Court says city not liable in bar brawl involving off-duty officers

Keywords Appeal / Law

A man who was knocked out by two off-duty Indianapolis police officers during a bar fight and was initially awarded more than $1 million in damages against the city could not convince the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals that the municipality should be held vicariously liable for its employees’ actions.

A 2014 bar fight involving two off-duty officers, Michael Reiger and John Serban, left bar patron Bradford Bohanon unconscious.

At the time, Reiger and Serban were at Mikie’s Pub in plain clothing while off duty and consumed several beers and a shot before their interaction with Bohanon, who had ordered a round of shots for everyone at the bar.

After receiving his bill, Bohanon argued with the bartender that he had been overcharged. When he became loud and combative and refused to leave, Reiger and Serban intervened and a fight ensued, which included the officers putting Bohanon in a chokehold that knocked him unconscious. Reiger and Serban then brutally beat Bohanon in the pub’s parking lot before taking money from his wallet and leaving him there.

Bohanon filed a complaint with the Indianapolis Metro Police Department. IMPD later determined that the officers’ actions violated a host of policies including impermissibly using excessive force, using an inappropriate chokehold, failing to render medical aid and failing to report the incident and contact a supervisor.

Both officers were charged with felony battery, although they were acquitted of those crimes in 2016 and ultimately discharged from the force.

A jury later awarded Bohanon nearly $1.25 million in damages, but a federal judge granted Indianapolis’ motion for judgment as a matter of law and vacated the jury’s verdict.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed in Bradford Bohanon v. City of Indianapolis20-3125, concluding that although the officers’ conduct was “egregious,” Bohanon’s theory for holding the city liable was flawed.

Specifically, Bohanon had sued the city under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that the officers used excessive force in violation of his rights under the Fourth Amendment. His theory of municipal liability under Monell v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978) was that his injuries were caused by a “gap” in the city’s substance abuse policy.

That policy prohibits off-duty officers with any alcohol in their blood from performing law enforcement functions subject to a narrow exception – only in an “extreme emergency situation[]” where police “action is required to prevent injury to the off duty [officer] or another, or to prevent the commission of a felony or other serious offense.”

While the 7th Circuit found Bohanon satisfied the first requirement necessary to bring a Monell claim, it found that at steps two and three — municipal fault and “moving force” causation—Bohanon’s claim collapsed.

The appellate court also found that Bohanon did not establish that his case was within the “narrow range of circumstances” where notice can be inferred from the obviousness of the consequences of failing to act.

“In the rare cases where we have found this standard to be met, the risks of municipal inaction have been blatantly obvious,” Chief Judge Diane Sykes wrote. “In contrast, it is not at all obvious that a policy prohibiting police action while drinking, subject to a narrow and specific exception to protect life and limb, would lead off-duty officers to use excessive force in violation of the Constitution. That’s especially true when coupled with the City’s policy prohibiting the use of excessive force. Nothing about the text of General Order 3.24 alone put the City on notice that constitutional violations of this kind were likely to occur.”

Finally, the 7th Circuit concluded that Bohanon failed to prove that the city’s policies were the cause of his injuries. It noted that instead, the city policy “clearly” was not the moving force behind the constitutional violation.

“What happened to Bradford Bohanon was a tragedy, and we share the district judge’s sympathy for Bohanon. But ‘a municipality cannot be held liable solely because it employs a tortfeasor,’” Sykes wrote. “Because Bohanon did not establish municipal fault and moving-force causation, the judge was right to set aside the jury’s verdict and enter judgment for the City.”

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