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Estate of Fitz v. Stoner

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Cedar Rapids Division

August 8, 2017

ROD STONER, et al., Defendants.


          Leonard T. Strand, Chief Judge.


         This case is before me on motions (Doc. Nos. 63, 80) for summary judgment filed by defendants Bryce Knudsen, Joseph Metz, City of Iowa Falls, Iowa, and Wade Harken (the City defendants) and by defendants Kyle Haack, Jeremy Schaffer and Bryant Strouse (the State defendants). Plaintiff has filed resistances to both motions (Doc. Nos. 72, 82) and defendants have filed a replies (Doc. Nos. 75, 84). Also before me is a motion to strike (Doc. No. 76) filed the City defendants. I do not find oral argument to be necessary. See N.D. Ia. L.R. 7(c). The motion is fully submitted and ready for decision.


         Plaintiff Charles Fitz commenced this action on March 30, 2016, by filing a petition (Doc. No. 4) in the Iowa District Court for Hardin County in his individual capacity, as the executor of the estate of Leighton Fitz and on behalf of Leighton Fitz.[1]The petition asserted six counts against nine named defendants.

         On April 4, 2016, the defendants removed the action to this court on the basis of federal question jurisdiction. Doc. No. 3. The State defendants then moved to dismiss all claims against them, except the federal constitutional claims against the individual defendants in their individual capacities, on grounds of (1) sovereign immunity, (2) failure to file the prerequisite tort claim under Iowa Code chapter 669 and (3) the principles set forth in Monell v. Dep't of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 691 (1978). Doc. No. 26. On June 10, 2016, Senior United States District Judge Edward McManus, to whom this case was then assigned, granted that motion in part by, inter alia, dismissing the State as a defendant. Doc. No. 33.

         Judge McManus then granted Charles leave to file an amended complaint, which he did on October 7, 2016. Doc. No. 43.[2] After an order (Doc. No. 61) in which Judge McManus addressed additional motions to dismiss, the only remaining counts are: (1) violation of clearly established rights guaranteed by the Iowa Constitution, United States Constitution and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleged in individual capacity against Knudsen, Metz, Schaffer, Haack and Strouse, (2) violation of clearly established civil rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution, the Iowa Constitution and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Harken and Iowa Falls, (3) assault and battery against Knudsen, Metz and Iowa Falls and (4) negligence causing wrongful death against Knudsen, Metz, Harken, and Iowa Falls.


         For purposes of the pending motions for summary judgment, and given the standards I must apply in admitting evidence, the following facts are undisputed:

         On April 17, 2014, law enforcement officers responded to a call advising that Leighton was possibly armed at his residence on College Avenue in Iowa Falls, Iowa. Ashely Rasmussen, Leighton's ex-girlfriend, made the report after having a dispute with Leighton. She stated that he had a gun and mentioned the possibility of a “gun rifle.” Doc. No. 63-2 at 19. In a subsequent call, she stated that he had handguns and that they had been having relationship problems. Id. This information was relayed to officers who then responded and surrounded the residence. Id. at 7. Among those at the scene were Iowa State Patrol Troopers Schaffer and Haack, Iowa Division of Narcotics Enforcement Agent Strouse and Iowa Falls Police Officers Knudsen and Metz.

         Before arriving at the scene, Knudsen stopped at the police department at defendant Harken's request and obtained two possible contact numbers for Leighton. Doc. No. 63-2 at 7-8. Knudsen relayed the numbers to Harken and advised him that Leighton was inside the residence, possibly armed with a rifle or handguns. Id. at 8. Harken provided the numbers to Emerson. One of the numbers was believed to be the home phone number for the residence and the other was the number for Rasmussen's cell phone, which was believed to be located inside the residence and accessible to Leighton. Doc. No. 72-2 at 77. Emerson made four calls, placing two calls to each phone over a five-minute period. Doc. No. 72-2 at 77. Emerson was unable to make contact with Leighton. Doc. No. 63-2 at 8.

         At the scene, officers were informed that Leighton had access to several weapons, including the possibility of a rifle he made himself, and that he had made suicidal comments and posted on Facebook about having a rifle. Doc. Nos. 72-2 at 15-16, 25. At some point, Leighton exited the residence. He was agitated and yelled at the officers that they were “neo Nazis.” Doc. No. 80-1 at 2.[3] Officers shouted at him to get to the ground, keep his hands up and not reach for anything, but Leighton did not appear to follow any of these commands. Doc. No. 72-2 at 65-66, 77-78, 81, 86. Raum testified that he and several other officers yelled commands at Leighton and that more than three officers were yelling various commands at the same time. Id. at 66-67.

