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Webb v. Town of Saint Joseph

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

May 24, 2019

MORGAN WEBB; BRIANA WEBB, Plaintiffs - Appellants

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana

          Before HIGGINBOTHAM, SOUTHWICK, and COSTA, Circuit Judges.


         Ivan Webb sued the Town of St. Joseph and its Mayor, arguing that they violated his federal and state constitutional rights by seeking-and then seeking to collect on-a judgment that he owed over $50, 000 for violating a local ordinance. The district court concluded that the criteria for municipal liability were not met and that the Mayor was at least entitled to qualified immunity. We affirm summary judgment on the federal § 1983 claims, and vacate and remand the state-law claim.


         This case has a convoluted procedural history spanning both state and federal court. It began straightforwardly, however: in November 2006, Ivan Webb petitioned the St. Joseph Board of Aldermen for a permit to place a mobile home on his father's property.[1] He also requested the right to place additional mobile homes on the property in the future.[2] Although the Board only granted him a permit to place one mobile home on the property, Webb placed a second home without a permit.[3] St. Joseph issued Webb a ticket for violating a local ordinance providing that "[n]o building or other structure shall be built or constructed in the Town of St. Joseph without there first being obtained a permit from the Mayor and Board authorizing or approving the construction of such building or other structure."[4] Webb then applied for and was denied a second permit.[5]

         An assortment of court proceedings followed. The permit violation was first tried before the Mayor's Court, which found that Webb had violated the ordinance by placing a second mobile home on the property.[6] It ordered Webb to pay a fine of $100 per day beginning February 14, 2007, until he removed the second trailer from the lot.[7] Webb appealed to state district court, which held a de novo trial and also sided with St. Joseph.[8] The district court entered a $58, 200 judgment for St. Joseph-"representing the fine of $100 per day for each of the 582 days from February 14, 2007 through the date of trial, September 18, 2008." Webb's appeal of this decision was dismissed due to his failure to pay court fees.[9]

         At this point, St. Joseph officials attempted to collect on the $58, 200 judgment. The Town Attorney, Karl Koch, filed a motion in the state district court for execution by writ of fieri facias, which allowed St. Joseph to seize and attempt to sell two lots belonging to Webb.[10] One of the lots was sold at a sheriff's sale, while the other was not ultimately sold. St. Joseph's mayor, Edward L. Brown, also sent Webb a letter notifying him that his alderman's wages-$500 a month-would be entirely withheld as a setoff on the money he owed the town.

         Webb moved to annul the judgment, arguing that the matter had exceeded the Mayor's Court's jurisdictional limits and that the ordinance did not apply to mobile homes.[11] The district court denied the motion.[12] Webb suspensively appealed to the Louisiana Second Circuit Court of Appeal, which ruled in his favor in March 2012 and annulled the district court's judgment.[13]It held that although the Louisiana Constitution required Webb to be given reasonable notice of the charge against him, the ticket issued to Webb and the complaint filed against him in the Mayor's Court accused him only of violating a single offense.[14] The Second Circuit Court of Appeal therefore held that "the imposition of a fine of $58, 200 for violations of the ordinance for 582 days constituted an illegal sentence," concluded that it could correct an illegal criminal sentence at any time, and reduced the fine to $100 for a single violation of the ordinance.[15]

         St. Joseph still withheld Webb's alderman's wages after the Second Circuit Court of Appeal annulled the judgment, while it sought a writ of review from the Louisiana Supreme Court. The decision became final once the Louisiana Supreme Court denied the application for review in June 2012.[16] For three months, St. Joseph continued to withhold wages and did not immediately offer Webb backpay for the wages that had already been withheld. The Webbs allege that Mayor Brown made an intentional decision to continue withholding his wages and backpay even after the judgment was annulled, while the defendants contend that this was the result of an "oversight."

         As for Webb's properties, one of the lots was never sold and St. Joseph notified him that the writ of fieri facias on that lot had expired. The other lot had already been sold at a sheriff's sale, and St. Joseph reimbursed Webb $792 for the amount that the Town received from the sale. Webb suggests that he is owed more from the sale and is owed rental income that he could have made from both properties. The defendants counter that Webb's attorney in fact argued against voiding the original sale after a lawyer for the Sheriff had identified a potential legal problem, since the property was sold to Webb's brother.

         In October 2012, Webb sued St. Joseph and Mayor Brown in federal court, seeking damages for violations of his federal and state constitutional rights. After Webb filed his federal suit, St. Joseph offered him $10, 486.54 in backpay for the withheld wages in October 2012. Webb interpreted this as contingent on his settling the case and did not initially accept the money. By February 2013, however, Webb accepted the return of his wages.

