United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee
JUDY HODGE, on behalf of herself and the ESTATE OF LARRY HODGE, Plaintiffs,
BLOUNT COUNTY, TENNESSEE; and JAMES BERRONG, JEFF CLARK, DOUG DAVIS, JAMES LONG, DOUG MOORE, RON TALBOTT, and HENRY VAUGHN in their individual capacities, Defendants.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
the Court are motions to dismiss filed by Blount County and
by the Officer Defendants. Judy Hodge claims that her ailing
husband Larry was beat up during a traffic stop by Henry
Vaughn, a Blount County police officer. After being beaten,
Vaughn and Officer Doug Davis arrested the bleeding Larry and
refused to take him to a hospital. Larry's injuries
worsened his preexisting medical conditions, hastening his
beating, Hodge asserts, was unconstitutional and was caused
by unconstitutional policies and practices maintained by
Hodge's supervisors. These supervisors included Sheriff
James Ber-rong, Deputy Chief Ron Talbott, Deputy Chief James
Long, and Patrol Captain Jeff Clark. And when Hodge's
supervisors learned of the beating, Officer Doug Moore
conducted a sham investigation that led to no consequences.
suit followed in June 2016, and a nine-count amended
complaint followed in February 2017. Defendants now ask the
Court to dismiss all claims against them. For the following
reasons, these motions will be granted in part and denied in
move to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure
12(b)(6). To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6),
the complaint must state a facially plausible claim for
relief. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).
To determine whether the complaint states a facially
plausible claim, the Court takes a two-step approach.
Id. at 679. First, it separates the complaint's
factual allegations and legal conclusions. All factual
allegations, and only the factual allegations, are taken as
true. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544,
the Court asks whether these factual allegations amount to a
plausible claim for relief. Id. at 555. The
allegations do not need to be highly detailed, but they must
do more than simply recite the elements of the offense.
Id. Specifically, the complaint must plead facts
permitting a reasonable inference that the defendant is
liable for the alleged conduct. Id. If this is not
done, the claim will be dismissed. Id. at 570.
Officer Defendants offer two reasons for granting their
motion to dismiss. First, some of Hodge's claims have not
been properly stated. And even if they were, the Officers are
protected by qualified immunity against all counts.
doctrine of qualified immunity shields public officers from
suit as long as their conduct did not violate the
plaintiff's clearly established rights. See,
e.g., Ziglar v. Abbasi, 137 S.Ct. 1843, 1866
(2017). There are thus two questions involved: whether the
officer violated the plaintiff's rights, and whether
those rights were clearly established. See City &
Cty. of S.F. v. Sheehan, 135 S.Ct. 1765, 1774 (2015). A
right is clearly established when a reasonable officer in the
defendant's shoes would have known that his conduct
violated the plaintiff's right. Hernandez v.
Mesa, 137 S.Ct. 2003, 2007 (2017). A reasonable officer
would have known this if “existing precedent”
placed the issue “beyond debate.” Mullenix v.
Luna, 136 S.Ct. 305, 308 (2015). And when determining
whether such precedent exists, the court looks at the
particularized facts of the case, not at a high level of
generality. White v. Pauly, 137 S.Ct. 548, 552
Counts 1 and 2 of the amended complaint, Hodge asserts that
Vaughn used excessive force when arresting Larry, in
violation of his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable
seizure. She alleges that Vaughn used excessive force by
pointing his gun at Larry and by forcibly arresting him.
Vaughn asserts that, under the facts as stated in the
complaint, he is entitled to qualified immunity.
the facts as stated in the complaint, Vaughn is not entitled
to qualified immunity. This answer flows directly from
Brown v. Lewis, 779 F.3d 401 (6th Cir. 2015),
decided four months before the events at issue here. In
Brown, a man who sounded drunk called 911 from a
home and vaguely requested police. Id. at 407. When
he put down the phone he did not hang up, and the 911
dispatcher heard him make a joking threat against the woman
who had not yet shown up to give him a ride. Id. at
407-08. The dispatcher sent an officer to check out the
situation at the home. Id. at 409.
same time, two women were driving in one car to the home.
Id. at 408. The driver was Kishna Brown, the
plaintiff. Id. at 407. Brown dropped off her friend
at the home and drove away. Id. The officer watching
the home thought that Brown was giving the man a ride.
Id. at 409. He called two other police cruisers, and
they all pulled Brown over. Id. One officer opened
the rear passenger door to Brown's car and pointed an
AR-15 at her head. Id. at 408. As Brown asked
“What did I do?” officers cursed at her and told
her to get out of the car. Id. She moved to exit her
car, but before her foot could touch the ground, two officers
grabbed her by her sweatshirt hood, threw her to the
pavement, and handcuffed her. Id. at 408. They let
Brown go after ten minutes. Id. at 409.
sued the officers for wrongful seizure and excessive force,
among other things. Id. at 410. The officers moved
for summary judgment, arguing that they were entitled to
qualified immunity. Id. The district court denied
the motion. Id. It found that the force described by
Brown was constitutionally excessive, and that this
excessiveness was clearly established. Id. The
officers appealed. Id.
Sixth Circuit affirmed. Id. at 421. On the
wrongful-seizure claim, the court began by noting that a
seizure occurs when a reasonable person would not think that
he could walk away. Id. at 412. And there are two
types of seizure, which are given different types of
scrutiny. Id. Under the first type, an officer
detains someone for a short time for investigatory purposes.
Id. The officer may do so if, under the
circumstances, he has a “particularized and objective
basis for suspecting” that the person has committed a
crime “based on specific and articulable facts.”
