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Williams v. Anderson

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

September 4, 2018

REGINA WILLIAMS, Individually and on Behalf of the Wrongful Death Beneficiaries of SAMANTHA CRUZ PLAINTIFF
v.
BRYAN ANDERSON, et. al DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

         Samantha Cruz died when the car in which she was a passenger struck a tree at the end of a high-speed police chase. Plaintiff Regina Williams brings this § 1983 and state law negligence action against the officers and government units involved. The Court now has before it three motions: a motion to dismiss [64] filed by Defendants Alcorn County and Mackie Sexton[1]; a motion for judgment on the pleadings [68] filed by Defendants Tippah County, Donald Austin, Josh Bate-man, Karl Gailard, Billy Johnson, Jeremy Rainey, and Jonathan Stanford[2]; and a motion to dismiss [78] filed by Defendant Bryan Anderson. Williams has responded to each of these motions, and they are now ripe for review. For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds that each motion should be granted in part and denied in part.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         On November 7, 2016, Defendant Mackie Sexton, a deputy with the Alcorn County Sherriff's Department attempted to serve an arrest warrant on Taylor Talley at his residence in Alcorn County. Amended Complaint [57] ¶¶ 19-20. Talley, driving with decedent Samantha Cruz as a passenger, arrived at the house while Sexton was attempting to serve the warrant. When Talley spotted Sexton, he sped away. Id. Sexton pursued. Talley briefly evaded Sexton, but the pursuit resumed when Talley was spotted in neighboring Tippah County. Id. ¶ 20. Law enforcement officials from both the Tippah County Sheriffs Department, the City of Ripley Police Department, and the Mississippi Highway Patrol eventually joined the pursuit. Id. ¶¶ 23-25. The chase ended when Bryan Anderson, a trooper with the Mississippi Highway Patrol, deployed spike strips in order to stop Talley's car. Id. ¶ 26. Talley ran over the strips, and the car left the road and struck a tree, killing Cruz.[3] Id. ¶¶ 27-28.

         Cruz's estate, through Plaintiff Regina Williams, filed this action alleging that the defendants violated Cruz's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights by continuing and terminating the chase in a manner that led to her death. Williams also alleges that defendants negligently caused her death. The Alcorn County Defendants and Anderson each now move to dismiss all claims against them, arguing that the complaint fails to state a claim and they are entitled to qualified immunity.[4] The Tippah County Defendants move for a judgment on the pleadings as to the negligence claims alone.

         Legal Standards

         I. Rule 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss

         When deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the Court is limited to the allegations set forth in the complaint and any documents attached to the complaint. Walker v. Webco Indus., Inc., 562 Fed.Appx. 215, 216-17 (5th Cir. 2014) (citing Kennedy v. Chase Manhattan Bank USA, NA, 369 F.3d 833, 839 (5th Cir. 2004)). "[A plaintiffs] complaint therefore 'must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Phillips v. City of Dallas, Tex., 781 F.3d 772, 775-76 (5th Cir. 2015) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009)).

         A claim is facially plausible when the pleaded factual content "allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (citing Bell Atl Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007)). "[P]laintiffs must allege facts that support the elements of the cause of action in order to make out a valid claim." Webb v. Morella, 522 Fed.Appx. 238, 241 (5th Cir. 2013) (quoting City of Clinton, Ark. v. Pilgrim's Pride Corp., 632 F.3d 148, 152-53 (5th Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks omitted)). "[C]onclusory allegations or legal conclusions masquerading as factual conclusions will not suffice to prevent a motion to dismiss." Id. (quoting Fernandez-Montes v. Allied Pilots Ass'n 987 F.2d 278, 284 (5th Cir. 1993) (internal quotation marks omitted)). "Dismissal is appropriate when the plaintiff has not alleged 'enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face' and has failed to 'raise a right to relief above the speculative level.'" Emesowum v. Hous. Police Dep't, 561 Fed.Appx. 372, 372 (5th Cir. 2014) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955).

         II. Rule 12(c) Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings

         After the pleadings are closed-but early enough not to delay trial-a party may move for judgment on the pleadings." Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). A Rule 12(c) motion is governed by the same standards as a Rule 12(b)(6) motion. See Brown v. Citi Mortgage, Inc., 472 Fed. App'x. 302, 303 (5th Cir. 2012) (per curiam) (citing St. Paul Mercury Ins. Co. v. Williamson, 224 F.3d 425, 440 n.8 (5th Cir. 2000)). "A motion brought pursuant to [Rule] 12(c) is designed to dispose of cases where the material facts are not in dispute and a judgment on the merits can be rendered by looking to the substance of the pleadings and any judicially noticed facts." Hebert Abstract Co. v. Touchstone Props., Ltd., 914 F.2d 74, 76 (5th Cir. 1990) (per curiam) (citing 5A Charles A. Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1367, at 509-10 (1990)).

