Woman struck in face by Moorhead officer files excessive force lawsuit
The civil complaint claims the officer lied about what happened in the hospital room. He told Fargo Police that the woman hit her head on the bed while being restrained.
FARGO — A woman has filed a lawsuit against a Moorhead police officer that alleges he used excessive force when he arrested and struck her almost three years ago.
The Moorhead City Council discussed at its Monday, July 12, meeting pending litigation brought against Officer Matthew Jared Lambert. Jennifer Joan Thomas filed the lawsuit on April 30 and claims Lambert injured her and violated her civil rights.
She is seeking $500,000 in damages.
The city did not take any action after the roughly 40-minute closed session on the lawsuit.
Thomas is suing Lambert in his capacity as a Moorhead police officer. The city and Moorhead Police Department are not named as defendants in the case. City Administrator Dan Mahli did not return a message left by The Forum on Tuesday.
The lawsuit comes more than two years after Thomas was left with a nasal bone fracture, contusions, lacerations and other injuries after being arrested. Thomas, who said she has a history of mental illness, lived in Fargo when she went to Buffalo Wild Wings in Moorhead shortly after 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 9, 2018, a civil complaint said.
According to the complaint:
Thomas was having a mental health crisis at the restaurant and threatened to take her own life. The restaurant was evacuated after a manager said Thomas had a gun.
When police arrived, they handcuffed Thomas without incident and found a brown BB gun on her person.
Lambert reported Thomas lunged at an officer, though she disputed this by saying larger male officers had control of her.
When officers got her into the back of Lambert’s car, she started banging her head on the car door and acting "hysterical." At one point, Lambert went to seatbelt Thomas when she spit in his direction.
“Lambert responded by striking Jen twice on the left side of her face and angrily yelling out, ‘Don’t spit!’” the complaint said.
Another officer pepper-sprayed Thomas in the face. One officer said it was unusual to use pepper spray on someone in handcuffs and atypical to do it when an arrestee is in a squad car.
Lambert began to drive Thomas to the Clay County Jail but was advised to take her to a hospital due to the effects of the pepper spray causing her to spit excessively. She said, “It hurts,” “I can’t breathe,” and “I just want to die.”
At one point, Thomas passed out in the back of the car. Lambert stopped the vehicle and woke Thomas up but threatened to not pour water on her head to alleviate the pain if she spit on him.
Lambert eventually poured water on her face while Thomas was handcuffed.
“She choked and spit out water from her mouth, leading an angry Lambert to yell, ‘Don’t spit! What did I tell you?!’” the complaint alleged.
At Sanford Medical Center in Fargo, police escorted Thomas into a hospital room. A hospital security member described Thomas as looking like she had “just walked out of the gas chamber,” the complaint said.
Still handcuffed, Thomas stood up after sitting on an examination table. Video shows Lambert walking around as Thomas yelled at him.
“Lambert had decided he had had enough of Jen,” the complaint said.
Video shows Lambert grabbing Thomas by the neck with both hands and pushing her back on the table. As he appears to lift her legs onto the table, Thomas spits at Lambert.
“Lambert responded by leaning forward and punching Jen directly in the face with his forearm and elbow, in a move similar to a forearm shiver,” the complaint said in describing a striking technique used by football players.
A nurse had concerns Thomas would die as Lambert remained on top of her for about a minute and she was kept on her stomach with her head hanging over the bed, the complaint said. Thomas’ responsiveness diminished, her breathing slowed and gurgling noises increased, according to the complaint.
Officers eventually rolled Thomas over after holding her on her stomach for about four minutes, video shows. Medical staff assisted her.
Thomas was charged in Clay County District Court with assault, threats of violence and carrying a BB gun, but a judge found her not guilty because of her state of mind at the time of the incident.
Thomas’ complaint alleged Lambert lied in his report about her arrest in an attempt to cover up what happened. The Forum previously reported that police said Thomas hit her head on the side of the bed when she was being restrained.
Lambert told Fargo police that same story, according to the civil complaint.
The Cass County State’s Attorney's Office filed an aggravated assault charge against Lambert, but it was dropped in June 2019 after an expert for prosecutors found his actions were “objectively reasonable.”
“The force used against Jen was not reasonable,” the civil complaint said. “In reality, Jen was injured because an angry Lambert had snapped and punched the still-handcuffed, suicidal and pepper-sprayed Jen in the face.”
The plaintiffs also alleged Lambert lied to the Moorhead Police Department as it conducted an internal affairs investigation. That investigation was closed without disciplinary action.
In a response filed in late May, Bloomington, Minn., attorney Julia Kelly said her client, Lambert, denied the allegations of wrongdoing. He specifically denied in court documents that what happened in the hospital room was an assault.
Lambert did not deprive Thomas of her civil rights but acted in “good faith belief (that) his conduct was lawful, constitutional, proper and pursuant to probable cause,” his attorney said.
Lambert said the injuries suffered by Thomas were the result of her own negligence, according to his filing. Kelly also wrote the civil suit is barred from moving forward due to qualified immunity, which shields government officials from lawsuits that allege misconduct that violated constitutional rights.
Attorneys for Thomas and Lambert also did not return voicemails left Tuesday by The Forum.
The Moorhead Police Department declined to comment on the lawsuit.