Summary Judgement & Qualified Immunity: Shooting or Self Defense
Baskin v. Martinez and the City of Camden
In considering plaintiff’s appeal, we must adhere to well-settled principles applicable to summary judgment motions. A court must “consider whether the competent evidential materials presented, when viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, are sufficient to permit a rational factfinder to resolve the alleged disputed issue in favor of the non-moving party.” Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995); see also R. 4:46-2(c). If there are materially disputed facts, the motion for summary judgment should be denied. See Parks v. Rogers, 176 N.J. 491, 502- 03 (2003); Brill, 142 N.J. at 540.
As our Supreme Court recently noted, “[o]rdinarily, application of the defense of qualified immunity is a legal question for the court rather than the jury . . . .” Brown v. State, 230 N.J. 84, 98-99 (2017). However, “[a]n exception to that rule arises when the case involves disputed issues of fact. In such a circumstance, the case may be submitted to the jury to determine ‘the who-what-when-where-why type of historical fact issues,’ after which the trial judge may incorporate those findings in determining whether qualified immunity applies.” Id. at 99 (citing Schneider v. Simonini, 163 N.J. 336, 359 (2000)). Therefore, although a court is to determine if qualified immunity applies in a matter and such question is to be evaluated in the light most favorable to the party asserting the alleged injury, before undertaking such evaluation, the jury must resolve any disputed issues of fact.
Here, plaintiff and defendant’s versions of what occurred in the moments just before plaintiff was shot differ in material respects. Plaintiff concedes defendant did not know he was no longer armed, but asserts his hands were up and empty when defendant entered the yard and shot him, a claim corroborated by the eyewitness.
Defendant claims when he arrived at the rear corner of the house, plaintiff turned toward him with his hands stretched out in front of him — not up — with a black object in his right hand. Defendant stated it was when he saw the black object that he fired, suggesting that, if plaintiff’s hands were empty, he would not have shot plaintiff. Accordingly, whether plaintiff held an object in his hand when defendant entered the rear yard and saw plaintiff is pivotal. This disputed issue of material fact alone should have precluded the entry of summary judgment.
When the trial court evaluated the facts, it did consider whether defendant was entitled to qualified immunity if plaintiff had not been holding a black object in his hand when defendant shot him; however, the court still found defendant entitled to immunity even if such fact were true. The difficulty with that determination is defendant is asserting he was induced to and justified in shooting plaintiff because he was holding a black object in his hand. If plaintiff were not holding an object in his hand then, according to defendant — at least implicitly — there would not have been a reason to shoot him. The court assumed defendant’s reaction would have been the same and would have been reasonable even if plaintiff had not been holding an object in his hand; however, the evidence provided does not support that conclusion. Clearly, whether plaintiff was holding a black object in his hand is significantly material.
It is also not known if the court assumed other facts as asserted by plaintiff were true when it made its decision. It is unclear whether the court determined plaintiff had his hands up or out in front of him, as well as other contentions about the moments leading up to the shooting. The court also improperly weighed the eyewitness’ observations.
For example, the court was dismissive of the eyewitness’ account because, for example, she testified she did not see anything in plaintiff’s hands when he was shot, rather than state plaintiff’s hands were empty. However, the court was required to credit the evidence and all inferences in the light most favorable to plaintiff. See R. 4:46-2(c). Further, it was not for the court to assume or interpret what the eyewitness intended or meant by her testimony. See Conrad v. Michelle & John, Inc., 394 N.J. Super. 1, 13 (App. Div. 2007) (stating, in the context of a summary judgment motion, a judge “does not weigh the evidence, or resolve credibility disputes,” as such functions are “uniquely and exclusively performed by a jury”).
Accordingly, we reverse the July 22, 2016 order and remand so that the question of what exactly occurred before the shooting can be assessed and resolved by a jury. There exist disputed facts that must be resolved before the court can determine whether defendant’s actions were objectively reasonable and if he is entitled to qualified immunity. We do not mean to suggest the question whether plaintiff was holding an object in his hand when shot is the only material fact in dispute. Any “who-what-when-where-why type of historical fact issues,” Brown, 230 N.J. at 99, shall be decided by the jury.