A federal judge has allowed part of a wrongful death lawsuit to move forward, filed on behalf of a transgender woman who died in a struggle with Berkeley police in 2013.
Kayla Moore's family sued the city and eight Berkeley police officers for causing Moore's death by using excessive force and not taking Moore's paranoid schizophrenia into account when attempting to take her into custody.
U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer dismissed the excessive force complaint but is allowing a claim to go before a jury that officers violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to account for Moore's mental illness. Berkeley was asking the judge to dismiss the entire lawsuit based on lack of evidence.
"[Moore's family] claims that the officers killed Moore by using excessive force. As an initial matter, the officers argue that there is no evidence they caused Moore’s death, and so there can be no claim for excessive force. They are wrong," Breyer wrote in his order, which cites another landmark case he presided over that applied the ADA to police use-of-force cases.
Kayla Moore's roommate called police on Feb. 12, 2013, to tell them that Moore was on drugs, in the midst of a psychotic episode and needed to be hospitalized. Moore had a history of paranoid schizophrenia and drug use and had previously been taken into protective custody for mental evaluation several times, according to Breyer's order and other filings in the case.
Moore's initial conversation with Officer Gwendolyn Brown was cordial, but it didn't make sense.
"Unable to grasp the situation, Moore rambled about 'dinosaurs' and being followed by 'the FBI,' " Breyer wrote in his order. "They kept talking but Officer Brown could not get Moore 'back on track.' Moore’s demeanor switched from bubbly to paranoid to angry to fearful and back again. After 15-20 minutes, Officer Brown decided to take Moore into custody."
But the 350-pound Moore struggled, and several officers ended up on top of her to restrain her. During the struggle, Moore stopped breathing and was later pronounced dead.
The Alameda County Coroner's Bureau found that Moore died of “acute combined drug intoxication with a contribution from morbid obesity and intrinsic cardiovascular disease." However, Dr. Werner Spitz, a medical expert hired by the plaintiffs, found that Moore did not have enough drugs in her system to cause her death and she likely died because of oxygen deprivation caused by the officers compressing her chest.
"The whole point of independent medical analysis -- whether from the coroner, Dr. Spitz or another qualified expert -- is to test whether the officers’ account can be believed," Breyer wrote. "And it matters all the more in cases pitting the word of the police against the silence of the dead. This is such a case."
While Breyer dismissed the claim of excessive force, he did not dismiss the family's argument that police failed to reasonably accommodate Moore's mental illness during the arrest, which would violate the ADA.
The city argued in court filings that Moore's drug use precluded her definition as a person with a disability under the ADA, and even if that failed, Brown's 15-to-20-minute conversation with Moore was an attempt to accommodate her disability. Finally, the city argued that plaintiffs failed in their burden to identify an appropriate accommodation.
"Plaintiff could have ... easily argued that following their training -- which presumably counsels against going 'hands-on' with people terrified that 'the FBI' is after them -- would be accommodation enough," Breyer wrote. "A reasonable jury could agree."
Read Breyer's order below.