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Colson v. City of Alcoa

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Knoxville Division

May 2, 2017

CITY OF ALCOA, TENNESSEE, et al., Defendants.


          Leon Jordan United States District Judge.

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant Sheriff James L. Berrong and Defendant Officer Mandy England's Motion to Dismiss [doc. 19], Defendant Sheriff James L. Berrong and Defendant Officer Mandy England's Brief in Support of the Motion [doc. 20], Plaintiff Annissa Colson's Response in Opposition [doc. 35], and Defendant Sheriff James L. Berrong and Defendant Officer Mandy England's Reply [doc. 42]. For the reasons herein, the Court will grant the motion in part and deny the motion in part.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff Annissa Colson (“Ms. Colson”) alleges that one evening she was involved in a car accident and that Officer Dustin Cook (“Officer Cook”) and Officer Arik Wilson (“Officer Wilson”), both of the Alcoa Police Department, arrested her on charges that include driving under the influence and reckless endangerment. [Compl., doc. 1, ¶ 5]. Ms. Colson claims that, while at the scene of the accident, she consented to a blood alcohol test and that Officer Cook and Officer Wilson drove her to Blount Memorial Hospital for the test. [Id.]. She alleges, however, that she withdrew her consent once they arrived at the hospital, causing Officer Cook and Officer Wilson to instruct her to get back into their patrol vehicle. [Id.]. At that point, Ms. Colson, who claims to suffer from multiple anxiety disorders including “severe panic disorder, ” alleges that she experienced a “crippling panic attack, gasping for breath, in obvious distress” and asked Officer Cook and Officer Wilson to let her breathe. [Id. ¶¶ 1, 5]. “I need to breathe. Please let me breath, ” she allegedly said to them. [Id. ¶ 56]. According to Ms. Colson, who refers to herself as “diminutive, ” Officer Cook and Officer Wilson believed that she was resisting their commands and responded by forcing her back into their patrol vehicle. [Id. ¶ 6]. Specifically, she claims that Officer Cook pulled her into the patrol vehicle from inside while Officer Wilson pushed her into it, and in the process, Officer Wilson thrust his knee into her knee and caused it to “pop.” [Id. ¶¶ 6-7]. As they maneuvered her into the patrol vehicle, they also allegedly employed “pressure point tactics” on her-one clasping her jugular and the other clasping her clavicle. [Id. ¶ 8].

         Once Ms. Colson was inside the patrol vehicle, she was allegedly “screaming in pain and crying for her mother.” [Id. ¶ 9]. Ms. Colson claims that Officer Cook then contacted his supervisor, Lieutenant Keith Fletcher (“Lieutenant Fletcher”), and requested guidance on how to proceed, including advice as to whether they should take Ms. Colson to have her knee examined by a medical professional. [Id.]. Lieutenant Fletcher allegedly told them to take Ms. Colson to Blount County Jail, where the staff nurse could check her knee and conduct a mandatory blood draw. [Id. ¶¶ 9, 64]. According to Ms. Colson, they transported her to Blount County Jail, and Officer Mandy England (“Officer England”) met them there. [Id. ¶ 10].[1] Officer England allegedly escorted Ms. Colson, who claims that she was “screaming about her knee, ” to a room where she was “surrounded by corrections staff” and strapped into a “restraint chair.” [Id. ¶¶ 10, 66].

         Ms. Colson maintains that Jennifer Russell, a staff nurse at Blount County Jail, then performed a “cursory examination” of her knee, found nothing wrong with it, and attempted to draw her blood with Officer England's help. [Id. ¶ 11]. In response, Ms. Colson alleges that she became uncomfortable and resisted their efforts, prompting Officer England to strike her in the face. [Id.].[2] Afterwards, Ms. Colson claims that, while still in the restraint chair, she repeatedly requested the opportunity to use the restroom but was denied that opportunity, and she eventually urinated on herself several times. [Id. ¶ 12]. According to Ms. Colson, the officers reacted with laughter. [Id.]. A male officer then allegedly placed her in a “semi-choke hold” while Officer England forced a helmet onto her head. [Id. ¶¶ 13, 73-74]. Ms. Colson claims that she told the officer he was hurting her neck and that he replied, “good.” [Id. ¶ 73]. She allegedly remained fastened in the restraint chair for roughly another five hours. [Id. ¶¶ 13, 75].

