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Rondini v. Bunn

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

January 13, 2020

MICHAEL W. RONDINI, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
TERRY J. BUNN, JR., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          R. DAVID PROCTOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This case is before the court on Defendant Terry J. Bunn, Jr.'s (“Defendant”) Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. # 121). The Motion has been fully briefed (see Docs. # 122, 139, 141) and is ripe for review.[1] After careful review, and for the reasons discussed below, this case is due to be stayed pending certification of a question to the Supreme Court of Alabama.

         I. Background

         Plaintiffs Michael and Cynthia Rondini (“Plaintiffs”) have sued Defendant and asserted claims arising out of the alleged sexual assault of their daughter, Megan Rondini, and her tragic suicide.[2]

         According to a transcript from a video interview between Megan and the police on July 2, 2015, 20-year-old Megan Rondini met Defendant, a 34-year-old man, at a Tuscaloosa pub on July 1, 2015.[3] (Doc. # 122-13 at 6).[4] While leaving the pub, Megan was approached by Defendant, who drove Megan first to her apartment where they drank alcohol, and then to Defendant's residence in Cottondale, Alabama. (Id. at 10, 39; Doc. # 122-1 at 42). Once inside Defendant's house, Megan stated that Defendant asked her to go upstairs to his bedroom. (Doc. # 122-13 at 15). Contemporaneously, Megan sent a few text messages to her friends, saying things such as (1) “pick me up in the morning, ” (2) “we are going to guck.” (Doc. # 122-11 at 2).

         After Megan went to Defendant's bedroom, she stated that when Defendant came into the room, “he went and sat on his bed and he, like, wanted me to sit with him and I was just kind of, like, and then he kind of, like, made comments like he wanted to have sex and I really didn't want to and he walked over to me and, like, started trying to kiss me and I didn't really want to.”[5] (Id. at 17). During that time, Megan stated that she “wasn't really looking at him, I kind of - I had already said, like, I needed to leave and he wasn't really responding to that, so I kind of just let him do it. (Id. at 19).

         While Defendant was asleep, Megan went into the bathroom, “kind of panicking, ” and she was trying to get her shoes on when she began contacting her friends asking them to come get her. (Id. at 22). Some of the text messages Megan sent to her friends included: “I can't get out of the room help, ” “Omg I . . . he's asleep I can't get out help, ” “I can't get out the door is locked, ” and “please help me.” (Doc. # 122-7). Megan then realized that the door to exit the bedroom was locked by a “little pin” that would not open. (Doc. # 122-13 at 22). She resorted to jumping out of a second-story bedroom window to leave Defendant's residence. (Id. at 23).

         Before anyone arrived to pick her up, Megan searched for her keys but could not find them, so she climbed back up through his window to search for them in Defendant's room. However, she still could not find them. (Doc. # 122-10 at 10-11). Finally, her friends arrived and drove her home.

         Megan's friends took her to their apartment first and then “to DCH Hospital in Tuscaloosa, ” where she reported to medical personnel and the Tuscaloosa Sheriff's Department that she had been raped. (Doc. # 122-13 at 25). Megan underwent a rape examination at the hospital. (Id.).

         That same day, police officers spoke with Defendant at his residence. (Doc. # 122-2 at 8-9). Defendant denied Megan's presence at his residence during the prior evening. (Doc. # 122-1 at 54). When Defendant was later questioned by the police at the Sheriff's Department, he and his attorney were left alone to talk. During this conversation, which was videotaped, Plaintiffs assert that Defendant admitted to his attorney that he could not remember anything from that evening because he was intoxicated. (Id. at 62).

         After staying with her parents in Austin, Texas for a few months, in August 2015, Megan returned to the University of Alabama for the fall semester. She saw a psychotherapist, Dr. Susan Arnold, on September 25, 2015 and October 2, 2015, who diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) and anxiety stemming from PTSD. (Doc. # 122-15 at 13). During Megan's first psychiatric evaluation with Dr. Arnold, Dr. Arnold reported that Megan was “very tearful and upset while she described [her rape].” (Id.). Dr. Arnold also stated that Megan's thought content was “very[, ] very afraid; in constant fear.” (Id. at 17). After Dr. Arnold developed a treatment plan for Megan, which primarily consisted of medication for her anxiety and PTSD, Megan withdrew from the University in October 2015. (Doc. # 122-3 at 61). She returned to Austin, Texas after learning that one of the classes she was registered to take involved a volunteer project that was sponsored by one of Defendant's companies.[6] (Id.).

         While in Texas, Megan began seeing a therapist by the name of Betty Bewley. (Id. at 65). Megan saw Ms. Bewley weekly from October 2015 to December 2015. (Id.). Ms. Bewley also recommended that Megan see a psychiatrist, so Megan began seeing Dr. Ziba Rezaee. (Id.). Dr. Rezaee “confirmed Megan's diagnosis of anxiety, depression, and PTSD” and prescribed her medication for those disorders, as well as medication for nightmares. (Id.).

