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Garner v. City of Ozark

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Southern Division

February 19, 2015

SPRING GARNER, as parent and next friend of Wynter Stokes, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF OZARK, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

W. KEITH WATKINS, Chief District Judge.

Before the court is Defendants' motion for summary judgment on Counts One, Eight, and Nine against Officer Dodson in his individual capacity, and Count Four against the City of Ozark. (Docs. # 8, 9.) Plaintiff's other claims have been resolved in Defendants' favor. ( See Docs. # 31, 45.) Per the directive of the Eleventh Circuit, Plaintiff's Rule 56(d) motion for discovery has been denied. ( See Doc. # 43.) Plaintiff has been allowed additional time to respond to the motion for summary judgment ( see Doc. # 45), but she has not supplemented her original responses ( see Docs. # 23, 26), which primarily respond to separate motions to dismiss and for reconsideration. Upon consideration of Defendants' motion for summary judgment, the record, and relevant law, the court concludes that the motion is due to be granted.

I. JURISDICTION AND VENUE

Subject-matter jurisdiction is proper pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1343. Personal jurisdiction and venue are uncontested.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

To succeed on summary judgment, the movant must demonstrate "that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The court must view the evidence and the inferences from that evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmovant. Jean-Baptiste v. Gutierrez, 627 F.3d 816, 820 (11th Cir. 2010).

The party moving for summary judgment "always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). This responsibility includes identifying the portions of the record illustrating the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. Id. Or a movant who does not have a trial burden of production can assert, without citing the record, that the nonmoving party "cannot produce admissible evidence to support" a material fact. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(B); see also Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 advisory committee's note ("Subdivision (c)(1)(B) recognizes that a party need not always point to specific record materials.... [A] party who does not have the trial burden of production may rely on a showing that a party who does have the trial burden cannot produce admissible evidence to carry its burden as to the fact."). If the movant meets its burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to establish - with evidence beyond the pleadings - that a genuine dispute material to each of its claims for relief exists. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. A genuine dispute of material fact exists when the nonmoving party produces evidence allowing a reasonable fact finder to return a verdict in its favor. Waddell v. Valley Forge Dental Assocs., 276 F.3d 1275, 1279 (11th Cir. 2001).

III. BACKGROUND

A. Facts

Plaintiff Spring Garner is the mother and legal guardian of her incompetent son, Wynter Stokes, who is autistic and "completely non-verbal." (Compl. at ¶¶ 2, 11.) Plaintiff brings this suit as parent and next friend of Wynter. At the time of the events at the basis of this suit, Wynter was eighteen years old. Plaintiff and her son live in Ozark, Alabama. Defendant Officer Phil Dodson is employed by the City of Ozark as a policeman who works with a police dog.

According to the Complaint, on the evening of April 5, 2011, Wynter left home without his mother's knowledge and wandered to Eufaula Street in Ozark where he wound up at the Brasher residence. Mrs. Brasher notified the Ozark police that someone (Wynter) was in their yard and would not acknowledge her when spoken to or asked to leave. Officer Dodson is alleged to have arrived "on the scene" (Compl., at ¶ 22), although this is false, according to Officer Dodson's unrefuted testimony. Another unidentified "white male officer" met with Mr. Brasher who reported to that officer that the suspicious person had been on the porch and was unarmed. (Compl. at ¶ 23.) Mr. Brasher allegedly told the officer with whom he spoke that the person who had been on his property was "different" and possibly autistic. (Compl. at ¶ 23.)

The allegations concerning Mr. Brasher's statements to police are unsupported by any evidence. Yet Plaintiff's Complaint assumes that Officer Dodson knew that Wynter was possibly autistic when he encountered Wynter and commanded his canine to attack Wynter multiple times, allegedly without provocation or cause. (Compl. at ¶¶ 30-33.) Plaintiff alleges that Officer Dodson could have restrained Wynter with handcuffs, eliminating the need to repeatedly command the canine to attack. As a result of the canine apprehension, Wynter suffered injuries requiring medical treatment and has endured emotional distress and trauma.[1] Plaintiff has not amended her pleading.