         The district court initially granted St. Joseph's motion to dismiss Webb's complaint as barred by res judicata, reasoning that Webb could have brought the same claims or causes of action in his state court suit to annul the original judgment.[17] We reversed, holding that when properly resolving any doubts against applying res judicata in favor of Webb, there was insufficient evidence that Webb could have brought the same claims or causes of actions in his state lawsuit.[18] For example, Webb had alleged "violations of his rights based on conduct that necessarily occurred after the [state] appellate decision," such as "that the Town continued to enforce the illegal sentence, retained the proceeds that resulted from the sale of one of Webb's properties seized by the Town pursuant to the writ of fieri facias, and withheld Webb's salary until October 2012."[19]

         Webb passed away in 2015 and his heirs, Morgan and Briana Webb, were substituted as plaintiffs. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the district court granted summary judgment to St. Joseph and to the Mayor in his individual capacity. It also denied the Webbs' motion to disqualify the Town Attorney from representing the defendants. The Webbs appeal.


         We review the district court's grant of summary judgment de novo.[20]"Summary judgment is appropriate 'if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'"[21] "We resolve factual controversies in favor of the nonmoving party, but only when there is an actual controversy, that is, when both parties have submitted evidence of contradictory facts."[22]

         A claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 has two foundational elements: "a violation of the Constitution or of federal law, and . . . that the violation was committed by someone acting under color of state law."[23] The Webbs' § 1983 claim against St. Joseph must meet the requirements for municipal liability established by Monell v. Department of Social Services[24] and its progeny. As their § 1983 claim against Mayor Brown in his individual capacity is subject to his qualified immunity defense, they must show that his actions "were objectively unreasonable in light of clearly established law at the time of the violation."[25]


         We turn first to the Webbs' claim against St. Joseph. While municipalities can be sued directly under § 1983, Monell establishes that they "cannot be found liable on a theory of vicarious liability or respondeat superior."[26] In other words, "the unconstitutional conduct must be directly attributable to the municipality through some sort of official action or imprimatur; isolated unconstitutional actions by municipal employees will almost never trigger liability."[27] To overcome summary judgment on a municipal liability claim, a plaintiff must therefore "demonstrate a dispute of fact as to three elements: that (1) an official policy (2) promulgated by the municipal policymaker (3) was the moving force behind the violation of a constitutional right."[28]


         Our caselaw establishes three ways of establishing a municipal policy for the purposes of Monell liability. First, a plaintiff can show "written policy statements, ordinances, or regulations."[29] Second, a plaintiff can show "a widespread practice that is so common and well-settled as to constitute a custom that fairly represents municipal policy."[30] Third, even a single decision may constitute municipal policy in "rare circumstances" when the official or entity possessing "final policymaking authority" for an action "performs the specific act that forms the basis of the § 1983 claim."[31]

         The Webbs do not allege any written municipal policy or widespread practice. Instead, their argument centers on whether an official with "final policymaking authority" took the actions underpinning their § 1983 claim- namely, the initial effort to obtain a judgment penalizing Webb for 582 days of violations rather than a single day, coupled with the related effort to collect on that judgment by withholding Webb's alderman's wages and seizing his property. We therefore will focus our inquiry on this issue.


         "[A] final decisionmaker's adoption of a course of action 'tailored to a particular situation and not intended to control decisions in later situations' may, in some circumstances, give rise to municipal liability under § 1983."[32]This requires the "deliberate choice to follow a course of action . . . made from among various alternatives by the official or officials responsible for establishing final policy with respect to the subject matter in question."[33]Therefore, the "critical question" is generally "to decide who is the final policymaker, which is an issue of state law."[34]

         Our inquiry does not end where state law does not establish the relevant actor as a final policymaker, however. A municipal employee may also possess final policymaking authority where the final policymaker has delegated that authority, either expressly or impliedly.[35] Not all delegations of authority are delegations of policymaking authority-"[w]e have long recognized that the 'discretion to exercise a particular function does not necessarily entail final policymaking authority over that function.'"[36]

         The Webbs argue that St. Joseph's liability is grounded in the actions of two officials, the Town Attorney and Mayor Brown. We address in turn whether each is a "final policymaker" whose one-time actions could generate municipal liability.


         The Town Attorney took most of the actions relevant to this case. He filed the initial charge against Webb; pursued a judgment through the Louisiana courts; and initiated proceedings to collect on the judgment, including by seeking writs of fieri facias on Webb's properties. If the Town Attorney acted as a final policymaker, we would easily conclude that these actions could ground municipal liability. We ultimately agree with the district court, though, that the Town Attorney was not a final policymaker for St. Joseph.

