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Huebner v. Bradshaw

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

August 22, 2019

LORI ANN HUEBNER, Plaintiff-Appellant,
RIC BRADSHAW, as Sheriff of Palm Beach County, PETER MCDONOUGH, both individually and in his official capacity, Defendants-Appellees.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida D.C. Docket No. 9:17-cv-80327-KAM.

          Before WILLIAM PRYOR, NEWSOM, and BRANCH, Circuit Judges.

          Newsom, Circuit Judge.

         You can't make this stuff up. We have hair-pulling, wrist-scratching, face-punching, and rock-throwing-all the makings of a good old-fashioned schoolyard scrap. But alas, the combatants in the fracas underlying this Fourth Amendment case were grown-ups-sisters, in fact. Sheesh.

         Sister No. 1, Lori Huebner, was arrested for simple battery following an altercation with Sister No. 2, Kathleen Dobin. Huebner later sued Deputy Peter McDonough, alleging that he violated her Fourth Amendment rights (1) by arresting her without probable cause-in particular, by relying on what she claims was untrustworthy information and by failing to conduct an adequate investigation-and (2) by using excessive force in the course of effectuating the arrest. The district court granted summary judgment to McDonough, and Huebner now appeals.

         We hold that McDonough had ample probable cause to arrest Huebner-the underlying information indicating that she had battered her sister was credible and his investigation was sufficient-and that McDonough didn't use excessive force in making the arrest.[1]



         The sad story underlying this appeal began when one of our two antagonists, Kathleen Dobin, dropped off her elderly mother at her sister Lori Huebner's home in Palm Beach County, Florida. Just as Dobin was about to leave, she and Huebner got into a dispute, apparently over the specifics of their cancer-stricken mother's last wishes.[2] Dobin alleged that as she was pulling away, Huebner ran outside, reached into Dobin's car, and "pulled her by the hair, punched her several times in her left cheek, and scratched her on the left wrist." Dobin called 911; just 11 minutes later, Huebner did the same. About half an hour after the fight, Deputy Yhon Gutierrez met Dobin down the street from Huebner's house. He took Dobin's statement, in which she alleged that Huebner had tried to attack her while she was inside her car-"pulling [her] hair" and "punching [her] in the face"-and that even Huebner's husband got in on the action, coming out of his house to "throw[] rocks at [Dobin's] car." Roughly an hour after the 911 calls came in, Deputy Peter McDonough arrived to relieve Gutierrez. He examined Dobin for scratches or other injuries but didn't find any. Dobin's car showed no signs of damage.

         McDonough then went to Huebner's home, where her daughter answered the door. Huebner came to the door and identified herself, and McDonough placed her under arrest. Huebner said that she was the one who had called 911, that she had "a cut on [her] arm where [Dobin] scratched [her]," and that she had "two witnesses" to the incident with her sister-presumably her daughters. McDonough declined to speak with Huebner's "witnesses"; instead, Huebner alleges, he handcuffed her and "tried to pull [her] rings off [her] finger." Throughout the arrest, Huebner says, she repeatedly complained that McDonough was hurting her-that the handcuffs were too tight, that her arms were pulled too far back, and that his efforts to remove her rings were painful.[3]

         McDonough initially took Huebner to a police sub-station, where he had to complete domestic-battery paperwork before he could transport her to the main detention center. Because the small sub-station didn't have a place to hold arrestees, Huebner remained in the patrol car for what she says was between an hour and a half and two hours. McDonough explained to Huebner how to position herself in the car to minimize the discomfort caused by the handcuffs, but she declined because it too, she said, was uncomfortable. Although the record isn't clear about exactly what happened next, we think we can fairly deduce that McDonough took Huebner from the sub-station to the central jail, where she was processed and then later released.

         Huebner alleges that as a result of her arrest, she suffers from neck and shoulder pain as well as and nerve damage. She has received epidural and cortisone shots for the pain, and her doctor attributes her injuries to her handcuffing.


         Huebner brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that her arrest violated the Fourth Amendment in two respects. First, she asserted that McDonough arrested her without probable cause. In particular, she said, McDonough failed to conduct a reasonable investigation because he relied solely on her sister's unreliable and uncorroborated statements and ignored exculpatory evidence. Second, and separately, Huebner alleged that McDonough used excessive force during the arrest by pulling her arms too far behind her back, cinching the cuffs too tight, and tugging on her fingers and arms to remove her rings. Huebner complains that she now has nerve damage that causes neck and shoulder pain as well as numbness in her arms and fingers, all as a result of the cuffing.

         The district court granted summary judgment to McDonough on both counts. It concluded that McDonough had probable cause to believe that Huebner had committed simple battery, in violation of Florida Statute § 784.03(1)(a). The court explained that McDonough was entitled to rely on Dobin's recitation of events and, further, that the absence of visible injury to Dobin's body, which Huebner emphasized, didn't prevent a probable-cause finding because Florida battery requires only a slight intentional touching-physical harm isn't an element. Alternatively, the district court found that even if McDonough didn't have actual probable cause, he at least had "arguable probable cause," which entitled him to qualified immunity.

         The district court also held that the painful handcuffing that Huebner alleged, without more, didn't amount to excessive force. In so holding, the court observed that ...

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