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Winzer v. Kaufman County

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

February 18, 2019

EUNICE J. WINZER, Individually and on behalf of the statutory beneficiaries of Gabriel A. Winzer; SOHELIA WINZER; HENRY WINZER, Plaintiffs - Appellants
KAUFMAN COUNTY; BILL CUELLAR; GARRY HUDDLESTON; MATTHEW HINDS, Defendants - Appellees HENRY ANDREE WINZER, also known as Henry A. Winzer, Plaintiff - Appellant
MATTHEW HINDS, Individually and in his capacity as member of Kaufman County Sheriff Department; UNKNOWN STATE TROOPERS, Individually and in their capacity as member of Texas Department of Public Safety; UNKNOWN PARAMEDICS, Individually and in their capacity as emergency responders of the East Texas EMS; SERGEANT FORREST FRIESEN, Defendants - Appellees

          Appeals from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas

          Before DENNIS, CLEMENT, and GRAVES, Circuit Judges.

          PER CURIAM

         This case is a § 1983 action arising from the deadly shooting of a young man by Kaufman County law enforcement officers responding to a 911 call. The district court dismissed all claims against the individual officers and the county. We now AFFIRM in part and REVERSE in part.


         I. The use of force.

         On April 27, 2013, 911 dispatchers received multiple calls of a man standing in a rural street shooting a pistol. The man reportedly was kicking at mailboxes and pointed a gun at a house. The man further appeared agitated, speaking to himself and yelling "everyone's going to get theirs" and "I'm just trying to get back what's mine." Callers described the suspect as a black male wearing a brown shirt and jeans.

         At approximately 10:30 am, dispatch relayed these details to law enforcement units in the area. Pertinent here, dispatch specifically informed the officers that the suspect was a "black male wearing blue jeans and a brown shirt." Officers Matthew Hinds, Gerardo Hinojosa, Gary Huddleston, William Cuellar, Brad Brewer, and Keith Wheeler responded immediately to the area.

         Hinds and Hinojosa arrived at the scene first and observed a suspect matching dispatch's description in the road 150 yards away. Both officers angled their vehicles to provide cover and took up defensive positions. The suspect then raised his hand and fired directly at Hinds and Hinojosa.[1]

         Neither officer returned fire because there were multiple civilians in the area. Hinds "relayed to dispatch that shots had been fired by the suspect." The officers did not report that the suspect was in possession of a bicycle. The suspect then disappeared into the trees and the officers lost visual contact. Appellants' summary judgment evidence indicates that at the time of this shooting, Gabriel Winzer, the decedent, was inside his father's house and did not fire this shot at the officers.

         Shortly thereafter, Huddleston, Cuellar, and Wheeler arrived. Hinds informed Cuellar and Wheeler that a suspect had fired shots at him and Hinojosa. Hinds told at least Cuellar that the suspect was "wearing a brown shirt."

         The suspect then re-appeared at a distance between 100 to 500 yards from the officers. Because there were civilians in the area between the officers and the suspect, the officers decided to "move down [the road] to keep the public safe and attempt to move them inside their homes." At this point, the officers again confirmed several times that the suspect was wearing a brown shirt. The officers advanced down the road in a defensive position secured by three vehicles. As they advanced, the officers directed civilians into their homes. During the approach, the officers lost sight of the suspect. Accordingly, upon reaching the suspect's last known location, the officers set up a defensive position "for better cover." Hinds "angled [his] vehicle near the southwest corner [of the street], Trooper Hinojosa angled his vehicle near the northwest corner, and Deputy Wheeler positioned his marked Chevy Tahoe behind and centered between those vehicles."

         Huddleston was on the Tahoe's driver's side. Cuellar was kneeling down on the driver's side by the front tire. Wheeler was away from the Tahoe in a ditch. Hinds and Hinojosa were near the passenger rear of the Tahoe. Four of the law enforcement officers had semi-automatic rifles and one had a shotgun. The officers began giving verbal commands for the suspect to drop his weapon and "come out."

         "After a few minutes," the officers spotted a figure on a bicycle enter the road. The rider was wearing a blue jacket instead of the brown shirt the suspect had been wearing, and was over 100 yards away. What happened next is highly disputed[2] and central to the resolution of this appeal. All of the officers claim the rider was armed, raised a pistol to a firing position, and they feared for their lives.

         As it turned out, the person on the bicycle was Gabriel Winzer, and not the suspect who had fired at Hinds and Hinojosa. According to Appellants, Gabriel was on an innocent mission to show the officers his toy pistol. Gabriel's father claims that when Gabriel rode off toward the officers "[he] did not have anything in his hands," "had both hands on the handle bar of his bike," and "did not reach for anything nor did he have anything in his hands when he was shot." Moreover, Mr. Winzer claims that Gabriel was "unarmed," "did not fire any shots," and "did not point anything towards the deputies." Indeed, Mr. Winzer states that "Gabriel did not move his hands in any way that might have suggested that he was reaching for something."

         While Gabriel's actions on the bike are disputed, it is beyond dispute that an officer yelled "put that down!" The officers then fired within six seconds of spotting Gabriel on his bike. Three officers fired Bushmaster AR-15s, one officer fired an M4 patrol rifle, and the fifth fired a Remington 870 shotgun. In total, seventeen shots were fired. Four bullets struck Gabriel, who was still over 100 yards from the officers. Upon being hit, Gabriel fell off his bike and fled out of view. The officers remained in their positions before fanning out to set up a perimeter around Gabriel's house.

