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Spencer v. Benison

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

October 9, 2018

BEVERLY SPENCER, et al., Plaintiffs,



         Plaintiffs Beverly Spencer (“Spencer”), C.B.S. Properties, LLC (“CBS”), and B & V Wrecker Service, Inc. (“B&V”) (collectively “Plaintiffs”) bring this action against Defendants Sheriff Jonathan Benison (“Sheriff Benison”), in his individual capacity and in his official capacity as Sheriff of Greene County; D.R.EA.M., Inc. (“DREAM”); Bell Mere Properties, LLC (“Belle Mere”); Accuity Capital Group, LLC (“Accuity”); Bernard Gomez (“Gomez”); and Ché D. Williamson (“Williamson”) (collectively “Defendants”), alleging claims under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985 and state law. Before the Court are Sheriff Benison's Motion for Summary Judgment (doc. 43), Motion for Reimbursement of Fees & Costs (doc. 47), and Motion to Strike (doc. 57). The motions have been briefed and are ripe for review. For the reasons stated below, Sheriff Benison's Motion for Summary Judgment (doc. 43) is due to be denied; his Motion for Reimbursement of Fees & Costs (doc. 47) is due to be denied; and his Motion to Strike (doc. 57) is due to be granted.[1]

         I. BACKGROUND[2]

         In April 2011, Defendant Belle Mere, acting through Gomez and Williamson, purchased real estate in Greene County, Alabama from Plaintiff CBS, acting through Spencer. As part of the sale, CBS agreed to grant Bell Mere a twenty-five foot easement running from CBS's adjacent property. Belle Mere then leased the property to Accuity, which permitted DREAM to operate a bingo gambling facility, known as Frontier Bingo, on the property. CBS and Bell Mere almost immediately began to disagree over issues related to the property, and in late 2011, Bell Mere filed suit against CBS in Alabama state court. On April 17, 2012, Bell Mere filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. During that litigation, the bankruptcy court entered an order judicially establishing the boundaries of Bell Mere's easement. However, this did not put an end to the boundary dispute.

         Over the next several years, Spencer contacted law enforcement on multiple occasions claiming that Frontier Bingo and its patrons were trespassing on his property. In January 2016, Gomez hired construction workers to improve a previously constructed roadway running through the easement. The parties dispute whether this construction was outside the boundaries of the judicially recognized easement. On January 13, 2016, Spencer called 911 to report that the construction workers were trespassing on his land. Deputy Sheriff Jeffrey Grant (“Deputy Grant”) responded to the call and spoke with both Spencer and the bulldozer operator. After speaking with Deputy Grant, the bulldozer operator agreed to stop working on the roadway.

         On January 18, 2016, Spencer again called 911 complaining that Gomez had workers building a roadway within his property line. Deputy Sheriff Charlie Davis (“Deputy Davis”) responded to that call and suggested that the bulldozer operator stop working until the property dispute was resolved. However, Deputy Davis did not get any further involved because he did not know the property boundary lines. On February 24, 2016, Sheriff Benison responded to another call from Spencer about the roadway construction. When Sheriff Benison arrived, he observed that Spencer, his brother, and his son had put out cones, a bulldozer, and vehicles to block the construction from encroaching on what Spencer claimed was his property. He also observed that traffic was backed up on Highway 11. The parties dispute whether the cones and vehicles were blocking the driveway so that people could not enter or exit the bingo hall. Additionally, they dispute whether Sheriff Benison had received a copy of the bankruptcy order that established the boundaries of the easement so that he knew the correct property lines. However, Spencer did measure the easement boundaries during the incident with Sheriff Benison.

         The parties dispute whether Sheriff Benison talked with Frontier Bingo's operators before going to speak with Spencer about his vehicles and cones. According to Spencer, Sheriff Benison entered and exited the bingo hall with Defendant Gomez prior to speaking with Spencer and his family members. When Sheriff Benison spoke with Spencer, he expressed concern that the cones and vehicles would prevent people from being able to access the bingo hall. He told Spencer that it created a public safety issue because the fire department might not be able to respond to any emergencies at the bingo hall. Sheriff Benison went on to say: “I've got customers in here. People got customers in here. You can't block these folks.” Spencer replied that his cones and vehicles were not blocking the road. Sheriff Benison then spoke on the phone with Spencer's lawyers who told him that they were attempting to get an injunction to prevent the construction workers from coming onto Spencer's property. Instead of waiting on the injunction to resolve the boundary dispute, Sheriff Benison ordered Spencer to remove the vehicles and cones from the driveway. He also threatened to arrest Spencer for disorderly conduct and told him that he would charge him with a felony if he blocked the road. A state trooper who spoke with Spencer at the scene told him that the Sheriff should not have issued the order and inserted himself in a private boundary dispute. According to Spencer, as a result of Sheriff Benison's order, he stopped confronting Frontier Bingo, and it was able to complete construction that encroached upon his property.

