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Little v. Mississippi Department of Public Safety Bureau of Narcotics

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Aberdeen Division

July 13, 2017

CHRISTOPHER LITTLE PLAINTIFF
v.
MISSISSIPPI DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY BUREAU OF NARCOTICS; CITY OF FULTON, MISSISSIPPI; CHIEF REGINALD REGGIE JOHNSON in His Official Capacity; AGENT JOEL HILL in His Individual and Official Capacity; and JOHN DOES 1-2 in Their Individual and Official Capacities DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING DEFEND ANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND DENYING AS MOOT PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO STAY

         Presently before the Court are the following: (1) a motion for summary judgment [46] filed by Defendants the City of Fulton, Chief Reginald Reggie Johnson in his official capacity, and Agent Joel Hill in his individual and official capacity; and (2) a motion to stay [54] filed by Plaintiff Christopher Little. These matters are now ripe for review. Upon due consideration of the motions, responses, replies, corresponding briefing, attachments, and exhibits, and for the reasons stated below, the Court finds that the motion for summary judgment must be granted and the motion to stay must be denied as moot.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         On March 17, 2016, Plaintiff Christopher Little ("Plaintiff) filed a complaint [1] against Defendants the City of Fulton, Mississippi ("City of Fulton"); Joel Hill ("Defendant Hill"); Chief Reginald "Reggie" Johnson ("Defendant Johnson"); and John Does 1-2 ("Defendant John Does") (collectively, "Defendants").[1] On April 18, 2016, Defendants filed an answer [11] to the complaint.[2]

         Plaintiff asserts the following claims: (1) injunction prohibiting future conduct of a similar character, kind, or nature; (2) negligence, gross negligence, and failure to hire, monitor, train, and supervise; (3) intentional and/or negligent infliction of emotional distress; (4) civil assault and battery; and (5) "[violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Civil Rights Violation and 28 U.S.C. § 1343 Civil Rights Violation, " which apparently refers to Fourteenth Amendment due process and equal protection violations and a Fourth Amendment excessive force violation.[3]

         The parties engaged in discovery. On March 29, 2017, Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment [46] to which Plaintiff filed a response and Defendants filed a reply. On June 21, 2017, Plaintiff filed a supplemental response in opposition [57] to the motion for summary judgment [46]. Subsequently, on June 29, 2017, Defendants filed a reply [59] to Plaintiffs supplemental response. On April 17, 2017, Plaintiff filed a motion to stay [54] to which Defendants filed a response.

         Defendant Hill is a narcotics officer at the City of Fulton Police Department.[4] Defendant Johnson is Chief of Police of the City of Fulton, Mississippi.[5] On August 27, 2015, Defendant Hill subjected Plaintiff to a traffic stop[6] that resulted in Plaintiffs arrest for the misdemeanor crimes of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, no tag, seatbelt violation, driving while license suspended, and no proof of insurance.[7]

         Plaintiff alleges that on the way to his workplace, Plaintiff drove his vehicle to a friend's automobile body shop to use the telephone.[8] Plaintiff further alleges that while Plaintiff was exiting his car, Defendant Hill drove into the parking lot.[9] Plaintiff avers that Defendant Hill asked Plaintiff for his driver's license, and that when Plaintiff attempted to retrieve his driver's license from the inside of his car, "[Defendant] Hill forcefully grabbed [Plaintiffs] waist and pulled him out of the car."[10] Plaintiff further avers that Defendant Hill then "thought he saw [Plaintiff] stuff a white substance down his mouth, so [Defendant] Hill grabbed [Plaintiffs] jaw, trying to pry it open, " and "threw [Plaintiff] to the ground and began choking him."[11] Plaintiff further alleges that Plaintiff lost consciousness twice.[12] Plaintiff maintains that Defendant Hill searched Plaintiffs car and his person, but found no narcotics or paraphernalia.[13] Plaintiff alleges that Plaintiff was then handcuffed and transported to the Itawamba County Jail.[14] Plaintiff further alleges that paramedics from the North Mississippi Medical Center Ambulance Services were called to the jail to evaluate Plaintiff.[15] Plaintiff avers that he "sustained lost wages and missed a work day on the day of the incident"; Plaintiff further avers that "his preexisting back issues were significantly exacerbated."[16]

