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Hollins v. City of Columbia

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

July 23, 2019




         For the reasons below, the Court grants in part and denies in part Defendants' Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [9]. The Court grants the motion as to Plaintiff's excessive-force claim against Defendant Sellers, her false arrest claims against both Sellers and Nate Cook, her First Amendment retaliation claims against both Sellers and Nate Cook, her failure-to-train claims against both Sellers and Nate Cook, and her Section 1983 and 1985 conspiracy claims against both Sellers and Nate Cook. The Court denies the motion in all other respects. The Court likewise denies Plaintiff's request to amend the Complaint and correct the pleading deficiencies, but Plaintiff may file a separate motion for leave to amend accompanied by a proposed Amended Complaint.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff claims that she was beaten by a police officer at a traffic checkpoint while her children watched. She admits that she did not immediately stop, claiming that she did not recognize that it was a checkpoint. She also admits that she had no driver's license or proof of insurance. However, she alleges that Defendant Nate Cook, a police officer employed by Columbia, Mississippi, was immediately hostile toward her, belittling her and using profanity. She further alleges that he forcibly removed her from the vehicle before she had a chance to comply with his order to exit, and that he began beating her when she asked why she was being arrested. Plaintiff claims that she cried for help, but two other officers on the scene, Defendants Jeremy Sellers and Jason Cook, ignored her.

         She filed this lawsuit against Columbia, Mississippi, Nate Cook, Jeremy Sellers, and Jason Cook, claiming that they caused severe injuries. She asserted federal claims of false arrest and excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment, retaliation for the exercise of her right to free speech in violation of the First Amendment, a failure-to-train claim against the City, as well as various state-law claims. Defendants Nate Cook and Jeremy Sellers filed a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [9], which the Court now addresses.

         II. Discussion

         A. Standard of Review

         A “motion for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c) is subject to the same standard as a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6).” Doe v. MySpace, Inc., 528 F.3d 413, 418 (5th Cir. 2008). To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. LLC v. La. State, 624 F.3d 201, 210 (5th Cir. 2010) (punctuation omitted). “To be plausible, the complaint's factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Id. (punctuation omitted). The Court must “accept all well-pleaded facts as true and construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Id. But the Court will not accept as true “conclusory allegations, unwarranted factual inferences, or legal conclusions.” Id. Likewise, “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” PSKS, Inc. v. Leegin Creative Leather Prods., Inc., 615 F.3d 412, 417 (5th Cir. 2010) (punctuation omitted). “While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1950, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009).

         Defendants argue that “heightened pleading” is required in cases where the defendant asserts qualified immunity as a defense. Plaintiff argues that no heightened pleading standard applies. Although the Fifth Circuit's case law has been less than clear on this point - and, unfortunately, this Court has perpetuated the lack of clarity - Plaintiff is correct: “[W]hen, as here, a qualified immunity defense is asserted in an answer or a motion to dismiss, the district court must - as always - do no more than determine whether the plaintiff has filed a short and plain statement of his complaint, a statement that rests on more than conclusions alone.” Anderson v. Valdez, 845 F.3d 500, 589-90 (5th Cir. 2016).

         The confusion surrounding this issue appears to stem from Reyes v. Sazan, 168 F.3d 158 (5th Cir. 1999). In Reyes, the Court of Appeals held that when a plaintiff asserts claims against individual defendants but fails to plead them with particularity, the trial court should order them to file a Rule 7(a) reply, as provided in Schultea v. Wood, 47 F.3d 1427, 1430 (5th Cir. 1995). Reyes, 168 F.3d at 161. The Court said: “The Schultea rule governing the Rule 7(a) reply is an instantiation of the more general principle that ‘heightened pleading' is needed in qualified immunity cases. Heightened pleading requires allegations of fact focusing specifically on the conduct of the individual who caused the plaintiffs' injury.” Id.; see also Nunez v. Simms, 341 F.3d 385, 388 (5th Cir. 2003); Wicks v. Miss. State Employment Servs., 41 F.3d 991, 995 (5th Cir. 1995).

         The Court of Appeals has since clarified that “the heightened pleading standard derived from Rule 9 does not apply to the complaint or to any reply merely because an answer or motion to dismiss asserts a defense of qualified immunity.” Anderson, 845 F.3d at 590. Rather, “the general pleading standard from Rule 8(a)(2)” applies when considering whether a plaintiff has stated a claim against an individual defendant for the violation of constitutional rights. Id.

         “First, the district court must insist that a plaintiff suing a public official under § 1983 file a short and plain statement of his complaint, a statement that rests on more than conclusions alone, ” as required by Rule 8(a)(2). Schultea, 47 F.3d at 1433-34; see also Anderson, 845 F.3d at 590; O'Reilly v. Univ. of Miss. Med. Ctr., 2019 WL 2583520, at *5 (S.D.Miss. June 24, 2019); Rodriguez v. Bexar County, 2018 WL 4431433, at *9 (W.D. Tex. Sept. 17, 2018). This is not a heightened pleading standard, Anderson, 845 F.3d at 590, but the plaintiff must “plead specific facts that both allow the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the harm he has alleged and that defeat a qualified immunity defense with equal specificity.” Hinojosa v. Livingston, 807 F.3d 657, 664 (5th Cir. 2015). In that respect, it is no different than the typical 12(b)(6) standard of review under Iqbal.

         Then, the Court may, “in its discretion, insist that a plaintiff file a reply tailored to the defendant's answer or motion to dismiss pleading the defense of qualified immunity.” Anderson, 845 F.3d at 590. “Even if the district court does so insist, Schultea requires it to apply Rule 8(e)(1)'s standard to the reply, emphasizing that it is the only rule that governs the content of replies.” Id. (punctuation omitted).

         B. Qualified Immunity

         Defendants raised the defense of qualified immunity. “The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials 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). “Although nominally a defense, the plaintiff has the burden to negate the defense once properly raised.” Poole v. Shreveport, 691 F.3d 624, 627 (5th Cir. 2012).

         There are two steps in the Court's analysis. First, the Court determines whether the defendant's “conduct violates an actual constitutional right.” Brumfield v. Hollins, 551 F.3d 322, 326 (5th Cir. 2008). Second, the Court must “consider whether [the defendant's] actions were objectively unreasonable in the light of clearly established law at the time of the conduct in question.” Id. The Court may address either step first. Pearson, 555 U.S. at 236.

         “The qualified immunity standard gives ample room for mistaken judgments by protecting all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” Brumfield, 551 F.3d at 326. The Court “applies an objective standard based on the viewpoint of a reasonable official in light of the information then available to the defendant and the law that was clearly established at the time of the defendant's actions.” Freeman v. Gore, 483 F.3d 404, 411 (5th Cir. 2007). Each Defendant's “entitlement to qualified immunity must be considered on an individual basis.” Randle v. Lockwood, No. 16-50393, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 20326, at *11 n. 7 (5th Cir. Nov. 10, 2016) (citing Meadours v. Ermel, 483 F.3d 417, 421-22 (5th Cir. 2007)).

         C. ...

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