7th Circuit reverses summary judgement for Indy police officer in excessive force case

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals is sending an excessive force case back down to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana after it found the district court erroneously awarded summary judgment to an Indianapolis police officer and the city.

On appeal, the 7th Circuit reversed in Sachin Gupta v. Chad Melloh and City of Indianapolis, 19-2723, finding a factfinder was needed due to material disputes.

In 2017, Sachin Gupta drank too many alcoholic beverages on a business trip and found himself extremely intoxicated and struggling to use his key to open the lobby door of the Microtel Inn in Indianapolis. The problem, according to the 7th Circuit, was not with the keycard to the hotel, but with the fact that Gupta was a guest at a different hotel.

Frustrated and belligerent, Gupta began yelling at the hotel clerk, who refused to open the door and instead called the police.

Officer Shawn Cook of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department arrived at the hotel first. Cook noticed an overturned brochure rack and observed that Gupta was unsteady on his feet, slurring his speech and needed to hold on to a counter to keep from falling.

Gupta complied when Cook asked him to put his hands behind his back, and he was handcuffed without any resistance, although the officer did need to hold on to Gupta to steady him.

Officer Chad Melloh arrived a few minutes after Cook, while Gupta was still in the same intoxicated state and swaying unsteadily. When Cook left the vestibule to speak with the hotel clerk, he asked Melloh to supervise Gupta. Melloh later testified that he repeatedly asked Gupta to come outside, but Gupta refused and didn’t move.

According to his brief, Melloh walked over to Gupta and placed his right hand on Gupta’s left arm, then started to walk toward the front door, urging Gupta to come along. Under Melloh’s account, Gupta stiffened his body and jerked away from the officer, at which point Melloh concluded Gupta was resisting arrest and decided to give him a more forceful tug to get him out the door.

Gupta, however, denied that he resisted arrest and asserted that despite his lack of resistance, and the fact that the video doesn’t show him stiffening or jerking his body, Melloh forcefully and unnecessarily jerked him forward.

All parties agreed in large part on what happened next. As Melloh forcefully pulled on Gupta’s arm, Gupta hurtled forward and, without the use of his handcuffed arms to break his fall, hit the floor face-down. Melloh picked up Gupta by the back of the arms, dragged him out to the sidewalk and pulled him up into a seated position on the sidewalk.

Melloh asserted that he evaluated Gupta’s condition before moving him, while Gupta argued the move occurred immediately, without time for assessment.

Photographs taken afterward show blood on the vestibule floor and in Gupta’s nose and mouth. Gupta sustained a fracture of the C5 vertebra in his neck during the incident.

Gupta later sued Melloh and the city of Indianapolis, claiming the officer used excessive force. But the Indiana Southern District Court dismissed Gupta’s excessive force claim and granted summary judgment to the defendants.

On appeal, the 7th Circuit ruled there are still material disputes of fact that make summary judgement inappropriate.

Specifically as to the excessive force claim, the 7th Circuit wrote that it couldn’t determine whether Melloh used greater force than was reasonably necessary during an arrest until a factfinder resolved how much force was used and what level of force the officer needed to use to effectuate the arrest.

“Although it is certainly true that a court need not give credence to facts based on speculation or conjecture … in this case, the facts in the light most favorable to Gupta do not come from his conjecture, but rather come from three sources: first, the video evidence; second, Melloh’s affidavit, and third, Melloh’s deposition testimony,” Judge Ilana Rovner wrote for the appellate panel. “Gupta has satisfied the requirement that he identify specific, admissible evidence showing that there is a genuine dispute of material fact for trial.”

For the same reason, the 7th Circuit determined it was “impossible” to conclude on summary judgment whether Melloh was entitled to qualified immunity, if he falsified allegations in the probable cause affidavit and if battery claims should also be dismissed.

The case was remanded for further proceedings in the district court.

The 7th Circuit noted in a footnote that Rovner was not an original member of the panel in Gupta’s case. Now-Justice Amy Coney Barrett had heard the oral arguments and considered the case before her appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Rovner was selected to replace Barrett on the panel, and she reviewed the briefing, the record and a recording of the oral arguments before penning the appellate opinion.

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