         Defendants' account of the aforestated events somewhat differs from Plaintiffs account. Defendants argue that a confidential informant provided Defendant Hill with a tip that Plaintiff was planning to purchase Oxycodone pills in Alabama in order to sell the pills in the parking lot of the Dixie Gas Station in Fulton, Mississippi.[17] In response to this tip, Defendant Hill parked across the street from the Dixie Gas Station in Fulton to observe the parking lot of the gas station.[18] Defendant Hill observed a small, black vehicle parked at the gas station; two vehicles then drove up to the car, parked beside it briefly, and left.[19] Defendants further maintain that Defendant Hill believed that this activity was consistent with drug activity.[20] Defendants argue that Defendant Hill was able to identify Plaintiff based on earlier encounters and Plaintiffs limp while walking.[21] Defendants further argue that Plaintiff returned to his vehicle and pulled out of the convenience store; Defendant Hill followed and observed that Plaintiff was "driving with an expired tag, was not wearing a seatbelt, and was driving erratically."[22] Defendants maintain that Defendant Hill activated his blue lights, but Plaintiff drove on for approximately a half mile.[23] At that point, Defendants maintain that Plaintiff stopped his vehicle at an automobile repair shop, "immediately jumped out of his vehicle[, ] and questioned [Defendant] Hill as to why he was pulled over."[24] Defendants further maintain that Defendant Hill informed Plaintiff of his reasons for the stop and "requested that the Plaintiff provide him with his driver's license, " but that "[i]nstead of complying, the Plaintiff 'dove' back into his vehicle."[25] Defendants maintain that while Defendant Hill was "trying to extricate the Plaintiff from the vehicle, [Defendant] Hill witnessed the Plaintiff pushing a small cellophane wrapper containing a white substance into his mouth."[26] Defendants further maintain that "[Defendant] Hill grabbed the Plaintiffs jaw in an effort to prevent him from swallowing the substance" and "told the Plaintiff to 'spit it out.' "[27]However, Defendants maintain that "Plaintiff did not comply[, ] [a] struggle ensued[, ] and [Defendant] Hill took the Plaintiff to the ground."[28] Defendants further argue that Plaintiff then "swallowed what was in his mouth and relaxed his jaws, " and "[Defendant] Hill got up off the ground and told the Plaintiff to remain still."[29] Defendants maintain that Defendant Hill then called for assistance, and two officers arrived at the scene.[30] Defendants further maintain that video of Plaintiff following the traffic stop demonstrates Plaintiff did not suffer an injury from the encounter with Defendant Hill.[31] Defendants maintain that Defendant Hill was "[c]oncerned that the Plaintiff had swallowed drugs" and "called for paramedics to come to the jail to examine Plaintiff, " but "Plaintiff objected to this, stating that he was fine."[32] Defendants maintain that nonetheless "[Defendant] Hill insisted that the paramedics come to the jail, " and that once the paramedics arrived and took Plaintiffs vital signs, "[Plaintiff] refused any additional medical treatment."[33]

         The pertinent events following the detention at Itawamba County Jail are not in dispute. Plaintiff was released on a recognizance bond.[34] Plaintiff was criminally charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, no tag, seatbelt violation, driving while license suspended, and no proof of insurance.[35] Plaintiff pled nolo contendere to the charges in Fulton Municipal Court, was found guilty, and was sentenced to 30 days in jail suspended pending appeal in the Itawamba County Circuit Court on the charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.[36] The Itawamba County Grand Jury subsequently indicted Plaintiff in Cause Number CRCR16-219 for felony destruction of evidence.[37] Subsequently, "[Plaintiff] reached a plea deal with prosecutors. He admitted guilt as to the felony destruction of evidence charge. In exchange, the Itawamba Circuit Court withheld acceptance of the plea and placed [Plaintiff] on probation for a year, and the misdemeanor charges were dropped."[38] On June 12, 2017, the Circuit Court of Itawamba County dismissed with prejudice the misdemeanor charges against Plaintiff, including charges of disorderly conduct and failure to comply, and also entered an Order of Non-Adjudication on Plaintiffs charge of felony destruction of evidence/tampering with evidence.[39]

         II. Summary Judgment Standard

         This Court grants summary judgment "if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986); Weaver v. CCA Indus., Inc., 529 F.3d 335, 339 (5th Cir. 2008). The rule "mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a sufficient showing to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548.

         The party moving for summary judgment bears the initial responsibility of informing the Court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the record it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. See Id. at 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548. Under Rule 56(a), the burden then shifts to the nonmovant to "go beyond the pleadings and by .. . affidavits, or by the 'depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, ' designate 'specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.' " Id. at 324, 106 S.Ct. 2548; Littlefleld v. Forney Indep. Sch. Dist, 268 F.3d 275, 282 (5th Cir. 2001); Willis v. Roche Biomedical Labs., Inc., 61 F.3d 313, 315 (5th Cir. 1995). Where, as here, the parties dispute the facts, the Court must view the facts and draw reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378, 127 S.Ct. 1769, 167 L.Ed.2d 686 (2007) (internal citations omitted). "However, a nonmovant may not overcome the summary judgment standard with conclusional allegations, unsupported assertions, or presentation of only a scintilla of evidence." McClure v. Boles, 490 F.App'x 666, 667 (5th Cir. 2012) (per curiam) (citing Hathaway v. Bazany, 507 F.3d 312, 319 (5th Cir. 2007)).

