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Brandon Erp v. City of Baton Rouge

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana

May 14, 2018

BRANDON ERP
v.
CITY OF BATON ROUGE, ET AL.

          RULING AND ORDER ON MOTION TO STAY DISCOVERY

          ERIN WILDER-DOOMES UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Before the court is a Motion to Stay Discovery[1] filed by defendants, Sid. J. Gautreaux, III, Sheriff of East Baton Rouge Parish (“Sheriff Gautreaux”), and AIX Group, d/b/a/ NOVA Casualty Company (“Nova”) (collectively, the “EBRSO Defendants”). The Motion to Stay Discovery is opposed by plaintiff, Brandon Erp (“Plaintiff”), [2] and the EBRSO Defendants have filed a Reply.[3]For the reasons set forth herein, the Motion to Stay Discovery[4] is GRANTED IN PART.

         IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that discovery in this matter, with the exception of written discovery between Plaintiff and the non-moving defendants (i.e., parties other than EBRSO Defendants), is STAYED pending resolution of the issues raised in the Motion to Dismiss.[5]

         I. Background

         This suit arises out of the July 5, 2016 shooting of Alton Sterling and the subsequent protests that occurred in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on July 8-10, 2016. Plaintiff alleges that while participating in a peaceful protest on July 9, 2016, he was “brutally attacked and beaten, ” “arrested, detained, denied medical care and incarcerated.”[6] Plaintiff asserts claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, [7] 1985, [8] and 1986[9] and alleges that he was arrested without probable cause, [10] and in violation of his First Amendment rights.[11] Plaintiff alleges that he was denied medical care in violation of the Eighth Amendment, [12] and additionally brings various claims under Louisiana law.[13] Plaintiff names the following defendants: (1) the City of Baton Rouge;[14] (2) Carl Dabadie Jr., the former Chief of the BRPD, and Jonathan Dunnam, the Interim Chief of the BRPD, in their official capacities;[15] (3) East Baton Rouge Parish;[16] (4) Sheriff Gautreaux “in his official capacity;”[17] (5) Nova, the alleged insurer of the EBRSO;[18] and (5) “[p]olice officers employed by Defendants, whose identities are presently unknown, [who] tackled and assaulted Brandon Erp.”[19]

         Sheriff Gautreaux and Nova have moved to dismiss Plaintiff's Second Amended, Supplemental and Superseding Complaint for Damages for Deprivation of Civil Rights (the “Second Amended Complaint”).[20] In support of their Motion to Dismiss, the EBRSO Defendants assert, inter alia, that “Plaintiff has not alleged sufficient facts…to state a Section 1983 claim against Sheriff Gautreaux in his individual capacity that is plausible on its face and he is entitled to qualified immunity.”[21] The EBRSO Defendants further assert in support of their Motion to Dismiss that “Nova is only sued as the insurer of the [sic] Sheriff Gautreaux, to the extent that any and/or all claims are dismissed against Sheriff Gautreaux they should also be dismissed against Nova.”[22]

         On the same day the EBRSO Defendants sought dismissal of Plaintiff's claims, [23] they also filed the instant Motion to Stay Discovery.[24] The EBRSO Defendants assert that in light of the assertion of qualified immunity, all discovery should be stayed until the court rules on their Motion to Dismiss.[25] In opposition to the requested stay, Plaintiff asserts that (1) the Motion to Stay is based on the incorrect “premise that Sheriff Gautreaux has only been sued individually, and might be entitled to qualified immunity in his individual capacity;” and (2) Sheriff Gautreaux's insurer cannot enjoy the benefit of Sheriff Gautreaux's qualified immunity defense.[26]

         II. Law and Analysis

         A. It Is Unclear Whether Plaintiff Asserts Claims Against Sheriff Gautreaux in Both His Official and Individual Capacities, and Plaintiffs' Briefing Indicates Claims in Both Capacities

         “Qualified immunity shields ‘government officials performing discretionary functions' from civil liability for claims under federal law ‘insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'”[27]Qualified immunity “insulates Government officials only from liability in an individual capacity, but has no effect on liability in an official capacity….”[28] Because “a local governmental entity sued under § 1983 may not assert a good faith immunity defense, ” “[i]t necessarily follows that since actions for damages against a party in his official capacity are, in essence, actions against the government entity of which the officer is an agent, Government officials sued in their official capacity may not then assert good faith immunity as a defense.”[29] Accordingly, when a defendant is sued solely in his or her official capacity, that defendant may not assert the defense of qualified immunity.[30] Where a defendant is sued in both his official and individual capacities, qualified immunity may be asserted as a defense against plaintiff's individual capacity claims.[31]

         In his Second Amended Complaint, Plaintiff explicitly alleges that Sheriff Gautreaux

is the elected Sheriff of East Baton Rouge Parish, who is sued in his official capacity. As the Sheriff, he is responsible for directing, training and supervising all Sheriff's Office staff and officers. Sheriff Gautreaux is the policymaker for the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office. Sheriff Gautreaux directed the deployment of officers during the Baton Rouge protests and was aware of the continuing arrests. Sheriff Gautreaux, in his official capacity, is vicariously liable for torts and civil rights violations committed by his officers in the course and scope of their employment.[32]

