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Brownlee v. The Mississippi Department of Public Safety

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

August 30, 2019

MARLUNTAY BROWNLEE individually, and as next friend of minors L.B., Z.B., and A.C., and TYDRICUS PRIDE PLAINTIFFS
v.
THE MISSISSIPPI DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY, and MILTON WILLIAMS, JR. DEFENDANTS

          ORDER AND MEMORANDUM OPINION

          SHARION AYCOCK UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         The Plaintiffs in this case are Marluntay Brownlee, three minor children: L.B., Z.B., and A.C., and Brownlee's nephew Tydricus Pride. In their Complaint [1], the Plaintiffs allege a variety of claims based in state and federal law against the Mississippi Department of Public Safety and Mississippi Highway Patrol Trooper Milton Williams.[1] Now before the Court are two Motions to Dismiss filed by The Department of Public Safety [8], and by Williams [10].

         Factual and Procedural Background

         According to the Plaintiffs, around noon on September 16, 2017 Brownlee was driving on Mississippi Highway 3 in Quitman County with three minor children and her disabled nephew as passengers. Trooper Williams pulled the Plaintiffs' car over. Brownlee admits that she was speeding. Williams performed breathalyzer and field sobriety tests on Brownlee and then arrested her. According to Brownlee, she requested that Williams allow her to contact someone to pick up her passengers, and Williams refused to allow her to do so. Williams called a tow truck to transport the Plaintiffs' vehicle. Pride attempted to give Williams a phone with Pride's grandmother on the line, presumably to give her directions, and Williams refused to speak with her. Brownlee was taken to jail. The tow truck driver transported the abandoned passengers to a nearby McDonalds after which they were eventually able to contact a relative to come and pick them up.

         Brownlee eventually plead guilty to speeding, a window tint violation, failure to have insurance, and a seatbelt violation. Brownlee's charge for driving under the influence was dismissed.

         In their Complaint [1], the Plaintiffs assert ten claims against the Defendants under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Mississippi Tort Claims Act. It is wholly unclear from the Complaint which of the five individual Plaintiffs are, individually or collectively, asserting which claims against which Defendants. It is also unclear from the Plaintiffs' Complaint, which facts the Plaintiffs contend support each of their claims.

         In its Motion [8], the Department argues primarily that it is entitled to sovereign immunity from the Plaintiffs' claims. In his Motion [10], Williams argues primarily that he is entitled to the protection of qualified immunity from the Plaintiffs' claims.

         Standard of Review

         As noted above, the Department seeks dismissal of the official capacity claims on the grounds that it is protected by sovereign immunity, and that it is not a “person” within the meaning of Section 1983, invoking Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The first of these defenses implicates Rule 12(b)(1). See Judd v. Mississippi, No. 4:16-CV-119-DMB, 2017 WL 4478006, at *1-2 (N.D. Miss. Oct. 6, 2017) (citing Warnock v. Pecos Cty., 88 F.3d 341, 343 (5th Cir. 1996) (“Because sovereign immunity deprives the [federal] court of jurisdiction, . . . claims barred by sovereign immunity can be dismissed only under Rule 12(b)(1) and not with prejudice.”). The second “persons” defense, concerns a plaintiff's ability to state a claim, thus mandating a Rule 12(b)(6) inquiry. See id. (citing Lapides v. Bd. of Regents of Univ. Sys. of Georgia, 535 U.S. 613, 617, 122 S.Ct. 1640, 152 L.Ed.2d 806 (2002) (internal citations, quotation marks, and alterations omitted)).

         “Motions filed under Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allow a party to challenge the subject matter jurisdiction of the district court to hear a case.” Ramming v. United States, 281 F.3d 158, 161 (5th Cir. 2001). A court may dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction based on: “(1) the complaint alone; (2) the complaint supplemented by undisputed facts evidenced in the record; or (3) the complaint supplemented by undisputed facts plus the court's resolution of disputed facts.” Crane v. Johnson, 783 F.3d 244, 251 (5th Cir. 2015).

         “To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the complaint does not need detailed factual allegations, but it must provide the plaintiff's grounds for entitlement for relief- including factual allegations that, when assumed to be true, raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Ruiz v. Brennan, 851 F.3d 464, 468 (5th Cir. 2017). “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Turner v. Lt. Driver, 848 F.3d 678, 685 (5th Cir. 2017).

         Claims Against the Department of Public Safety

         At the outset, the Court notes that “[g]enerally, an official-capacity suit is just another way of pleading an action against an entity of which an officer is an agent and are treated as suits against the State. Latiolais v. Cravins, 484 Fed.Appx. 983, 989 (5th Cir. 2012) (citing Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21, 25, 112 S.Ct. 358, 116 L.Ed.2d 301 (1991)). With this in mind, the Court will treat the Plaintiffs' claims asserted against Williams in his official capacity as claims asserted against the Department of Public Safety.[2] See id.

         It is well-settled law that the Mississippi Department of Public Safety, is an arm of the state. See Williams v. Zachary, No. 118-CV-128-GHD, 2019 WL 419289, at *2-3 (N.D. Miss. Feb. 1, 2019); Williams v. Mississippi Dep't of Pub. Safety, No. 1:17-CV-179-GHD, 2018 WL 1128133, at *3 (N.D. Miss. Mar. 1, 2018); Delany v. Miss. Dep't of Pub. Safety, No. ...


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