had had better or more training." Id. at 391. Even ...


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