         IIL Analysis and Discussion

         Defendants argue in their motion for summary judgment that the claims in the case sub judice must be dismissed as a matter of law. As stated above, Plaintiff asserts Fourteenth Amendment due process and equal protection violation claims, a Fourth Amendment excessive force claim, a Section 1983 failure to train/supervise claim, and state law claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, assault and battery, negligence, gross negligence, and failure to hire/monitor/train/supervise.

         Defendants argue that Plaintiffs claims must be dismissed on the following bases: (1) Plaintiffs Fourth Amendment excessive force claim is barred by the doctrine set forth in Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 114 S.Ct. 2364, 129 L.Ed.2d 383 (1994); (2) Defendants are immune from suit due to qualified immunity and immunity under the Mississippi Tort Claims Act (the "MTCA"); (3) and all claims fail due to insufficient evidence. The Court addresses these arguments as follows.

         A. Heck v. Humphrey

         First, Defendants argue in their motion for summary judgment that Plaintiffs claims are barred by Heck v. Humphrey, because Plaintiff was convicted of resisting arrest and because allowing Plaintiff to pursue his excessive force claim in light of the resisting arrest claim and conviction in state court would imply the invalidity of Plaintiffs state court conviction or sentence. Defendants argue that Plaintiff could only pursue his excessive force claim in this Court if he proved that his conviction or sentence had already been invalidated.

         Plaintiff filed a response in opposition and a motion to stay, conceding that Heck potentially barred his claims, but requesting that this Court stay the case sub judice until such time as his criminal convictions and charges were fully adjudicated in state court.

         While these motions were still pending, Plaintiff filed a supplemental response in this case stating that Heck does not bar the claims, because on June 12, 2017, the Circuit Court of Itawamba County dismissed with prejudice the misdemeanor charges against Plaintiff, including charges of disorderly conduct and failure to comply, and also entered an Order of Non-Adjudication on Plaintiffs charge of felony destruction of evidence/tampering with evidence. Pl'.s Suppl. Resp. Opp'n to Defs.' Mot. Summ. J. [57] ¶ 2. Plaintiff further contends that his previously filed motion to stay is now moot in light of these developments. Plaintiff attaches the pertinent state-court documentation to his supplemental response. See Cir. Ct. of Itawamba Cty.'s Non-Adjudication Order on Charge of Felony Destruction of Evidence/Tampering with Evidence[57-1]; Agreed Order of Dismissal on Charge of Driving While License Suspended [57-2] at 1; Agreed Order of Dismissal on Charge of Tag Violation [57-2] at 2; Agreed Order of Dismissal on Charge of Seatbelt Violation [57-2] at 3; Agreed Order of Dismissal on Charge of Resisting Arrest [57-2] at 4; Agreed Order of Dismissal on Charge of Ins. Violation [57-2] at 5; Agreed Order of Dismissal on Charge of Failure to Obey Officer [57-2] at 6.

         Defendants subsequently filed a reply to Plaintiffs supplemental response. In their reply, Defendants concede that Plaintiffs state criminal convictions were dismissed on appeal to the Circuit Court of Itawamba County, but argue that Plaintiffs testimony under oath during his plea to the felony destruction of evidence/tampering with evidence charge has Heck implications, as well as other implications. Specifically, Defendants point to Plaintiffs testimony in his plea hearing that he swallowed drugs in his car to destroy of the evidence of his crime. Defendants attach the plea transcript to their reply. See Pl'.s State-Ct. Plea Hr'g Tr. [59-1]. Defendants cite to a portion of the plea transcript indicating that in exchange for Plaintiffs guilty plea the District Attorney agreed to allow the appealed misdemeanor charges for failure to obey and officer and resisting arrest to be dropped. See Id. at 13.

