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Estate of Binn v. City of Adamsville

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

August 24, 2018

ESTATE OF PHILLIP JAMES BINN, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF ADAMSVILLE, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          R. DAVID PROCTOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is before the court on Plaintiff's Response to the Court's Show Cause Order. (Doc. # 49). On July 16, 2018, the court directed Plaintiff to show cause in writing as to why it has standing to assert the claims alleged in its amended complaint. (Doc. # 48). For the reasons explained below, the court finds that Plaintiff lacks standing to assert its 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim for a state-created danger (Count II in the amended complaint, Doc. # 19). Accordingly, that claim is due to be dismissed. However, the court is satisfied that Plaintiff has standing to assert the remaining claims in this action (Counts I, III, and IV in the amended complaint, Doc. # 19). The court expresses no view on the merits of those claims and hereby notifies Defendants that they may refile their motions to dismiss the remaining claims.

         I. Background

         On February 19, 2017, the City of Adamsville received a 911 call from Jaamal Thomas stating that Phillip James Binn had allegedly shot himself. (Doc. # 19 at ¶ 20). Later, Binn, a former United States Army Ranger who had served tours of duty in various war zones, was found deceased inside his home in Adamsville, Alabama. (Id. at ¶¶ 15-16). Thomas allegedly was present at the time of Binn's death. (Id. at ¶ 21). When first responders arrived, Binn was found to have sustained a gunshot wound to the back of his head. (Id. at ¶ 17). The bullet allegedly exited through the front of Binn's head and through the roof of Binn's residence. (Id. at ¶ 18). The bullet that killed Binn has not been found. (Id. at ¶ 19).

         Binn's body was found positioned with his head underneath a chair and table in his residence. (Id. at ¶ 24). The weapon allegedly used in Binn's death was found several feet above and away from Binn's body on the countertop of an island in Binn's residence. (Id. at ¶ 25). The weapon was in a de-cocked condition, a condition that requires deliberate manipulation of the weapon. (Id. at ¶ 26). A few hours after Binn's death, Defendants concluded it was a suicide. (Id. at ¶ 31).

         Binn's body was transported to the Jefferson County, Alabama Coroner's Office, which later examined his body. (Id. at ¶¶ 27-28). The Jefferson County Coroner allegedly noted that no gunshot residue was found on Binn's hands or clothing. (Id. at ¶ 29). Based upon information obtained from Defendants, the Jefferson County Coroner's Office ruled Binn's death a suicide. (Id. at ¶ 33).

         On November 29, 2017, the estate of Phillip James Binn (“Plaintiff”), by and through its personal representative, Vivian Odom, filed this action in federal court. (Doc. # 1). Plaintiff filed an amended complaint on February 9, 2018 against Defendants Warren Cotton, Rick Whitfield, William Dougherty, R.W. Carter, and the City of Adamsville, Alabama. (Doc. # 19). In the amended complaint, Plaintiff alleges that the position of Binn's body, the location of the gun, and the condition of the gun are all inconsistent with the conclusions reached by Defendants. (Id. at ¶ 26). Plaintiff further alleges that Defendants failed to conduct an investigation into Binn's death, and certainly not an investigation consistent with the prevailing standards and practices used by similarly situated law enforcement agencies. (Id. at ¶ 30). The amended complaint contains several claims for relief. Plaintiff asserted various claims against Defendants under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, including (1) denying Plaintiff's right of access to the courts by failing to perform a proper investigation, preserve evidence, and share the details of the investigation with Plaintiff; (2) taking actions that resulted in a state-created danger to Plaintiff and other residents; and (3) as to Defendants Adamsville, Carter, and Cotton, failing to implement appropriate policies, training methods, and practices. (Id. at 6-16). Plaintiff also asserted a claim for civil conspiracy and claims for wrongful death and negligence against Binn's unknown killer. (Id. at 16-18).

         Defendants moved to dismiss the amended complaint. (Doc. # 33; Doc. # 34; Doc. # 40). On July 16, 2018, the court dismissed the wrongful death and negligence claims against fictitious party “Killer John Doe.” (Doc. # 48). At that time, the court also administratively terminated Defendants' pending motions to dismiss and ordered Plaintiff to show cause why it has standing to assert the remaining claims in its amended complaint.

         II. Standard of Review

         For purposes of assessing standing, the court assumes the allegations contained in the amended complaint are true. See Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 561 (1992) (“At the pleading stage, general factual allegations of injury resulting from the defendant's conduct may suffice [to establish standing], for on a motion to dismiss we presum[e] that general allegations embrace those specific facts that are necessary to support the claim.” (internal quotation marks omitted)).

         III. Analysis

         Article III of the Constitution limits the jurisdiction of federal courts to “Cases” and “Controversies.” U.S. Const. art. III, § 2. Having said that, not all disputes that might be termed “cases” or “controversies” in the colloquial sense count as Article III cases and controversies. The doctrine of standing serves to identify those disputes that qualify as Article III cases and controversies-that is, “those disputes which are appropriately resolved through the judicial process.” Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560 (1992). Standing is “perhaps the most important of [the jurisdictional] doctrines, ” and federal courts are under an independent obligation to ensure standing is present, even if the parties have not raised it. United States v. Hays, 515 U.S. 737, 742 (1995) (alteration in original). Because the court concludes that Plaintiff lacks Article III standing to assert its § 1983 state-created danger claim, the claim is due to be dismissed. However, the court is satisfied that Plaintiff has standing to assert its remaining claims.

         A. Plaintiff's § 1983 State-Created Danger Claim

         “[T]he irreducible constitutional minimum of standing contains three elements.” Lujan, 504 U.S. at 560. First, the plaintiff must have suffered an “injury in fact.” Id. An injury in fact is “an invasion of a legally protected interest” which is both “concrete and particularized” and “actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical.” Id. (internal quotation marks removed). Second, the conduct complained of must have caused the plaintiff's injury-that is, the injury must be fairly traceable to the defendant's conduct, not the conduct of some third party not before the court. Id. Third, ...


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