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Chappell v. City of Clanton

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

September 14, 2017

JERRY W. CHAPPELL, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF CLANTON, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          GRAY M. BORDEN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Before the court are the Motions to Dismiss filed by Defendants Keith Maddox and the City of Clanton (the “City”) (Doc. 26), John Shearon (Doc. 37), and Jessica Mims and Jason Reeves (Doc. 38). The court is also considering the Motion to Strike Fictitious Parties filed by Maddox and the City of Clanton. Doc. 27. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 73, the parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge. Docs. 52-55. After careful consideration of the parties' submissions and the relevant law, it is ORDERED that:

1. City of Clanton and Maddox's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 26) is GRANTED;

2. Shearon's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 37) is GRANTED;

3. Mims and Reeves' Partial Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 38) is GRANTED; and

4. City of Clanton and Maddox's Motion to Strike Fictitious Parties (Doc. 27) is GRANTED.

         I. JURISDICTION AND VENUE

         The court has subject-matter jurisdiction over the claims in this lawsuit pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1367. The defendants do not contest personal jurisdiction or venue, and the court finds adequate allegations to support both.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         This lawsuit arises out of a shooting incident on June 17, 2015, in Chilton County, Alabama. Wendy Chappell Price was driving southbound on Interstate 65 in Shelby County, Alabama, when she was pursued by Alabama state trooper Adam Ezekiel for failing to stop at his order. Doc. 1 at 10. Wendy's husband, Adam Price, had informed Ezekiel that Wendy had two unloaded firearms in her vehicle. Doc. 1 at 10. After coordination between the Alabaster Police Department, Chilton County Sheriff's Department, and Clanton Police Department, officers successfully stopped Price's vehicle between the hours of 8:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. at exit 212 in Clanton, Alabama. Doc. 1 at 10. Price did not exit her vehicle during the traffic stop. Doc. 1 at 10. During the encounter, officers fired their weapons at Price a total of 17 times, striking her four times. Doc. 1 at 10-11. Price passed away at the scene. Doc. 1 at 11.

         Plaintiff Jerry Chappell is the administrator and personal representative of Price's estate, and brought suit in that capacity on June 8, 2017, against Ezekiel; Jessica Mims and Jason Reeves, Chilton County deputy sheriffs; Chilton County and its sheriff, John Shearon; the City of Clanton and its chief of police, Keith Maddox; and fictitious defendants. Doc. 1 at 4. The crux of Chappell's complaint is that the officers used unreasonable and excessive force in violation of Price's Fourth Amendment rights, and that Chilton County, the City of Clanton, Shearon, and Maddox are liable for the constitutional deprivation on a supervisory basis. He also brings a state-law wrongful death claim against all defendants. Mims and Reeves have answered the constitutional claims and moved to dismiss the wrongful death claim, while Ezekiel has answered all claims. See Docs. 34, 39 & 46. Shearon, Maddox, and the City of Clanton have moved to dismiss all claims and Chappell voluntarily dismissed his claims against Chilton County. See Docs. 26, 37, 51 & 56.

         Chappell does not allege in the complaint the circumstances leading to the police chase or causing the officers at the scene to fire their weapons at Price. However, Chappell claims that afterwards the individual defendants “engaged or participated in, adopted, ratified, or condoned a deliberate campaign of false information to discredit Wendy Chappell Price in an attempt to justify the shooting and killing of Ms. Price.” Doc. 1 at 11. This effort allegedly included the false statements that Price brandished weapons at the officers prior to the shooting, threatened the officers, fired at the officers, and exited her vehicle immediately prior to the shooting, “all of which were false and were made with the intention of misleading investigators, officials, and the public.” Doc. 1 at 11.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In considering a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the court must “take the factual allegations in the complaint as true and construe them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Pielage v. McConnell, 516 F.3d 1282, 1284 (11th Cir. 2008). To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must include “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). A claim is “plausible on its face” if “the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). The complaint “requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. Factual allegations need not be detailed, but “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, ” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, and “unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation[s]” will not suffice. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         IV. DISCUSSION

         Chappell's complaint is divided into three counts. Count I asserts a § 1983 claim for excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment against Ezekiel, Mims, Reeves, and fictitious defendants; Count II asserts a § 1983 claim for deliberate indifference and supervisory liability against Chilton County, Shearon, the City of Clanton, Maddox, and fictitious defendants; and Count III asserts a claim under Alabama's wrongful death statute against all of the named defendants and fictitious defendants. See generally Doc. 1. Chappell's claims are brought against the individual defendants in their official and individual capacities. Doc. 1 at 2.

         A. Motion to Strike

         Chappell brings claims against unnamed defendants who bear some connection to his claims against the existing defendants. See Doc. 1 at 8-10. Chappell anticipates that he will learn the unnamed defendants' “names and culpable actions or failures to act” during discovery. Doc. 1 at 9.

         “As a general matter, fictitious-party pleading is not permitted in federal court.” Richardson v. Johnson, 598 F.3d 734, 738 (11th Cir. 2010). A “limited exception” to the general rule exists where “the plaintiff's description of the defendant is so specific as to be at the very worst, surplusage.” Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Chappell's description of the fictitious defendants here falls outside of this limited exception. Far from specific, Chappell essentially describes any person who may be subject to supervisory liability, who may have directly participated in the shooting itself, who may have failed to prevent the shooting, or who may have engaged in the later cover-up. Doc. 1 at 8-9. Chappell's claims against the fictitious defendants are impermissibly vague and not permitted under established standards of federal-court pleading. The motion to strike them from the complaint is due to be GRANTED.

         B. Official-Capacity Claims

         Chappell states claims against Shearon, Maddox, Mims, and Reeves in their individual and official capacities. However, “an official capacity suit is, in all respects other than name, to be treated as a suit against the [governmental entity for which the named individual serves].” Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 165 (1985). Thus, Chappell's claims against Maddox in his official capacity are due to be dismissed because the City of Clanton is a named defendant in this action. See, e.g., Brown v. Neumann, 188 F.3d 1289, 1290 n.1 (11th Cir. 1999) (suing a government officer in his official capacity is “duplicative and superfluous” where the agency for which he serves is also a defendant).

         Furthermore, as Chappell has conceded, his claims against Shearon, Mims, and Reeves in their official capacities are barred for two reasons. First, the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits suits for money damages against a state by citizens of that state. Carr v. City of Florence, Ala., 916 F.2d 1521, 1524 (11th Cir. 1990). This immunity has been extended to suits against state officials in their official capacities where money damages would be paid by the state. Id. Thus, as Chappell has brought suit against Shearon, Mims, and Reeves in their official capacities for monetary damages, these claims are barred by the Eleventh Amendment.[1] Moreover, state officials acting in their official capacities are not “persons” subject to suit within the meaning of § 1983. See Will v. Mich. Dep't of St. Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989). Accordingly, all of Chappell's official-capacity claims against Shearon, Maddox, Mims, and Reeves are subject to dismissal.

         C. Claims Against Shearon, Maddox, and the City of Clanton

         1. Section 1983

         Chappell seeks to hold Shearon, Maddox, and the City liable under § 1983 under three primary theories: (1) that they failed to develop an adequate policy regarding the use of force that would protect against an unconstitutionally unreasonable use of force; (2) that they failed to develop and implement adequate training to protect against unreasonable force; and (3) that they ratified the allegedly excessive force by making ...


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