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Mitchell v. Gautreaux

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana

May 30, 2017

GREGORY MITCHELL AND SHONTELLE GRIFFIN MITCHELL, INDIVIDUALLY AND ON BEHALF OF THEIR MINOR CHILD REAL PARTY IN INTEREST, JM
v.
SID J. GAUTREAUX, III, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS SHERIFF OF EAST BATON ROUGE PARISH

          RULING

          SHELBY D. DICK JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

         This matter is before the Court on the Motion to Dismiss[1] by Defendant, Sheriff Sid Gautreaux, III, individually and in his official capacity as Sheriff of East Baton Rouge Parish (“Sheriff Gautreaux”). Plaintiffs, Gregory Mitchell and Shontelle Griffin Mitchell, individually and on behalf of their minor child real party in interest, JM, (“Plaintiffs”), have filed an Opposition[2] to this motion. Both Parties filed Supplemental Memoranda[3] in support of their positions, and Sheriff Gautreaux filed a Reply.[4] For the following reasons, the Court finds that Sheriff Gautreaux's motion should be granted in part and denied in part.

         1. FACTUAL BACKGROUND[5]

Plaintiffs contend that their minor son, JM, was unlawfully subjected to assault, battery, and other civil rights violations in violation of state and federal law, on April 2, 2016, when JM was participating in an event called “Battle of the Bands.” This event showcased the marching band talent of East Baton Rouge Parish. Following their performance, JM and his band members were boarding their bus when Plaintiffs claim that, suddenly and without warning, on-duty Sheriff's Deputy Chadrick Bell (“Bell”) released his pepper spray on the band members. Plaintiffs claim they sustained serious injuries as a result of this incident. Plaintiffs further claim that, although they filed complaints with every law enforcement agency in the area, none would identify the offending officer. Plaintiffs filed this lawsuit alleging federal civil rights violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and claims arising under state tort law. Specifically, Plaintiffs claim that Sheriff Gautreaux is liable in both his individual and official capacities for denying Plaintiffs' First Amendment right to peaceful assembly, right to petition the court for redress of grievances, and for acting with deliberate indifference in failing to train and supervise his deputies.

         Sheriff Gautreaux acknowledges that several area law enforcement agencies worked off-duty security at the Battle of the Bands event at Southern University on April 2, 2016. Sheriff Gautreaux claims that, weeks after the event, his office was notified that an unknown officer used pepper spray after the event. Sheriff Gautreaux contends that an Internal Affairs investigation was conducted, JM was interviewed in the presence of his parents on June 28, 2016, and criminal detectives investigated this incident. Sheriff Gautreaux denies that the officer's name was withheld or purposely not disclosed, and he maintains that there is no record of a public records request seeking the deputy's identity. Sheriff Gautreaux also asserts the defense of qualified immunity to all federal claims. Sheriff Gautreaux denies all of Plaintiffs' claims and moves to dismiss this action under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

         II. LAW AND ANALYSIS

         A. Motion to Dismiss Under Rule 12(b)(6)

         When deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, “[t]he ‘court accepts all well-pleaded facts as true, viewing them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.'”[6] The Court may consider “the complaint, its proper attachments, documents incorporated into the complaint by reference, and matters of which a court may take judicial notice.”[7] “To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the plaintiff must plead ‘enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'”[8] In Twombly, the United States Supreme Court set forth the basic criteria necessary for a complaint to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. “While a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff's obligation to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.”[9] A complaint is also insufficient if it merely “tenders ‘naked assertion[s]' devoid of ‘further factual enhancement.'”[10] However, “[a] claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads the factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.”[11] In order to satisfy the plausibility standard, the plaintiff must show “more than a sheer possibility that the defendant has acted unlawfully.”[12] “Furthermore, while the court must accept well-pleaded facts as true, it will not ‘strain to find inferences favorable to the plaintiff.'”[13] On a motion to dismiss, courts “are not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.”[14]

         B. Federal Claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983

         The Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, creates a private right of action for redressing the violation of federal law by those acting under color of state law.[15] It provides:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State ... subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured....[16]

         “Section 1983 ‘is not itself a source of substantive rights, ' but merely provides ‘a method for vindicating federal rights conferred elsewhere.'”[17]

         To prevail on a Section 1983 claim, a plaintiff must prove that a person acting under the color of state law deprived him of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States.[18] A Section 1983 complainant must support his claim with specific facts demonstrating a constitutional deprivation and may not simply rely on conclusory allegations.[19]

         1. Individual Capacity Claims

         Sheriff Gautreaux moves to dismiss the individual capacity claims brought against him, arguing Plaintiffs have failed to allege any specific conduct or personal involvement of his that gives rise to a constitutional violation. Sheriff Gautreaux argues Plaintiffs have made no allegations that he was personally involved in the subject incident of Bell's release of pepper spray on their son; thus, they have failed to state a claim against him in his individual capacity. Further, with respect to the claim that Sheriff Gautreaux violated Plaintiffs' constitutional rights by concealing the identity of Bell, Sheriff Gautreaux argues that Plaintiffs have not alleged that their ability to file suit was in any way blocked by the delay in obtaining Bell's identity. Sheriff Gautreaux also asserts the defense of qualified immunity.

