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Watts v. Warren County

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

June 14, 2019




         Plaintiff Denzell Watts was allegedly attacked while being held as a pretrial detainee in Warren County, Mississippi. He therefore sued the county and its sheriff Martin Pace. Defendants have filed two motions seeking judgment on the pleadings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) as to Watts's federal and state-law claims against them. For the following reasons, both motions [7, 9] are granted, but Watts will be given an opportunity to seek leave to amend as to the federal claims.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         On December 24, 2017, Watts “entered the Warren County Detention Center [(‘WCDC')] for an alleged criminal offense.” Am. Compl. [2] ¶ 8. While he was being held as a pretrial detainee at the WCDC, Watts “was violently attacked and assaulted by several inmates.” Id. ¶ 11. Watts avers, upon information and belief, that the WCDC “has a history of numerous disturbances that have occurred in the common area where” he was assaulted, as well as “a history of being understaffed, overcrowded and routinely failing to provide adequate inmate supervision.” Id. ¶ 15.

         On December 21, 2018, Watts sued Warren County and Sheriff Pace in his official capacity. In the Amended Complaint, he asserts claims for violations of his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights under § 1983, as well as state-law claims for negligence; negligence per se; gross negligence; negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress; reckless disregard for his rights and safety; breach of fiduciary duty; respondeat superior; negligent hiring, retention, supervision, training, and/or control; assault; battery; and res ispa loquitor. Am. Compl. [2]. Defendants answered [5] and filed two motions under Rule 12(c) for judgment on the pleadings-one aimed at the federal claims, and the other aimed at the state-law claims.

         II. Standard

         “The standard for dismissal under Rule 12(c) is the same as that for dismissal for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6).” Johnson v. Johnson, 385 F.3d 503, 529 (5th Cir. 2004). When considering a motion under Rule 12(b)(6), the “court accepts ‘all well-pleaded facts as true, viewing them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.'” Martin K. Eby Constr. Co. v. Dall. Area Rapid Transit, 369 F.3d 464, 467 (5th Cir. 2004) (quoting Jones v. Greninger, 188 F.3d 322, 324 (5th Cir. 1999) (per curiam)). But “the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions. Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). To overcome a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a plaintiff must plead “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. “Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact).” Id. at 555 (citations and footnote omitted).

         III. Analysis

         A. Federal Claims

         It is difficult to list the federal claims Watts pursues. Throughout his Amended Complaint, he asserts in different ways that Defendants allowed the attack to occur and thereby violated “a) the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures; b) the right not to be deprived of life without due process of law; and c) the right not to be deprived of liberty without due process of law.” Am. Compl. [2] ¶¶ 27, 35, 42. He also references Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Id. ¶ 5.

         As Defendants observe, there are no facts suggesting a Title VII employment claim, a Fourth Amendment search-and-seizure claim, or a claim based on the deprivation of life-Watts is still alive. Watts makes no effort to address these claims in his response to Defendants' motion, so if Watts intended to plead those meritless claims, he has abandoned them. See Black v. N. Panola Sch. Dist., 461 F.3d 584, 588 n.1 (5th Cir. 2006) (“[Plaintiff's] failure to pursue this claim beyond [the] complaint constituted abandonment.”). Claims based on Title VII, the Fourth Amendment, and deprivation of life are therefore dismissed as to both Defendants.[1]

         It appears then that Watts pursues claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for failure to protect and failure to train and/or supervise. As to the first, Watts says Defendants violated his due- process rights by allowing him “to be brutally assaulted by other inmates while at the detention center.” Pl.'s Mem. [13] at 1.

         Defendants first argue that Watts failed to state a failure-to-protect claim because there has been no loss of life or liberty. See Defs.' Reply [17] at 4. The problem with this argument is that Watts has identified a cognizable constitutional theory. As the Supreme Court stated in DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services,

when the State by the affirmative exercise of its power so restrains an individual's liberty that it renders him unable to care for himself, and at the same time fails to provide for his basic human needs-e.g., food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and reasonable safety-it transgresses ...

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