         Meanwhile, Henry Winzer, Gabriel's father, was attempting to provide assistance to Gabriel in their back yard. After some time, the officers surrounded the yard and advanced on Gabriel and Henry. Henry told Hinojosa that Gabriel had been shot. As they approached, the officers asked Henry where the gun was. Henry informed the officers that the only gun they had was a toy cap gun. Henry then tossed a toy gun towards the officers and said "there is your gun." Nonetheless, the officers approached with caution because the "suspect had his arms underneath his body and no one knew whether he still had a weapon."

         When the officers attempted to cuff Henry and Gabriel, both resisted. Huddleston and Brewer both tased Gabriel during this encounter. "About 10 seconds after the last Taser deployment, [Gabriel] went limp and [the officers] were able to handcuff" him. EMS later pronounced Gabriel dead at the scene.

         II. The Procedural History

         On April 22, 2015, Henry filed cause number 15-cv-01295, in the Northern District of Texas. In a pro se complaint, Henry asserted claims against Hinds, "unknown state troopers," and "unknown paramedics." Compl. at 1, Winzer v. Hinds et al., No. 15-cv-01295 (N.D. Tex. 2015), ECF No. 1 ("Henry Complaint").

         Separately, on April 27, 2015, Eunice Winzer, Gabriel's mother, filed cause number 15-cv-01284, in the Northern District of Texas against "Kaufman County," "City of Kaufman," and "City of Terrell."[3] None of the officers involved in the incident were named defendants. See Eunice subsequently filed an amended complaint and a second amended complaint, again failing to list any of the officers as named defendants.

         On September 18, 2015, Eunice filed a third amended complaint in 15-cv-01284 individually and "on behalf of" Henry.[4] The Third Amended Complaint alleged violations of Gabriel's Fourth Amendment right against excessive force and failure to train against several defendants. Relevant here, Appellants listed Cuellar and Huddleston as named defendants for the first time. Appellants additionally formally added Hinds as a named defendant in cause number 15-cv-01284. This essentially consolidated the parties from the two pending lawsuits and, on September 21, 2015, the Court formally consolidated the cases.

         On January 15, 2016, Hinds, Cuellar, and Huddleston filed a motion for summary judgment. Cuellar and Huddleston argued that the claims against them were time-barred. All three of these officers also asserted that they were entitled to qualified immunity.

         While the motion for summary judgment was pending, Appellants sought leave to file a fourth amended complaint to add Hinojosa and Wheeler as defendants. The district court denied the motion for leave to amend. The court ultimately granted summary judgment on both the limitations and qualified immunity defenses. Kaufman County then promptly sought summary judgment, arguing that there could be no county liability if there was no constitutional violation by its officers. The court granted Kaufman County summary judgment. The district court denied a motion for reconsideration, and this appeal followed.


         Appellants argue that the district court erred in four ways. First, that the district court erred in granting summary judgment to Cuellar and Huddleston based on limitations. Second, that the district court erred in denying leave to add Hinojosa and Wheeler as defendants. Third, that the court erred in granting summary judgment to Hinds based on qualified immunity. Fourth, that the court erred in granting summary judgment to Kaufman County. We address each in turn.

         I. Claims Against Cuellar and Huddleston Are Time-Barred

         The district court ruled that Appellants' claims against Cuellar and Huddleston were barred by a two-year statute of limitations. Appellants argue that the court should have related the claims back to the date of the original complaints. The district court did not err.

         The limitations period for a § 1983 action is determined by the state's personal injury limitations period. Whitt v. Stephens Cnty., 529 F.3d 278, 282 (5th Cir. 2008). In Texas, that period is two years. Id. When a plaintiff adds a defendant after the limitations period has run, Rule 15(c) allows the plaintiff to relate the claims filed against the new defendant back to the date of the original filing. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(c). To do so, the plaintiff must show both that the added defendant received adequate notice of the original lawsuit and that the defendant knew that, but for a mistake concerning the identity of the defendant, the action would have originally been brought against the defendant. Jacobsen v. Osborne, 133 F.3d 315, 319-22 (5th Cir. 1998). Rule 15(c) is meant to "correct a mistake concerning the identity of the party." Id. at 321. '"Rule 15(c) does not allow an amended complaint adding new defendants to relate back if the newly-added defendants were not named originally because the plaintiff did not know their identities."' Id. (quoting Barrow v. Wethersfield Police Dep't, 66 F.3d 466, 470 (2d Cir. 1995)). We review a grant of summary judgment de novo. Whitt, 529 F.3d at 282.

         The incident at issue occurred on April 27, 2013. Accordingly, Appellants had to file suit by April 27, 2015. See Whitt, 529 F.3d at 282. Appellants did not add Cuellar or Huddleston as named defendants until their Third Amended Complaint on September 21, 2015. Appellants added Cuellar and Huddleston, therefore, after the two-year limitations period had expired.

         Nonetheless, Appellants argue that their claims against Cuellar and Huddleston should "relate back" to the filing of the original complaint under Rule 15(c). Appellants assert two primary grounds for that argument: (1) the original complaint listed "unknown officers" that clearly gave the defendants notice; and (2) Appellants diligently tried to identify the officers and added them as soon as they did. Neither argument has merit.

         First, this court has clearly held that "an amendment to substitute a named party for a John Doe does not relate back under Rule 15(c)." Whitt, 529 F.3d at 282-83. Thus, to the extent Appellants sued "unknown officers," they cannot use these "John Doe" claims to now substitute in Cuellar and Huddleston after the limitations period. Id.

         Second, even if Appellants were diligent in trying to identify Cuellar and Huddleston, such failures to identify do not relate back. Rule 15(c) requires a "mistake concerning the identity of a party."[5] See Jacobsen, 133 F.3d at 321. "[F]ailing to identify individual defendants cannot be characterized as a mistake." Id.

         The district court did not err in granting summary judgment to Cuellar and Huddleston based on the statute of limitations.

         II. Claims Against Hinojosa and ...

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