         "An excessive force claim is Heck-barred if the plaintiffs factual allegations supporting the claim are necessarily inconsistent with the validity of the conviction." Hall v. Abilene's Task Force, No. 15-10836, 2017 WL 1040587, at *1 (5th Cir. Mar. 16, 2017) (per curiam) (citing Bush v. Strain, 513 F.3d 492, 497-98 & n.14 (5th Cir. 2008)); see DeLeon v. City of Corpus Christi, Tex., 488 F.3d 649, 656-57 (5th Cir. 2007). "Under Heck, 'a plaintiff who has been convicted of a crime cannot recover damages for an alleged violation of his constitutional rights if that violation arose from the same facts attendant to the charge for which he was convicted, unless he proves that his conviction or sentence' has been in some way reversed or invalidated." Ducksworth v. Rook, 647 F.App'x 383, 385-86 (5th Cir. 2016) (per curiam) (citing Bush, 513 F.3d at 497). If claims are barred by Heck, the Court must dismiss those claims with prejudice to their being asserted again until the Heck conditions are met. See DeLeon, 488 F.3d at 657 (citing Johnson v. McElveen, 101 F.3d 423, 424 (5th Cir. 1996)). A plaintiff may only bring Heck-barred claims in the court if he later shows that his " 'conviction or sentence has been reversed on direct appeal, expunged by executive order, declared invalid by a state tribunal authorized to make such determination, or called into question by a federal court's issuance of a writ of habeas corpus.' " Palmer v. Sessions, No. 16-50102, __ F.App'x __, 2017 WL 2274293, at *1 (5th Cir. May 23, 2017) (quoting Heck, 512 U.S. at 486-87, 114 S.Ct. 2364). Based on the foregoing, the Court finds that given the record in the case sub judice, including the pertinent attached documentation relating to the state-court criminal matters, Plaintiffs claims are not clearly barred by Heck v. Humphrey. However, as demonstrated below, his claims must nonetheless be dismissed on other grounds.

         B. Immunity

         Second, Defendants argue that they are immune from suit on the claims, both due to qualified immunity and immunity under the MTCA.

         1. Fourth Amendment Excessive Force

         Defendants argue that Defendant Hill is entitled to qualified immunity on Plaintiffs Fourth Amendment claims against him. "Section 1983 provides a cause of action against any person who deprives an individual of federally guaranteed rights 'under color' of state law." Filarsky v. Delia, __ U.S. __, __, 132 S.Ct. 1657, 1661, 182 L.Ed.2d 662 (Apr. 12, 2012) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1983). "Anyone whose conduct is 'fairly attributable to the state' can be sued as a state actor under § 1983." See id., 132 S.Ct. at 1661; see also Lugar v. Edmondson Oil Co., 457 U.S. 922, 937, 102 S.Ct. 2744, 73 L.Ed.2d 482 (1982). State actors enjoy various protections from liability derived from the common law, such as absolute or qualified immunity. See Filar sky, 132 S.Ct. at 1660, 1662 (it is well settled that "common law protections well grounded in history and reason had not been abrogated by covert inclusion in the general language of [Section] 1983") (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). "An official sued under [Section] 1983 is entitled to qualified immunity unless it is shown that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right that was 'clearly established' at the time of the challenged conduct." Plumhoffv. Rickard, __ U.S. __, __, 134 S.Ct. 2012, 2023, 188 L.Ed. 2D 1056 (May 27, 2014) (citing Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 735, 131 S.Ct. 2074, 179 L.Ed.2d 1149 (2011) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see Atteberry v. Nocona Gen. Hosp, 430 F.3d 245, 253 (5th Cir. 2005)). "When a defendant invokes qualified immunity, the burden is on the plaintiff to demonstrate the inapplicability of the defense." Atteberry, 430 F.3d at 253 (citation omitted).

         "In resolving questions of qualified immunity at summary judgment, courts engage in a two-pronged inquiry. The first asks whether the facts, '[t]aken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury, . . . show the officer's conduct violated a [federal] right[.]' " Tolan v. Cotton, __ U.S. __, ___, 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1863, 188 L.Ed.2d 895 (2014) (per curiam) (quoting Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201, 121 S.Ct. 2151, 150 L.Ed.2d 272 (2001)). "The second prong of the qualified-immunity analysis asks whether the right in question was 'clearly established' at the time of the violation." Id., 134 Ct. at 1866 (citing Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 739, 122 S.Ct. 2508, 153 L.Ed.2d 666 (2002)). Courts have discretion to decide which prong to consider first. Id. (citing Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 232, 129 S.Ct. 808, 172 L.Ed.2d 565 (2009)). "But under either prong, courts may not resolve genuine disputes of fact in favor of the party seeking summary judgment." Id.

