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Woolverton v. City of Wardell

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Southeastern Division

May 14, 2018

LEE WOOLVERTON, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF WARDELL, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          ABBIE CRITES-LEONI UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Lee Woolverton filed this action against Defendants City of Wardell, Casey Redden, Chris Rudd, Deputy Edward Holloway, Sheriff Tommy Greenwell, and Western Surety Company, [1] alleging violations of his constitutional rights resulting from an April 2016 traffic stop. Presently pending before the Court are the following motions: the Motion to Dismiss of Defendants City of Wardell, Officer Chris Rudd, and Officer Casey Redden (Doc. 41); and the Motion to Dismiss of Defendants Deputy Edward Holloway and Sheriff Tommy Greenwell (Doc. 43). The Motions are fully briefed and ripe for disposition.

         Background[2]

         In his First Amended Complaint, Plaintiff sets forth five counts: (1) Count I, a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim against Defendants Rudd and Redden; (2) Count II, a ' 1983 claim against Defendant Holloway; (3) Count III, a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim against the City of Wardell; (4) Count IV, a state law negligence claim against the City of Wardell; and (5) Count V, an action under sheriff's bond against Defendant Greenwell. Plaintiff states that Defendants Redden and Rudd were police officers employed by the City of Wardell, Missouri, at all relevant times; Defendant Holloway was employed as Deputy Sheriff of Pemiscot County, Missouri; and Defendant Greenwell was Sheriff of Pemiscot County, Missouri.

         The First Amended Complaint alleges that Defendant Redden stopped the automobile Woolverton was driving on April 11, 2016, at 10:10 p.m., in the City of Wardell, for allegedly having loud music playing and a light out. Defendant Redden then contacted Defendant Rudd at about 10:13 p.m. to assist Redden with the stop. Defendant Redden in turn contacted the Pemiscot County Sheriff's dispatch and was told that Woolverton had a warrant out for his arrest from the City of Malden for failure to appear. Defendant Redden then placed Woolverton in handcuffs with his arms and hands behind his back and placed him in Redden's patrol vehicle. Woolverton alleges that his car was unreasonably searched by a drug dog under the control of Defendant Redden and was later unreasonably searched by Defendants Redden and Rudd. No. contraband or other illegal items were found.

         Woolverton claims that Defendant Rudd next told Woolverton he could “kick his ass, ” and called him derogatory names while he was securely sitting in handcuffs in Redden's police vehicle. He further alleges that, while his hands were cuffed behind his back, he opened the trunk of his vehicle because Rudd and Redden were unable to open the trunk. Woolverton claims that either Redden or Rudd slammed his head into the vehicle driven by Redden and applied a choke hold. Defendant Redden or Rudd then applied a “scissor move” to his leg, taking him to the ground and causing him to land face first in a road ditch. Defendant Holloway observed the actions of Redden and Rudd and did nothing to stop them. Woolverton alleges that, as a direct result of the scissor move, his right leg snapped, making an audible pop, and was severely broken. Woolverton told Holloway, Redden, and Rudd that his leg was broken, but these Defendants still hauled him roughly about the ground and then into Redden's police vehicle, causing further pain and injury to his leg. Woolverton states that he offered no resistance to the requests of Defendants Redden, Rudd, or Holloway at any time during the incident. He claims that he suffered serious and continuing injuries as a result of the Defendants' actions.

         On March 7, 2018, Defendants City of Wardell, Redden, and Rudd filed their Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (Doc. 41.) Defendants Rudd and Redden argue that Count I should be dismissed for the following reasons: the claims against them in their official capacities are duplicative and fail to give rise to municipal liability; Count I fails to provide specific acts of Defendants Rudd and Redden constituting an unreasonable search or seizure; and they are entitled to qualified immunity on the individual capacity claims. Defendant City of Wardell moves for the dismissal of Count III on the basis that Plaintiff fails to allege facts indicating the City had a policy or custom that is so persistent and widespread as to have the effect and force of law. The City of Wardell argues that Count IV should be dismissed because Plaintiff fails to allege facts sufficient to subject the City of Wardell to municipal liability for the state law tort of negligence.

         On March 13, 2018, Defendants Holloway and Greenwell moved for the dismissal of Counts II and V for failure to state a claim. (Doc. 43.) Defendant Holloway argues that Count II fails to state a claim for which relief may be granted because the facts stated in the First Amended Complaint fail to show that Holloway violated any constitutional rights of Plaintiff under the Fourth and Eighth Amendment. Defendant Greenwell claims that Count V fails to state a claim for relief because there is no respondeat superior liability in ' 1983 claims and Plaintiff has failed to state any policy or custom that would be a basis for imposing liability against Sheriff Greenwell.

