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Green v. City of Southfield

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

May 28, 2019

Dawn Green, Plaintiff-Appellant/Cross-Appellee,
v.
City of Southfield, Michigan; Brian Bassett; Keith Birberick; Mark LaBrosse, Defendants-Appellees/Cross-Appellants.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan at Detroit. No. 2:15-cv-13479-Sean F. Cox, District Judge.

         ON BRIEF:

          D. Rick Martin, GLOTTA & ASSOCIATES, Detroit, Michigan, for Appellant/Cross-Appellee.

          Michael T. Berger, SEWARD HENDERSON PLLC, Royal Oak, Michigan, for Appellees/Cross-Appellants.

          Before: MOORE, SUTTON, and MURPHY, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

          SUTTON, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Two cars collided in a busy intersection in a Detroit suburb. The police decided that one of the drivers, Dawn Green, ran a red light, and said so in the accident report, though they opted not to give her a ticket. Green sued the three officers and their employer, the City of Southfield, alleging that the investigation of the accident violated the U.S. Constitution. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants. We affirm.

         I.

         One afternoon in October 2012, Green was driving west on Eight Mile Road in Southfield, Michigan, twenty minutes north of Detroit. William Patterson was heading northbound on Southfield Road, taking his grandson to a medical appointment. The two vehicles collided in the intersection, Patterson's SUV ramming the driver-side door of Green's sedan. After impact, the SUV blocked the intersection and Green's car came to rest at a traffic median several hundred feet away.

         According to Green, she was briefly knocked unconscious and, after coming to, was dazed and in intense pain, struggling to "recall[ ] everything that occurred." R. 185-6 at 7. Other drivers pulled over to help Green, disoriented and with glass in her face, climb out of her car and lay down on the median.

         Southfield Officer Rafid Maya arrived at the scene soon after the accident. He spoke briefly with Patterson, who was out of his car and didn't look injured. Maya then went to Green, still on her back on the median, appearing stiff and unable to move her limbs. Because Green "didn't respond too many times," saying just "a few words here and there," Maya refrained from asking many questions after getting her identification. R. 185-3 at 6-7.

         Traffic Specialist Keith Birberick arrived within a few minutes of Maya. By then, paramedics were looking after Green, and Birberick initially blocked traffic at Patterson's end of the crash scene. When he came over to Green, she was on a gurney in an ambulance. He spoke to Green briefly, as Maya told him Green couldn't remember the accident. Patterson relayed that he had just entered the intersection with a green light when his car "was struck" by Green's car. R. 185-7 at 5-6. Birberick did not speak to Patterson's fifteen-year-old grandson, because he believed that, as a passenger, the grandson was not an "independent witness" and that the accident was not severe enough to warrant significant investigation. Id. at 6. Birberick determined that the physical evidence-the degree and location of the vehicles' respective damage, the absence of skid marks around Green's vehicle, and the spot where Green's vehicle came to rest-corroborated Patterson's account.

         Birberick did not consider the accident serious enough for criminal proceedings or a traffic ticket, so he did not complete a police incident report. He instead filled out the crash report that the State of Michigan requires for highway-safety planning purposes when car accidents lead to injuries. Mich. Comp. Laws §§ 257.622, 257.624(1). In the form's "Hazardous Action" box, Birberick wrote "none" for Patterson and "disregarded traffic [signal]" for Green. R. 185-2 at 2-3. Michigan law provides that such crash reports "shall not be available for use in a court action." Mich. Comp. Laws § 257.624(1).

         Green was hospitalized for several days. When she saw the accident report, she contacted Detective Mark LaBrosse at the Southfield Police Department, insisting it was Patterson who ran the light and that she had an eye witness, Douglas Harris, to back her up. LaBrosse followed up with Harris and Patterson as well as with Officer Maya and Specialist Birberick, but LaBrosse and his supervisor (Sergeant Brian Bassett) decided against amending the report. LaBrosse simply added Harris as a potential witness and ordered the records bureau to attach his affidavit to the report.

         Green sued Patterson in state court, eventually settling her negligence claim after discovery, case evaluation, and court-ordered facilitation. She then filed this § 1983 and § 1985 action against officers Birberick, LaBrosse, Bassett, and the City of Southfield, alleging that the investigation of the accident violated her equal protection rights under the Fourteenth Amendment and her right of access to the courts under the First (and Fourteenth) Amendment. The district court concluded that the officers deserved qualified immunity and granted summary judgment to several of the defendants. The court refused each side's request for sanctions against the other. Green appeals, and the defendants cross-appeal.

         II.

         Qualified immunity protects police officers from liability for actions that do not violate clearly established rights apparent to a reasonable officer standing in their shoes. Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). At issue on summary judgment is whether a material-fact dispute stands in the way of the officers' qualified-immunity defense or whether they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Northrup v. City of Toledo Police Dep't, 785 F.3d 1128, 1131 (6th Cir. 2015); see Plumhoff v. Rickard, 572 U.S. 765, 768 ...


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