United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Greenville Division
ORDER GRANTING IN PART DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
DEBRA M. BROWN, District Judge.
This removed action is brought by Plaintiff Dennis Thompson against Defendants Coahoma County; John Beasley, a Jail Administrator in Coahoma County; and Charles Jones, Sheriff of Coahoma County. Doc. #2. Plaintiff alleges injuries arising from a physical altercation with Beasley while Plaintiff was incarcerated at a Coahoma County jail. Id. at ¶¶ 11-26. Before the Court is Defendants' motion for summary judgment. Doc. #15. For the reasons below, summary judgment is granted in part and denied in part.
Summary Judgment Standard
"Summary judgment is appropriate when there are no genuine issues as to any material facts, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Norwegian Bulk Transp. A/S v. Int'l Marine Terminals P'ship, 520 F.3d 409, 411 (5th Cir. 2008) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 22-23 (1986)). To award summary judgment, "[a] court must be satisfied that no reasonable trier of fact could find for the nonmoving party or, in other words, that the evidence favoring the nonmoving party is insufficient to enable a reasonable jury to return a verdict in her favor." Norwegian Bulk Transp. A/S, 520 F.3d at 411-12 (internal quotation marks omitted). To this end, "[t]he moving party bears the burden of establishing that there are no genuine issues of material fact." Id. at 412.
"If, as here, the nonmoving party bears the burden of proof at trial, the moving party may demonstrate that it is entitled to summary judgment by submitting affidavits or other similar evidence negating the nonmoving party's claim, or by pointing out to the district court the absence of evidence necessary to support the nonmoving party's case." Morris v. Covan World Wide Moving, Inc., 144 F.3d 377, 380 (5th Cir. 1998) (citation omitted). If the moving party makes the necessary demonstration, "the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to show that summary judgment is inappropriate." Id. In making this showing, "the nonmoving party must go beyond the pleadings and by her own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Cotroneo v. Shaw Env't & Infrastructure, Inc., 639 F.3d 186, 191-92 (5th Cir. 2011) (citation and internal punctuation omitted). When considering a motion for summary judgment, the Court "resolve[s] factual controversies in favor of the nonmoving party." Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994).
On June 19, 2014, counsel for Beasley served upon Plaintiff's attorney "Defendant John Beasley's First Set of Interrogatories, Requests for Production of Documents and Things, and Requests for Admissions to Plaintiff." Doc. #7. In their briefs supporting their motion for summary judgment, Defendants represent that "said discovery remains unanswered... and by operation of law, the admission requests have been deemed admitted." Doc. #16 at 4. Plaintiff has failed to respond to the representation and the argument that the requests are deemed admitted.
Pursuant to Rule 36(a)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, "[a] party may serve on any other party a written request to admit, for purposes of the pending action only, the truth of any matters within the scope of Rule 26(b)(1) relating to: (A) facts, the application of law to fact, or opinions about either; and (B) the genuineness of any described documents." Fed.R.Civ.P. 36(a)(1) (footnote added). "A matter is admitted unless, within 30 days after being served, the party to whom the request is directed serves on the requesting party a written answer or objection addressed to the matter and signed by the party or its attorney." Fed.R.Civ.P. 36(a)(3). Under the language of this rule, a "defendant's failure to timely respond or object to the request for admissions results in the automatic admission of the matters requested." Directv, Inc. v. Price, 403 F.Supp.2d 537, 540 (M.D. La. 2005) (emphasis added). "A matter admitted under this rule is conclusively established unless the court, on motion, permits the admission to be withdrawn or amended." Fed.R.Civ.P. 36(b).
Where, as here, "the requests for admissions concern an essential issue, the failure to respond to requests for admission can lead to a grant of summary judgment against the nonresponding party." Murrell v. Casterline, 307 Fed.App'x 778, 780 (5th Cir. 2008) (citing Dukes v. S. Carolina Ins. Co., 770 F.2d 545, 548-49 (5th Cir. 1985); see also U.S. v. Akhtar, 95 F.Supp.2d 668, 672 (S.D. Tex. 1999) ("[D]eemed admissions can serve as the basis for summary judgment."); see also Financial Cas. & Sur., Inc. v. Parker, No H-14-0360, 2015 WL 3466221, at *3 (S.D. Tex. June 1, 2015) (collecting authorities). However, "only proper requests for admission will be deemed admitted." Coach, Inc. v. Horizon Trading USA Inc., 908 F.Supp.2d 426, 433 (S.D.N.Y. 2012). Accordingly, for a request to be deemed admitted for the purpose of summary judgment, it must have been a request to admit facts, the application of law to fact, opinions about facts or the application of law to fact, or the genuineness of a described document. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 36(a)(1).
