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Kevin Chambers v. Michael Pennycook

June 6, 2011


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Colloton, Circuit Judge.

Submitted: October 20, 2010

Before WOLLMAN, COLLOTON, and GRUENDER, Circuit Judges.

Appellant Kevin Chambers brought this action against three law enforcement officers pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He alleged that the officers violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment by using excessive force against him during and shortly after his arrest. The district court concluded that Chambers's failure to show greater *fn1 than de minimis injury was fatal to his claim and dismissed the complaint. We now conclude that a citizen may prove an unreasonable seizure based on an excessive use of force without necessarily showing more than de minimis injury, but we hold that the officers here are entitled to qualified immunity, because their alleged actions did not violate clearly established law. Accordingly, we affirm the district court's grant of summary judgment.


On the afternoon of August 4, 2005, a team of police officers from St. Louis County executed a warrant to search for evidence of illegal drug activity at the apartment of Chambers's stepdaughter. Chambers was visiting when police arrived, and he was quickly placed under arrest. All three defendants participated in the search of the apartment. Bradley Kelling, a sergeant with the St. Louis County Police Department and a member of its Tactical Response Team, entered the apartment and observed Chambers until he was arrested and handcuffed. Andria Van Mierlo, a detective with the St. Louis County Police Department, and Michael Pennycook, an officer with the City of Maplewood, Missouri, Police Department, entered the apartment only after the Tactical Response Team had arrested and handcuffed Chambers.

At his deposition, Chambers testified that members of the Tactical Response Team held him on the floor, handcuffed him, and jammed guns into his back while Kelling asked him what he was doing at the apartment. According to Chambers, when he told Kelling that he was at the apartment to visit his stepdaughter, Kelling called him a liar, cursed at him, kicked him several times on both sides of his body, and pressed his foot down on Chambers's back. Chambers stated that the officers then brought him outside. According to Chambers, Kelling later emerged from the apartment, announced that he was going to search Chambers again, and planted a glass pipe in Chambers's pocket. Kelling was the only member of the Tactical Response Team whom Chambers identified by name.

Following Chambers's arrest, he was transported to the St. Louis County Police Department, and then to the county jail. Chambers repeatedly complained of back pain, and shortly after his arrival at the jail, Pennycook and Van Mierlo transported him in an unmarked police car to St. Mary's Health Center for an evaluation. Van Mierlo drove while Chambers sat in the passenger seat, and Pennycook sat in the seat immediately behind Chambers. Chambers was handcuffed behind his back and his seatbelt was fastened.

Chambers testified at his deposition that Van Mierlo and Pennycook adjusted his seat so that it was leaning as far forward as possible, with Chambers's head almost touching the dashboard. The officers complained that Chambers was wasting their time by requiring a ride to the hospital. According to Chambers, Van Mierlo began to drive erratically, accelerating and braking suddenly so that Chambers would be jerked back and forth in his seat. Chambers testified that Pennycook, meanwhile, forcefully kicked the back of his seat and used his arm to choke Chambers from behind, while complaining that Chambers was wasting their time. In Chambers's account, the trip lasted approximately twenty minutes because Van Mierlo chose to drive in circles rather than go straight to the hospital. Chambers also testified that after they arrived at St. Mary's, Van Mierlo and Pennycook roughly jerked him around by his handcuffs during the walk from the car to the building's front doors.

Once Chambers arrived at the hospital, he was evaluated by Dr. Randall Speck. Chambers testified that he told Speck that he was suffering from back and neck pain, which was so severe that Chambers was crying and had difficulty concentrating. Chambers stated that Speck had told him that his back showed signs of redness and bruising.

According to a note that Speck signed, Chambers told the hospital personnel that he had pain in his upper back caused by the officers who initially arrested him, although he said he was unsure whether the officers actually struck him or just fell on him. The note said that Chambers denied any head or neck injury, arm or leg pain, or shortness of breath. Speck signed another note describing Chambers's final diagnosis as a "back contusion," while noting that there was no bruising or swelling on Chambers's spinal area, that Chambers showed no acute distress, and that Chambers had full range of motion in his arms and legs without discomfort. The note also stated that x-rays of Chambers's spine and ribs showed no evidence of acute fractures. Speck declared Chambers fit for confinement and recommended that he "take either Tylenol or Ultram [a pain medication] . . . as needed for pain." The State prosecuted Chambers in connection with his arrest, and he eventually pleaded guilty to a felony drug charge pursuant to North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25 (1970).

On September 12, 2005, Chambers commenced this action against St. Louis County, the St. Louis County Drug Task Force, and the three officers in their official and personal capacities, alleging that the defendants had violated his rights under the Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments. In the same action, Chambers brought an assault and battery claim under Missouri law. He sought damages and declaratory and injunctive relief. The district court granted the defendants' motions to dismiss all of Chambers's claims. Chambers v. St. Louis Cnty., No. 4:05-cv-01469-SNL, slip op. at 4 (E.D. Mo. April 18, 2006). Chambers appealed, and a panel of this court affirmed the dismissal of the claims against St. Louis County and the St. Louis County Drug Task Force, reversed the dismissal of the claims against Kelling, Pennycook, and Van Mierlo in their individual capacities, and remanded to the district court for further proceedings. Chambers v. St. Louis Cnty., 247 F. App'x 846 (8th Cir. 2007) (per curiam).

On May 11, 2009, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of the remaining defendants. The court reasoned that Chambers had presented no evidence that he had suffered anything more than de minimis injuries, and "[s]ince plaintiff has failed to produce evidence of any serious or permanent injuries, his claim for excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment fails." Chambers v. St. Louis Cnty., No. 4:05-cv-01469-SNLJ, slip op. at 10-11 (E.D. Mo. May 11, 2009). The district court also dismissed the state law assault and battery claims without prejudice, declining to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over those claims after it determined that all the federal claims should be dismissed. Having found no constitutional violation, the district court did not address the officers' claims of qualified immunity.

Chambers again appealed to this court, arguing that the district court lacked jurisdiction and that the court erred by dismissing his claim for damages against the officers in their individual capacities, refusing his requests for appointed counsel, and failing to reprimand the defendants and their counsel for "deceitful and unethical tactics." On February 23, 2010, we affirmed the judgment of the district court. Chambers v. Pennycook, 366 F. App'x 707 (8th Cir. 2010) (per curiam). Chambers filed a petition for rehearing, arguing that our decision conflicted with the Supreme Court's holding in Wilkins v. Gaddy, 130 S. Ct. 1175 (2010), which was decided on the day before we issued our opinion. We granted the petition for rehearing, vacated our opinion and judgment of February 23, 2010, and appointed counsel to represent Chambers. We also directed the parties to file supplemental briefs concerning ...

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