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Sockwell v. Town of Calhoun City

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

August 5, 2019

GREG SOCKWELL PLAINTIFF
v.
TOWN OF CALHOUN CITY, MISSISSIPPI and TITO LOPEZ, In His Individual Capacity DEFENDANTS

          OPINION GRANTING DEFENDANT TITO LOPEZ' MOTION TO DISMISS

         Presently before the Court is the Defendant Tito Lopez' motion to dismiss the claims pending against him. Upon due consideration, the Court finds that the motion should be granted

         A. Factual and Procedural Background

         The Plaintiff was a city police officer in Calhoun City, Mississippi, and on May 10, 2017, responded to a 911 call alleging a domestic disturbance [Compl., Doc. 1, at ¶ 6]. The home to which he was dispatched was the home of the Calhoun City Chief of Police, the Defendant Tito Lopez [Compl. at ¶ 8]. Upon arriving at the home, the Plaintiff knocked on the door, which was answered by Lopez' girlfriend [Compl. at ¶ 9]. The Defendant Lopez, also in the home, began yelling at the Plaintiff and told him to leave [Compl. at ¶ 11]. The Plaintiff left the home and continued his shift; later in the shift, Lopez called the Plaintiff and apologized [Compl. at ¶ 15].

         The next day, Lopez became angry at the Plaintiff after learning that he had discussed the 911 call with a dispatcher and a deputy sheriff who were on duty at the time, telling him "if you're not happy here then you need to find a new job." [Compl. at ¶¶ 17, 19]. The Plaintiff alleges that, from that date forward, Lopez began harassing the Plaintiff in an effort to cause him to seek employment elsewhere or face termination of his employment [Compl. at ¶ 20].

         On July 5, 2017, the Plaintiff filed a grievance with the Mayor of Calhoun City outlining Lopez' alleged misconduct [Compl. at ¶ 24]. The Mayor accepted the grievance but informed the Plaintiff that she had no authority to intervene in the daily operations of the police department [Compl. at ¶ 27]. The Plaintiffs employment with the Calhoun City Police Department was then terminated on July 18, 2017 [Doc. 21-1, Termination Letter].

         The Plaintiff then filed this Section 1983 action on January 4, 2019, alleging, inter alia, that Calhoun City and Lopez, in his individual capacity, violated the Plaintiffs First Amendment right to be free from retaliation for speech on a matter of public concern. The Defendant Lopez then filed the instant motion pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, asserting that the Plaintiffs claims against him should be dismissed under the doctrine of qualified immunity.

         B. Standard of Review

         1. Rule 12(b)(6)

         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 (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 (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).

         2. Qualified Immunity

         Lopez has asserted that he is protected from liability by the doctrine of qualified immunity. "[Q]ualified immunity serves to shield ... government officials from civil liability for damages based upon the performance of discretionary functions if the official's acts were objectively reasonable in light of then clearly established law." Thompson v. Upshur County, Texas, 245 F.3d 447, 456 (5th Cir. 2001); see Hyatt v. Thomas, 843 F.3d 172, 177 (5th Cir. 2016) ("Qualified immunity protects officers from suit unless their conduct violates a clearly established constitutional right.") (quoting Mace v. City of Palestine, Tex., 333 F.3d 621, 623 (5th Cir. 2003)). Qualified immunity calls for a bifurcated test in which the court must first determine (1) "whether the plaintiff has alleged a violation of a clearly established statutory or constitutional right and, if so, (2) whether the defendant [official's] conduct was objectively unreasonable." Palmer v. Johnson, 193 F.3d 346, 351 (5th Cir. 1999). "Once a defendant asserts the qualified immunity defense, '[t]he plaintiff bears the burden of negating qualified immunity."' Id. (quoting Brown v. Callahan, 623 F.3d 249, 253 (5th Cir. 2010)). "Despite this burden-shifting, all reasonable inferences must be drawn in the non-movant plaintiffs favor." Id. (citing Brown, 623 F.3d at 253).

         C Analysis and Discussion

         Lopez asserts that he is entitled to receive the benefit of qualified immunity because he was a non-final policymaking official with respect to the Plaintiffs termination from employment, and because at the time of the subject events, the law in the Fifth Circuit was unsettled - and thus not clearly established - as to whether non-final decisionmakers could be held individually liable for claims of First Amendment retaliation. The Plaintiff responds that ...


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