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Bell v. Mississippi Dept. of Human Services

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

December 3, 2013

Emma BELL, Appellant
v.
The MISSISSIPPI DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES and Dynetha Thornton in her Official Capacity as Director of the Leflore County Department of Human Services, Appellees.

Page 1000

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 1001

James Kevin Littleton III, attorney for appellant.

Lonnie D. Bailey, Greenwood, attorney for appellees.

Before IRVING, P.J., ROBERTS and JAMES, JJ.

JAMES, J.

¶ 1. Emma Bell appeals the order of the Leflore County Circuit Court granting summary judgment in favor of the Mississippi Department of Human Services (DHS) and Dynetha Thornton, in her official capacity as the director of the Leflore County DHS.[1] Bell raises the following assignments of error: (1) the trial court erred in granting the appellees' motion for summary judgment; (2) the trial court erred in denying Bell's motion to stay the appellees' motion for summary judgment until such time as discovery could be conducted; and (3) the trial court erred in granting the appellees' motion to deem discovery responses timely served. We find no error and affirm.

Page 1002

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶ 2. Bell was employed at the Leflore County DHS as a special investigator for the DHS Division of Program Integrity. On August 31, 2010, at some time after 5:00 p.m., Bell left her office to retrieve a document from her car. Bell went through the interior set of doors that lead to the lobby of the DHS Division of Child Support Enforcement. She attempted to open the exterior set of doors leading to the outside of the building, and discovered the doors were locked. Bell then attempted to open the interior doors again, but discovered they too were locked.[2] All employees in the Child Support Enforcement division had left work for the day.

¶ 3. Realizing she was trapped inside the lobby, Bell began to bang on the interior doors for help. According to Bell, Thornton saw her through a crack in the double doors, and refused to let her inside. After several minutes had passed, Bell set off the fire alarm in the lobby in attempt to get an employee's attention. Finally, DHS employee Daisy Holt found Bell trapped inside the lobby and let her out. Bell contends that before Holt unlocked the doors, Thornton said to Holt, " I am not going to deal with Emma Bell, you can let her in."

¶ 4. Bell submitted a grievance form to her supervisor about the incident. DHS Investigator Jeff Hample was appointed to conduct an investigation of the incident. On August 25, 2011, Bell filed a notice of claim with DHS. Four days later, Bell filed a complaint against Thornton in her individual capacity, alleging that Thornton falsely imprisoned her. Bell sought to recover monetary damages for intentional and/or negligent infliction of emotional distress, medical expenses, and loss of enjoyment of life. On November 29, 2011, Bell filed a complaint against DHS and Thornton, in her official capacity as director of the Leflore County DHS. In the complaint, Bell alleged that Thornton falsely imprisoned her by refusing to open the doors after learning that Bell was trapped inside the lobby. Bell also alleged that DHS was negligent in failing to terminate Thornton following incidents that occurred prior to August 31, 2011. The prior incidents referenced by Bell were unrelated to Bell's false-imprisonment claim.

¶ 5. On January 4, 2012, the trial court entered an agreed order to consolidate the cases. On January 6, 2012, the appellees filed a motion for summary judgment. In the motion, the appellees argued that, as a state employee, Thornton was immune from personal liability under the Mississippi Tort Claims Act (MTCA) because, at all relevant times, she was acting within the course and scope of her employment. The appellees also argued that DHS was immune under several provisions of the MTCA. Before the cases were consolidated, Bell had noticed three depositions, which were set to take place on January 17, 2012. The depositions were for three DHS employees, including Holt. On the same day that they filed their motion for summary-judgment, the appellees filed a motion for a protective order, seeking to continue the depositions until after the immunity issues in the summary judgment motion were decided. The trial court granted the motion for a protective order, ruling that Bell may proceed with deposing the fact witnesses only after the questions of law were resolved.

Page 1003

¶ 6. On January 26, 2012, Bell filed a motion to stay the appellees' motion for summary-judgment until such time as discovery could be conducted. In her motion, Bell argued that the protective order prevented her from presenting all evidence to be considered at the summary judgment hearing. Specifically, Bell argued that the depositions of the three DHS employees would have shown that Thornton's actions were in " reckless disregard for [Bell's] safety." Bell also argued that her requests for admissions should be deemed admitted because Thornton failed to submit her discovery responses by January 25, 2012.

¶ 7. Also, on January 26, 2012, the appellees filed their discovery responses and objections.[3] Thornton also filed a motion to deem the discovery responses timely served. The trial court denied Bell's motion to stay the appellees' motion for summary judgment, and granted Thornton's motion to deem the discovery responses timely served. Following a hearing on March 12, 2012, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of ...


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