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Jackson v. Town of Bernice

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

September 21, 2018





         Before the undersigned Magistrate Judge, on reference from the District Court, are two motions to dismiss: (1) a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, filed by the Town of Bernice Police Department [doc. # 9]; and (2) a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(4), 12(b)(5), and 12(b)(6) for insufficiency of service and failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, filed by Defendants Mayor William M. Mitcham, Police Chief Ricky Albritton, the Bernice Town Aldermen, and the Town of Bernice [doc. #10]. For reasons set forth below, it is recommended that the motions be GRANTED.


          On May 7, 2018, Plaintiff John Antuan Jackson filed a Petition for Damages in the 3rd Judicial District Court, Parish of Union, State of Louisiana, against numerous officials and entities pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for deprivation of his constitutional rights under the United States and Louisiana Constitutions. (see Petition, [doc. # 1-1]). In Paragraph I of the Petition, Jackson identified the following officials and entities as defendants: Town of Bernice aka Town Hall; Mayor, William Mitcham and the Bernice Town Alderman [sic]; Bernice Police Department, and Chief of Police, Ricky W. Albritton; David Hill; and XYZ Insurance Companies. Defendants removed the case to this court on June 7, 2018. [see doc. # 1].

         According to the Petition, on May 13, 2017, Jackson was stopped by Defendant Hill, a police officer employed by the Bernice Police Department, for speeding, and given a citation. (Id. ¶ III). Hill became angry over Jackson's signature on the citation, launched into a rage, and yanked Jackson out of his car. Jackson informed Hill that he had a medical heart condition, and Hill responded “You [sic] going to have more than a damn heart condition.” (Id.) Hill then handcuffed Jackson, shoved and aggressively handled him while walking him to Hill's patrol car, and slammed or crushed his legs in the door eight or nine times, which caused excruciating pain. Hill also shouted expletives at Jackson, flagged down a motorcyclist and asked him to hold Jackson so Hill could Taser him, choked Jackson to the point that he was going unconscious, and conducted a search of Jackson's car. (Id.) Jackson was then transferred to the Union Parish Detention Center in Farmersville, LA where he requested and was denied medical attention. After being released from custody the next day, he went to a medical center and was treated for his injuries. (Id.)

         Jackson claims that Defendants violated his “clearly established rights” under the Louisiana Constitution art. 1 § 20 and the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, as well as his Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force. (Id. ¶ IX). Specifically, Jackson claims that Defendants Hill's actions were “extreme and outrageous” and “below all bounds of decency and the standards of any reasonable officer.” (Id. ¶ VI). Further, Defendants Town of Bernice, Mayor William Mitcham, the Bernice Town Aldermen, and their insurance company, XYZ, are liable “for selecting, retaining and assigning employees with demonstrable propensities for excessive force, violence, negligence and other misconduct” and for depriving Jackson of “rights, privilege, and immunities” under the Louisiana and U.S. Constitutions while “acting under the color of state law.” (Id. ¶ VIII).

         In addition to his § 1983 claim, Jackson asserts causes of actions under La. Civ. Code art. 2315 for injuries, including loss of consortium, service, and society, caused by Defendants' negligence and/or fault. (Id. ¶¶ X, XIII). Jackson also requests attorney's fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988. (Id. ¶ XI).

         On July 3, 2018, the Town of Bernice Police Department filed a motion to dismiss, arguing it is not a legal entity capable of suing or being sued. [doc #9]. This motion is unopposed. On July 3, 2018, Mayor William Mitcham, Police Chief Ricky Albritton, the Bernice Town Aldermen, and the Town of Bernice filed a motion to dismiss asserting that (1) attempted service on the Bernice Town Aldermen is improper; and (2) plaintiff failed to state a cause of action against the remaining defendants. [doc #10]. Jackson filed a response on August 3, 2018. [doc # 16]. These matters are now before the court.

         Discussion I.

         Town of Bernice Police Department

         The Town of Bernice Police Department argues it is not a legal entity capable of suing or being sued. [see doc. # 9-1]. Capacity to sue or be sued is determined “by the law of the state where the court is located.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 17(b)(3). Under Louisiana law, an entity must qualify as a “juridical person” to have the capacity to be sued. Dejoie v. Medley, 945 So.2d 968, 972 (La.App. 2d Cir. 2006). “A juridical person is an entity to which the law attributes personality, such as a corporation or a partnership.” La. Civ. Code art. 24.