         Analysis

         I. Qualified Immunity

         "Qualified immunity * gives government officials breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments about open legal questions.'" Lane v. Franks, __U.S.__, 134 S.Ct. 2369, 2381, 189 L.Ed.2d 312 (2014) (quoting Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 743, 131 S.Ct. 2074, 179 L.Ed.2d 1149 (2011)). "The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials from civil damages liability when their actions could reasonably have been believed to be legal." Morgan v. Swanson, 659 F.3d 359, 370 (5th Cir. 2011) (en banc).

         Qualified immunity is an affirmative defense. However, the "plaintiff has the burden to negate the assertion of... immunity once properly raised." Collier v. Montgomery, 569 F.3d 214, 217 (5th Cir.2009). "'When a defendant invokes qualified immunity, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to demonstrate the inapplicability of the defense.'" Beaulieu v. Lavigne, 539 Fed.Appx. 421, 424 (5th Cir. 2013) (quoting Club Retro, LLC v. Hilton, 568 F.3d 181, 194 (5th Cir. 2009)). The pleading standard for claims brought under § 1983 is heightened and the complaint must state "claims of specific conduct and actions giving rise to a constitutional violation." Mitchell v., Okolona Sch. Dist., No. 1:10-CV-135-D-D, 2011 WL 1226023, at *2 (N.D. Miss. Mar. 29, 2011) (citing Baker v. Putnal, 75 F.3d 190, 195 (5th Cir. 1996)).

         "'[A] plaintiff seeking to defeat qualified immunity must show: (1) that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that the right was 'clearly established' at the time of the challenged conduct.'" Da Vinci Inv., Ltd. P'ship v. Parker, 622 Fed.Appx. 367, 374 (5th Cir. 2015) (quoting Morgan v. Swanson, 659 F.3d 359, 371 (5th Cir. 2011) (en banc)). The plaintiffs complaint must allege facts that, if true, demonstrate that the defendant violated his rights by acting in a way that he or she should have known was unlawful. See Behrens v. Pelletier, 516 U.S. 299, 309, 116 S.Ct. 834, 133 L.Ed.2d 773 (1996). "Dismissal is warranted 'only if it appears that no relief could be granted under any set of facts that could be proved consistent with the allegations.'" DeLeon v. City of Dallas, Tex., 141 Fed.Appx. 258, 261 (5th Cir. 2005) (quoting Morin v. Caire, 77 F.3d 116, 120 (5th Cir. 1996)).

         The Court turns to the first question-whether the plaintiff alleges facts that demonstrate a violation of a constitutional right. The ultimate injury that befell Cruz was that she was killed when Talley ran over the spike strips that Anderson set. A seizure occurs when there is "a governmental termination of freedom of movement through means intentionally applied."" Brower v. Cty. of Inyo, 489 U.S. 593, 597, 109 S.Ct. 1378, 1381, 103 L.Ed.2d 628 (1989) (emphasis in original). And even when it is the driver whom police seek to seize, the passenger is seized just as much, so long as the detention is willful. Id. ("A seizure occurs even when an unintended person or thing is the object of the detention or taking ...."; see also Brendlin v. California, 551 U.S. 249, 254, 127 S.Ct. 2400, 168 L.Ed.2d 132 (2007) (holding that a "traffic stop subjects a passenger, as well as the driver, to Fourth Amendment seizure.") Williams alleges that Anderson deployed the spike strip with the intent to stop the car, and that it did in fact stop the car by causing it to crash. Thus, a seizure occurred.

         Though Williams makes both Fourth Amendment excessive force and Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process claims for these actions, if "a particular Amendment provides an explicit textual source of constitutional protection against a particular sort of government behavior, that Amendment, not the more generalized notion of substantive due process, must be the guide for analyzing these claims." Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 273, 114 S.Ct. 807, 813, 127 L.Ed.2d 114 (1994) (quoting Graham v. Connor, supra, at 395, 109 S.Ct, at 1871) (internal quotation marks omitted). Since the "particular sort" of conduct here is the seizure of Cruz, and since the Fourth Amendment is the explicit source of protection from "unreasonable seizures", these claims must be analyzed solely under the Fourth Amendment. U.S. Const., amend. IV. Accordingly, any claims that the officers violated Cruz's substantive due process rights by causing the crash are precluded.

