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Stewart v. City of Homewood

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

November 4, 2019

TIMOTHY STEWART, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF HOMEWOOD, ALABAMA, ET AL., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ABDUL K. KALLON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This lawsuit arises from Timothy Stewart's encounter with Homewood City police officers one early morning, during which Officers Rodney Adams and Nicholas Altobella allegedly handcuffed Stewart, beat him, kicked him in the head, tased him until puss oozed from his back, dragged him on the pavement until his flesh ripped from his arms and his toenails tore from his feet, and taunted him with racial slurs. Stewart alleges claims, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, for excessive force and violation of due process by Officers Adams and Altobella (Count I), supervisory liability as to unnamed defendants (Count III), and failure to intervene (Count IV). See doc. 1. Stewart also pursues state law claims for negligent training, supervision, and retention against the City of Homewood and Chief Tim Ross (Count II), negligence against Officers Adams and Altobella (Count V), and intentional torts of assault and battery and infliction of emotional distress against all defendants (Count VI). Id. The Defendants have moved to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) and 12(b)(6). Doc. 6. The motion is fully briefed, docs. 7, 11, and 12, and ripe for review. For the reasons stated more fully below, the motion is due to be granted as to the excessive force and due process claims against Officers Adams and Altobella in their official capacities (Count I), the negligent training, supervision, and retention claims against Chief Ross and the City of Homewood (Count II), the § 1983 supervisory liability claim against Chief Ross and unnamed defendants (Count III), the § 1983 failure to intervene claim against Chief Ross and the City of Homewood (Count IV), and the infliction of emotional distress claims against Officers Adams and Altobella and Chief Ross and the City of Homewood as well as the assault and battery claims against Chief Ross and the City of Homewood (Count VI). The motion is due to be denied in all other respects.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), a pleading must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” “[T]he pleading standard Rule 8 announces does not require ‘detailed factual allegations,' but it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). Mere “labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action” are insufficient. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). “Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders ‘naked assertion[s]' devoid of ‘further factual enhancement.'” Id. (citing Bell Atl. Corp., 550 U.S. at 557).

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) permits dismissal when a complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). A complaint states a facially plausible claim for relief “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (citation omitted). The complaint must establish “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id.; see also Bell Atl. Corp., 550 U.S. at 555 (“Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level”). Ultimately, this inquiry is a “context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND[1]

         Stewart left his motel room on the early morning at issue and accepted a ride from a passing car to a local convenience store. Doc. 1 at 2-3. Shortly thereafter, Officers Adams and Altobella of the City of Homewood Police Department detained and handcuffed Stewart and then proceeded to beat him and kick him in the head. Id. at 4. The officers repeatedly used a taser on Stewart until puss oozed from his back, id. at 5, and then dragged Stewart across asphalt pavement, causing “flesh [to be] ripped from his arms and toenails . . . [to be] ripped from his feet, ” id. at 4. The officers also directed racial slurs at Stewart and destroyed his cell phone. Id. at 5. No. officer intervened to stop the attack or offer medical assistance. Id.

         III. ANALYSIS

         As an initial matter, the court notes that Stewart fails to address the Defendants' arguments against Count II, Count III, and Count IV in his response to the motion to dismiss. See doc. 12. Consequently, Stewart has abandoned these claims, and they are “due to be dismissed on those grounds alone.” See e.g., Collins v. Davol, Inc., 56 F.Supp.3d 1222, 1228 (N.D. Ala. 2014) (citing Fischer v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, 349 Fed.Appx. 372, 375 n. 2 (11th Cir. 2009)). With the exception of the failure to intervene claims (Count IV) against Officers Adams and Altobella, the court provides alternative grounds for dismissal of these abandoned claims below, beginning in Section B with the claims against Chief Ross in Section B, followed by the claims against the City in Section C.