According to Officer Dodson's Affidavit (Doc. # 9-1), he was dispatched to assist another officer with a burglary-in-progress on Eufaula Street. On the way, Officer Dodson passed a black male wearing a light-colored shirt about five blocks from the Brasher residence. Officer Dodson confirmed with a radio dispatcher that the person he observed walking briskly away from the Brasher residence matched the description of the burglary suspect, and he turned his car around. Thus, he never arrived at the scene of the reported burglary.

Officer Dodson located Wynter near the intersection of Eufaula Street and South Union Avenue. Officer Dodson, who was in uniform and in an identified police vehicle with activated blue lights, confronted Wynter, who tried to flee. Officer Dodson says he grabbed Wynter's shirt and asked for his name. Wynter tried to pull away. Officer Dodson grabbed Wynter's arm, and Wynter allegedly grabbed Officer Dodson's throat. Officer Dodson pushed Wynter away from him. The two struggled once more in the same manner. During the confrontation, Officer Dodson did not realize that Wynter suffered from a disability.

Wynter fled on South Union Avenue toward College Street. Officer Dodson says that he warned Wynter that he would dispatch his canine if Wynter did not stop running. When Wynter continued running, Officer Dodson commanded the canine to stop him. The dog successfully apprehended Wynter. Officer Dodson ordered the dog to return and ordered Wynter to stay on the ground. However, Wynter stood up and continued running. Officer Dodson commanded the dog to take Wynter down two more times because Wynter would not stay down after being stopped.

Another Officer, Anthony Spedale, arrived at the intersection of East Avenue and Eufaula Street. Officer Spedale ordered Wynter to stay on the ground, but Wynter jumped a fence and entered the grounds of a plant nursery. Officer Dodson commanded his dog to climb the fence and search the premises for Wynter. When the dog alerted to heavy brush, Officer Dodson commanded the dog to apprehend Wynter there, and the dog engaged Wynter for what Officer Dodson reports was thirty seconds. A third officer, Officer Tripp, arrived and he and Officer Spedale handcuffed Wynter. A fourth officer, Corporal Jesse Kellum transported Wynter to Dale Medical Center for treatment. Criminal charges against Wynter arising from the events on April 5, 2011, have been dropped, according to Plaintiff. (Doc. # 26, at 4.)

Officer Dodson represents that he had no knowledge of Wynter's autism until after Wynter was in police custody. Officer Dodson says that he determined that Wynter was a threat to him, other responding officers, and the public. He justified his use of force based on Wynter's resistance (grabbing Officer Dodson's throat) and the initial report that Wynter had tried to enter a home. There is no testimony or evidence in the record to contradict Officer Dodson's account.

B. Procedural History

Plaintiff filed this suit on February 12, 2013. Defendants responded by filing a motion to dismiss and for summary judgment. (Docs. # 8, 9.) On April 3, 2013, this court denied Defendants' motion for summary judgment without prejudice and granted Plaintiff's request for leave to conduct discovery prior to responding to the motion for summary judgment. (Doc. # 21.) Defendants immediately moved for reconsideration of that order, which the court denied on October 10, 2013, after further briefing. The same day, a separate memorandum opinion and order issued dismissing, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), Counts Two, Three, Five, and Seven, all claims brought by Plaintiff on her own behalf, all official-capacity claims against Officer Dodson, and the claims for punitive damages against the City of Ozark. (Doc. # 31, at 10.)[2]

Defendants appealed the court's order allowing Plaintiff to conduct discovery prior to consideration of Defendants' motion for summary judgment, as well as the court's non-ruling on the City of Ozark's arguments for the dismissal of Counts Eight and Nine. The Eleventh Circuit remanded on October 17, 2014, with instructions to consider Defendants' motion for summary judgment without allowing Plaintiff to conduct discovery per Rule 56(d). (Docs. # 43, 44.) The Circuit also instructed the court to consider the City of Ozark's immunity defense to Counts Eight and Nine. Upon remand, Counts Eight and Nine against the City of Ozark were dismissed on immunity grounds. (Doc. # 45.) Defendants have filed an answer without waiving or withdrawing their motion for summary judgment. (Doc. # 47.)

Remaining are Plaintiff's § 1983 claim for excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment (Count One), state-law assault and battery claims against Officer Dodson in his individual capacity (Counts Eight and Nine), and Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") claim against the City of ...


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