Id. For such a stop to be reasonable, the degree of
intrusion into the person's security must be
“reasonably related in scope to the situation at
hand.” Id. If the length and manner of the
stop, including the force used, are not reasonably related to
the basis for the initial intrusion, then the stop becomes an
arrest- the second kind of seizure-requiring probable cause.
this framework, the court found that the officers had
violated Brown's Fourth Amendment right against
unreasonable seizures. Id. at 416. It concluded that
the length and manner of the initial stop were not reasonably
related in scope to the situation at hand. Id. at
414. “Courts consider the length of the detention, the
manner in which it is conducted, and the degree of force used
in determining whether an investigative stop is reasonably
related to the basis for the original intrusion.”
Id. The officers had wrongly continued to detain
Brown after learning that the man was not in her car, and
Brown's behavior did not give the officers any reason to
believe that she was dangerous. Id. The seizure thus
grew into an arrest, which the officers lacked probable cause
for. Id. at 415.
court further found that Brown's right against wrongful
seizure was clearly established. Id. at 416. It
quoted a 2006 case which stated, “‘The law is
clear that once the purposes of the initial traffic stop are
completed, there is no doubt that the officer cannot further
detain the vehicle or its occupants unless something that
occurred during the traffic stop generated the reasonable
suspicion to justify a further detention.'”
Id. (quoting Smoak v. Hall, 460 F.3d 768,
782 (6th Cir. 2006)). And once the officers realized that
Brown was alone in the car, they had no more reason to hold
her. Id. Thus, they were not entitled to qualified
immunity on the wrongful-seizure claim.
of Hodge's complaint strongly mirrors this claim in
Brown. According to the complaint, Larry's
side mirror struck another car's side mirror as they
passed each other. Larry then tried to talk to the woman, but
every time he got close to her car she would drive slightly
away from him. So Larry gave up and drove off. The woman in
the other car then called 911 to report that someone had
broken her mirror and driven off. Thus, when police were
looking for Larry's car, they were looking for someone
who at most could be charged with hit and run causing
property damage. See Tenn. Code Ann. §
55-10-102. But under Tennessee law, someone suspected of this
offense must be ticketed, not arrested. Id. §
55-10-207(b)(1). Larry, then, was not even wanted for an
arrestable offense. And when Vaughn pulled Larry over, Larry
sat motionless in his seat, hands at 10 and 2. Yet Vaughn
approached Larry's car with his gun drawn and pointed at
Larry's head. As in Brown, this use of force was
not reasonably related in scope to the situation at hand.
sure, Brown is not exactly on point. In
Brown, the plaintiff tried to get out of the car
when she was ordered to, but then was thrown to the ground by
police. Here, Larry did not comply with Vaughn's order to
get out of the car. Instead, Larry responded with profanity
and said “I'm not getting out.” But again,
Vaughn had no business trying to arrest Larry anyway. Under
state law, Vaughn should have given Larry a ticket, not
arrested him at gunpoint. What's more, Vaughn was driving
an unmarked white pickup-hardly what people think when they
hear “cop car”-and he was wearing nothing that
would identify him as a Blount County officer. Nor did he
identify himself as an officer. So as far as Larry could
tell, a stranger had pulled him over, pointed a gun at his
head, and was trying to force him out of the car. A
reasonable officer in that situation would at least know to
identify himself as an officer. Cf. Yates v. City of
Cleveland, 941 F.3d 444, 447 (6th Cir. 1991) (“An
officer who intentionally enters a dark hallway in the
entrance of a private residence in the middle of the night,
and fails to give any indication of his identity, is more
than merely negligent.”).
as the Brown court noted, it's clear that an
officer cannot detain someone during a traffic stop once the
purposes of the stop are completed, unless something happened
to justify further detention. Here, the purposes of the stop
never even began, as Vaughn went straight to arresting Larry
without ticketing him. At this stage of litigation, Vaughn is
not entitled to qualified immunity on Count 1 of Hodge's
the wrongful-seizure claim, the Brown court noted
that the Fourth Amendment “protects individuals from
the use of excessive force during an arrest or investigatory
stop.” 779 F.3d at 418. To determine whether the force
was excessive, courts must look to the reasonableness of the
force in light of the circumstances before the defendants.
Id. And three factors determine reasonableness: the
severity of the suspected crime, whether the suspect poses
and immediate threat to officers or others, and whether she
is actively resisting arrest or trying to flee. Id.
The court held that, under these factors, the officers'
use of force was excessive. Id. Brown fully complied
with the officers' orders, they saw no weapons in her
car, and her hands stayed in clear view. Id.
court also found that this right was well established. It
noted that, “since at least 2009, the use of violence
against a subdued and non-resisting individual has been
clearly established as excessive, regardless of whether the
individual had been placed in handcuffs.” Id.
claim largely resembles the facts alleged in Count 2 of
Hodge's complaint. Larry was suspected of a Class C
misdemeanor that warranted a ticket, not an arrest. And
Larry, a 67-year-old man, was sitting motionless in his seat,
hands at 10 and 2. These two factors point toward a
constitutional violation. The only twist here is the third
factor: Larry was actively resisting arrest. But again,
Vaughn should not have been trying to arrest him in the first
place. And Vaughn failed to identify himself as an officer
before forcing Larry out of the car. See Doornbos v. City
of Chicago, ___ F.3d ___, 2017 WL 3574812, at *1 (7th
Cir. Aug. 18, 2017) (“In all but the most unusual
circumstances . . . plainclothes officers must ...