         Ms. Colson asserts that after she was released from Blount County Jail, she learned that she had suffered “a tibial plateau fracture, a torn ACL, [and] a torn LCL, ” in addition to abrasions and bruises to her neck, chest, arms, and foot. [Id. ¶ 16]. She also maintains that she experienced “substantial mental anguish.” [Id.]. As a result, she has filed this lawsuit against the City of Alcoa, Tennessee; Blount County, Tennessee; and officers of these local governments in their official and individual capacities, bringing several claims under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985, 1986, 1988 and alleging violations of her constitutional rights under the Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments. [Id. at 32-53]. She pleads that these violations consist of use of unlawful and excessive force, cruel and unusual punishment, failure to train and supervise, failure to provide adequate medical treatment, and failure to protect. [Id.]. Ms. Colson also brings common law claims under Tennessee law for assault and battery against Officer Cook, Office Wilson, and Officer England; intentional infliction of emotional distress against all Defendants; and negligence against all Defendants. [Id. ¶¶ 178-94]. Defendants Sheriff James L. Berrong (“Sheriff Berrong”) and Officer England now move for dismissal of certain claims against them in their individual capacities. Sheriff Berrong requests dismissal of all the § 1983 claims and state law claims, [Defs.' Br. at 4-12], and Officer England moves for dismissal of the negligence claim, [id. at 14].

         II. Legal Standard

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), “[a] pleading that states a claim for relief must contain . . . a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). To survive a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the plaintiff's 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 Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A claim is facially plausible when the plaintiff pleads facts that create a reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the alleged conduct in the complaint. Id.

         When considering a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a court accepts the allegations in the complaint as true and construes them in a light most favorable to the plaintiff. Mixon v. Ohio, 193 F.3d 389, 400 (6th Cir. 1999). “[T]he tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions, ” however. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. A plaintiff's allegations must consist of more than “labels, ” “conclusions, ” and “formulaic recitation[s] of the elements of a cause of action.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citation omitted); see Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (“Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” (citation omitted)). “Although a motion pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) invites an inquiry into the legal sufficiency of the complaint, not an analysis of potential defenses to the claims set forth therein, dismissal nevertheless is appropriate when the defendant is entitled to a meritorious affirmative defense such as qualified immunity.” Peatross v. City of Memphis, 818 F.3d 233, 240 (6th Cir. 2016).

         III. Analysis

         Section 1983 permits a claim for damages against “[e]very person who, under color of [state law], subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Because § 1983 has “a ‘color of law' requirement, ” a defendant “can be held liable only if state law, whether provided by statute or judicially implied, empowers him with some legal obligation to act.” Doe v. Claiborne County, 103 F.3d 495, 512 (6th Cir. 1996) (citation omitted). A claim under § 1983 therefore consists of two elements: (1) the defendant deprived the plaintiff of a constitutional right or a federal statutory right and (2) the defendant deprived the plaintiff of one of these types of rights while acting under color of state law (i.e., state action). Id. at 511; Christy v. Randlett, 932 F.2d 502, 504 (6th Cir. 1991). “Absent either element, a section 1983 claim will not lie.” Christy, 103 F.3d at 511.