         We first look to where state law rests policymaking authority, considering "the relevant legal materials, including state and local positive law, as well as custom or usage having the force of law."[37] The relevant statute provides only that the municipal attorney's "duties in such capacity may include representation of all municipal officers . . . in actions against them in connection with and arising out of their functions as such officers, and other duties as prescribed by the mayor."[38] This suggests that the Town Attorney was authorized to act in a representative-not policymaking-capacity, and the Webbs present no evidence that state or local custom imbued the Town Attorney with general policymaking authority. In cases where an attorney has been treated as a local government policymaker, there was substantially clearer vesting of such authority or other unique circumstances not present here.[39] Indeed, the Webbs at points appear to concede that the Town Attorney does not inherently hold policymaking authority for St. Joseph.

         Instead, the Webbs principally argue that Mayor Brown delegated his final policymaking authority to the Town Attorney. They cite his affidavit, where he described how he "left the decisions regarding how to proceed with the litigation against Ivan Webb up to the Town Attorneys" and how, even though he "directed the [Town Attorney] to proceed with the collection efforts, he "left the decisions about how to conduct these legal proceedings up to the Town's attorney . . . [and] expected that the Town's attorney would only come to [him] for decisions about matters which required a decision by the client." They also reference Louisiana law providing that a town's mayor, as the "chief executive officer of the municipality, "[40] may "delegate the performance of administrative duties to such municipal officers or employees as he deems necessary and advisable."[41] In sum, they suggest that once the Mayor left decisions about how to collect the judgment against Webb up to the Town Attorney, the Town Attorney became a final policymaker.

         This argument conflates policymaking authority with decision-making authority, something our caselaw counsels against.[42] A true policymaker must "decide the goals for a particular city function and devise the means of achieving those goals."[43] We see no indication that the Town Attorney was given final policymaking authority in this vein, beyond a grant of decision-making authority to pursue the goal of enforcing the city ordinance and collecting the judgment. Although the Town Attorney had the discretion to make certain decisions about how to pursue St. Joseph's judgment against Webb, "[i]f the mere exercise of discretion by an employee could give rise to a constitutional violation, the result would be indistinguishable from respondeat superior."[44] The wrongful conduct alleged by the plaintiffs on the part of the Town Attorney therefore does not fall into the narrow category of action by a final policymaker that can by itself ground municipal liability.


         This raises the natural question of whether the Mayor's status as a final policymaker could ground § 1983 liability on the part of St. Joseph.[45] Even when an official with final policymaking authority does not directly act to set policy, a municipality may be liable in "extreme factual situations" when that official ratifies a subordinate's decision, which requires more than the defense of a decision or action shown to be unconstitutional after the fact.[46] A municipality may also be liable when a policymaker engages in deliberately indifferent failure to control subordinates in a way likely to result in violation of constitutional rights.[47] The Webbs do not argue, however, that Mayor Brown was deliberately indifferent in failing to control the Town Attorney-nor do they argue that Mayor Brown subsequently ratified the Town Attorney's actions.[48] We have held that such arguments can be waived.[49] On the record and arguments before us, we cannot conclude that the plaintiffs have established a genuine fact issue over whether St. Joseph can be held liable for its mayor's indirect actions in failing to supervise, or subsequently ratifying, its Town Attorney's conduct.

         The question therefore becomes whether Mayor Brown, acting as a final policymaker, himself made decisions that threatened Webb's constitutional rights. The Webbs argue that the Mayor took three categories of actions that can ground municipal liability: first, he was generally involved as a policymaker throughout the decision-making process; second, he personally initiated the withholding of Webb's alderman's wages; and third, he was responsible for the failure to stop withholding Webb's wages and to return the wages already withheld until three months after the annulment of the judgment became final.[50]

         We have no difficulty concluding that the Webbs failed to present sufficient summary judgment evidence that Mayor Brown was involved throughout the decision-making process in a way that would generate municipal liability, especially in light of the simultaneous suggestion that the Town Attorney had been delegated decision-making authority.[51] But the Webbs also argue that Mayor Brown took affirmative actions to impede Webb's constitutional rights, which poses a closer issue. They have presented sufficient evidence to support their allegation that Mayor Brown was personally involved in the initial decision to collect on the judgment, including by withholding Webb's alderman's wages-he conceded as much in his affidavit, and the letter informing Webb of the withholding came from and was signed by the Mayor. It is less clear, though, whether the Mayor made any affirmative decision to continue withholding Webb's wages-and not to return wages already withheld-until three months after the annulment became final. There is a paucity of evidence on both sides on this issue: Mayor Brown asserts only that this was the result of an "oversight" by his office, while the Webbs present no evidence to the contrary beyond arguing that a jury could infer from a history of bad blood ...

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