On October 25, 2019, the Second Circuit, in an opinion by Judge Sack (joined by Judge Hall and Judge Droney), concluded that an excessive force claim under the Fourth Amendment can be established based on excessive use of force in handcuffing, even where the plaintiff signaled discomfort during the handcuffing only through brief and non-verbal manifestations. However, the Court nonetheless affirmed the grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendants and dismissed the plaintiff’s action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 because it was not “clearly established law” at the time of the officer’s actions that a plaintiff who did not verbally complain or request to have her handcuffs adjusted or removed could recover on a handcuffing-based excessive force claim. Therefore, the officer was entitled to qualified immunity, and the Court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment for the defendants.
In Cugini v. City of New York, __ F.3d __, 2019 WL 5473618 (2d Cir. Oct. 25, 2019), plaintiff Donna Cugini voluntarily surrendered to police custody in Staten Island in connection with a misdemeanor complaint of domestic stalking and harassment filed by her estranged sister. During her subsequent temporary detention, she was handcuffed, suffering serious bodily injury as a result. She then brought an action against the City of New York and the officer who restrained her. With regard to whether the officer was entitled to a finding of qualified immunity at the summary judgment stage, the Court considered: 1) whether the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, made out a violation of a constitutional right, and 2) whether that right was “clearly established” at the time of the alleged violation.
The plaintiff alleged that when the officer grabbed her to cuff her, he twisted her arms in a “weird position” and cuffed her “very tight,” in response to which she shuddered and said “ouch.” The officer then threatened her and said “don’t make me hurt you,” before tightening the handcuffs further. The plaintiff then cried out again in pain but refrained from further protest because she was “too scared.” Upon their arrival at Central Booking, the officer continued to handle her roughly, and another officer remarked that the first officer had put the cuffs on backwards. A third person had to be called to remove them. The plaintiff later sought medical treatment and was diagnosed with nerve damage in her wrist.
Applying a “reasonableness” standard in analyzing this Fourth Amendment claim, the Court noted that the relevant factors include the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect posed an immediate threat, and whether the suspect was actively resisting arrest or attempting to flee, as well as whether the officer was made reasonably aware of the plaintiff’s pain. The Court held that a plaintiff alleging excessive force need not always establish that she told the officer that her handcuffs were too tight or causing pain. Instead, the question is whether the unreasonableness of the force was apparent under the circumstance, or the plaintiff indicated her distress, verbally or otherwise, such that a reasonable officer would have been aware of her pain. The Court held that, under the facts of this case, a reasonable jury could find that the officer’s actions were objectively unreasonable under the circumstances, and thus a Fourth Amendment violation was established.
However, on the question of qualified immunity, the Court ruled that although it was “clearly established” constitutional law that the use of excessive force in handcuffing was prohibited, it was not “clearly established” at the time of the plaintiff’s arrest whether or not “a plaintiff asserting an excessive force claim was required to show evidence that an officer was made reasonably aware of her pain by means of an explicit verbal complaint.” Noting that this was an open question in this Circuit prior to the plaintiff’s case, the Court found that the officer was entitled to qualified immunity. But the Court also concluded that, going forward, “officers can no longer claim . . . that they are immune from liability for using plainly unreasonable force in handcuffing a person or using force that they should know is unreasonable based on the arrestee’s manifestation of signs of distress on the grounds that the law is not ‘clearly established.’”