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Smith v. City of Baton Rouge

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana

May 14, 2018

NIKOLE SMITH, ET AL.
v.
CITY OF BATON ROUGE, ET AL.

          RULING AND ORDER ON MOTIONS TO STAY DISCOVERY

          ERIN WILDER-DOOMES, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Before the court are: (1) Motion to Stay Discovery[1] filed by defendants, Sheriff Sid J. Gautreaux, III, in his individual and official capacity as Sheriff of East Baton Rouge Parish (“Sheriff Gautreaux”); AIX Group, d/b/a/ NOVA Casualty Company (“NOVA”); and the individually named deputies of the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office (collectively as the “EBRSO Defendants”);[2] and (2) Motion to Stay Discovery[3] filed by defendants, Jason Ard, the Sheriff of Livingston Parish (“Sheriff Ard”), and the individually named officers of the Livingston Parish Sheriff's Office (collectively, the “LPSO Defendants”).[4] Both Motions to Stay Discovery are opposed by Plaintiffs, [5] and the EBRSO Defendants and the LPSO Defendants have each filed a Reply.[6] For the reasons set forth herein, both Motions to Stay Discovery[7] are GRANTED IN PART.

         IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that discovery in this matter, with the exception of written discovery between Plaintiffs and the non-moving defendants (i.e., parties other than EBRSO and LPSO Defendants), is STAYED pending resolution of the issues raised in the Motions to Dismiss.[8]

         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. Plaintiffs, Nikole Smith, Lubin Gilbert, Sophie Kosofsky, and Sean Benjamin (collectively, “Plaintiffs”) allege that they were wrongfully arrested during the July 8-10, 2016 protests in violation of their constitutional rights.[9] Plaintiffs assert claims of civil conspiracy to violate Plaintiffs' civil rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983[10] and 42 U.S.C. § 1985;[11] claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for false detention, arrest, and imprisonment, [12] “manufacturing evidence and knowing use of that evidence to attempt to obtain institution of prosecution…without probable cause” in violation of Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, [13] excessive force, [14] retaliatory arrest in violation of the First Amendment, [15] failure to intervene, [16] and as-applied challenges to La. R.S. § 14:97, [17] La. R.S. § 14:100.1, [18] La. R.S. § 14:329.2, [19] and La. R.S. § 14:108.[20] Plaintiffs also assert a Monell claim against all defendants sued in their official capacities based on the alleged development and maintenance of “policies, practices, procedures, customs, and usages…which caused the violation of Plaintiffs' rights…”[21]and supplemental state law claims for civil conspiracy, [22] “violations of the free expression…”[23]the right to privacy and the “right to be left alone, ”[24] various intentional torts, [25] abuse of process, [26]abuse of rights, [27] and negligence.[28]

         Plaintiffs name (1) the City of Baton Rouge and East Baton Rouge Parish (referred to by Plaintiffs as the “City/Parish”); (2) Melvin “Kip” Holden, former Mayor-President of the City/Parish, in his individual and official capacities; (3) Sheriff Gautreaux; (4) Carl Dabadie Jr., the Chief of the Baton Rouge Police Department (“BRPD”), in his individual and official capacities; (5) Col. Michael Edmonson, the former Superintendent of the Louisiana State Police (“LSP”), in his individual capacity only; (6) Sheriff Mike Cazes, the Southern District Coordinator of the Louisiana Sheriffs Association Emergency Task Force, in his individual capacity only; (7) Chuck Hurst, the Director of the Louisiana Sheriff's Association Task Force and Homeland Security services, in his individual capacity only; (8) the Louisiana Sheriff's Association (“LSA”); (9) Sheriff Ard; and (10) the alleged insurers of the LSA (AIX Group d/b/a NOVA Casualty Company), the LSP, City/Parish, and Livingston Parish Sheriff's Office (“LPSO”).[29] In addition, Plaintiffs name a number of individual officers employed by the BRPD, [30] EBRSO, [31] LSP, [32] and the LPSO.[33] Plaintiffs sue the officers employed by the BRPD, EBRSO, and the LPSO in their individual and official capacities.[34] Plaintiffs sue the officers employed by the LSP only in their individual capacities.[35]