         Central to Plaintiffs' claims against Sheriff Benison is their contention that he has a personal financial interest in the success of Frontier Bingo. The Rules and Regulations for the Operation of Bingo within Greene County, Alabama (“Rules and Regulations”) provides that the Sheriff has exclusive authority to license and regulate bingo halls within the county. Half of each bingo hall's $2, 500.00 licensing fee is paid to the Greene County Sheriff's Office. Moreover, in 2015, Sheriff Benison amended the Rules and Regulations so that the Greene County Sheriff's Office receives $110 a month from each electronic bingo hall.

         II. STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact[3] and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A dispute is genuine if “the record taken as a whole could lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party.” Id. A genuine dispute as to a material fact exists “if the nonmoving party has produced evidence such that a reasonable factfinder could return a verdict in its favor.” Greenberg v. BellSouth Telecomms., Inc., 498 F.3d 1258, 1263 (11th Cir. 2007) (quoting Waddell v. Valley Forge Dental Assocs., 276 F.3d 1275, 1279 (11th Cir. 2001)). The trial judge should not weigh the evidence, but determine whether there are any genuine issues of fact that should be resolved at trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986).

         In considering a motion for summary judgment, trial courts must give deference to the non-moving party by “view[ing] the materials presented and all factual inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Animal Legal Def. Fund v. U.S. Dep't of Agric., 789 F.3d 1206, 1213-14 (11th Cir. 2015) (citing Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157 (1970)). However, “unsubstantiated assertions alone are not enough to withstand a motion for summary judgment.” Rollins v. TechSouth, Inc., 833 F.2d 1525, 1529 (11th Cir. 1987). Conclusory allegations and “mere scintilla of evidence in support of the nonmoving party will not suffice to overcome a motion for summary judgment.” Melton v. Abston, 841 F.3d 1207, 1220 (11th Cir. 2016) (per curiam) (quoting Young v. City of Palm Bay, Fla., 358 F.3d 859, 860 (11th Cir. 2004)). In making a motion for summary judgment, “the moving party has the burden of either negating an essential element of the nonmoving party's case or showing that there is no evidence to prove a fact necessary to the nonmoving party's case.” McGee v. Sentinel Offender Servs., LLC, 719 F.3d 1236, 1242 (11th Cir. 2013). Although the trial courts must use caution when granting motions for summary judgment, “[s]ummary judgment procedure is properly regarded not as a disfavored procedural shortcut, but rather as an integral part of the Federal Rules as a whole.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 327 (1986).


         A. Section 1983 Claims

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Plaintiffs sued Sheriff Benison, in both his individual and official capacity, for depriving Plaintiffs of their property and liberty rights in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Sheriff Benison first moves for summary judgment on Count I of Plaintiffs' Complaint, arguing that qualified immunity protects him from being sued in his individual capacity. Government officials are provided complete protection by qualified immunity when sued in their individual capacities, as long as “their conduct ‘does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'” Vineyard v. Wilson, 311 F.3d 1340, 1346 (11th Cir. 2002) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). Qualified immunity allows government officials to carry out the discretionary duties of their position “without the fear of personal liability or harassing litigation, protecting from suit ‘all but the plainly incompetent or one who is knowingly violating federal law.'” Lee v. Ferraro, 284 F.3d 1188, 1194 (11th Cir. 2002) (citations omitted) (quoting Willingham v. Loughnan, 261 F.3d 1178, 1187 (11th Cir. 2001)). The Eleventh Circuit engages in a two-part analysis to determine whether a government official is entitled to the defense of qualified immunity. “First the official must prove that the allegedly unconstitutional conduct occurred while he was acting within the scope of his discretionary authority. Second, if the official meets that burden the plaintiff must prove that the official's conduct violated clearly established law.” Harbert Int'l, Inc. v. James, 157 F.3d 1271, 1281 (11th Cir. 1998) (citations omitted).

         1. Scope of Discretionary Authority

         When determining if an official's actions were within the scope of his discretionary authority, courts consider “whether they are of a type that fell within the employee's job responsibilities.” Holloman ex rel. Holloman v. Harland, 370 F.3d 1252, 1265 (11th Cir. 2004). Further, the Court asks if the official was “(a) performing a legitimate job-related function (that is, pursuing a job related goal), (b) through means that were within his power to utilize.” Id. “In applying each prong of this test, [the Court] look[s] to the general nature of the defendant's action, temporarily putting aside the fact that it may have been ...

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