         Plaintiff admits that the official capacity claims against Defendants Redden and Rudd are duplicative of the claim against the City of Wardell and concedes to the dismissal of these claims. (Doc. 46.) Plaintiff opposes Defendants' Motions to Dismiss in all other respects. (Docs. 45, 46.)

         Legal Standard

         The purpose of a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim is to test the legal sufficiency of a complaint. To survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A claim for relief “must include sufficient factual information to provide the ‘grounds' on which the claim rests, and to raise a right to relief above a speculative level.” Schaaf v. Residential Funding Corp., 517 F.3d 544, 549 (8th Cir. 2008) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 & n.3). This obligation requires a plaintiff to plead “more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

         On a motion to dismiss, the Court accepts as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint, even if it appears that “actual proof of those facts is improbable, ” and reviews the complaint to determine whether its allegations show that the pleader is entitled to relief. Id. at 555-56; Fed.R.Civ.P. Rule 8(a)(2). The principle that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint does not apply to legal conclusions. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (“Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.”).

         Discussion

         I. Defendants Rudd and Redden

         In Count I, Woolverton alleges that Rudd and Redden used excessive force on the following occasions: (1) when one or both slammed his head into a police vehicle; (2) when one or both took him to the ground while his hands were handcuffed behind his back causing his leg to break; (3) when one or both roughly hauled him about knowing his leg was broken; and (4) when one or both roughly hauled him into the police vehicle instead of calling an ambulance. (Doc. 40 at 7.) Woolverton claims that the actions of these Defendants were excessive, sadistic, and not reasonably necessary to investigate the alleged violations of law or to take him into custody for the City of Malden municipal court warrant.

         A. Official Capacity Claims

         Defendants first argue that the claims against them in their official capacities are duplicative and fail to give rise to municipal liability. As previously noted, Woolverton has conceded that the official capacity claims are duplicative and subject to dismissal. It is well-settled law that when a state or municipal official is sued in his official capacity, the claim is treated as a suit against the entity itself. Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 165-66 (1985). “It is proper for a court to dismiss a claim against a government officer in his official capacity as duplicative or redundant if the claims are also asserted against the officer's governmental employer.” Caruso v. City of St. Louis, No. 4:16CV1335 RWS, 2016 WL 6563472, at *1 (E.D. Mo. Nov. 4, 2016) (citing Veatch v. Bartels Lutheran Home, 627 F.3d 1254, 1257 (8th Cir. 2010). Accordingly, the Court will dismiss the official capacity claims against Defendants Rudd and Redden.

         B. Individual Capacity Claims

         Defendants next argue that Count I fails to provide specific acts of Defendants Rudd and Redden constituting an unreasonable search or seizure; and that they are entitled to qualified immunity on this claim.

         “[G]overnment officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded 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.” Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). Qualified immunity is not available “if an official ‘knew or reasonably should have known that the action he took within his sphere of official responsibility would violate the constitutional rights of the [individual], or if he took the action with the malicious intention to cause a deprivation of constitutional rights or other injury.'” Id. at 815 (quoting Wood v. Strickland, 420 U.S. 308, 322 (1975)). “The qualified immunity standard gives ample room for mistaken judgments by protecting all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 229 (1991) (internal quotations omitted).

         In determining whether an officer is entitled to qualified immunity, the Court employs a two-step analysis that asks: (1) whether the alleged facts, when viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, demonstrate that the official's conduct violated a constitutional right; and (2) whether the constitutional right being asserted is clearly established. Wallingford v. Olson, 592 F.3d 888, 892 (8th Cir. 2010) (cited cases omitted). The Court may address either question first. See Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009). “If either question is answered in the negative, the public official is entitled to qualified immunity.” Norris v. Engles, 494 F.3d 634, 637 (8th Cir. 2007) (quoted case omitted). “To determine whether a right is clearly established we ask whether it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted.” White v. McKinley, 519 F.3d 806, 813 (8th Cir. 2008) (quoted case and internal quotation marks omitted).

         Because the Court is addressing the issue of qualified immunity in a motion to dismiss, the answers to these two questions are entirely dependent upon what Woolverton alleges in the Complaint. See Dornheim v. Sholes, 430 F.3d 919, 926 (8th Cir. 2005) (“A rule 12(b)(6) dismissal based on qualified immunity is appropriate ‘when the immunity is established on the face of the complaint.'”) (quoting Whisman v. Rinehart, 119 F.3d 1303, 1309 (8th Cir. 1997)). Thus, to prevail on their Motion to Dismiss based on qualified immunity, the Police Officer Defendants ...


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