         Plaintiffs counter that they have alleged sufficient facts to state a claim against Sheriff Gautreaux in his individual capacity. Plaintiffs contend they have properly alleged that Sheriff Gautreaux failed to train his deputy on the use of pepper spray, use of force, crowd control, command of temper, and that the Sheriff failed to adequately supervise his deputies. Further, Plaintiffs allege that Sheriff Gautreaux has had a “long-standing policy and/or practice of failing to properly discipline, train, and supervise his deputies and placing deputies in the field unsupervised, and failing to supervise and train Bell, who was personally known to Gautreaux to have a past complaint and disciplinary history.”[20]

a. Qualified Immunity

         In Harlow v. Fitzgerald, the United States Supreme Court established the principle that “government officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded 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.”[21]“When a defendant invokes qualified immunity, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to demonstrate the inapplicability of the defense.”[22]

         A claim of qualified immunity requires the Court to engage in the well-established two-step analysis developed by the Supreme Court in Saucier v. Katz.[23] As stated by the Fifth Circuit in the context of a motion for summary judgment:

First, we determine whether, viewing the summary judgment evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the defendant violated the plaintiff's constitutional rights. See, e.g., Tarver v. City of Edna, 410 F.3d 745, 750 (5th Cir. 2005); McClendon v. City of Columbia, 305 F.3d 314, 322-23 (5th Cir.2002) (en banc); Glenn v. City of Tyler, 242 F.3d 307, 312 (5th Cir. 2001). If not, our analysis ends. If so, we next consider whether the defendant's actions were objectively unreasonable in light of clearly established law at the time of the conduct in question. See, e.g., Tarver, 410 F.3d at 750; Glenn, 242 F.3d at 312. To make this determination, 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. See Glenn, 242 F.3d at 312; Goodson v. City of Corpus Christi, 202 F.3d 730, 736 (5th Cir. 2000); see also Tarver, 410 F.3d at 750 (“If officers of reasonable competence could disagree as to whether the plaintiff's rights were violated, the officer's qualified immunity remains intact.”).[24]

         When the defense of qualified immunity is raised in a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, “it is the defendant's conduct as alleged in the complaint that is scrutinized for ‘objective legal reasonableness'.”[25] The plaintiff must support his claim with “sufficient precision and factual specificity to raise a genuine issue as to the illegality of defendant's conduct at the time of the alleged acts.”[26] When greater detail is required to address the defense of qualified immunity, the Court may insist that a plaintiff file a reply pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 7(a) tailored to an answer pleading the defense of qualified immunity.[27]“The district court need not allow any discovery unless it finds that plaintiff has supported his claim with sufficient precision and factual specificity to raise a genuine issue as to the illegality of defendant's conduct at the time of the alleged acts.”[28]

b. Failure to Train and Supervise

         “Under section 1983, supervisory officials are not liable for the actions of subordinates on any theory of vicarious liability.”[29] “‘A supervisory official may be held liable … only if (1) he affirmatively participates in the acts that cause the constitutional deprivation, or (2) he implements unconstitutional policies that causally result in the constitutional injury.'”[30] To “establish supervisor liability for constitutional violations committed by subordinate employees, plaintiffs must show that the supervisor act[ed], or fail[ed] to act, with deliberate indifference to violations of others' constitutional rights committed by their subordinates.”[31] “A failure to adopt a policy can be deliberately indifferent when it is obvious that the likely consequences of not adopting a policy will be a deprivation of constitutional rights.”[32] “A supervisor may also be liable for failure to supervise or train if: ‘(1) the official either failed to train or to supervise the officers involved; (2) there is a causal connection between the alleged failure to supervise or train and the alleged violation of the plaintiff's rights; and (3) the failure to train or supervise constituted deliberate indifference to the plaintiff's constitutional rights.'”[33]

         Noting the stringent deliberate indifference standard, the Fifth Circuit has explained:

