Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Dual plaintiffs in false arrest claim: one has a case, the other does not.

This case tells us that qualified immunity is a real issue for false arrest plaintiffs, but that this immunity can be overcome. We have two plaintiffs here. One is allowed to proceed with her case, but the other case is dismissed for good.

The case is Creese v. City of New York, a summary order issued on May 27. It all started in a bar. We'll start with the losing plaintiff, Janeka Creese, a bartender who was arrested after an officer determined that she had served an underage drinker. The facts are as follows: she was working as a bartender when officer Martinez approached the bar area and N.D., while holding a cup of alcohol, told Martinez that he was not old enough to drink. These facts allowed Martinez to reasonably believe that Janeka had served N.D., even though I am pretty sure Janeka denies serving N.D. The qualified immunity gives the police some slack when the facts could reasonably be interpreted either way. So, while in hindsight Martinez may have been wrong, under qualified immunity, he is free from liability because, in the court's judgment, he acted reasonably under the circumstances. We call this "arguable probable cause," which is another way of saying the officer had an objective basis to find the defendant had broken the law.

Janeka's malicious prosecution claim was also dismissed by the district court. The Court of Appeals agrees that there is no malicious prosecution claim. That claim is distinct from false arrest, which provides for damages until the time of arraignment. Post-arraignment, a baseless prosecution brings you to a new claim. Hence, malicious prosecution. Janeka loses because there was probable cause to arrest; that's a defense to the malicious prosecution claim. Plus, the police found additional evidence to support their belief that plaintiff was guilty: a sworn statement from another underage drinker, B.A., that appeared to identify Janeka as the bartender who had served him.

While Janeka has no case on the docket, her co-plaintiff survives, as the Court of Appeals (Walker, Lynch and Sullivan) reinstates her false arrest lawsuit. This is because we have a factual dispute that a jury must resolve, not a court on a motion for summary judgment. Defendants say another drinker, B.A., identified Debra as the person who served him alcohol at the bar. But, at deposition, N.D. denied saying this. In addition, Martinez did not document B.A.'s identification of Debra at the time of the arrest. All of this evidence could undermine Martinez's account of what happened and lead a jury to find in her favor on the false arrest claim.

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