         In Count 8 of Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint, Plaintiff also asserts that “[t]he City of Baton Rouge, East Baton Rouge Parish, Chief Dabadie and Sheriff Gautreaux are not entitled to qualified immunity and are liable to Brandon Erp under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 for implementing a policy of allowing or tolerating the use of excessive police force and not providing adequate medical care.”[33] While these allegations seem to establish that Plaintiff sues Sheriff Gautreaux in the Sheriff's official capacity, in Plaintiff's opposition to the EBRSO Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, Plaintiff does not assert that he only makes claims against the Sheriff in his official capacity; instead, Plaintiff contends that “[q]ualified immunity is not at issue, because Sheriff Gautreaux is also sued in his official capacity.”[34] Thus, it is not clear whether Plaintiff is arguing that Sheriff Gautreaux is not entitled to qualified immunity at all (because Plaintiff's only claims against Sheriff Gautreaux are in the Sheriff's official capacity) or whether Plaintiff is arguing that Sheriff Gautreaux is not entitled to qualified immunity as to Plaintiff's claim against the Sheriff in his official capacity. Whether Plaintiff has asserted a claim against Sheriff Gautreaux that is subject to the potential defense of qualified immunity (i.e., whether Plaintiff has asserted a claim against Sheriff Gautreaux in the Sheriff's individual capacity) is an issue to be decided by the District Judge in the context of the pending Motion to Dismiss.

         B. Discovery in This Suit Should Be Stayed Pending Resolution of the Issues Raised in EBRSO Defendants' Motion to Dismiss

         “[Q]ualified immunity constitutes an ‘immunity from suit' rather than a mere defense to liability.”[35] The issue of qualified immunity should be resolved at the earliest possible stage of litigation because “[o]ne of the most salient benefits of qualified immunity is protection from pretrial discovery, which is costly, time-consuming, and intrusive.”[36] The Fifth Circuit has long held that an assertion of qualified immunity shields a government official from discovery that is “avoidable or overly broad.”[37] Significantly, “it is only when the district court ‘is unable to rule on the immunity defense without further clarification of the facts' and when the discovery order is ‘narrowly tailored to uncover only those facts needed to rule on the immunity claim, ' that an order allowing limited discovery is neither avoidable nor overly broad.”[38] Although discovery on the issue of qualified immunity is possible, such discovery “must not proceed until the district court first finds that the plaintiff's pleadings assert facts which, if true, would overcome the defense of qualified immunity.”[39] “If the complaint alleges facts to overcome the defense of qualified immunity, the district court may then proceed under Lion Boulos to allow the discovery necessary to clarify those facts upon which the immunity defense turns.”[40]

         Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit has “established a careful procedure under which a district court may defer its qualified immunity ruling if further factual development is necessary to ascertain the availability of that defense.”[41] “First, the district court must determine that the plaintiff's pleadings assert facts which, if true, would overcome the defense of qualified immunity. Thus, a plaintiff seeking to overcome qualified immunity must plead specific facts that both allow the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the harm he has alleged and that defeat a qualified immunity defense with equal specificity.”[42] “When reviewing a complaint that meets this standard, the district court may defer its qualified immunity ruling and order limited discovery if the court remains unable to rule on the immunity defense without further clarification of the facts.”[43]

         The focus of Plaintiff's opposition to the Motion to Stay Discovery is that the EBRSO Defendants' are incorrect that Sheriff Gautreaux has only be sued in his individual capacity and that because he has been sued in his official capacity, the defense of qualified immunity is not available. As discussed above, the issue of whether Sheriff Gautreaux is entitled to qualified immunity is currently before the District Judge in the context of the EBRSO Defendants' Motion to Dismiss.[44] Based on the careful procedure established by the Fifth Circuit, discovery as to Sheriff Gautreaux should be stayed pending resolution of the issues raised in the Motion to Dismiss.[45]

         Finally, the undersigned finds that the stay of discovery in this matter should apply to discovery as to all defendants, including Sheriff Gautreaux's insurer, Nova.[46] In support of their Motion to Dismiss, the EBRSO Defendants have asserted that “[s]ince Nova is only sued as the insurer of the Sheriff Gautreaux, to the extent that any and/or all claims are dismissed against Sheriff Gautreaux they should also be dismissed against Nova.”[47] Accordingly, whether Nova may also benefit from Sheriff Gautreaux's qualified immunity defense is an issue to be considered by the District Judge.[48] Further, with respect to all defendants in this matter, the Supreme Court has explained that “[t]he basic thrust of the qualified-immunity doctrine is to free officials from the concerns of litigation, including ‘avoidance of disruptive discovery.'”[49] “It is no answer to these concerns to say that discovery for petitioners can be deferred while pretrial proceedings continue for other defendants. It is quite likely that, when discovery as to the other parties proceeds, it would prove necessary for petitioners and their counsel to participate in the process to ensure the case does not develop in a misleading or slanted way that causes prejudice to their position. Even if petitioners are not yet themselves subject to discovery orders, then, they would not be free from the burdens of discovery.”[50]

         Here, although only the EBRSO Defendants have moved to stay discovery, the undersigned finds that staying discovery as to all parties in this suit would “further[] [the EBRSO Defendants'] interests in being shielded from the burdens of being required to participate in discovery (even discovery that is not directed specifically to them), pending resolution of the defense.”[51]Especially in light of Plaintiff's allegations that all defendants participated in a civil conspiracy in violation of Plaintiff's civil rights, the undersigned finds that the EBRSO Defendants would feel compelled to participate in discovery efforts, such as depositions of other witnesses, prior to resolution of the Motions to Dismiss. However, in light of the EBRSO Defendants' assertion that they do not object to the non-moving defendants and Plaintiff engaging in written discovery, the court will allow such written discovery to proceed.

         III. Conclusion

         For the reasons set forth herein, the Motion to Stay Discovery filed by the EBRSO Defendants[52] is GRANTED IN PART.

         IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that discovery in this matter, with the exception of written discovery between Plaintiff and the non-moving defendants (i.e., parties other than EBRSO Defendants), is STAYED pending ...


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