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Todd v. Woods

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northwestern Division

November 14, 2017

DUSTINE TODD, Plaintiff,
v.
TERRY WOODS and MICHAEL GEAN, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ABDUL K. KALLON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Dustine Todd brings this lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against two officers in the Lauderdale County, Alabama Sheriff's Department, Sgt. Terry Woods and Deputy Michael Gean (collectively the Defendants). Todd alleges that the Defendants, acting in their individual capacities, violated his constitutional rights under the Fourteenth and Fourth Amendments when they arrested him on several misdemeanor charges purportedly without probable cause. The Defendants have now jointly moved for summary judgment on the grounds of qualified immunity. Doc. 42. This motion is fully briefed, docs. 43; 50; 54, and ripe for review. After careful consideration of the record and the parties' arguments, the court finds that the Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity and that their motion is due to be granted.[1]

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Summary judgment is proper “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.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A dispute about a material fact is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

         “The evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in [her] favor.” Id. at 255. Indeed, it is explicitly not the role of the court to “weigh conflicting evidence or to make credibility determinations.” Mize v. Jefferson City Bd. Of Educ., 93 F.3d 739, 742 (11th Cir. 1996); see also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255 (explaining “[c]redibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge”).

         However, “mere conclusions and unsupported factual allegations are legally insufficient to defeat a summary judgment motion.” Ellis v. England, 432 F.3d 1321, 1326 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (citing Bald Mountain Park, Ltd. v. Oliver, 863 F.2d 1560, 1563 (11th Cir. 1989)). Nor will “a . . . ‘scintilla of evidence in support of the nonmoving party . . . suffice to overcome a motion for summary judgment.'” Melton v. Abston, 841 F.3d 1207, 1219 (11th Cir. 2016) (quoting Young v. City of Palm Bay, 358 F.3d 859, 860 (11th Cir. 2004)). Instead, if “the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no ‘genuine issue for trial, '” and summary judgment is appropriately granted. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (citation omitted).

         II. FACTS [2]

         On January 24, 2015, a family friend, Chris Woods, contacted Todd, a veteran Alabama state trooper who was off-duty at the time, regarding a stolen all-terrain vehicle (ATV). Docs. 17 at 2-3; 20 at 2; 50 at 20. At Woods' request, Todd called the Lauderdale Sheriff's Department to report the vehicle stolen. Id. Later that day, Todd, accompanied by his wife and children, visited Woods' home where they were eventually joined by a third man, Dustin Kelly. Id. After consuming approximately three beers, Todd went for an evening drive with Woods and Kelly. Doc. 17 at 4.

         Shortly after leaving Woods' residence, the three men learned that Wesley Holloway had just listed an ATV, very similar in appearance to the one stolen from Woods, for sale on a social media website. Doc. 50 at 20-21. In response to this news, Woods, Todd, and Kelly met up with several other people, one of whom knew Holloway and thought she could persuade him to return the missing ATV. Id. at 21. Woods, for his part, planned to offer Holloway money in exchange for the safe return of the ATV. Id. Accordingly, sometime after midnight, the group drove to the Holloway residence. Doc. 50 at 21. Todd later testified that he did not notice either a posted “No Trespassing” sign or a gate impeding access to the property. Doc. 44-15 at 24, 25, 34.

         After the group arrived at Holloway's residence, two individuals approached the front door and knocked several times. Doc. 50 at 22. Holloway refused to answer and instead called the police at around 1:00 a.m. to report that unknown individuals were “beatin' on [his] door.” Doc. 44-17 at 3. Holloway also called his father who arrived at the property before the police. Docs. 50 at 22; 43 at 4; 44-9 at 3. Todd and Woods exited their vehicle at this point and approached Holloway's father, doc. 50 at 22, prompting Holloway, who had armed himself with a rifle, to emerge from the residence. Docs. 17 at 6; 20 at 2; 43 at 4. A short time thereafter, Defendant Gean, responding to the 9-1-1 call, reached Holloway's home and took control of the situation. Docs. 50 at 22; 44-16 at 37. Both Holloway and Gean testified that they recognized Todd as a state trooper. Docs. 44-3 at 3; 44-9 at 3; 44-16 at 36-37.

         Sergeant Woods, Deputy Gean's supervisor and the other defendant in this case, arrived at the scene a few minutes later and assumed command. Docs. 44-3 at 2-3; 44-16 at 37-39. Given Holloway's status as a fellow law-enforcement officer, Sergeant Woods contacted then Chief Deputy District Attorney Will Powell and asked Deputy Gean to describe the situation to Powell over the phone. Docs. 44-3 at 2-3; 44-16 at 39-40. Powell instructed the officers to charge Todd, and the other adults with him, with a series of misdemeanor offenses, including criminal trespassing in the second degree, disorderly conduct, harassment, and public intoxication. Docs. 44-3at 3; 44-16 at 39-41. Pursuant to this instruction, the Defendants arrested Todd and transported him to the county jail where he posted bond approximately eight hours later. Docs. 17 at 8-10; 20 at 3. Ultimately, the Chief Magistrate for Lauderdale County found that no probable cause existed to issue a warrant for Todd's arrest, effectively concluding the criminal proceedings underlying this case. Docs. 50 at 24; 20 at 3; 51-7 at 2-3.

         III. DISCUSSION

         The sole issue before this court is whether the Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity with respect to Todd's wrongful arrest claim. The defense of qualified immunity reflects both “the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009). Accordingly, “government officials performing discretionary functions are immune not just from liability, but from suit, unless the conduct which is the basis for [the] suit violates clearly established federal statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Sanders v. Howze, 177 F.3d 1245, 1249 (11th Cir. 1999). “‘[A]ll but the plainly incompetent or one who is knowingly violating the federal law'” are entitled to the protection of qualified immunity. Lee v. Ferraro, 284 F.3d 1188, 1194 (11th Cir. 2002) (quoting Willingham v. Loughnan, 261 F.3d 1178, 1187 (11th Cir. 2001)). Qualified immunity, however, “does not extend to one who knew or reasonably should have known that his or her actions would violate the plaintiff's federal rights.” Gaines v. Wardynski, 871 F.3d 1203, 1207 (11th Cir. 2017).

         As a threshold matter, a public official must have acted within the scope of her discretionary authority to invoke qualified immunity. Jones v. Fransen, 857 F.3d 843, 851 (11th Cir. 2017). The term discretionary authority includes “all actions of a governmental official that (1) ‘were undertaken pursuant to the performance of [her] duties, ' and (2) were ‘within the scope of [her] authority.'” Jordan v. Doe, 38 F.3d 1559, 1566 (11th Cir. 1994) (quoting Rich v. Dollar, 841 F.2d 1558, 1564 (11th Cir. 1988)). When conducting this inquiry, Eleventh Circuit precedent requires the district court to put aside “the fact that [the act] may have been committed for an unconstitutional purpose, in an ...


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