Private Security Firm
Boyle | Shaughnessy Law Shareholder Scott Carroll recently obtained a defendants’ verdict following a week long jury trial in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Massachusetts. Attorney Carroll represented a private security guard and his employer, a large regional private security firm. The plaintiff’s Complaint alleged liability under state law in separate counts of assault, battery, false imprisonment, abuse of process, malicious prosecution and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Additionally, the plaintiff sought to recover damages, including attorneys fees and costs, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Federal Civil Rights Act, as well as the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act.
The case arose out of the arrest of the plaintiff by the defendant security officer, who was a licensed “Special Police Officer” in accordance with Boston Police Department Rule 400. The plaintiff maintained that he was unlawfully detained and ultimately arrested without probable cause in violation of his rights under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article 14 of the Massachusetts Constitution. The plaintiff alleged that the private security officer “targeted” him because of his race. He testified that he was beaten while handcuffed and subjected to racial slurs. At trial, he testified that he was left in the frigid cold for an extended period of time.
As a result of the incident, the plaintiff alleged significant emotional distress requiring mental health counseling and a regimen of medication. He claimed that the incident left him scarred and distrustful of the police and law enforcement in his community. He claimed that he could no longer live with his family in the neighborhood where the incident occurred and that his academic performance suffered due to his emotional injuries.
The case presented two legal issues that remain unsettled in the First Circuit. First, whether an allegedly unlawful arrest by a private security officer with limited police powers constitutes “state action” for purposes § 1983 liability. Second, whether a private security guard who is exposed to § 1983 liability is entitled to qualified immunity based on his status as a quasi governmental official.
During trial, the defense successfully undermined the credibility of the plaintiff’s case by demonstrating that the plaintiff had inaccurately described the series of events that eventually resulted in the plaintiff’s arrest. At the heart of this evidence was a methodical examination of the plaintiff’s claim that he was not in violation of the local rules in the private apartment community where he lived. Through the use of documents and evidence of past events, the defense was able to elicit a reluctant acknowledgement that the plaintiff was, despite his initial denial, in violation of the rules and properly subject to the initial detention. Further, the defense severely discredited a key percipient witness offered by the plaintiff by demonstrating that the testimony could not be reconciled with undisputed facts, including the plaintiff’s account of the incident, and that the witness was closely aligned with the plaintiff and had been coached by plaintiff’s counsel. The defendant security guard testified in a credible manner that no beating or racial slur occurred. His account of the incident was supported by the testimony of a rebuttal witness. Finally, the defendants were successful in undermining the credibility of the plaintiff’s damages claim by admitting evidence that the plaintiff accused another police officer in the past of similar behavior, that he had confided to a therapist prior to the accident that he lacked respect for police officers, that his academic performance improved after the alleged incident, and that the plaintiff had acted aggressively with law enforcement after the incident, which contradicted the plaintiff’s claim that the mere presence of police officers caused him anxiety.
At the close of the plaintiff’s case, the court allowed the defendants’ motions for directed verdict on the claims for abuse of process, malicious prosecution and violation of the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act.
After less than an hour of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendants on the remaining four counts.