         A. Sheriff Berrong

         Because of the length of the Complaint, which exceeds sixty pages, and the relatively large number of Defendants in this action, the Court begins with an overview of the allegations against Sheriff Berrong. Ms. Colson prefaces her claims by describing the City of Alcoa's and Blount County's policies as the “moving force” behind the alleged infringements of her constitutional rights:

17. The moving force behind the violations of Plaintiff's constitutional rights was Alcoa and Blount County's policies, customs, or practices to employ and apply the same protocols, conventions, customs, or rules of conduct in handling suspects or inmates who suffer from severe mental disorders, here, a severe anxiety and panic disorder, as they do in handling other un-afflicted inmates. This practice is accepted as a policy or custom of deliberate indifference to the safety of suspects or inmates who suffer from debilitating mental disorders.
18. Defendants knew, or should have known, by Plaintiff's actions, statements, and medications, that Plaintiff suffered from a severe mental disorder. . . . The officers responded just as they would have to any non-compliant suspect or inmate, disregarding her severe mental disorder.

[Compl. ¶¶ 17-18]. Ms. Colson endeavors to link this alleged policy and the officers' alleged actions to Sheriff Berrong by pleading that, under Tenn. Code Ann. section 41-4- 101, [3] he is “statutorily responsible for the operation of the Blount County Jail; for the screening[, ] hiring, firing, training and the supervision of the jailers, deputies, corrections officers, and other jail personal; and responsible for the safety and welfare of those housed in the Jail.” [Id. ¶¶ 34-35].

         Against the backdrop of these general assertions, Ms. Colson goes on to allege four individual-capacity claims[4] against Sheriff Berrong under § 1983: one for use of unlawful and excessive force against her (Count Four); a second for failure to train and supervise personnel (Count Six); a third for failure to provide her with adequate medical treatment (Count Nine); and a fourth for failure to keep her free from harm while she was in custody (Count Ten). Nowhere does Ms. Colson plead that Sheriff Berrong was personally or directly involved in the officers' actions against her.[5] Rather, her individual-capacity claims against Sheriff Berrong are based on allegations that, while executing his responsibilities as a supervisor, he encouraged or implicitly authorized his officers' unconstitutional actions against her. [See Pl.'s Resp. at 14 (stating that the allegations implicate Sheriff Berrong “in his role as a supervisor”)].

         1. Ms. Colson's Style of Pleading

         Sheriff Berrong maintains that Count Four, Count Nine, and Count Ten require dismissal because Ms. Colson “broadly alleges how all defendants should be held liable without mentioning or attempting to specify how Sheriff Berrong should be held liable.” [Defs.' Br. at 5]. At first blush, Sheriff Berrong appears to be correct in his assessment of these counts, which contain no specific allegations against him in their respective bodies. Rather, Ms. Colson indiscriminately pools all Defendants into these counts and, for the most part, does not levy allegations against any individual Defendant but against all Defendants at once. This haphazard style of pleading is generally grounds for dismissal. See Tuck v. Off Shore Inland Marine & Oilfield Co., No. 12-0379-WS-M, 2013 WL 81135, at *4 n.8 (S.D. Ala. Jan. 4, 2013) (“Part of plaintiffs' problem is that their Complaint lumps the four original defendants together in an undifferentiated mass, which is often itself a defect under Rule 8.” (citations omitted)); Petrovic v. Princess Cruise Lines, Ltd., No. 12-21588-CIV, 2012 WL 3026368, at *3 (S.D. Fla. July 20, 2012) (“[A] complaint that ‘lump[s] all the defendants together in each claim and provid[es] no factual basis to distinguish their conduct' fails to satisfy Rule 8.” (quotation omitted)); Ismail v. City of Vallejo, No. C 93-3253 BAC, 1994 WL 317602, at *2 (N.D. Cal. June 21, 1994) (“Plaintiff's complaint lumps the defendants together and does not identify the role of any particular defendant in causing a deprivation of plaintiff's federally protected civil rights. The complaint fails to meet the pleading requirements for a Section 1983 claim. The plaintiff must sort out and allege the conduct of each defendant which he claims resulted in a deprivation of his federally protected civil rights.” (citation omitted)).