         In the case sub judice, Defendants argue that Defendant Hill is entitled to qualified immunity on the Fourth Amendment excessive force claim. Although Plaintiff argues that genuine disputes of fact exist as to whether Plaintiff posed a threat to Defendant Hill, Defendants maintain that the force used by Defendant Hill was "entirely appropriate, " because "[Defendant] Hill witnessed the Plaintiff attempt to swallow what appeared to [Defendant] Hill to be drugs after 'diving' back into his vehicle" and because "[Plaintiff] refused to 'spit out' what was in his mouth, resisted [Defendant] Hill's attempts to remove the drugs from [Plaintiffs] mouth, and struggled with [Defendant] Hill while he was attempting to take [Plaintiff] into custody." Defs.' Mem. Br. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. [47] at 8. Defendants maintain that Plaintiff suffered no physical injury from any alleged events giving rise to this suit; Defendants cite the videos taken immediately following the traffic stop, which are exhibits to the motion for summary judgment, as evidence supporting this argument.

         "In order to state a claim for the constitutional violation of excessive force, [Plaintiff] must establish that an injury occurred that resulted directly from the use of clearly excessive force, and that the excessiveness was unreasonable." See Ontiveros v. City of Rosenberg, Tex., 564 F.3d 379, 382 (5th Cir. 2009). "fAIll claims that law enforcement officers have used excessive force ... in the course of an arrest, investigatory stop, or other seizure of a free citizen should be analyzed under the Fourth Amendment and its reasonableness standard." Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 395, 109 S.Ct. 1865, 104 L.Ed.2d 443 (1989) (emphasis in original).

         To satisfy the first prong of an excessive force claim, a plaintiff must demonstrate that he "suffered at least some form of injury" from the defendant's actions that is more than de minimis. Glenn v. City of Tyler, Tex., 242 F.3d 307, 314 (5th Cir. 2001) (quotation marks omitted). The degree of injury necessary to meet this requirement is related to the amount of force that was constitutionally permissible under the facts of the case. Williams v. Bramer, 180 F.3d 699, 703-04 (5th Cir.), decision clarified on reh'g, 186 F.3d 633 (5th Cir. 1999). In this case, Plaintiff testified in his deposition that he suffered cuts on his arm and neck and a bruise on his neck from being thrown down on gravel and pressure being applied by Defendant Hill. Pl'.s Dep. [46-5] at 65-66. However, Plaintiff further testified that he was not treated for any injuries at the jail or at any point thereafter. See Id. at 14 ("When I had got to the jail, [Defendant] Hill and the[y] had had some paramedics come up there and check me out. And the paramedics said I was fine, so I just went on to the house."); id. at 15 (testifying he has never seen a doctor for any injuries in connection with this case); id. at 31 (testifying that after he was informed that the paramedics would be called to the jail, he told Defendant Hill, "I'm fine"). Therefore, Plaintiff has failed to satisfy the first prong of his excessive force claim that he suffered an actionable injury, and his excessive force claim fails on this basis.

         Plaintiffs excessive force claim fails for the additional reason that he fails to show that any use of force was objectively unreasonable. Plaintiff argues that "viewed in the light most favorable to [Plaintiff], Defendant Hill's use offeree in this situation where there was absolutely no threat that his safety was threatened and also engag[ing] in a choke hold violated a clearly established constitutional right." Pl'.s Mem. Br. Supp. Resp. Opp'n to Defs.' Mot. Summ. J. [52] at 12. However, Plaintiff presents no evidence supporting that Defendant Hill's use of force was excessive or unreasonable, and the evidence in the record supports the opposite inference. Although the charges were later dismissed on appeal due to plea negotiations in connection with the felony destruction of evidence/tampering of evidence charge, Plaintiff pled nolo contendere in state court on his criminal charges of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, no tag, a seatbelt violation, driving while license suspended, and no proof of insurance. Defs.' Mem. Br. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. [47] at 4 (citing Charges [46-36]); Pl'.s Mot. Stay [54] at 1. Further, as the documentation attached to Defendants' reply to the supplemental response demonstrates, Plaintiff admitted under oath in his plea hearing in state court on the felony destruction of evidence/tampering with evidence charge that drugs were found on him or in his vehicle and that he swallowed drugs at the time of the events giving rise to this suit. Pl'.s Plea Hr'g Tr. [59-1] at 11-12, 15, 17-18. Given all of the foregoing, the Court finds that Plaintiffs excessive force also fails because he has not demonstrated that any force was objectively unreasonable.

         In sum, Plaintiff has failed to satisfy the elements of his Fourth Amendment excessive force claim. Therefore, there is no underlying constitutional violation, and the Court need not further address the qualified immunity issue. See Myers v. Klevenhagen,97 F.3d 91, 96 (5th Cir. 1996) (unnecessary for courts to reach qualified immunity issue if no alleged constitutional violation). ...


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