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Rhodes v. Lamar County School District

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

March 28, 2018

HEATHER RHODES, Individually, as Natural Mother and Next Friend of C.R., a minor PLAINTIFFS
v.
LAMAR COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT and TONYA CRAFT, Individually DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Keith Starrett, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on the Motion for Summary Judgment [51] filed by Defendants Lamar County School District and Tonya Craft. After reviewing the submissions of the parties, the record, and the applicable law, the Court finds that this motion should be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On November 14, 2016, Plaintiff Heather Rhodes (“Rhodes”) brought this suit on her own behalf and on behalf of her minor son, C.R. (collectively “Plaintiffs”), against Defendants Lamar County School District (the “District”) and Tonya Craft (“Craft”) (collectively “Defendants”). Plaintiffs bring claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for false imprisonment, unreasonable seizure, excessive force, and violations of substantive due process, as well as claims for violations of the American with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act, and various state law claims.

         This action centers around an incident occurring at the Longleaf Elementary School, a school within the District, while C.R. was a student in Craft's class. C.R. suffers from autism. On November 13, 2013, Craft separated C.R. from the class during a “meltdown” and had him enter a “Chill Zone, ” a four-feet-by-four-feet enclosure pressed against the classroom's wall. Rhodes was on campus that day meeting with a counselor. When she arrived at Craft's classroom, she heard C.R. yelling “let me out” and observed Craft holding the door of the Chill Zone shut with her foot.

         II. DISCUSSION

         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. Statute of Limitations

         Plaintiffs concede that the claims brought by Rhodes in her individual capacity are barred by their applicable statutes of limitations. Parties agree, though, that these statutes are tolled for the minor, C.R., and his claims may proceed. Therefore, the Court will grant the Motion for Summary Judgment [51] with respect to Rhodes' claims in her individual capacity.

         C. § 1983 Claims

         Defendants claim that the § 1983 claims against them must fail because there is no liability for the District and because qualified immunity protects Craft from liability.

         1.Claims against Craft

         Qualified immunity protects government officials sued in their individual capacities “from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231, 129 S.Ct. 808, 172 L.Ed.2d 565 (2009) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982)). This doctrine, where applicable, is a bar to suit altogether “rather than a mere defense to liability.” Id. (quoting Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526, 105 S.Ct. 2806, 86 L.Ed.2d 411 (1985)). The Supreme Court has explained that “the driving force behind the creation of the qualified immunity doctrine was a desire to ensure that insubstantial claims against government officials [will] be resolved prior to discovery.” Id. at 231-32 (quoting Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640, n.2, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 97 L.Ed.2d 23 (1987)) (internal quotations omitted and alteration in original).

         There are two steps in deciding whether qualified immunity applies. Id. at 232. “First, a court must decide whether the facts that a plaintiff has alleged or shown make out a violation of a constitutional right.” Id. (citing Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201, 121 S.Ct. 2151, 150 L.Ed.2d 272 (2001)) (internal citations omitted). If the plaintiff can establish this, then “the court must decide whether the right at issue was ‘clearly established' at the time of defendant's alleged misconduct.” Id. If both steps are satisfied, qualified immunity does not apply.

         a. False Imprisonment/Unreasonable Seizure

         To succeed on a false imprisonment claim, Plaintiffs must show that C.R. was arrested without probable cause. Haggerty v. Texas S. Univ., 391 F.3d 653, 655 (5th Cir. 2004) (citing Brown v. Lyford, 243 F.3d 185, 189 (5th Cir. 2001)). Because Plaintiffs have conceded that C.R. was neither arrested nor imprisoned, this claim must be dismissed with prejudice. (See Plaintiffs' Memo. in Response ...


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