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Estate of Binn v. City of Adamsville

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

February 28, 2019

CITY OF ADAMSVILLE, et al., Defendants.



         This case is before the court on the Motions to Dismiss filed by Defendants Warren Cotton, R.W. Carter, Rick Whitfield, and William Dougherty, and by the City of Adamsville, Alabama. (Docs. # 52 and 53). The parties have fully briefed the Motions. (Docs. # 56 through 59). For the reasons explained below, the Motions to Dismiss (Docs. # 52 and 53) are due to be granted.

         I. Background [1]

         Plaintiff is the Estate of Phillip James Binn (“the Estate” or “Plaintiff”). The Estate brings this action by and through its personal representative, Vivian Odom, Binn's mother. (Doc. # 19, ¶23).

         Defendant Cotton is the City of Adamsville's current Chief of Police. (Doc. # 33-1 ¶1 and Doc. # 19 ¶3). Defendant Carter was the Chief of Police at the time of Binn's death. (Doc. # 19 ¶4). Defendant Whitfield is currently an Adamsville police officer. (Doc. # 33-2 ¶1 and Doc. # 19 ¶5). Defendant Dougherty was previously an Adamsville police officer, but is now retired. (Doc. # 33-3 ¶1 and Doc. # 19 ¶6). Cotton, Carter, Whitfield, and Dougherty (collectively the “Individual Defendants”) are sued only in their individual capacities. (Doc. # 19 at 1, ¶9). The City of Adamsville is also named as a Defendant. (Doc. # 19 ¶2).

         On February 19, 2017, Adamsville received a 911 call from Jaamal Thomas reporting that Binn had shot himself. (Doc. # 19 at ¶20). 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 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 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 that was 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. (Id. at ¶26). A few hours after Binn's death, Defendants concluded that Binn's death was a suicide. (Id. at ¶31).

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

         On November 29, 2017, Plaintiff filed this action in federal court. (Doc. # 1). Plaintiff sued Defendants Carter, Cotton, Whitfield, and Dougherty in their individual capacities. (Doc. # 1). However, the summonses to Defendants Cotton, Whitfield, and Dougherty were not served on them personally. (Docs. # 5, 6, and 8). Rather, each of the summonses was served on Lynn Lindsey, whom the “Proof of Service” indicates was only designated to accept service on behalf of the “Adamsville PD.” (Docs. # 5, 6, and 8). The Individual Defendants raised the issue of improper service in their initial Motion to Dismiss. (Docs. # 12 and 13). In response to that and other Motions, on February 9, 2018, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint. (Doc. # 19). The court docket does not reveal any attempts by Plaintiff to personally serve Defendants Cotton, Whitfield, or Dougherty.

         In addition to Defendants Cotton, Whitfield, Dougherty, Carter, and Adamsville, Plaintiff's Amended Complaint named Fictitious Defendants A and B and Killer John Doe. (Id.). On February 1, 2018, upon Defendants' request, the court struck Fictitious Defendants A and B from the record because fictitious party practice is generally not permitted in a federal court. (Docs. # 35, 47); see Richardson v. Johnson, 598 F.3d 734, 738 (11th Cir. 2010) (“As a general matter, fictitious-party pleading is not permitted in federal court.”). Similarly, the claims against Killer John Doe, another fictitious party, have been dismissed without prejudice. See Richardson, 598 F.3d at 738.

         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 suicide, the conclusion reached by Defendants regarding the cause of death. (Doc. # 19 at ¶26). Plaintiff further alleges that Defendants failed to conduct an investigation into Binn's death that is consistent with the prevailing standards and practices used by similarly situated law enforcement agencies. (Id. at ¶30). Specifically, the Amended Complaint alleges the following claims: that Plaintiff was denied right of access to the courts in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count I); that Defendants were responsible for a state-created danger in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count II); that Defendants Adamsville, Carter, and Cotton failed to implement appropriate policies, training methods, and practices in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count III); and that Defendants engaged in a civil conspiracy that “violated Binn's civil rights” (Count IV). (Doc. # 19). The Amended Complaint also included a wrongful death claim (Count V) and a negligence claim (Count VI) against Killer John Doe. (Doc.19). The court previously dismissed the state-created danger clam (Count II) for lack of standing, and the wrongful death (Count V) and negligence claim (Count VI) against Killer John Doe. (Id. at p. 17-18; Docs. # 48, 50).

         Defendants have moved to dismiss Plaintiff's remaining claims. (Docs. # 52, 53). The court addresses their motions below.

         II. Standard of Review

         The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require that a complaint provide “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). However, the complaint must include enough facts “to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Pleadings that contain nothing more than “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action” do not meet Rule 8 standards, nor do pleadings suffice that are based merely upon “labels and conclusions” or “naked assertion[s]” without supporting factual allegations. Id. at 555, 557. In deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, courts view the allegations in the complaint in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Watts v. Fla. Int'l Univ., 495 F.3d 1289, 1295 (11th Cir. 2007).

