Today’s blog entry is Short v. City of Rochester, which can be found here. In this case, a young black man with mental illness was killed by the police. His family sues for violation of the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and under §1983. The City of Rochester moved to dismiss all claims. For the reasons discussed below, the court was having none of it and denied the motion to dismiss.
As usual, the blog entry is divided into categories, and they are: Facts; Court’s Reasoning That the ADA and Rehabilitation Act Claims Can Go Forward; Court’s Reasoning That the §1983 Claim Can Go Forward; Court’s Reasoning That the State Law Claims Can Go Forward; and Thoughts/Takeaways. Of course, the reader is free to focus on any or all of the categories.
Facts (taken directly from the opinion)
Jones was “a young Black man with mental illness.” (Id. at ¶ 1). He had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and borderline personality disorder, and his mother “also believes he exhibited signs of schizophrenia.” (Id. at ¶ 29).
At approximately 4:00 p.m. on March 9, 2021, Jones was observed walking around the Town of Gates, just outside the City, without any shoes. (Id. at ¶ 35). A security guard at a residential building, seeing that Jones was visibly distressed, called the police. (Id.). Gates police brought Jones to a homeless shelter on Hobart Street in the City. (Id. at ¶ 36). Jones was provided with shoes and granted entry. (Id.). He spent the rest of that afternoon and most of the evening at the Hobart Street shelter. (Id.).
Jones began experiencing acute mental distress and voluntarily left the Hobart Street shelter around midnight on March 10, 2021. (Id. at ¶ 37). By 2:00 a.m., he had arrived at the Open Door Mission (the “Mission”), a shelter located at 210 West Main Street in the City. (Id. at ¶ 38). The Mission is a not-for-profit organization that provides emergency food and services to the City’s homeless community. (Id.). Many of the individuals whom the Mission serves suffer from mental illness, and the RPD is aware of this fact. (Id. at ¶¶ 38-39).
When Jones arrived at the Mission, he was greeted by employee Allen Woodruff (“Woodruff”). (Id. at ¶ 40). Woodruff opened the door and Jones walked inside to the kitchen, where he grabbed “a bucket of ordinary kitchen knives used for food preparation at the shelter[.]” (Id.). Jones then left, without encountering any other guests or attempting to harm anyone. (Id.). Woodruff called the police and reported that Jones had taken knives from the Mission. (Id.).
Several nearby RPD officers, “including Officers Drake, Audrey Jackson, Sir Glynn, and Jared Carello,” were dispatched to the scene and arrived shortly before 3:00 a.m. (Id. at ¶ 42). Officer Drake located Jones, who was in severe mental distress, at approximately 3:03 a.m. (Id. at ¶ 44). Officer Drake reported to dispatch that Jones was at the intersection of Cascade Drive and Industrial Street and was “actively cutting himself.” (Id. at ¶ 44). At this time, no civilians other than Jones were on the street, and Officer Drake was aware of that fact. (Id. at ¶ 45).
The responding RPD officers lacked the appropriate equipment to engage with Jones in light of his mental state. (Id. at ¶ 46). “Acknowledging this, a fellow officer said to Officer Drake, `just get in your car, Drake, and let’s back off.'” (Id.). However, Officer Drake, flanked by Officers Glynn and Jackson, surrounded Jones and shone bright lights in his eyes while pointing their guns at him. (Id.).
Jones was in clear distress and experiencing a severe mental health episode. (Id. at ¶ 47). Jones stated that he was dangerous and begged the officers to shoot him, telling them that if they did not kill him, he would have to kill them “for Jesus.” (Id.). Officers Drake, Glynn, and Jackson shouted commands at Jones, including telling him to drop the knife he had in his hand, which he was using to cut himself. (Id. at ¶ 49). Jones did not acknowledge their requests, but instead began to walk towards Officer Drake. (Id.). As Jones continued walking towards Officer Drake, who was on the sidewalk at the time, Officer Drake fired five fatal shots, striking Jones once in the chest, twice in the abdomen, once in the groin, and once in the arm. (Id. at ¶ 50). Jones was transported to the University of Rochester Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead by 4:30 a.m. (Id. at ¶ 54).
Court’s Reasoning That the ADA and Rehabilitation Act Claims Can Go Forward
- In order to prove a violation of title II of the ADA or §504 of the Rehabilitation Act, a plaintiff has to show: 1) he is a qualified individual with a disability; 2) he was excluded from participation in a public entity’s services, programs or activities or was otherwise discriminated against by a public entity; and 3) such exclusion or discrimination was due to his disability.
