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Huggins v. Holmes

United States District Court, W.D. Louisiana, Monroe Division

January 8, 2018

MARK EDWARD HUGGINS
v.
QUENTIN D. HOLMES, SR.

          HAYES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          MEMORANDUM RULING

          S. MAURICE HICKS, JR., CHIEF JUDGE

         Before the Court is Defendant Quentin D. Holmes, Sr.'s ("Chief Holmes") Motion for Summary Judgment (Record Document 16) pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, filed on behalf of Chief Holmes, individually, and the City of Monroe[1](the "City") (collectively the "Defendants"), seeking to dismiss all of Plaintiff Mark Edward Huggins' ("Huggins") claims. Huggins filed his response (Record Document 20) to the motion on January 10, 2017, and the Defendants filed a reply (Record Document 23) on January 13, 2017. For the reasons which follow, Chief Holmes' Motion is hereby GRANTED.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Huggins is Vice-President of the International Union of Police Associations, Local 81, AFL-CIO ("the Union"). See Record Document 1 at 2. In 2011, Chief Holmes was appointed Chief of the Monroe Police Department. See id. The Union serves as a mechanism for communicating concerns within the rank and file of the Monroe Police Department. See id. As Vice-President, Huggins acted as a spokesman for the Union and participated in a number of discussions with Chief Holmes. See id. As Huggins alleges, the relationship between the Union and Chief Holmes ultimately deteriorated. See id. On August 4, 2014, the Union issued a vote of "no confidence" in Chief Holmes, which was widely reported in the media in Monroe. See id. at 3. Huggins was subsequently interviewed by reporters for two local newspapers, The Ouachita Citizen and The News Star, regarding the "no confidence" vote. See Record Document 16-1 at 17.

         In mid-August, Huggins was told he would be transferred to the Road Patrol Division of the Department. See id. at 8. On September 21, 2014, Huggins was in fact transferred. See Record Document 1 at 3. Huggins alleges his transfer was "a result of his union activities." See id.

         The instant lawsuit was filed on September 18, 2015. See Record Document 1. Huggins alleges his transfer was a retaliatory punishment by Chief Holmes for his engagement in union and free speech activities; the punishment and retaliation violated his constitutionally protected right as a citizen to participate in free speech, and to render an opinion on matters of public concern; Chief Holmes' actions violated his constitutionally protected right as a civil service employee to be secure in his employment and to avoid arbitrary reassignment; and his rights were denied through the official custom and policy of Chief Holmes. See id. at 3-4. Huggins asserts a First Amendment retaliation claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Chief Holmes, individually and in his official capacity as Chief of the Monroe Police Department. See id. at 5. As part of his Section 1983 retaliation claim, Huggins also asserts a failure to promote cause of action, alleging "[d]efendant has stated ... there will be no promotions within the department for Complainant or others as a direct result of Complainant's activities." Id. at 4. Huggins also alleges Chief Holmes' actions were a violation of Louisiana state law, but fails to identify a specific statute or provision. See id. Huggins seeks damages for emotional distress, loss of income, and loss of job opportunity; and also claims punitive damages, attorney fees and interest. See id. at 4-5.

         Defendants filed the instant Motion for Summary Judgment on December 16, 2016, arguing: (1) Huggins cannot show the required custom or policy required under Monell; (2) Huggins' retaliatory transfer claim has prescribed; (3) Chief Holmes is not the final decision-maker regarding promotions within the police department; (4) punitive damages are unrecoverable; and (5) Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity. See Record Document 16-9. Huggins filed a response (Record Document 20) on January 10, 2017, and the Defendants replied on January 13, 2017 (Record Document 23).

         LAW AND ANALYSIS

         I. Legal Standards

         A. Summary Judgment

         Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure governs summary judgment. This rule provides that the court "shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Also, "a party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the motion by citing to particular parts of materials in the record." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(l)(A). "If a party fails to properly support an assertion of fact or fails to properly address another party's assertion of fact as required by Rule 56(c), the court may . . . grant summary judgment." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)(3).

         In a summary judgment motion, "a party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the pleadings . . . [and] affidavits, if any, which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (internal quotations and citations omitted). If the movant meets this initial burden, then the non-movant has the burden of going beyond the pleadings and designating specific facts that prove that a genuine dispute of material fact exists. See id. at 325; see Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994).

