On January 23rd, 2020, Kenta Settles took the bus to pick up a prescription from CVS for a mental health issue. Only the drive-thru was open, so he stood in line to wait his turn.
Being conscientious, he was worried the person in the car in front of him might be nervous. Kenta went over to explain that he was simply waiting in line on foot rather than in a car, but the driver became alarmed, honking his horn. At that point, Kenta decided to leave. The driver of the car called the police and said someone had tried to open his car door.
While walking away from CVS on a public sidewalk, Kenta was approached by a Garfield Heights police officer. The officer confronted Kenta and escorted him to a police cruiser. Kenta asked what was going on, but the officer refused to answer him. Kenta didn’t understand why he was being stopped. Another officer arrived while Kenta was against the hood of the cruiser. Kenta tried to comply with commands but was quickly tackled to the ground and punched in the face, head, and neck. Kenta tried to protect his head. The officers then both tased Kenta, who was arrested and charged with assault and other crimes. The incident was recorded on body cameras worn by the officers.
Kenta then spent 5 months in jail during the onset of the pandemic. When prosecutors on the case reviewed the officer body cam footage, however, they dropped all charges against Kenta and he was released, after spending approximately five months in jail. Shortly after his release, in June of 2020, Spangenberg Shibley & Liber, LLP filed a lawsuit on Kenta’s behalf, alleging excessive force and malicious prosecution.
However, there was a large hurdle to overcome: the Qualified Immunity Doctrine allows officers significant leeway, even when they’ve violated someone’s constitutional rights. In this case, the defense asserted qualified immunity by way of a motion for summary judgment, asking the court to dismiss Kenta’s claims.
Nick DiCello, Jeremy Tor, and Kevin Hulick, attorneys in Spangenberg’s Civil Rights Practice group, are handling Kenta’s case, and opposed the defense’s qualified immunity motion. Despite the challenge presented by the qualified immunity defense, DiCello, Tor, and Hulick prevailed on most of their claims, including those by which Kenta has alleged excessive force and malicious prosecution.
The defendants have appealed the ruling to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, but Nick, Jeremy, and Kevin have asked to have that appeal dismissed.
“It’s a big victory in these kinds of cases to overcome summary judgment at the district court level,” DiCello said. “Kenta’s version of events is not really documented in the police record. He wasn’t interviewed about his version of events.” Nick goes on to explain that in cases like this, the documentation of the event that occurred is largely prepared by the officers involved, which tends to present a slanted or biased perspective.
“Without the video evidence here, it would have been impossible to pursue this case,” Nick said, highlighting the importance of requiring law enforcement officers to wear body cameras
When asked about unique aspects of the case, Nick explained that it’s relatively unusual for Kenta to have spent so much time in jail, only for the charges against him to be dropped.
Another unique aspect of the case Nick brought up was the countersuit filed against Kenta by the defendants.
Kenta defended himself against the unwarranted and violent assault by the officers, and during the altercation the officers claim to have sustained injuries. DiCello, Tor, and Hulick have argued, successfully thus far, that a citizen has an absolute right to defend him or herself against illegal excessive force perpetrated by a law enforcement officer. Nevertheless, the officers have counter-sued Kenta alleging assault and battery, which Nick sees as highly unusual, having never encountered such counter-claims in a civil rights case
Spangenberg’s Civil Rights Practice group consists of four attorneys, three of whom are former federal law clerks, as well as a paralegal, Kelley Fox, who is dedicated to civil rights matters. Since these cases almost always proceed in federal court under federal law, having three former federal law clerks is invaluable. Civil rights claims are heavily dependent on federal law and ever-evolving federal precedent in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, in other Circuit courts, and in the United States Supreme Court. Understanding the governing legal precedent and knowing how to utilize it in working up a case toward defeating qualified immunity is critical.