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Ratliff v. Aransas County

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

January 15, 2020

KENNETH RATLIFF, Plaintiff - Appellant
v.
ARANSAS COUNTY, TEXAS; COLBY SCUDDER, Individually;RAYMOND SHEFFIELD, Individually, Defendants - Appellees

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas

          Before JOLLY, SMITH, and COSTA, Circuit Judges.

          E. GRADY JOLLY, Circuit Judge

         Kenneth Ratliff was shot five times when he refused to drop his weapon during an armed confrontation with two sheriff's deputies in Aransas County, Texas. He survived and was later acquitted of criminal assault. He proceeded to sue both deputies, as well as the county, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the deputies used unreasonable and excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The district court dismissed Ratliff's "official custom" and "failure to train" claims against Aransas County, finding that Ratliff's pleadings failed plausibly to establish municipal liability under Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978). Later, the court awarded summary judgment to the deputies, holding that Ratliff had failed to rebut their qualified immunity defense. Ratliff appeals; we affirm.

         I.

         At approximately 3:00 a.m., on March 24, 2015, Aransas County sheriff's deputies were dispatched to a residence in Rockport, Texas, where Kenneth Ratliff was living with Tanya Vannatter, his fiancée. The deputies, Colby Scudder and Raymond Sheffield, had been requested by Vannatter, who reported in a 911 call that Ratliff had beaten her earlier in the evening.

         When the deputies arrived, Vannatter explained that Ratliff had been drinking "all day and all night," and that, when she caught him sending text messages to another woman, he went "ballistic." More specifically, Vannatter said that Ratliff had thrown her to the ground, punched her "everywhere," and choked her with such force that she thought she would die. She was reluctant to press charges. But she did request that the deputies ask Ratliff to leave home voluntarily.

         As Vannatter and the deputies walked toward Ratliff's front porch, Ratliff began shouting, "Get the f*** off my property." Ratliff was holding a loaded, semi-automatic pistol, but he had not chambered a round. The parties dispute whether the pistol was ever pointed at the deputies, but it is undisputed that the deputies issued five orders to disarm moments before the shooting. Ratliff responded, "shoot me . . . shoot me" and "hey, you're on my property." Deputy Scudder fired nine shots, and Ratliff sustained five gunshot wounds. The whole encounter lasted about twenty-five seconds. The deputies called an ambulance immediately, and paramedics arrived in time to tend to Ratliff, who survived.

         II.

         Texas authorities charged Ratliff with aggravated assault on a police officer, but he was later acquitted by a jury. Ratliff then sued Deputy Scudder, Deputy Sheffield, and Aransas County under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Deputy Scudder violated clearly established law by using deadly force, that Deputy Sheffield violated clearly established law by failing to prevent deadly force, and that Aransas County should be held responsible because the deputies' actions reflect the county's "customary practice[, ] . . . policy or procedure."[1] The district court quickly dismissed Ratliff's claim against the county, however, holding that Ratliff had failed to plead sufficiently specific facts in support of his "official custom" and "failure to train" theories of Monell liability.

         Then, on a motion for summary judgment, the district court also disposed of Ratliff's excessive force claims against the deputies. The district court found that Deputy's Scudder's use of deadly force was not objectively unreasonable under the circumstances and that Ratliff could not therefore meet his burden to rebut the defense of qualified immunity. That finding was also fatal to Ratliff's claim against Deputy Sheffield. Ratliff's entire suit was dismissed with prejudice. This appeal followed.

         III.

         Ratliff raises three issues on appeal. He argues that the district court erred: (1) by granting defendants' motion to dismiss the Monell claim against Aransas County, (2) by excluding testimony given by Ratliff in his earlier criminal trial from the summary judgment record in this civil action, and (3) by awarding summary ...


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