         A careful reading of the Complaint, however, shows that Ms. Colson's allegations in Count Four, Count Nine, and Count Ten-though perhaps not models of pleading-are technically not lacking in allegations against Sheriff Berrong specifically. Sheriff Berrong loses sight of the fact that Ms. Colson incorporates by reference into these counts other paragraphs from the Complaint, and some of these paragraphs contain allegations that are particular to Sheriff Berrong. See generally Hishon v. King & Spalding, 467 U.S. 69, 73 (1984) (“A court may dismiss a complaint only if it is clear that no relief could be granted under any set of facts that could be proved consistent with the allegations.” (emphasis added) (citation omitted)). For instance, in Count Four, Ms. Colson incorporates by reference the following allegation against Sheriff Berrong from Count Three:

112. No one, not . . . Sheriff Berrong, or any other supervisors named herein took disciplinary action against England.

         Similarly, in Count Nine and Count Ten, she incorporates by reference-from Count Six, Count Seven, and Count Eight-the following allegations against Sheriff Berrong:

133. Sheriff Berrong . . . had an opportunity to implement corrective action against the various officers involved, but . . . did not. Instead, [he] implicitly authorized, approved, or knowingly acquiesced in those officers' conduct, implicitly acquiescing in the use of excessive force and cruel and unusual punishment as well.
134. Sheriff Berrong . . . had a duty to train and supervise [his] departments' officers to avoid the use of excessive force, cruel and unusual punishment, and deprivation of adequate medical care. Yet, [he] failed to train and supervise those officers properly and failed to competently and properly investigate the use of excessive force.
135. It is highly unlikely that incidents such as those described herein would not have been reviewed by . . . Sheriff Berrong . . . . Nevertheless, none of the officers involved were disciplined.
136. Ratification of such conduct by . . . Sheriff Berrong . . . sent a message that officers are allowed to do whatever they want, whenever they want, to whomever they want, irrespective of the Constitution. . . . Sheriff Berrong [was] involved, at least in part, in creating and enforcing their departments' policies. Here, they did not punish officer misconduct, including the use of excessive force and failure to provide adequate medical care, but “rubber stamped” that conduct.
142. By ratifying Plaintiff's mistreatment . . . Sheriff Berrong acquiesced in the unconstitutional conduct of [his] subordinates through the execution of their job functions.
156. At all times material hereto, Sheriff Berrong authorized the use of a “restraint chair” at the Blount County Jail[.]
157. The use of the “restraint chair” under the facts of this case on an inmate who suffers from a severe mental disorder constituted cruel and unusual punishment, which violated Plaintiff's rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.
160. The use of the “restraint chair” is expressly prohibited by the policies and procedures of many corrections facilities, but Sheriff Berrong has known that the “restraint chair” at the Blount County Jail was being used as punishment for certain inmates, including inmates with severe mental disorders. He failed to take action to prevent the abuses.

         Clearly, Ms. Colson does not fall short of apprising Sheriff Berrong of how she believes that he-and he specifically-is liable under Count Four, Count Nine, and Count Ten. The issue of whether these allegations add up to factually sufficient claims for supervisory liability, however, is a separate one that the Court will now consider.

         2. The Contours of Supervisory Liability under § 1983

         In Ashcroft v. Iqbal, the Supreme Court stated that in suits under § 1983, “the term ‘supervisory liability' is a misnomer” because “each Government official, his or her title notwithstanding, is only liable for his or her own misconduct.” 556 U.S. at 677. In other words, a supervisory official cannot be liable under a theory of vicarious liability, id. at 676, or in other words, “simply because he or she was charged with overseeing a subordinate who violated the constitutional rights of another, ” Peatross, 818 F.3d at 241 (citation omitted). A supervisor's mere failure to act is therefore not enough to establish supervisory liability; instead “supervisory liability requires some ‘active constitutional behavior' on the part of the supervisor.” Id. (quotation omitted); see Salehpour v. Univ. of Tenn., 159 F.3d 199, 206 (6th Cir. ...

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