         On January 24, 2018, the EBRSO Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss or in the Alternative Sever Plaintiffs' Claims[36] and asserted that Sheriff Gautreaux and the Individual EBRSO Deputies are entitled to qualified immunity.[37] On January 25, 2018, the LPSO Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), arguing that that Plaintiffs' Complaint was insufficient to overcome the LPSO Defendants' assertion of qualified immunity.[38] Plaintiffs filed a combined opposition to both Motions to Dismiss, [39] and both Motions to Dismiss are pending.[40]Per their Motion to Stay Discovery, the EBRSO Defendants ask this court to “stay all discovery while Defendants' Motion to Dismiss is pending.”[41] The LPSO Defendants originally alleged that “discovery must be stayed related to the claims against the LPSO defendants until their Motion to Dismiss Pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) has been ruled upon by the Court.”[42] In their Reply brief, the LPSO Defendants revise their request and ask the court to stay all discovery pending a ruling on both Motions to Dismiss.[43]

         II. Law and Analysis

         A. Stay as to the EBRSO and LPSO Defendants

         “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.'”[44]“[Q]ualified immunity constitutes an ‘immunity from suit' rather than a mere defense to liability.”[45] 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.”[46]

         The Fifth Circuit has long held that an assertion of qualified immunity shields a government official from discovery that is “avoidable or overly broad.”[47] 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.”[48] 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.”[49] “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.”[50]

         Accordingly, Fifth Circuit precedent permits discovery only after a determination has been made that the plaintiff has alleged facts sufficient to state a claim against the defendant. Even discovery limited to the issue of qualified immunity is only allowed if the court is unable to rule on the qualified immunity defense without additional facts and then only such discovery as is necessary to rule on the qualified immunity defense is permitted. Plaintiffs acknowledge these general principles.[51]

         The thrust of Plaintiffs' opposition to a stay of discovery here is that Plaintiffs are unable, due to the conditions surrounding their arrests, to identify the officers who actually engaged in the complained of conduct.[52] Plaintiffs rely primarily on Hinojosa v. Livingston, 807 F.3d 657 (5th Cir. 2015), and Khansari v. City of Houston, Civil Action No. H-13-2722, 14 F.Supp.3d 842 (S.D. Tex. April 9, 2014), for their position that discovery should not be stayed. However, as discussed below, both cases support the conclusion that while limited discovery may be appropriate at some juncture in these proceedings, such discovery should not occur until the District Judge has determined whether the allegations in Plaintiffs' Complaint are sufficient to defeat qualified immunity and determined that limited discovery is necessary to rule on the defense.

         In Khansari, plaintiffs asserted that individual officer defendants were liable to them pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for infringing plaintiffs' rights under the Fourth Amendment either by using excessive force or failing to prevent the use of excessive force.[53] There, plaintiffs alleged that certain individual officers had responded to Mrs. Khansari's 911 call regarding her son's possible suicide attempt by pointing long guns at the family and using a taser on her son despite his compliance (resulting in one of the taser darts piercing her son's eye). Plaintiffs sued the officers who responded to the scene; however, plaintiffs did not know which particular officers took which particular actions. In considering defendants' motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity, the district judge first analyzed the actions of “the officers” and determined that the facts alleged were sufficient to overcome the defense of qualitied immunity for claims arising from force used against Mrs. Khansari's son.[54] After finding the facts alleged to be sufficient, the court then considered whether limited discovery should be allowed.[55] The court explained that the allegations in the complaint were “not only sufficient to satisfy the requirements for pleading a claim for the excessive use of force against the officers who tasered him but, if true, are also sufficient to overcome those officers' assertions of qualified immunity.”[56] Having found the allegations to be sufficient to defeat the claim of qualified immunity, the court explained that “[a]bsent further clarification of the facts to show which, if any, officers…deployed their tasers against Corey, or which, if any, of the other officers had an opportunity to prevent, but chose not to prevent, the use of excessive force…the court is not able to rule on the defendant officers' assertions of qualified immunity….”[57] The court concluded that “since…plaintiffs' pleadings are adequate to at least potentially state a claim, discovery may proceed on the limited issue of which of the individual officers tasered Corey and whether those officers are entitled to qualified immunity.”[58]

