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Tolan v. Cotton

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Brief Fact Summary.

Plaintiff sued Defendant for excessive force under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 after Defendant shot Plaintiff. Defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing qualified immunity barred the lawsuit.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

When considering a motion for summary judgment, a court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

On the merits of the case, while I do not necessarily agree in all respects with the Court's characterization of the evidence, I agree that there are genuine issues of material fact and that this is a case in which summary judgment should not have been granted.

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Facts.

Robert Tolan (Plaintiff) was shot by Sergeant Jeffrey Cotton (Defendant) on his parents front lawn after Defendant mistook Plaintiff’s car for a stolen car. During the incident, Plaintiff complied with Defendant’s instructions, lying face down on the ground, while his parents tried to explain that they owned the car. The parties dispute whether or not Defendant pushed Plaintiff’s mother and whether or not Plaintiff rose to his knees or his feet in response. Defendant responded by shooting Plaintiff. Plaintiff and his parents sued Defendant under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, arguing he had used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that he was protected by qualified immunity.

Issue.

Did the lower courts properly grant summary judgment in favor of the Defendant, considering the evidence in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff?

Held.

No, the lower courts did not consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff. The grant for summary judgment is vacated and the case remanded.

Discussion.

The Court determined that summary judgment was improper because neither of the lower courts considered the evidence in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff. The courts did not credit Plaintiff’s evidence regarding the lighting on the front lawn, Plaintiff’s mother’s demeanor, whether Plaintiff shouted an overt threat, and Plaintiff’s positioning during the shooting. The Court remanded the case with instructions to consider all evidence in favor of the Plaintiff, before determining whether Defendant violated a clearly established law under the doctrine of qualified immunity.


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