- Courts have generally found that title II of the ADA applies to the interaction between law enforcement and persons with disabilities, but the reasonableness of the accommodation required must be assessed in light of the totality of the circumstances of the particular case.
- Plaintiffs alleged that the person killed was: 1) in visible mental distress; 2) was actively engaging in self harm; 3) was begging the responding officers to shoot him; and 4) had come from a place known to the Rochester Police Department as a place serving individuals with mental illness. Therefore, a reasonable inference exists that the responding officers were aware of the person ultimately killed as having a mental disability.
- Plaintiffs identified several proposed reasonable accommodations that may have prevented the person from being killed, including: 1) waiting to engage with him; 2) equipping the responding officers with nonlethal weapons; 3) using alternative means to remove the knife from his possession; and 4) utilizing the City’s Person in Crisis Team.
- Whether defendant’s claim that it was unreasonable to suggest that the police should have remained in the vehicle and attempted to block the street because of danger to individuals, is a factual dispute not amenable to resolution on a motion to dismiss.
- Whether the use of force was objectively reasonable is not the point. The ADA and the Rehabilitation Act claims address action taken and decisions made before a shot was ever fired. To phrase it another way, if he was not reasonably accommodated that conclusion is not undermined by a holding that the police officer was ultimately justified in using deadly force.
- Case law does not address a standard for asserting a viable disability discrimination claim with respect to the fourth amendment.
- Numerous courts within the Second Circuit have concluded that the ADA requires police departments to make reasonable accommodations for disabled suspects. For example, it cited to one case holding that the only reasonable interpretation of title II is that law enforcement officers acting in an investigative or custodial capacity are performing services, programs, or activities within the scope of title II. Whether a person with the disability succeeds in proving discrimination depends upon whether the accommodations were reasonable under the circumstances. See also this blog entry.
- The qualified immunity argument of the defendant simply doesn’t work because no individual defendants are present in this case. Qualified immunity is only available to individuals sued in their individual capacity. Whether qualified immunity exists for an individual is irrelevant to the liability of the municipality.
Court’s Reasoning That the §1983 Claim Can Go Forward
- The complaint contained numerous factual allegations regarding alleged policies and practices by the Rochester Police Department using unconstitutional force against people who are black and people with mental illnesses. Those factual allegations are sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss and defendant has not articulated otherwise.
Court’s Reasoning That the State Law Claims Can Go Forward
- New York law allows for municipalities to be held vicariously liable for the wrongdoing of its employees even if the employees themselves enjoy immunity.
- Cases cited by the defendant involving negligence do not apply to the context of intentional torts, which is what is involved here. That is, New York law makes clear that municipalities may be held vicariously liable for tortious conduct by their police officers.
- We discussed previously how courts have found that title II of the ADA applies to the interaction between law enforcement and persons with disabilities, such as here. It also makes absolute sense to me to say that the reasonableness of the accommodation needs to be considered in light of the totality of the circumstances of each individual case.
- We have frequently talked about how magic words are not required to initiate the interactive process, such as here. In this case, we see that a situation can in essence serve as magic words.
- You are beginning to see several cases talking about how an interactive process is required with respect to title II even if the court does not explicitly say it quite like that.
- Always a good idea for a plaintiff to make clear that several proposed reasonable accommodations were suggested by him or her or they.
- You are seeing lots of police forces beginning to use social workers and mental health professionals to respond either on their own and/or with the police to individuals in obvious mental distress.
- Excessive force applies to the force used while the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act applies to what happened before that force is used.
- Qualified immunity only applies to individual defendants and not to their employers.
- You want to check your jurisdiction to see whether your state law allows for municipality to be held vicariously liable for the wrongdoing of its employees even if the employees themselves enjoy qualified immunity.
- You also want to check your state law to see how it deals with vicarious liability for intentional torts of their employees.
- Another question is whether police officers are being appropriately trained on excessive force, especially with the ADA and its amendments being around. A separate question is whether police departments are being trained on the rights of people with disabilities in general. We discussed the excessive force issue here. We discussed the question of the police departments not being aware of disability rights and what that might mean here.
- You wonder about the Rochester’s Police Department sensitivity to disabilities in general. I have read before that the City of Rochester has more deaf/Deaf individuals than just about anywhere else in the United States because of the city being the home for the Rochester Institute of Technology and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf within it.