There is no dispute that Beasley served Plaintiff with requests for admission on June 19, 2014, and that Plaintiff failed to serve a written answer or objection in response, either within the thirty days provided in the rule, or another time period set by this Court. Accordingly, except for those requests that fall outside the scope of Rule 36(a)(1), the contents of Beasley's first set of requests for admission were automatically admitted for purposes of this action.
In his discovery requests, Beasley propounded twenty requests for admission, of which sixteen (numbers 1, 6-20) may be properly characterized as requests for admission of facts under Rule 36(a)(1). See Doc. #16-3 at 7-9. Such requests are deemed admitted and have been incorporated into the facts section below.
However, Beasley also propounded the following requests for admission that may be found to constitute legal conclusions falling outside the scope of Rule 36(a)(1):
2. Please admit that the Defendants are not liable and have no liability to Plaintiff for the incident which is the subject of this lawsuit.
3. Please admit that the sole proximate cause of Plaintiff's injuries or losses, if any, was his own negligent or intentional acts.
4. Please admit that Plaintiff was solely at fault for the incident which is the subject of this lawsuit.
5. Please admit that third parties were solely at fault for the incident which is the subject of this lawsuit.
Id. at 7-8.
While the rule allows a party to request an admission of "the application of law to fact, " "[r]equests for purely legal conclusions... are generally not permitted." Benson Tower Condo. Owners Ass'n v. Victaulic Co., ___ F.Supp.3d ___, 2015 WL 2208444, at *4 (D. Or. May 11, 2015) (collecting cases). Unfortunately "the distinction between the application of law to fact and a legal conclusion is not always easy to draw." Id. Indeed, in the absence of controlling circuit authority, lower courts have struggled to consistently apply the rule. Compare First Options of Chicago, Inc. v. Wallenstein, No. Civ. 92-5770, 1996 WL 729816, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 17, 1996) (request to admit that "From October 19, 1987 to October 31, 1987, Mr. Wallenstein owed a fiduciary duty to the creditors of MKI to protect corporate assets from wrongful distribution to Manuel Kaplan" was request for application of law to fact); and Ransom v. U.S., 8 Cl. Ct. 646, 648 (1985) (request to admit that "by execution and delivery of the bid bond referred to in Request No. 33 above, there existed a privity of contract between plaintiffs, and each of them, and the Air Force" was request for application of law to fact); with Tulip Computers Int'l, B.V. v. Dell Computer Corp., 210 F.R.D. 100, 108 (D. Del. 2002) ("determining whether a patent is valid would call for a legal conclusion although dependent on factual inquiries"); and Playboy Enters., Inc. v. Welles, 60 F.Supp.2d 1050, 1057 (S.D. Cal. 1999) (request to admit that defendant was "public figure" as defined in Supreme Court case law was request for legal conclusion).
While the broader interpretation of "legal conclusion" exemplified by Welles and Dell seems to be the more prevalent approach,  it also appears contrary to the purposes of Rule 36, which are "to facilitate proof with respect to issues that cannot be eliminated from the case [and] to narrow the issues by eliminating those that can be. " Notes of Advisory Committee on Rules, 1970 Amendment, 48 F.R.D. 485, 531-532 (1969) (emphasis added). Thus, the commentary to the rule cites with approval admissions related to certain legal issues, such as whether an employee acted within the scope of his employment, or that "the premises on which [an] accident occurred, were occupied or under the control of one of the defendants." Id. (internal quotation marks).