         To succeed on an excessive force claim, the plaintiff must show "(1) an injury (2) which resulted directly and only from the use of force that was clearly excessive to the need and (3) the force used was objectively unreasonable." Williams v. Bramer, 180 F.3d 699, 703, clarified, 186 F.3d 633, 634 (5th Cir. 1999). It goes without saying that Cruz suffered an injury. The only question is whether under the facts of the complaint, Anderson's deployment of the spike strips was clearly excessive to the need to stop the car, and whether it was objectively unreasonable.

         Determining whether the force used was objectively reasonable in this scenario is necessarily fact based. In Scott v. Harris, the Supreme Court considered whether a police officer used excessive force by ramming the plaintiffs car from behind in an attempt to end a high-speed chase. 550 U.S. 372, 127 S.Ct. 1769, 167 L.Ed.2d 686 (2007). To determine reasonableness the Court said:

Thus, in judging whether [the officer]'s actions were reasonable, we must consider the risk of bodily harm that [the officer]'s actions posed to respondent in light of the threat to the public that [the officer] was trying to eliminate. Although there is no obvious way to quantify the risks on either side, it is clear from the videotape that respondent posed an actual and imminent threat to the lives of any pedestrians who might have been present, to other civilian motorists, and to the officers involved in the chase. It is equally clear that [the officer]'s actions posed a high likelihood of serious injury or death to respondent-though not the near certainty of death posed by, say, shooting a fleeing felon in the back of the head, or pulling alongside a fleeing motorist's car and shooting the motorist. So how does a court go about weighing the perhaps lesser probability of injuring or killing numerous bystanders against the perhaps larger probability of injuring or killing a single person? We think it appropriate in this process to take into account not only the number of lives at risk, but also their relative culpability. It was respondent, after all, who intentionally placed himself and the public in danger by unlawfully engaging in the reckless, high-speed flight that ultimately produced the choice between two evils that [the officer] confronted. Multiple police cars, with blue lights flashing and sirens blaring, had been chasing respondent for nearly 10 miles, but he ignored their warning to stop. By contrast, those who might have been harmed had [the officer] not taken the action he did were entirely innocent. We have little difficulty in concluding it was reasonable for Scott to take the action that he did.

Id. at 383-384 (citations omitted); see also Plumhoff v. Richard, 134 S.Ct. 2012, 2020-21, 188 L.Ed.2d 1056 (2014) (holding that officers use of deadly force was not objectively unreasonable to terminate police chase that "exceeded 100 miles per hour" and "passed more than two dozen vehicles, several of which were forced to alter course".)

         Here, Williams admits that Talley was driving in the same manner as the drivers in Scott and Plumhoff. Williams alleged that the officers knew "Talley was driving at speeds of 130 mph while cutting into and out of traffic," that "Talley was driving erratically and at speeds that posed significant danger to the public," and that "Talley was proceeding through stop signs and red lights without stopping and otherwise driving erratically." Am. Compl. at ¶¶ 84, 105, 116.

         Williams argues that Anderson's actions were unreasonable because the officer could have simply stopped pursuing Talley. The Scott Court, however, rejected that argument:

Couldn't the innocent public equally have been protected, and the tragic accident entirely avoided, if the police had simply ceased their pursuit? We think the police need not have taken that chance and hoped for the best. Whereas [the officer]'s action-ramming respondent off the road-was certain to eliminate the risk that respondent posed to the public, ceasing pursuit was not. First of all, there would have been no way to convey convincingly to respondent that the chase was off, and that he was free to go. Had respondent looked in his rearview mirror and seen the police cars deactivate their flashing lights and turn around, he would have had no idea whether they were truly letting him get away, or simply devising a new strategy for capture. Perhaps the police knew a shortcut he didn't know, and would reappear down the road to intercept him; or perhaps they were setting up a roadblock in his path. Given such uncertainty, respondent might have been just as likely to respond by continuing to drive recklessly as by slowing down and wiping his brow.
Second, we are loath to lay down a rule requiring the police to allow fleeing suspects to get away whenever they drive so recklessly that they put other people's lives in danger. It is obvious the perverse incentives such a rule would create: Every fleeing motorist would know that escape is within his grasp, if only he accelerates to 90 miles per hour, crosses the double-yellow line a few times, and runs a few red lights. The Constitution assuredly does not impose this invitation to impunity-earned-by-recklessness. Instead, we lay down a more sensible rule: A police officer's attempt to terminate a dangerous high-speed car chase that ...

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