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Conway v. Vannoy

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana

May 10, 2019

CLAUDELL CONWAY, SR.
v.
DARREL VANNOY, 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, the State of Louisiana through the Department of Public Safety & Corrections, Secretary James LeBlanc, and Warden Darrel Vannoy (collectively, “Defendants”).[2] The Motion to Stay Discovery is opposed by plaintiff, Claudell Conway, Sr. (“Plaintiff”).[3] For the reasons set forth herein, the Motion to Stay Discovery[4] is granted. Discovery in this matter is stayed pending resolution of the issues raised in the Motion to Dismiss.[5]

         I. Background

         On January 17, 2018, Plaintiff filed a Petition for Wrongful Death and Suvivor [sic] Claim (the “Original Complaint”) seeking damages individually and on behalf of his deceased son, Clydell Conway, Jr. (“Decedent”), who committed suicide in his cell on January 20, 2017 while incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Plaintiff alleged that Defendants were deliberately indifferent to Decedent, a “known suicide risk, ” and that Defendants placed or allowed Decedent to be placed “in an area with suicide hazards” despite “his known propensity towards attempted suicide.”[6]

         On April 4, 2019, Plaintiff filed an Amended Petition for Wrongful Death and Suvivor [sic] Claim (the “Amended Complaint”).[7] The Amended Complaint names the State of Louisiana; Department of Public Safety and Corrections Louisiana State Penitentiary; Secretary James LeBlanc; Darrel Vannoy, Warden of Louisiana State Penitentiary; Dr. (FNU) Helms; “unknown security staff employees Louisiana State Penitentiary;” and the Office of Risk Management as defendants.[8] In response to the Amended Complaint, Defendants have filed a Motion to Dismiss asserting, inter alia, that “Defendants” (presumably Secretary James LeBlanc and Darrel Vannoy) are entitled to qualified immunity.[9] Per the instant Motion to Stay Discovery, Defendants move this Court for an order “staying all discovery until all immunity issues are resolved adversely and with finality.”[10]

         II. Law and Analysis

         “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.'”[11]“[Q]ualified immunity constitutes an ‘immunity from suit' rather than a mere defense to liability.”[12] 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.”[13]

         The Fifth Circuit has long held that an assertion of qualified immunity shields a government official from discovery that is “avoidable or overly broad.”[14] 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.”[15] 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.”[16] “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.”[17]

         Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit 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 allowed only 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.

         In opposition to the Motion to Stay Discovery, Plaintiff argues that “[t]here is existing and further discovery that could be filed to further prove this case” and which goes “to the issue of immunity.”[18] Plaintiff asserts that a ruling on the Motion to Dismiss prior to allowing certain discovery would be “premature if not unjust.”[19] Plaintiff contends that he should allowed to obtain discovery regarding, inter alia, “the qualifications of the person administering the mental health assessment of the deceased, ”[20] “whether the conditions of confinement and treatment of the inmates at LSP violate the Rights of the Inmates and the EXISTING SUICIDE PREVENTION POLICY, ”[21] “what medication decedent was taking, ” and “whether the guards on the date of the decedent's death actually made rounds and saw this inmate sufficiently to prevent the suicide in the attempt stage or the death at completion stage.”[22] Plaintiff requests that this Court “in the interest of substantial justice and fair play…extend the response to the Motion to Dismiss until the answers to all pertinent Discovery has [sic] been supplied to the plaintiff.”[23]

         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.'”[24] In light of that consideration, Plaintiff's argument that not allowing discovery to proceed would be unjust is unpersuasive. As explained herein, 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.”[25] “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.”[26] “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.”[27] Plaintiff's instant argument regarding the need for fact discovery with respect to the qualified immunity defense puts the cart before the horse. First, the District Judge must consider the sufficiency of Plaintiff's allegations. Only after Plaintiff has crossed this threshold hurdle does the question of limited discovery potentially arise. Here, the district judge has not yet determined the sufficiency of the allegations in Plaintiff's Amended Complaint. Until that necessary first step occurs, it is premature to consider allowing even limited discovery.

         III. Conclusion

         For the reasons set forth herein, the Motion to Stay Discovery[28] is GRANTED.

         IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that discovery in this matter is STAYED pending resolution of the issues ...


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