         A non-movant, however, cannot meet the burden of proving that a genuine dispute of material fact exists by providing only "some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, by conclusory allegations, by unsubstantiated assertions, or by only a scintilla of evidence." Little, 37 F.3d at 1075. Additionally, in deciding a summary judgment motion, courts "resolve factual controversies in favor of the nonmoving party, but only when there is an actual controversy, that is when both parties have submitted evidence of contradictory facts." Id. Courts "do not, however, in the absence of any proof, assume that the nonmoving party could or would prove the necessary facts." Id.

         The Court may "consider summary judgment on its own after identifying for the parties material facts that may not be genuinely in dispute." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(f)(3). A court may grant summary judgment under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(f)(3) so long as it provides the parties with "ample notice [and] time to respond" and "considers] everything" that the parties claim to be probative of the matters that have been identified. Santana v. Cook Co. Bd. of Review, 679 F.3d 614, 619 (7th Cir. 2012); see also Wang v. Prudential Ins. Co. of Am., 439 Fed.Appx. 359, 363 n.2 (5th Cir. 2011).

         B. Section 1983 Suits: Individual Capacity vs. Official Capacity Claims

         Section 1983 authorizes the assertion of a claim for relief against a person who, acting under the color of state law, allegedly violated the claimant's rights under federal law. See 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In Section 1983 suits, government officials may be sued in either their individual or official capacities. A claim against a state or municipal official in his official capacity "generally represent[s] only another way of pleading an action against an entity of which an officer is an agent." Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 165-166, 105 S.Ct. 3099, 3105 (1985). Individual or personal capacity suits "seek to impose personal liability upon a government official for actions he takes under color of state law." Id.

         C. Qualified Immunity in Section 1983 Suits

         The qualified immunity doctrine often protects public officials from liability in section 1983 actions brought against a person acting under the color of state law in his individual capacity. "The basic thrust of the qualified-immunity doctrine is to free officials from the concerns of litigation." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 685, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1953 (2009) (internal quotations and citations omitted). In fact, a qualified immunity defense is truly "an immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability." Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231, 129 S.Ct. 808, 815 (2009).

         Once the defendant raises a qualified immunity defense, the plaintiff carries the burden of demonstrating the inapplicability of qualified immunity. See Floyd v. City of Kenner, 351 Fed.Appx. 890, 893 (5th Cir. 2009). First, the court must determine whether the plaintiff demonstrated a genuine dispute of material fact as to a violation of a constitutional right. See Pearson, 555 U.S. at 232. Second, the court must determine whether the constitutional right at issue was "clearly established" at the time of the defendant's alleged misconduct, Id. A defendant who can validly raise a qualified immunity defense will enjoy its protection so long as the allegedly violated constitutional right was not clearly established at the time of the violation. See id. In other words, the defendant can only be held liable if he violates a right that is clearly established at the time of the violation.

         II. Analysis

         A. Section 1983 Claims against Chief Holmes in his Official Capacity

         A lawsuit against a municipal employee in his official capacity "is a suit against the official's office, " and is therefore tantamount to a suit against the municipality itself. See Peterson v. Town of Boyce, 2010 WL 3363237, at *2 (W.D. La. 2010), quoting Will v. Mich. Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71, 109 S.Ct. 2304, 2312 (1989); Graham, 473 U.S. at 165-66. Therefore, Huggins' claims against Chief Holmes in his official capacity are simply another way of pleading Monell claims against the City. Huggins alleges "[i]t is also a violation under 42 U.S.C. 1983 due to a constitutional deprivation inflicted through official custom and policy by ... Holmes." Record Document 1 at 5. Huggins' claims fail because Huggins cannot establish a constitutionally deficient policy or custom that caused injury.

         In Monell v. Dept. of Social Serv., 436 U.S. 658, 98 S.Ct. 2018 (1978), the Supreme Court held that a municipality cannot be held liable for constitutional torts under section 1983 under a theory of respondeat superior, but they can be held liable "when execution of a government's policy or custom, whether made by its lawmakers or by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy, inflicts the injury." ki at 691, 694, 98 S.Ct. at 2036, 2037-38. To succeed on a Monell claim against a municipality, the plaintiff must establish (1) an official policy or custom, of which (2) a policymaker can be charged with actual or constructive knowledge, and (3) a constitutional violation whose "moving force" is ...


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