         A. Claims against Officers Rodney Adams and Nicholas Altobella (Counts I, IV, V, VI)

         Stewart asserts § 1983 claims against Officers Adams and Altobella for violations of the Fourth Amendment[2] by subjecting him to excessive force (Count I) and failing to intervene (Count IV), [3] and state law claims for negligence (Count V) and assault and battery and infliction of emotional distress (Count VI). See doc. 1. Defendants contend that Stewart has failed to allege sufficient facts on each of his claims, or alternatively, that Officers Adams and Altobella are entitled to qualified immunity. See doc. 7. The court will address the immunity argument first before turning to the merits of each claim.

         i. Qualified Immunity

         “[Q]ualified immunity offers complete protection for government officials sued in their individual capacities as long as their conduct violates no clearly established statutory or constitutional rights.” Oliver v. Fiorini, 586 F.3d 898, 904 (11th Cir. 2009) (citations omitted). Immunity allows officials to carry out discretionary duties without fear of liability and harassing litigation. Id. (citations omitted). Qualified immunity protects from suit “all but the plainly incompetent or one who is knowingly violating the federal law, ” but applies only to officers acting within their official authority. See Id. at 904-05. To assert qualified immunity, a governmental official must first establish that he was acting within his discretionary authority. Jones v. Fransen, 857 F.3d 843, 851 (11th Cir. 2017). Discretionary authority includes “all actions of a governmental official that (1) were undertaken pursuant to the performance of his duties, and (2) were within the scope of his authority.” Jordan v. Doe, 38 F.3d 1559, 1566 (11th Cir. 1994) (citation and quotation marks omitted). Here, Adams and Altobella, as police officers of the City of Homewood, had both the authority and the duty to make arrests. See, e.g. Ex Parte City of Montgomery, 758 So.2d 565, 570 (Ala. 1999) (holding officers are entitled to discretionary-function immunity when exercising their judgment on whether to make an arrest). And, Stewart does not dispute that these officers were acting within their discretionary authority by arresting him. See doc. 1. Therefore, the Defendants have satisfied this prong of the analysis.

         Once discretionary authority is established, a court is “obliged to grant qualified immunity to a law enforcement officer unless the plaintiff can demonstrate: first, that the facts when viewed in a light most favorable to the plaintiff establish a constitutional violation; and, second, that the illegality of the officer's actions was clearly established at the time of the incident.” Pearson v. Callahan, --- U.S. ---, 129 S.Ct. 808, 815-16, 818 (2009). Thus, to survive the motion to dismiss, Stewart must present a plausible claim that a constitutional violation occurred and that the two officers' conduct violated clearly established law. See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         ii. Excessive Force and Violation of Due Process (Count I)

         With respect to Count I, Stewart has alleged sufficient facts to plead a plausible claim of a constitutional violation. Allegedly, Officers Adams and Altobella “detained [him], . . . handcuffed [him], beat [him] while in handcuffs, and kicked [him] repeatedly in the head . . . then dragged [him] along the asphalt pavement until the flesh was ripped from his arms and toenails were ripped from his feet . . . [and] tased [him] excessively to the point that puss began oozing from his back” while “taunt[ing him] with racial slurs.” See doc. 1 at 4-5. Viewed in the light most favorable to Stewart, these allegations are sufficient to “show that the officer[s] violated a constitutional right.” Mercado v. City of Orlando, 407 F.3d 1152, 1156 (11th Cir. 2005).

         And, “[i]f such a violation occurred, then [the court] must determine if that right was clearly established at the time of the incident.” Id. It is settled law that police officers cannot use force that is “wholly unnecessary to any legitimate law enforcement purpose.” Lee v. Ferraro, 284 F.3d 1188, 1199 (11th Cir. 2002); see also Glasscox v. City of Argo, 903 F.3d 1207, 1214 (11th Cir. 2018) (repeated use of a taser on an incapacitated arrestee presented a genuine issue of material fact as to excessive force); Slicker v. Jackson, 215 F.3d 1225, 1227 (11th Cir.2002) (kicking an arrestee who is already in handcuffs violates the Fourth Amendment). More specific to here, the Fourth Amendment prohibits the use of excessive force in the course of an arrest. Huebner v. Bradshaw, 935 F.3d 1183, 1190 (11th Cir. 2019). Therefore, drawing all reasonable inferences in Stewart's favor, see Keating v. City of Miami, 598 F.3d 753, 762 (11th Cir. 2010), and taking his allegations as true, the court finds that Stewart has alleged a plausible violation of a clearly established constitutional right, and the motion to dismiss the excessive force claim against the officers in their individual capacities is due to be denied.

         iii. Failure to ...


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