Where courts have attempted to fashion a workable framework for distinguishing proper from improper requests for admission, they have rightfully focused on the plain text of the Rule, which permit a request to admit the application of law to fact. Under this approach, a court will look to the request itself to determine whether the requesting party has "connect[ed] the legal propositions contained in its admissions requests with the specific facts and circumstances of the case." See Vons Companies, Inc. v. U.S., 51 Fed.Cl. 1, 15 (2001), modified on other grounds, No. 00-234T, 2001 WL 1555306, at *1 (Fed. Cl. Nov. 30, 2001); see also Petrunich v. Sun Bldg. Sys., Inc., No. 3:04-cv-2234, 2006 WL 2788208, at *5 (M.D. Pa. Sep. 26, 2006) ("[T]he request that Defendants admit that Mr. Petrunich "was discriminated because of his age" is improper. Although this request refers to a party in the case, there is no factual basis to derive the legal conclusion that Defendants discriminated against Mr. Petrunich because of his age. In the absence of how Defendants discriminated against Mr. Petrunich, the request is too abstract to be an application of the law to the facts of the case."). Upon consideration, the Court concludes that the factual inquiry approach articulated in Vons Companies and Petrunich is most consistent with the language and purpose of Rule 36. Accordingly, for a legally-related request to be deemed admitted in this case, it must connect the relevant legal proposition to specific facts and circumstances of the case.
Here, none of the legal propositions included in requests for admission 2-5 seek to establish a connection between the proposition and the specific facts and circumstances of the case. Accordingly, like the requests in Petrunich, Beasley's requests contain no factual basis to derive the proffered propositions and, therefore, such requests must be deemed improper legal conclusions and not admitted for the purpose of this litigation.
Considering the factual record, including the properly deemed admissions, in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the Court finds:
On October 30, 2012, at the Coahoma County Jail ("Jail"), two inmates (Plaintiff and Joseph Davis) assaulted Frederick Lewis, another inmate, in the "H-Pod" section of the facility. Doc. #16-1 at ¶ 2; Doc. #16-2. Although Jail policy required that all inmates involved in physical altercations, except those acting in self-defense, were to be placed on lockdown status pending an investigation, only Lewis was placed in confinement, although he was later returned to the jail population. Doc. #16-1 at ¶ 2; Doc. #16-2.
The following day, October 31, 2012, Defendant Beasley reported to work at the Jail and learned of the assault. Doc. #16-1 at ¶ 2. Upon arriving at the Jail, Jailer Glenda Johnson, an eye witness to the fight, advised Beasley "that the inmates were not fighting in self defense." Id. Based on Johnson's assessment, Beasley "determined that all [three] inmates should have been on lock down until an investigation was completed." Id.
During the course of his investigation, Beasley instructed an "Officer Jackson... to tell... Thompson and Lewis to pack up their property as they would be transferred to lock down because of the fight with... Davis." Doc. #16-1 at ¶ 3. Jackson went to H-Pod to inform the two inmates of the move. Id. Both Lewis and Plaintiff refused to comply with Jackson's order. Id. After the initial refusal, Beasley advised officers in dispatch to call for deputy assistance. Id.; Doc. #16-3 at ¶ 7. The call for assistance was answered by Deputies Herbert Thomas and Myett Dawson. Doc. #16-1 at ¶ 3. When Thomas and Dawson arrived on the scene, Beasley moved to "Pod Control to monitor the situation." Id.
From Pod Control, Beasley "could repeatedly hear the deputies telling both inmates to pack up their property and leave H-Pod, but both inmates refused to comply. Doc. #16-1 at ¶ 3; Doc. #16-3 at ¶ 8. At approximately this time, Lieutenant Elmore, another Jail employee, reported to work. Doc. #16-1 at ¶ 3. Elmore and Beasley entered H-Pod to assist Thomas, Dawson, and Jackson. Id. When Beasley re-entered H-Pod, Plaintiff "became loud, disruptive, and started making verbal threats." Id.; Doc. #16-3 at ¶ 10. In the process, Plaintiff refused to comply with "repeated... verbal commands" to leave his cell. Doc. #16-1 at ¶ 3.
Following Plaintiff's repeated refusals, Beasley "took [Plaintiff] to the floor." Id.; Doc. #16-3 at ¶ 11. While on the ground, Plaintiff continued to struggle and was eventually handcuffed. Doc. #16-1 at ¶ 4. After being handcuffed, Plaintiff briefly stopped struggling, but shortly after, attempted to break away from the officers, causing the officers to take Plaintiff to the ground for a second time. Id. During this second ...