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Williams v. Hargrove

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Southern Division

January 5, 2018




         This matter is before the Court on the Motion for Summary Judgment [142] filed by Defendant Gary Hargrove (“Hargrove”), [1] and the Motion to Strike Defendants' Untimely Expert Disclosure (“Motion to Strike”) [153] filed by Plaintiffs Theodore Williams, Lockett Williams Mortuary, Inc., Ricky August, Lasha August, Jonathan August, Richmond-August Funeral Home, Inc., Eddie Hartwell, Hartwell & Family Funeral Home, LLC, Anthony Marshall, Gina Marshall, Marshall Funeral Home, Pamela Dickey, Dickey Brothers Memorial Funeral Home, LLC, Helen Evans, and J.T. Hall Funeral Home, Inc. (collectively “Plaintiffs”). After reviewing the submissions of the parties, the record, and the applicable law, the Court finds the following that Hargrove's Motion for Summary Judgment [142] should be granted in part and denied in part. The Court further finds that Plaintiffs' Motion to Strike [153] is not well taken and should be denied.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiffs are a group of funeral homes and their owners, all of whom are black and located in Harrison County. On July 18, 2016, Plaintiffs brought this action against Defendants Hargrove, Harrison County Board of Supervisors (the “Board”), and Harrison County, Mississippi (the “County”) (collectively “Defendants”), alleging that Defendants discriminated against them by favoring the services of white-owned funeral homes over them. They bring federal claims under Title VI and 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1983, as well as multiple state law claims.


         A. Standard of Review

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 provides that “[t]he court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “Where the burden of production at trial ultimately rests on the nonmovant, the movant must merely demonstrate an absence of evidentiary support in the record for the nonmovant's case.” Cuadra v. Houston Indep. Sch. Dist., 626 F.3d 808, 812 (5th Cir. 2010) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). The nonmovant must then “come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. “An issue is material if its resolution could affect the outcome of the action.” Sierra Club, Inc. v. Sandy Creek Energy Assocs., L.P., 627 F.3d 134, 138 (5th Cir. 2010) (quoting Daniels v. City of Arlington, Tex., 246 F.3d 500, 502 (5th Cir. 2001)). “An issue is ‘genuine' if the evidence is sufficient for a reasonable [fact-finder] to return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Cuadra, 626 F.3d at 812 (citation omitted).

         The Court is not permitted to make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence. Deville v. Marcantel, 567 F.3d 156, 164 (5th Cir. 2009) (citing Turner v. Baylor Richardson Med. Ctr., 476 F.3d 337, 343 (5th Cir. 2007)). When deciding whether a genuine fact issue exists, “the court must view the facts and the inferences to be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Sierra Club, 627 F.3d at 138. However, “[c]onclusional allegations and denials, speculation, improbable inferences, unsubstantiated assertions, and legalistic argumentation do not adequately substitute for specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial.” Oliver v. Scott, 276 F.3d 736, 744 (5th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted). Summary judgment is mandatory “against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient 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.” Brown v. Offshore Specialty Fabricators, Inc., 663 F.3d 759, 766 (5th Cir. 2011) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986)).

         B.§1983 Claims

         1. Hargrove in his Official Capacity

         The claims against a government officer in his official capacity are equivalent to claim against the government entity itself. See Castro Romero v. Becken, 256 F.3d 349, 355 (5th Cir. 2001) (citing Flores v. Cameron Cnty., Tex., 92 F.3d 258, 261 (5th Cir. 1996)).[2] Because the County is also named as a defendant, the claims against Hargrove in his official capacity are duplicative and redundant. The Motion for Summary Judgment [143] will be granted as to these claims, and they will therefore be dismissed with prejudice.

         2. Hargrove in his Individual Capacity[3]

         Plaintiffs argue that Hargrove violated their constitutional right to equal protection and bring a claim under § 1983 for this violation. “Section 1983 provides a cause of action against any person who deprives an individual of federally guaranteed rights ‘under color' of state law.” Fennell v. Marion Indep. Sch. Dist., 804 F.3d 398, 411 (5th Cir. 2015) (quoting Filarsky v. Delia, 566 U.S. 377, 383, 132 S.Ct. 1657, 182 L.Ed.2d 662 (2012)). Plaintiffs claim that Hargrove discriminated against them in violation of the Equal Protection Clause by treating white-owned funeral homes more favorably. In order to survive summary judgment on this claim, Plaintiffs must adduce evidence that (1) they “received treatment different from that received by similarly situated individuals” and (2) that “the unequal treatment stemmed from a discriminatory intent.” Fennell, 804 F.3d at 412 (quoting Priester v. Lowndes Cnty., 354 F.3d 414, 424 (5th Cir. 2004)). “To establish discriminatory intent, [Plaintiffs] must show that the decision maker singled out a particular group for disparate treatment and selected his course of action at least in part for the purpose of causing its adverse effect on an identifiable group.” Id. (quoting Priester, 354 F.3d at 424) (internal quotations omitted). Plaintiffs therefore must establish that Hargrove treated them differently than their white counterparts, and that this difference was in part the result of Hargrove's intent to discriminate based on race.

         Plaintiffs must first show that there is evidence that they were treated differently than white-owned funeral homes. Plaintiffs have submitted their own deposition testimony, stating that Hargrove never called them to pick up a white body when he had a choice. (See Hartwell Depo. [158-2] at 93:1-8; Anthony Marshall Depo. [158-5] at 60:1-4, 68:12-15; Gina Marshall Depo. [158-9] at 92:7-19.) Plaintiffs were also rarely called upon for other assignments such as autopsies, transportation, burials, cremations, or storage, insofar as those tasks were not in control of the families of the deceased, and were never involved in services the County provided for indigents. (See Hartwell Depo. [158-2] at 28:11-29-1; Ricky August Depo. [158-4] at 87:10-12, 194:16-24; Anthony Marshall [158-5] at 66:20- 67:7, 129:18-19; Lasha August [158-8] at 42:22-23, 61:14-16; Gina Marshall [158-9] at 31:9-12.) Furthermore, Plaintiffs have presented affidavit testimony that there was at least one instance where Hargrove attempted to have a body removed by a white-owned funeral home despite the deceased's family requesting Plaintiff Lockett Williams. (See Barnes Affidavit [158-7] at ¶ 13.) There is some evidence, then, that Hargrove treated white-owned funeral homes differently than black-owned funeral homes. Because the Court does not weigh or judge the credibility of evidence on summary judgment, this is sufficient for Plaintiffs to survive summary judgment on the first element of their § 1983 claim. See Deville, 567 F.3d at 164 (citing Turner, 476 F.3d at 343).

         Plaintiffs must also show that there is evidence that Hargrove had a discriminatory intent that drove him to treat them differently than white-owned funeral homes. Gina Marshall testified at her deposition that Hargrove himself told her that “white bodies go to the white funeral homes, and black bodies go to the black funeral home [sic]” and that “it would be improper to send a white body to a black funeral home.” (Gina Marshall Depo. [158-9] at 174:8-13.) Hargrove explained to Marshall that “a white person wouldn't want their mother laying in the back room next to a black man.” (Id. at 15-17.) Because the Court neither weighs nor judges the credibility of evidence at the summary judgment phase, these statements[4] are sufficient for the Plaintiffs to survive summary judgment as to whether Hargrove had a discriminatory intent.[5] See Deville, 567 F.3d at 164 (citing Turner, 476 F.3d at 343). Therefore, because Plaintiffs have met their burden on both elements of their § 1983 claim, the Court will deny Hargrove's Motion for Summary Judgment [142] with respect to this claim against him in his individual capacity.

         C.ยง ...

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