Civil Procedure II, Pages 589–592

Tolan v. Cotton

Supreme Court of the United States, May 5, 2014

Facts:

Edwards was a police officer that saw an SUV turning quickly onto a residential street, park in front of Tolan's house, let out Tolan and his cousin, Cooper. Edwards ran the plate number, but mistyped a number, instead matching a stolen vehicle of the same make and color. This set off an alert to other police units about the SUV.

Edwards exited his cruise, drew his pistol, and ordered the two men to the ground. He accused them of stealing the car, which the men denied. Tolan nonetheless complied with Edwards's order. Tolan's parents then came out of the house after hearing the commotion, and his father told Cooper to comply as well and to remain silent. The parents insisted that this was their son and that his car was not stolen. Edwards radioed for backup.

Defendant then arrived as backup and also drew his pistol. Edwards told defendant that the men exited a stolen vehicle. Tolan's mother tried to tell him that it was not stolen, but defendant ordered her to stand up against the garage door.

The testimonies then conflicted. Defendant testified that Tolan's mother flipped her arm up and told him to get off her, while plaintiff, his mother, and Cooper testified that defendant had pushed her against the garage door. Either way, photographic evidence showed bruises on her. Tolan then rose, either to his knees or his feet and told defendant to unhand his mother. Defendant then shot Tolan in the chest without warning. Tolan was unarmed on his parents' front porch 15 to 20 feet away from defendant.

Tolan survived, but with a lasting painful injury that disrupted his budding baseball career. Tolan, his parents, and Cooper sued, alleging that defendant exercised excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. After discovery, Tolan moved for summary judgment.

Procedural History:

  • The District Court granted summary judgment to defendant, reasoning that defendant's use of force was not unreasonable and therefore did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

  • The Fifth Circuit affirmed, noting that it was clearly established that defendant was reasonable in believing Tolan posed an "immediate threat to [his] safety." They based this on defendant's testimony about the porch being "dimly-lit," Tolan's mother "refusing orders to remain quiet and calm," Tolan "shouting" and "verbally threatening" defendant, and Tolan "moving to intervene" with his mother.

Issue:

Whether summary judgment was properly granted to defendant.

Rule:

At the summary judgment stage, reasonable inferences should be drawn in favor of the non-moving party.

Reasoning:

The Fifth Circuit failed to view the evidence in the light most favorable to defendant with respect to the central facts of this case. They based four things on defendant's testimony while ignoring the plaintiffs' opposing testimony.

Holding:

The court below credited the evidence of defendant, but not that of plaintiffs. The violated the fundamental principle that, at summary judgment stage, reasonable inferences should be drawn in favor of the non-moving party. Judgment vacated; case remanded.

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