         Similarly, in Hinojosa, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's order allowing limited discovery regarding the issue of qualified immunity after the court determined that the complaint alleged facts that “if true, would permit the inference that Defendants are liable under § 1983 for an Eighth Amendment violation and would overcome their qualified immunity defense.”[59] In affirming the district court's order allowing limited discovery, the Hinojosa court explained that:

[T]his court 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. 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. 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.”[60]

         Here, unlike the situation in Khansari and Hinojosa, the District Judge has not yet determined the sufficiency of the allegations of Plaintiffs' complaint. Until that necessary first step occurs, it is premature to consider allowing even limited discovery.[61] Accordingly, Fifth Circuit precedent, including that relied upon by Plaintiffs, supports the issuance of a stay as to the EBRSO and LPSO Defendants pending either resolution of the Motions to Dismiss or a determination by the District Judge that the Motions to Dismiss cannot be ruled upon absent limited discovery.[62]

         B. Stay as to Other Defendants

         Plaintiffs contend that discovery from the non-moving parties (i.e., the parties other than the EBRSO and LPSO Defendants) should not be stayed pending resolution of the Motions to Dismiss.[63] Plaintiffs argue that “some defendants in this case are not entitled to qualified immunity under any circumstances” and that “[p]ermitting Plaintiffs to conduct discovery against [the] City-Parish as well as the many defendants who have not filed motions to dismiss or motions to stay discovery will allow Plaintiffs to continue to prosecute their case while the court weighs the significant issues inherent in the qualified immunity arguments raised by a comparatively small number of defendants.”[64] In Reply, the EBRSO Defendants contend that while they “have no objection to the non-moving defendants and Plaintiffs engaging in written discovery, [the EBRSO Defendants] object to the Plaintiffs and non-moving defendants taking depositions in this case while [the EBRSO Defendants'] motion to dismiss is pending. [The EBRSO Defendants] would be compelled to participate in the depositions of the plaintiffs, non-moving defendants and/or fact witnesses if they are taken while their motion to dismiss asserting qualified immunity is pending, which would be contrary to the protections afforded public officials by qualified immunity.”[65]

         “[A] trial court has ‘broad discretion and inherent power to stay discovery until preliminary questions that may dispose of the case are determined.'”[66] 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.'”[67] “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.”[68]

         Here, although only the EBRSO and LPSO Defendants have moved to stay discovery, the undersigned finds that staying discovery as to all parties in this suit would “further[] [the EBRSO and LPSO 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.”[69] Especially in light of Plaintiffs' allegations that all defendants participated in a civil conspiracy in violation of Plaintiffs' civil rights and Plaintiffs' contention that they need additional discovery to determine which particular defendants took particular actions, the undersigned finds that the EBRSO and LPSO 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 (and the LPSO Defendants' adoption) that they do not object to the non-moving defendants and Plaintiffs 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[70] and the Motion to Stay Discovery filed by the LPSO Defendants[71] are GRANTED IN PART.

         IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that discovery in this matter, with the exception of written discovery between Plaintiffs and the non-moving defendants (i.e., parties other than EBRSO and LPSO Defendants), is STAYED pending resolution of the issues raised in the Motions to Dismiss.[72]

---------

Notes:

[1] R. Doc. 66.

[2] The EBRSO Deputies are Todd Martin, Anthony Ponton, Jeffrey Sabella, Troy Banks, Kenneth Tiner, Robert Stone, Steve Young, Gregory Warren, Blair Nicholson, James Cooper, Willie Stewart, Evelena Banks, Shannon Broussard, Calvin Pruter, David Eric, Harry Howard, William Jenkins, Michael Allison, David Philpot, Anthony Smith, John DePedro, Dustin Sellers, Thomas Weimer, William Lawhun, Marshall Menou, Nicholas Schiro, Matthew Wolfe, James Broussard, Jason Ransome, Jared Wilson, James Jamison, Benjamin Friedman, Roderick Brown, Brandon McCall, Casey Lillie, Jesse Hale, Jeremy Heine, Gregory Dale Dicharry, Raymond King, Jason DeMoulin, Mark Pursley, Troy ...


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