         Courts hold uniformly that police departments are not juridical entities capable of being sued. Sipes v. City of Monroe, No. CIV.A. 11-1668, 2013 WL 1282457, at *3 (W.D. La. Mar. 28, 2013); see Roth v. City of Pineville, No. 1:11-CV-02061, 2012 WL 1596689, at *2 (W.D. La. Apr. 3, 2012) (“[T]here is legal precedent which finds police departments of Lawrason Act municipalities are not juridical persons subject to suit as they are dependent upon their municipalities in light of the governing structure set forth in the Lawrason Act.”); Parnell v. Jefferson Par. Sheriff's Office, No. CIV. A. 10-0074, 2010 WL 1817814, at *2 n.1 (E.D. La. Mar. 31, 2010) (collecting cases).

         Accordingly, IT IS RECOMMENDED that the motion to dismiss filed by the Town of Bernice Police Department be GRANTED and Plaintiff's claims against it be DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE. See Darby v. Pasadena Police Dep't, 939 F.2d 311, 314 (5th Cir. 1991) (affirming dismissal with prejudice of police department because it did not qualify as a juridical person).[1]

         II. Failure To State A Claim Upon Which Relief Can Be Granted

         A. Legal Standard

         When an action is removed from state court to federal court, federal pleading standards control. Peña v. City of Rio Grande City, 879 F.3d 613, 617 (5th Cir. 2018). Federal Rule of Civil 12(b)(6) sanctions dismissal when plaintiff fails “to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” A pleading states a claim for relief when, inter alia, it contains “a short and plain statement . . . showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2).

         “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A claim is facially plausible when it contains sufficient “factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. Plausibility requires more than just the “sheer possibility” that a defendant acted unlawfully, id.; it calls for enough facts “to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence” to support the elements of the claim. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556. Mere “labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action” do not suffice. Id. at 555.

         In evaluating the sufficiency of a complaint, a court must accept as true all factual allegations in the complaint, although the same presumption does not extend to legal conclusions. See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. A court may permit a well-pleaded complaint to proceed even when “actual proof of those facts is improbable” or recovery is unlikely. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556. But a court will dismiss a complaint “where the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679.

         B. Section 1983

         Section § 1983 creates a private cause of action against every person who, under color of law, deprives a “citizen of the United States . . . of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” 42 U.S.C. § 1983. A § 1983 suit may be brought against a party in its official or individual capacity, as well as against a government entity. Goodman v. Harris Cty., 571 F.3d 388, 395 (5th Cir. 2009).

         To establish municipal liability under § 1983, a plaintiff must prove that “(1) an official policy (2) promulgated by the municipal policymaker (3) was the moving force behind the violation of a constitutional right.” Peterson v. City of Fort Worth, Tex., 588 F.3d 838, 847 (5th Cir. 2009); see Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658, 691-94 (1978). “A municipality is almost never liable for an isolated unconstitutional act on the part of an employee; it is liable only for acts directly attributable to it through some official action or imprimatur.” Peterson, 588 F.3d 838 at 847 (internal quotations omitted). Further, municipalities are not liable under § 1983 on the theory of respondeat superior. Id.

         An official policy can exist in various forms, including written policy statements, regulations, ordinances, or “widespread practice that is so common and well-settled as to constitute a custom that fairly represents municipal policy.” Id. (internal quotations omitted). Plaintiff may establish a custom or policy exists by demonstrating (1) a pattern of unconstitutional conduct by municipal actors or employees; or (2) a single unconstitutional act by a final policymaker. Zarnow v. City of Wichita Falls, Tex., 614 F.3d 161, 169 (5th Cir. 2010). Not every decision by a policymaker will subject a municipality to liability under § 1983. Rather, “[m]unicipal liability attaches only where the decisionmaker possesses final authority to establish municipal policy with respect to the action ordered.” Valle v. City of Houston, 613 F.3d 536, 542 (5th Cir. 2010) (quoting Pembaur v. City of Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 481 (1986)). For liability to attach, there must also be “a direct causal link between the municipal policy and the constitutional deprivation.” Piotrowski v. City of Houston, 237 F.3d 567, 580 (5th Cir. 2001).

         A suit against a party in its official capacity is generally “another way of pleading an action against an entity of which an officer is an agent.” Goodman, 571 F.3d at 395 (quoting Monell, 436 U.S. at 690 n.55). Therefore, an official-capacity suit is treated as a suit against the real party in interest-the government entity-and not against the official personally. Id. “When . . . the government entity itself is a defendant in the litigation, claims against specific individuals in their official capacities are redundant, and for that reason, courts in this circuit have found it is appropriate to dismiss them.” C ...

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