         Around this same time, Megan was admitted to Southern Methodist University and began taking classes there. (Id. at 69). While at SMU, Megan began seeing Dr. Donna Cozort, a psychiatrist, in Dallas, Texas in late January/early February 2016. (Id. at 71). However, Megan did not like Dr. Cozort, so she only met with her once. (Id.). Megan then sought additional counseling at the SMU Health Clinic.

         On February 24, 2016, Megan filled out a “Health History Form” at the SMU Health Clinic. (Doc. # 139-1 at 16). She reported suicidal thoughts on the form. (Id.). She recounted her history of “PTSD, depression, [and] anxiety stemming from sexual assault and rape on July 1, 2015.” (Id.). She reported the rape, police bullying, and her change of universities as major losses, changes, or crises in her life. (Id. at 19). On the morning of February 26, 2016, Megan committed suicide. (Doc. # 139-2 at 2).

         Plaintiffs' Fourth Amended Complaint was filed on August 1, 2018. (Doc. # 100). Plaintiffs' Fourth Amended Complaint only contains one count: Wrongful death. (Doc. # 100 at 11, ¶¶ 49, 50). Specifically, Plaintiffs claim that: (1) Defendant “unlawfully and intentionally detained and imprisoned Megan Rondini [both in his car and then in his bedroom] against her will for a length of time whereby he deprived her of her personal liberty;” and (2) Defendant “intended to cause Megan imminent, harmful or offensive contact with her person when he forcefully and intentionally raped Megan.” (Id.).

         II. Standards of Review

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, summary judgment is proper “if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The party asking for summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the pleadings or filings which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 323. Once the moving party has met its burden, Rule 56 requires the non-moving party to go beyond the pleadings and -- by pointing to affidavits, or depositions, answers to interrogatories, and/or admissions on file --designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. at 324.

         The substantive law will identify which facts are material and which are irrelevant. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). All reasonable doubts about the facts and all justifiable inferences are resolved in favor of the non-movant. See Allen v. Bd. of Pub. Educ. for Bibb Cty., 495 F.3d 1306, 1314 (11th Cir. 2007); Fitzpatrick v. City of Atlanta, 2 F.3d 1112, 1115 (11th Cir. 1993). A dispute is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted. See Id. at 249.

         When faced with a “properly supported motion for summary judgment, [the nonmoving party] must come forward with specific factual evidence, presenting more than mere allegations.” Gargiulo v. G.M. Sales, Inc., 131 F.3d 995, 999 (11th Cir. 1997). As Anderson teaches, under Rule 56(c) a plaintiff may not simply rest on her allegations made in the complaint; instead, as the party bearing the burden of proof at trial, she must come forward with at least some evidence to support each element essential to her case at trial. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252. “[A] party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment ‘may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of his pleading, but . . . must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Id. at 248 (citations omitted).

         Summary judgment is mandated “against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322. “Summary judgment may be granted if the non-moving party's evidence is merely colorable or is not significantly probative.” Sawyer v. Sw. Airlines Co., 243 F.Supp.2d 1257, 1262 (D. Kan. 2003) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250-51).

         “[A]t the summary judgment stage the judge's function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. “Essentially, the inquiry is ‘whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to the jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Sawyer, 243 F.Supp.2d at 1262 (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251-52); see also LaRoche v. Denny's, Inc., 62 F.Supp.2d 1366, 1371 (S.D. Fla. 1999) (“The law is clear . . . that suspicion, perception, opinion, and belief cannot be used to defeat a motion for summary judgment.”).

         III. Analysis

         Plaintiffs' sole remaining cause of action in this case is a claim for wrongful death. Under Alabama Code § 6-5-410(a):

A personal representative may commence an action and recover such damages as the jury may assess in a court of competent jurisdiction within the State of Alabama, and not elsewhere, for the wrongful act, omission, or negligence of any person . . . whereby the death of his testator or intestate was caused, provided the testator or intestate could have commenced an action for such wrongful act, omission, or negligence if it had not caused death.

         In the court's January 8, 2018 Order, it concluded that Plaintiffs could not maintain a wrongful-death action based on Defendant's alleged negligence, but that they could potentially maintain such a claim upon an alleged intentional act committed by Defendant. (Doc. # 60 at 24). The court addressed Gilmore v. Shell Oil Company, 613 So.2d 1272 (Ala. 1993) (addressing when a decedent's suicide is an “intervening efficient cause” that breaks the chain of causation flowing from a defendant's negligence) and Prill v. Marrone, 23 So.3d 1 (Ala. 2009) (addressing when a defendant's negligent conduct causes a decedent to experience an “uncontrollable impulse” to commit suicide), and found that neither standard squarely applied to a wrongful-death claim based on a defendant's intentional conduct.

         Plaintiffs' wrongful death claim is based on wanton (i.e., intentional) and wrongful conduct on the part of Defendant. Specifically, Plaintiffs claim that Defendant intentionally falsely imprisoned Megan, intentionally sexually assaulted her, and that his conduct was an assault and battery and outrageous under Alabama law. The primary questions the court must answer are (1) whether there is substantial evidence that Defendant committed an intentional tort against Megan (i.e., false imprisonment, assault and/or battery, and ...


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