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Johnson v. City of Ferguson, Missouri

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

July 25, 2017

Dorian Johnson Plaintiff- Appellee
City of Ferguson, Missouri; Thomas Jackson; Darren Wilson Defendants - Appellants

          Submitted: January 12, 2017

         Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri - St. Louis

          Before WOLLMAN, MURPHY, and MELLOY, Circuit Judges.

          MELLOY, Circuit Judge.

         Dorian Johnson sued Officer Darren Wilson, Police Chief Thomas Jackson, and the City of Ferguson, Missouri, for constitutional violations resulting from an encounter between Officer Wilson and Johnson. The district court[1] denied Defendants' motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity. Defendants appeal, and we affirm.


         Because this matter comes before us as an appeal from the denial of a motion to dismiss, we set forth the facts as alleged in the complaint. Hager v. Ark. Dep't of Health, 735 F.3d 1009, 1013 (8th Cir. 2013). On August 9, 2014, Johnson and Michael Brown, Jr., were walking down Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Missouri. Officer Wilson approached both men in his police car and told them to "Get the f*ck on the sidewalk." Officer Wilson drove past the two men and then reversed his car, parking so as to block Johnson and Brown's path. Officer Wilson opened his door, striking Brown, and then grabbed Brown and threatened to shoot his gun. While Brown struggled to break free, Officer Wilson discharged his gun twice, striking Brown in the arm. At all times during this encounter, Johnson was standing next to Brown.

         After Officer Wilson shot Brown in the arm, Brown and Johnson ran away from Officer Wilson. Officer Wilson did not order Brown and Johnson to "stop" or "freeze." Rather, Officer Wilson fired his service weapon at the two men, striking Brown several times and killing him.

         Johnson filed this cause of action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, naming Officer Wilson, the City of Ferguson, and Chief Jackson as defendants. Johnson alleges that Officer Wilson's actions constituted an unlawful seizure and use of excessive force, in violation of his rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Further, Johnson alleges that the City of Ferguson and Chief Jackson engaged in policies that resulted in the violation of Johnson's civil rights, including failure to train and supervise officers and condoning unconstitutional law-enforcement practices. Johnson also brought claims under Missouri state law for assault, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and, in the alternative, negligent infliction of emotional distress.

         Defendants moved to dismiss Johnson's complaint for failure to state a claim. Officer Wilson and Chief Jackson claim they are entitled to qualified immunity. The City of Ferguson claims it cannot be liable because Johnson failed to show that a constitutional violation occurred. The district court denied qualified immunity to Officer Wilson and Chief Jackson. The district court also denied the motion to dismiss the claims against the City of Ferguson. Defendants appeal.


         A. Qualified Immunity

         "[A] district court's denial of a claim of qualified immunity, to the extent that it turns on an issue of law, is an appealable 'final decision' within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. § 1291 notwithstanding the absence of a final judgment." Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 530 (1985). Defendants challenge the sufficiency of Johnson's pleadings to state a claim pursuant to § 1983. This is an issue of law over which we have jurisdiction. See Hager, 735 F.3d at 1013.

         We review the denial of a motion to dismiss on the basis of qualified immunity de novo. Id. A complaint must plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). "Courts must accept a plaintiff's factual allegations as true but need not accept a plaintiff's legal conclusions." Retro Television Network, Inc. v. Luken Commc'ns, LLC, 696 F.3d 766, 768-69 (8th Cir. 2012). "[D]efendants seeking dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) based on an assertion of qualified immunity 'must show that they are entitled to qualified immunity on the face of the complaint.'" Carter v. Huterson, 831 F.3d 1104, 1107 (8th Cir. 2016) (quoting Bradford v. Huckabee, 394 F.3d 1012, 1015 (8th Cir. 2005)).

         Qualified immunity shields officers from liability when "their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). "The determination of whether an officer is entitled to qualified immunity requires consideration of the 'objective legal reasonableness' of the officer's conduct in light of the information he possessed at the time of the alleged violation." Winters v. Adams, 254 F.3d 758, 766 (8th Cir. 2001) (quoting Harlow, 457 U.S. at 819). "Qualified immunity involves the following two-step inquiry: (1) whether the facts shown by the plaintiff make out a violation of a constitutional or statutory right, and (2) whether that right was clearly established at the time of the defendant's alleged misconduct." Mitchell v. Shearrer, 729 F.3d 1070, 1074 (8th Cir. 2013); see Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009) (holding that courts have discretion to determine which prong to address first).

         1. Constitutional Violation

         a. Seizure

         The crux of the motion to dismiss and this resulting appeal centers on the issue of whether there was a seizure. Johnson concedes that if there was no seizure virtually all of his claims fall away. Conversely, if there was a seizure, the Defendants make little argument that the force used was not unreasonable. Thus, we turn to that issue first.

         The § 1983 claim against Officer Wilson alleges that Johnson was unlawfully detained and subjected to excessive force in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable seizures of persons. U.S. Const. amend. IV. Whether a person has been seized turns on whether, "in view of the totality of circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed he was free to leave." United States v. Johnson, 326 F.3d 1018, 1021 (8th Cir. 2003). Courts consider "the presence of several officers, a display of a weapon by an officer, physical touching of the person, or the 'use of language or tone of voice indicating that compliance with the officer's request might be compelled.'" United States v. Flores-Sandoval, 474 F.3d 1142, 1145 (8th Cir. 2007) (quoting United States v. Hathcock, 103 F.3d 715, 718-19 (8th Cir. 1997)). Further, "[a] ...

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