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Bianchini v. Vance

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

April 16, 2018




         Plaintiff Tina Bianchini asks the Court to allow her to conduct discovery [87] to respond to Defendant Lee Vance's motion for summary judgment [83] based on qualified immunity. In addition, Vance seeks to strike [82] Bianchini's Third Amended Complaint, which was erroneously filed in response to the Court's request for a Rule 7(a) reply. For the reasons that follow, Vance's motion to strike [82] is granted; Bianchini's motion for discovery [87] is granted; and Vance's motion for summary judgment [83] is terminated without prejudice to his right to refile following discovery.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         The facts underlying this lawsuit were set forth in the Court's August 4, 2017 Order granting in part and denying in part Defendants' motions to dismiss. Order [61]. In the Order, the Court dismissed all claims except Bianchini's equal-protection claim against Vance in his individual capacity. In very general terms, Bianchini, a white former police officer, claims Jackson Police Department Chief Lee Vance forced her to resign following her arrest for domestic violence. She insists Vance's actions were motivated by race and sex, because Vance retained at least one similarly situated African-American male.

         After the ruling on the motions to dismiss, Vance moved for an order requiring Bianchini to file a Rule 7(a) reply detailing her claims against him in his individual capacity. Bianchini did not respond, and on September 22, 2017, the Court ordered Bianchini to docket the Rule 7(a) reply within thirty days and stayed discovery, subject to the filing of a qualified-immunity motion. Order [78].

         Instead of filing a Rule 7(a) reply, Bianchini filed a Third Amended Complaint [81], despite being denied leave to do so in the Court's August 4, 2017 Order [61]. Vance promptly moved to strike [82]. Bianchini acknowledged her error, admitting she “should have called [it] a Rule 7(a) Reply.” Pl.'s Resp. [85] at 2. But as Vance points out, the filing goes beyond adding facts to support her equal-protection claim. For example, the Third Amended Complaint names Vance in his individual and official capacities. See 3d Am. Compl. [85] at 2.

         Matters are further complicated by the fact that Vance filed a motion for summary judgment [83] based on qualified immunity, addressing allegations raised in the Third Amended Complaint. See Mot. [83] at 2-3. And for her part, Bianchini filed a Rule 56(d) motion [87], seeking an opportunity to conduct discovery to fully respond to Vance's motion.

         So, as a threshold matter, the Court agrees that Bianchini should not have filed a Third Amended Complaint. Her October 30, 2017 filing [81] should have been titled a “Rule 7(a) Reply, ” and the Clerk will be directed to amend the docket text. That filing [81] is not the operative complaint. Vance's motion to strike is granted to the extent that an Amended Complaint was impermissibly filed. The filing [81] will be treated, and referred to, as a Rule 7(a) reply; the additional facts alleged in support of the equal-protection claim against Vance in his individual capacity are properly before the Court. With that issue resolved, the Court turns to Bianchini's Rule 56(d) motion.

         II. Standards

         Summary judgment is warranted under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 when evidence reveals no genuine dispute regarding any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Though a party may seek summary judgment at any time, Rule 56(d)(1) permits the Court to defer considering a summary-judgment motion or deny it when a nonmovant “shows by affidavit or deceleration that, for specified reasons, it cannot present facts essential to justify its opposition” to the motion. The Court may “allow time to obtain affidavits or declarations or to take [additional] discovery” or enter appropriate orders. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(d)(2)(3). The decision to grant or deny a Rule 56(d) motion is within the sound discretion of the Court. Am. Family Life Assurance Co. of Columbus v. Biles, 714 F.3d 887, 894 (5th Cir. 2013). But Rule 56(d) motions are “‘broadly favored and should be liberally granted' because the rule is designed to ‘safeguard non-moving parties from summary judgment motions that they cannot adequately oppose.'” Raby v. Livingston, 600 F.3d 552, 561 (5th Cir. 2010) (quoting Culwell v. City of Fort Worth, 468 F.3d 868, 871 (5th Cir. 2006)).

         In addition, as pointed out by Vance, the Fifth Circuit has established a procedure “under which a district court may defer its qualified immunity ruling if further factual development is necessary to ascertain the availability of that defense.” Backe v. LeBlanc, 691 F.3d 645, 648 (5th Cir. 2012); see Def.'s Resp. [90] at 3 (collecting cases). “[A] district court must first find that the plaintiff's pleadings assert facts which, if true, would overcome the defense of qualified immunity.” Backe, 691 F.3d at 648 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Then, “if the court remains unable to rule on the immunity defense without further clarification of the facts, it may issue a discovery order narrowly tailored to uncover only those facts needed to rule on the immunity claim.” Id.

         Arguably, the first step has already occurred here. The Court previously denied Vance's motion to dismiss the equal-protection claim. So, the question for today is whether the Court requires further clarification of the facts to rule on qualified immunity.

         III. Analysis

         In his motion for summary judgment, Vance sets forth three primary arguments: (1) he is not a final decisionmaker and therefore cannot be liable under § 1983; (2) Bianchini cannot show that similarly situated individuals were treated differently; ...

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