         After Leighton left the home, Reicken and Blau observed Leighton reach into his right pocket, pull out a cell phone and inform officers they should only worry if he reached into his left pocket. Id. at 75, 86. Reicken observed Leighton holding his phone and requesting officers come over and read his messages. Id. at 86.

         After Leighton dropped the phone, Shaffer told Leighton to remove the fixed blade knife he was wearing and Leighton complied, removed the knife and dropping it to the ground. Id. at 86-87. Raum testified that officers yelled for Leighton to keep his hands up and to drop the knife concurrently. Id. at 70. While Leighton was dropping the knife, officers called out that he was wearing body armor. Id. at 22, 81; Doc. No. 62-3 at 8. Ehrhardt and Metz, who were positioned on the side of the house and behind Leighton, attempted to tase Leighton. Ehrhardt gave his taser to Metz, but after Metz heard that Leighton was wearing body armor, the plan was abandoned. Doc. No. 72-2 at 76; Doc. No. 62-3 at 16.

         After Leighton removed the knife, officers called out that Leighton had guns in his front left pocket and in the back of his waistband. Doc. Nos. 72-2 at 22, 76, 78, 87; Doc. No. 62-3 at 8, 16. Officers then yelled at Leighton to show his hands and to get his hands out of his pockets. Doc. No. 62-3 at 16. Emerson, Raum, Shaffer and Bergman heard Leighton make the statement to the effect that if he was going to use a gun it would be with his left hand. Doc. No. 72-2 at 22, 67, 78, 81. Knudsen also heard commands being given to show his hands and heard Leighton state “if I had a gun” or “if I was gonna use a gun it would be in my left hand.” Doc. No. 62-3 at 9.

         Shortly thereafter, Leighton reached with his left hand into his left pocket and pulled out a silver handgun. Doc. No. 72-2 at 81. Shaffer saw Leighton grab the gun and begin pulling it out of his pocket. At that point, Shaffer opened fire. Id. at 23. Shaffer also told Leighton not to touch the gun, but Leighton dropped his hand to his left side and officers opened fire. Id. at 87. Strouse stated during a DCI interview that officers told Leighton to drop the gun after his hand went to his pocket and not before. Doc. No. 82-3 at 24. Strouse affirmed that this was not a command for Leighton to get the gun and drop it, but a reaction to him reaching for the gun. Id. at 24. There were commands to drop the gun once Knudsen observed Leighton bring the handgun up from his pocket. Doc. No. 62-3 at 9. According to Blau, when Leighton reached for the gun, shots were fired. Doc. No. 72-2 at 75. A photograph taken as Leighton fell to the ground shows a silver handgun in his left hand. Doc. No. 80-1 at 4; Doc. No. 81 at 31.

         Raum testified that Leighton pulled the gun out of his pocket with his left hand enough that he was able to get a glimpse of the weapon to identify that it was a silver handgun. Doc. No. 72-2 at 71. Raum testified that although the weapon was raised just above Leighton' waistline, he does not recall if it was pointed at any officers present. Id. at 72-73. Raum also testified that firing began soon after he glimpsed the gun. Id. at 73. Emerson believes shots were fired after the weapon was drawn and was clearly visible. Id. at 78. Metz also witnessed Leighton reach to his left side and raise a gun in his left hand and begin to draw it. Doc. No. 62-3 at 16. Metz then fired his weapon. Id. Leighton died as a result of the gunshots fired at that time.


         Any party may move for summary judgment regarding all or any part of the claims asserted in a case. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Summary judgment is appropriate when “the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).

         A material fact is one that “‘might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.'” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Thus, “the substantive law will identify which facts are material.” Id. Facts that are “critical” under the substantive law are material, while facts that are “irrelevant or unnecessary” are not. Id.

         An issue of material fact is genuine if it has a real basis in the record, Hartnagel v. Norman, 953 F.2d 394, 395 (8th Cir. 1992) (citing Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986)), or when “‘a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party on the question, ” Woods v. DaimlerChrysler Corp., 409 F.3d 984, 990 (8th Cir. 2005) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248). Evidence that only provides “some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, ” Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586, or evidence that is “merely colorable” or “not significantly probative, ” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50, does not make an issue of material fact genuine.

         As such, a genuine issue of material fact requires “sufficient evidence supporting the claimed factual dispute” so as to “require a jury or judge to resolve the parties' differing versions of the truth at trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248-49. The party moving for entry of summary judgment bears “the initial responsibility of informing the court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the record which show a lack of a genuine issue.” Hartnagel, 953 F.2d at 395 (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323). Once the moving party has met this burden, the nonmoving party must go beyond the pleadings and by depositions, affidavits, or otherwise, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Mosley v. City of Northwoods,415 F.3d 910 (8th Cir. 2005). The nonmovant must show an alleged issue of fact is genuine and material as it relates to the substantive law. ...

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