Deliberate indifference is a stringent standard of fault, requiring proof that a municipal actor disregarded a known or obvious consequence of his action. For an official to act with deliberate indifference, the official must both be aware of facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm exists, and he must also draw the inference. Deliberate indifference requires a showing of more than negligence or even gross negligence. Actions and decisions by officials that are merely inept, erroneous, ineffective, or negligent do not amount to deliberate indifference and do not divest officials of qualified immunity. To satisfy the deliberate indifference prong, a plaintiff usually must demonstrate a pattern of violations and that the inadequacy of the training is obvious and obviously likely to result in a constitutional violation. It may happen that in light of the duties assigned to specific officers or employees the need for more or different training is so obvious, and the inadequacy so likely to result in the violation of constitutional rights, a supervisor might reasonably be found to be deliberately indifferent....
We have stressed that a single incident is usually insufficient to demonstrate deliberate indifference. In Cousin v. Small, for example, we held that to succeed on his claim of failure to train or supervise the plaintiff must demonstrate deliberate indifference, which usually requires a plaintiff to demonstrate a pattern of violations. Similarly, in Snyder v. Trepagnier, we held that “proof of a single violent incident ordinarily is insufficient” for liability. Rather, the plaintiff must demonstrate at least a pattern of similar incidents in which the citizens were injured. Moreover, a showing of deliberate indifference requires that the Plaintiffs show that the failure to train reflects a “deliberate” or “conscious” choice to endanger constitutional rights.
Prior indications cannot simply be for any and all “bad” or unwise acts, but rather must point to the specific violation in question. That is, notice of a pattern of similar violations is required. While the specificity required should not be exaggerated, our cases require that the prior acts be fairly similar to what ultimately transpired and, in the case of excessive use of force, that the prior act have involved injury to a third party.[34]

         In this case, Plaintiffs have sued Sheriff Gautreaux in his individual capacity as a supervisor. Considering that Plaintiffs have neither alleged nor argued that Sheriff Gautreaux affirmatively participated in the April 2, 2016 incident, the Court must determine whether Plaintiffs have sufficiently pled a claim for deprivation of constitutional rights due to a subordinate's implementation of a supervisor's wrongful policy or practice, or for failure to train, educate, supervise, or discipline.

         Plaintiffs have the burden of pleading their claims with sufficient precision and factual specificity to raise a genuine issue as to the illegality of Sheriff Gautreaux's conduct at the time of the alleged acts. While the Fifth Circuit has acknowledged that a plaintiff is not required to “plead facts ‘peculiarly within the knowledge of defendants, '”[35] it has cautioned that, to permit discovery on a plaintiff's claim against a supervisory official, “the pleadings must have sufficient precision and factual detail to reveal that more than guesswork is behind the allegation.”[36] As the Fifth Circuit held:

There has to be more underlying a complaint than a hope that events happened in a certain way. Instead, in the short and plain claim against a public official, a plaintiff must at least chart a factual path to the defeat of the defendant's immunity, free of conclusion. Once that path has been charted with something more than conclusory statements, limited discovery might be allowed to fill in the remaining detail necessary to comply with Schultea.[37]
Plaintiffs' Supplemental and Amending Complaint alleges as follows with regard to the failure to train/supervise claim:
Gautreaux, through his deputy, also told Petitioners at that time said deputy had been fired and went on to explain that Gautreaux “they” had been able to fire said deputy because he was an employee at will. Gautreaux, through his deputies, further told Petitioners that said deputy had a history of prior complaints and prior disciplinary history involving assaulting others while employed by Gautreaux before he had assaulted JM.[38]
* * *
Petitioners contend that defendant Gautreaux, at all times, knew defendant Bell had a prior history of assaulting others, that Gautreaux had previously disciplined defendant Bell for behavior similar to the behavior said deputy directed at Petitioners' son, and that in spite of Gautreaux's knowledge of Bell's prior violence toward others, his complaint history, and disciplinary history, sent defendant Bell to the band event where he was to interact with hundreds of defenseless children. Petitioners further submit that in spite of Gautreaux's knowledge of Bell's prior complaint history and disciplinary history, defendant Gautreaux took no steps to train, supervise, or monitor defendant Bell and his interactions with the public leading to the assault on JM.[39]

         The Court finds that Plaintiffs have sufficiently stated a claim for deliberate indifference to a known risk and the failure to supervise/train employee Bell. The Court must accept Plaintiffs' pleadings as true for purposes of this motion and must construe the allegations liberally in Plaintiffs' favor. Plaintiffs have alleged that a pattern of similar conduct existed regarding Bell and that Gautreaux knew or should have known of this risk of harm, but failed to properly train/supervise Bell to thwart further harm to others. Gautreaux is not entitled to qualified immunity on this claim at this procedural posture of the case.

         c. Concealment of Deputy Bell's Identity

         Plaintiffs contend that their requests for the identity of the deputy in question were refused on numerous occasions, and Plaintiffs further allege that this repeated refusal was directly ordered by Sheriff Gautreaux. Plaintiffs claim this conduct violated their constitutional right of access to the courts. Sheriff Gautreaux denies the allegations, maintains that Plaintiffs' allegations on this issue do not state a ...


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