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Luna v. Bell

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

May 11, 2017

JANE LUNA, as Administratrix of the Estate of Charles Jason Toll, deceased, Plaintiff,
RICKY BELL, et al., Defendants


          ALETA A. TRAUGER United States District Judge.

         Before the court is the defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. No. 269.) The motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for review. For the reasons set forth herein, the court will grant the motion and dismiss this case with prejudice.


         The plaintiff's decedent, Jason Toll, died during a cell extraction and strip search at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution (“RMSI”), in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2010. The court presumes familiarity with the transcript of the trial in this matter, conducted in August 2013 (see Trial Tr., Doc. Nos. 201-09), and will not reiterate the evidentiary background here except as strictly necessary to discuss the claims at issue.

         In 2011, Jane Luna, Toll's mother, brought this action as administratrix of her son's estate against nine correctional officers who were allegedly personally involved in the incident, as well as against Ricky Bell, then warden of RMSI. (Compl., Doc. No. 1.) The plaintiff asserted claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the correctional officers who were involved in the cell extraction for the use of excessive force and against Warden Bell, in his individual capacity, for failure to train and supervise. In an Amended Complaint filed in October 2012, the plaintiff voluntarily abandoned her claims against two of the nine officer defendants. (Am. Compl., Doc. No. 52.) Prior to trial, she voluntarily dismissed the claims against five of the remaining seven individual officers, leaving only the claims against Officer Gaelan Doss, Captain James Horton, and Warden Bell to proceed to trial. (See Doc. No. 152 (Order granting oral Motion to Dismiss defendants Reckart, Jackson, Stewart, Freeman, and Bishop).)

         Senior Judge John T. Nixon, now retired, conducted a nine-day trial beginning on August 13, 2013. The jury returned verdicts in favor of the defendants, specifically concluding that Doss and Horton did not violate Toll's constitutional right to be free from the use of excessive force during the cell extraction and that Bell did not violate Toll's constitutional rights by failing to adequately train the corrections officers involved in the cell extraction. (See Redacted Verdict Forms, Doc. Nos. 157, 160, 161.) The court thereafter denied the plaintiff's timely Rule 59(a) Motion for a New Trial (Doc. Nos. 168, 172.)

         Nearly a year later, the plaintiff filed a Motion to Reopen Case (Doc. No. 173) and Rule 60(b) Omnibus Motion for Relief from Judgments (Doc. No. 174). The court granted relief under Rule 60(b)(2), on the basis that the plaintiff was in possession of newly discovered evidence- namely, the February 7, 2011 resignation letter of former defendant and correctional officer William Amonette (“resignation letter”).[1] The court found that the plaintiff had established that, despite reasonable diligence, the resignation letter could not have been discovered in time to move for a new trial under Rule 59(b) and that the letter constituted material and controlling evidence which, if it had been produced in time to be introduced into evidence at trial, would have produced a different result at trial. In ruling on the motion, the court found that the “newly discovered resignation letter is material evidence that would have assisted the jury in weighing the credibility of the defense witnesses, would have affected depositions and the parties' presentation of trial evidence, and would most likely have led the parties to other material evidence.” (Order, Doc. No. 187, at 7.) The court specifically did not find fraud, misrepresentation or misconduct by the defendants or their attorneys.

         Following entry of the Order granting relief, the Judgments in favor of the defendants were vacated. Judge Nixon recused himself, and the matter was reassigned to Judge Todd Campbell. The defendants promptly filed a Rule 59 motion, seeking reconsideration of the Order granting a new trial. (Doc. No. 191.) Judge Campbell denied the motion. (Doc. No. 198.) The court also denied the plaintiff's Motion for Sanctions (Doc. No. 213), finding no evidence that the defendants or their counsel acted in bad faith. (Doc. Nos. 256 (Report and Recommendation) and 261 (Order adopting Report and Recommendation).) Meanwhile, new Case Management Orders were entered, setting a trial date as well as deadlines for amending pleadings, discovery, and the filing of dispositive motions. In November 2016, with the retirement of Judge Campbell, this case was transferred to the undersigned.

         In early 2017, the defendants filed a Rule 54(b) Motion to Reconsider Order Vacating Jury Verdict (Doc. No. 271), as well as their Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 268). The court denied the Rule 54(b) motion, finding that the defendants did not carry their burden but noting that the substantive issues raised therein could be addressed in the context of the also-pending Motion for Summary Judgment.

         The plaintiff filed a Response in Opposition to the Motion for Summary Judgment, arguing that disputed issues of fact preclude summary judgment in favor of any of the defendants. In this response, the plaintiff relies entirely upon the trial transcript; she does not reference Amonette's resignation letter or any other new evidence; she does not suggest how the resignation letter calls into question any of the evidence offered at the 2013 trial of this matter. Consequently, the court entered an order directing her to file a sur-reply that “cites to evidence other than what was introduced at trial. Plaintiff's Motion for New Trial was granted on the basis of new evidence. Plaintiff risks the granting of this Motion for Summary Judgment should the Sur-Reply not convince the court that a new trial is warranted.” (Doc. No. 288.)

         The plaintiff filed her Sur-Reply (Doc. No. 290), in which she refers to the resignation letter and quotes extensively from the transcript of Amonette's September 12, 2015 sworn Statement on the Record (“Statement”) (Doc. No. 222-4).[2]


         The motion before the court stands in a highly unusual procedural posture. Typically, of course, Rule 56 requires the court to grant a motion for summary judgment if “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). There clearly are disputed issues of fact in this case-that is why it went to trial in the first place. The jury, however, resolved those factual disputes in the first trial in favor of the defendants. The court granted a new trial based on the new evidence that, the plaintiff claimed, “could have substantially affected the credibility of every witness who testified.” (Doc. No. 175, at 6.)

         Thus, the question implicit in the defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment is whether the plaintiff's new evidence is sufficient to call into doubt the credibility of any of the witnesses on a material matter or to cast any of the evidence offered at trial in a different light, such that a new trial is actually warranted. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986) (“[T]the judge's function is not . . . to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.”). “The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the [non-moving party's] position will be insufficient, ” and the party's proof must be more than “merely colorable.” Id. at 252.

         III. ...

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