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Smith v. Housing Authority of New Orleans

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Fourth Circuit

June 28, 2017

EMANUEL SMITH, III
v.
HOUSING AUTHORITY OF NEW ORLEANS, SILAS PHIPPS, JR., ROBERT ANDERSON, GREGG FORTNER, AND AB INSURANCE COMPANY

         APPEAL FROM CIVIL DISTRICT COURT, ORLEANS PARISH NO. 2016-01504, DIVISION "I-14" Honorable Piper D. Griffin, Judge

          BROUSSARD, J., DISSENTS Raymond C. Burkart, Jr. COUNSEL FOR PLAINTIFF/APPELLANT, EMMANUEL SMITH III

          Michael R.D. Adams Linda L. Clark DECUIR CLARK & ADAMS, LLP COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANT/APPELLEE, HOUSING AUTHORITY OF NEW ORLEANS

          Court composed of Judge Terri F. Love, Judge Daniel L. Dysart, Judge Terrel J. Broussard, Pro Tempore

          Judge Terri F. Love

          This appeal arises from plaintiff's termination as a housing authority police officer. Plaintiff contends that he was terminated as an "at will" employee instead of as a civil servant, which violated his civil rights. Defendants filed numerous exceptions. The trial court granted the housing authority's and his supervisors' exceptions of no cause of action as to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and dismissed plaintiff's claims regarding same.

         We find that the housing authority is an instrumentality of the state except as outlined in La. R.S. 40:539(C)(8)(b). As such, HANO does not constitute a person for purposes of a § 1983 suit. Further, plaintiff's supervisors' actions regarding his termination from an "at-will" position for sleeping on duty were objectively reasonable. Accordingly, the trial court did not err by granting the exceptions of no cause of action. The trial court's judgment is affirmed.

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Emanuel Smith III was employed as a police officer with the Housing Authority of New Orleans ("HANO"), when he alleged that Silas Phipps, Jr. illegally retrieved information about him from the National Crime Information Center ("NCIC") and then shared the information with third parties. Mr. Smith contends that Mr. Phipps' actions caused "great embarrassment, humiliation, and loss of standing in his community and with his peers." Mr. Smith spoke with Robert Anderson, the chief of HANO police, wherein Mr. Anderson allegedly told Mr. Smith to sue him. Mr. Smith then filed a formal complaint against Mr. Phipps. Subsequently, Mr. Smith was cited for sleeping while on duty for the second time and was terminated by a supervisor, Greg Fortner.

         Mr. Smith filed a Petition for Damages, Declaratory Judgment, and Writ of Mandamus against HANO, Mr. Phipps, Mr. Anderson, Mr. Fortner, and AIG Insurance Company ("AIG"), as HANO's insurer, asserting that he was wrongfully terminated without civil service protections and because he was a whistleblower. Thereafter, HANO, Mr. Anderson, Mr. Fortner, and AIG (collectively "Defendants") filed a dilatory exception of vagueness and a peremptory exception of no cause of action. Mr. Phipps also filed an exception of no cause of action. The trial court granted HANO's exception of vagueness and ordered Mr. Smith to amend his petition within twenty days.[1] Further, the trial court granted HANO, Mr. Anderson, Mr. Fortner, and AIG's exception of no cause of action regarding Mr. Smith's 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("§1983") claims. The trial court dismissed Mr. Smith's §1983 claims with prejudice. Mr. Smith's supplemental petition[2] and devolutive appeal followed.

         Mr. Smith asserts that the trial court erroneously granted the Defendants' exceptions of no cause of action because HANO is an instrumentality of the state. Mr. Smith also contends that he possesses valid §1983 causes of action against Messrs. Anderson and Fortner because they are not protected by immunity.[3]

         NO CAUSE OF ACTION

         "An exception is a means of defense, other than a denial or avoidance of the demand, used by the defendant, whether in the principal or an incidental action, to retard, dismiss, or defeat the demand brought against him." La. C.C.P. art. 921. An exception of no cause of action is a peremptory exception, the function of which "is to have the plaintiff's action declared legally nonexistent, or barred by effect of law, and hence this exception tends to dismiss or defeat the action." La. C.C.P. art. 923. See also La. C.C.P. art. 927. "On the trial of the peremptory exception pleaded at or prior to the trial of the case, evidence may be introduced to support or controvert any of the objections pleaded, when the grounds thereof do not appear from the petition." La. C.C.P. art. 931. "When the grounds of the objection pleaded by the peremptory exception may be removed by amendment of the petition, the judgment sustaining the exception shall order such amendment within the delay allowed by the court." La. C.C.P. art. 934. However, "[i]f the grounds of the objection raised through the exception cannot be so removed, or if the plaintiff fails to comply with the order to amend, the action, claim, demand, issue, or theory shall be dismissed." Id.

         "The burden of demonstrating that no cause of action has been stated is upon the mover or exceptor." City of New Orleans v. Bd. of Comm'rs of Orleans Levee Dist., 93-0690, p. 28 (La. 7/5/94), 640 So.2d 237, 253. The trial "court must presume all factual allegations of the petition to be true and all reasonable inferences are made in favor of the non-moving party." Id. The appellate court reviews a sustained exception of no cause of action with the de novo standard of review "because the exception raises a question of law and the lower court's decision is based only on the sufficiency of the petition." Id. This Court must "follow the accepted rule that a petition should not be dismissed for failure to state a cause of action unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of any claim which would entitle him to relief." Id.

         "The question therefore is whether in the light most favorable to plaintiff, and with every doubt resolved in his behalf, the petition states any valid cause of action for relief." Id., 93-0690, p. 29, 640 So.2d at 253. "The petition should not be dismissed merely because plaintiff's allegations do not support the legal theory he intends to proceed on, since the court is under a duty to examine the petition to determine if the allegations provide for relief on any possible theory." Id. Generally, "an exception of no cause of action is likely to be granted only in the unusual case in which the plaintiff includes allegations that show on the face of the petition that there is some insuperable bar to relief." Id. "In other words, dismissal is justified only when the allegations of the petition itself clearly demonstrate that the plaintiff does not have a cause of action, or when its allegations indicate the existence of an affirmative defense that appears clearly on the face of the pleading." Id.

         42 U.S.C. § 1983

         42 U.S.C. § 1983 reads as follows:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, 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 in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer's judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable. For the purposes of this section, any Act of Congress applicable exclusively to the District of Columbia shall be considered to be a statute of the District of Columbia.

         Mr. Smith contends that his petition sets forth causes of action against HANO and Messrs. Anderson and Fortner pursuant to §1983. Therefore, he maintains on appeal that the trial court erroneously granted the Defendants' exceptions of no cause of action.

         HANO

         Mr. Smith asserts that HANO cannot "pick and choose" when or when not to be considered an instrumentality of the state.

         La. R.S. 40:539 was amended following HANO's takeover by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development ("HUD") to provide that:

[n]otwithstanding any provision of Subparagraph (a) of this Paragraph or of any other law to the contrary, the Housing Authority of New Orleans shall not be considered to be an instrumentality of the state for purposes of Article X, Section 1(A) of the Constitution of Louisiana, and employees of the authority shall not be included in the state civil service.

La. R.S. 40:539(C)(8)(b) (emphasis added). Article X, Section 1(A) of the Louisiana ...


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