         To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. “A claim has facial plausibility when 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). Although “[t]he plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement, '” the complaint must demonstrate “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. A plausible claim for relief requires “enough fact[s] to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence” to support the claim. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556.

         In considering a motion to dismiss, a court should “1) eliminate any allegations in the complaint that are merely legal conclusions; and 2) where there are well-pleaded factual allegations, ‘assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.'” Kivisto v. Miller, Canfield, Paddock & Stone, PLC, 413 Fed.Appx. 136, 138 (11th Cir. 2011) (quoting Am. Dental Ass'n. v. Cigna Corp., 605 F.3d 1283, 1290 (11th Cir. 2010)). That task is context specific and, to survive the motion, the allegations must permit the court based on its “judicial experience and common sense … to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. If the court determines that well-pleaded facts, accepted as true, do not state a claim that is plausible, the claims are due to be dismissed. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570.

         A qualified immunity defense can be reviewed at the Rule 12(b)(6) stage of litigation. Epps v. Watson, 492 F.3d 1240, 1243 (11th Cir. 2007). The Supreme Court has recognized that a plaintiff must allege a “violation of clearly established law” before he or she is entitled to discovery from a defendant eligible for qualified immunity. Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526 (1985). See also Williams v. Bd. of Regents of Univ. Sys. of Ga., 477 F.3d 1282, 1300 (11th Cir. 2007) (“If a defendant asserts a qualified immunity defense in a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the court should grant qualified immunity if the plaintiff's complaint fails to allege a violation of a clearly established constitutional or statutory right.”).

         III. Discussion

         As noted above, the court has already dismissed certain claims in this case. (Docs. # 48, 51). The remaining claims in this case are the access to the courts claim against all Defendants (Count I), the failure to train claim against Adamsville, Carter and Cotton (Count III), and the conspiracy claim against all Defendants (Count IV). These claims are brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Alabama state law. (Doc. # 19 at 4). To state a claim for relief under § 1983, Plaintiff “must allege the violation of a right secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States, and must show that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law.” West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988) (citations omitted). “The traditional definition of acting under color of state law requires that the defendant in a § 1983 action have exercised power ‘possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because the wrongdoer is clothed with the authority of state law.'” Id. (citations omitted).

         A. Qualified Immunity

         “The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials ‘from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). Accordingly, “[a]t the motion to dismiss stage in the litigation, ‘the qualified immunity inquiry and the Rule 12(b)(6) standard become intertwined.'” Keating v. City of Miami, 598 F.3d 753, 760 (11th Cir. 2010) (citation omitted). “Because qualified immunity is ‘an immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability ... it is effectively lost if a case is erroneously permitted to go to trial.'” Pearson, 555 U.S. at 231 (quoting Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526 (1985)) (changes in Pearson).

         Qualified immunity “protects government officials performing discretionary functions from the burdens of civil trials and from liability.” Rioux v. City of Atlanta, Ga., 520 F.3d 1269, 1282 (11th Cir. 2008) (internal citations omitted). An official loses qualified immunity when his conduct violates “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights.” Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 739 (2002). However, the standard is “broad enough to cover some mistaken judgment, and it shields from liability all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” Garczynski v. Bradshaw, 573 F.3d 1158, 1167 (11th Cir. 2009) (quoting Montoute v. Carr, 144 F.3d 181, 184 (11th Cir. 1997)).

         A defendant has the initial burden of proving that he was acting within the scope of his discretionary authority in order to be eligible for qualified immunity. Holloman ex rel. Holloman v. Harland, 370 F.3d 1252, 1264 (11th Cir. 2004) (citing Storck v. City of Coral Springs, 354 F.3d 1307, 1314 (2003)). Discretionary authority exists if a defendant was (1) performing a legitimate job-related function (2) through means within his power to utilize. Holloman, 370 F.3d at 1266. In other words, a “defendant must have been performing a function that, but for the alleged constitutional infirmity, would have fallen with his legitimate job description.” Id.

         If a defendant makes this initial showing, the burden shifts and the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant is not entitled to qualified immunity. Holloman, 370 F.3d at 1264. Here, the Supreme Court has formulated a two-step analysis to determine whether an official (such as the Individual Defendants) is entitled to qualified immunity, and a district court has discretion to determine in what order to address the two steps. Keating, 598 F.3d at 762 (citing Pearson, 555 U.S. at 232, 236). The court must decide whether the facts as alleged by Plaintiff establishes a violation of a constitutional right. Pearson, 555 U.S. at 232. The court also must decide whether the right at issue was “clearly ...

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