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Colson v. City of Alcoa

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

September 11, 2017

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



         This matter is before the Court on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss [doc. 31], Defendants' Brief in Support of the Motion [doc. 33], Plaintiffs Response in Opposition [doc. 46], and Defendants' Reply [doc. 49]. 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 for driving under the influence and for reckless endangerment. [Compl., doc. 1, ¶ 5]. Ms. Colson claims that, at the scene of the accident, she consented to a blood alcohol test and the officers then drove her to Blount Memorial Hospital for the test. [Id.]. She alleges, however, that she withdrew her consent once they arrived at the hospital, prompting the officers to instruct her to get back into their vehicle. [Id.]. At that point, Ms. Colson, who claims to suffer from anxiety- related disorders that include "severe panic disorder" and claustrophobia, alleges that she had a "crippling panic attack, gasping for breath, in obvious distress" and asked the officers to let her breathe. [Id. ¶¶ 1-2, 5]. "I need to breathe. Please let me breath, " she claims to have told them. [Id. ¶ 56]. According to Ms. Colson, who refers to herself as "diminutive, " the officers believed that she was resisting their commands and responded by forcing her back into their vehicle. [Id. ¶ 6]. Officer Cook allegedly pulled her into the vehicle from inside while Officer Wilson pushed her into it, and in the process, Officer Wilson allegedly thrust his knee into her knee and caused it to "pop." [Id. ¶¶ 6-7].

         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 contacted his supervisor, Lieutenant Keith Fletcher ("Lieutenant Fletcher"), and asked him for instructions about how to proceed, including about 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, [1] where several officers and other staff employees, including Officer Mandy England ("Officer England") and Defendant Nurse Russell ("Nurse Russell"), waited to receive her. [Id. ¶¶ 10, 11, 65]. Officer England allegedly ushered Ms. Colson, who claims that she was screaming in pain because of her knee, to a room where officers surrounded her and strapped into a "restraint chair." [Id. ¶¶ 10, 66].

         Ms. Colson maintains that Nurse Russell, a staff nurse at Blount County Jail, then performed a "cursory examination" of her knee, found nothing wrong, and tried 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, was denied that opportunity, and urinated on herself several times. [Id. ¶ 12]. According to Ms. Colson, the officers in the room reacted with laughter. [Id.]. A male officer then allegedly put her in a "semi-choke hold" while Officer England forced a helmet onto her head. [Id. ¶¶13, 73-74]. She claims that she told the officer he was hurting her and he said, "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 protect, and failure to offer adequate medical care. [Id.]. Ms. Colson also brings claims under Tennessee law for assault and battery against Officer Cook and Office Wilson, and claims against all Defendants for negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress. [Id. ¶¶ 178-94].

         Defendant City of Alcoa moves to dismiss Ms. Colson's § 1983 claims and state law claims. [Defs.' Br. at 6-9, 11-12]. Defendants Chief Philip K. Potter ("Chief Potter"), Lieutenant Fletcher, Officer Cook, and Officer Wilson also move-in their official and individual capacities-for dismissal of Ms. Colson's claims under § 1983 and Tennessee law. [Id. at 4-5, 10-13]. The Court will now consider their requests for dismissal.

         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 plaintiffs 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 plaintiffs 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: the defendant (1) must deprive the plaintiff of either a constitutional or a federal statutory right and (2) must deprive the plaintiff of one of these rights while acting under color of state law (i.e., state action). Id. at 511. "Absent either element, a section 1983 claim will not lie." Christy v. Randlett, 932 F.2d 502, 504 (6th Cir. 1991). Based on Defendants' arguments, which the Court has reviewed and will now address, Defendants do not challenge whether Ms. Colson, under the first element, has asserted cognizable constitutional rights. Rather, Defendants dispute her allegations that their actions caused any deprivation of those rights.

         A. The City of Alcoa: Municipal Liability (Count Five and Count Seven)

         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 the City of Alcoa. Ms. Colson prefaces her claims by characterizing the City of Alcoa's "policies, customs, or practices" as the "moving force" behind the alleged infringements of her constitutional rights:

17. The moving force behind the violations of Plaintiffs 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]. Against the backdrop of these general assertions, Ms. Colson mounts two claims for municipal liability against the City of Alcoa under § 1983, one in Count Five and one in Count Seven.

         "A municipality or other local government may be liable under [§ 1983] if the governmental body itself 'subjects' a person to a deprivation of rights or 'causes' a person 'to be subjected' to such deprivation." Connick v. Thompson, 563 U.S. 51, 60 (2011) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1983). When an official municipal policy or custom causes a person to suffer a constitutional wrong, that policy or custom will create liability against the municipality under § 1983. Bd. of Cty. Comm 'rs of Bryan Cty. v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 403 (1997). A plaintiff may contend that he suffered this type of constitutional deprivation in one of four ways, based on "(1) the municipality's legislative enactments or official agency policies; (2) actions taken by officials with final decision-making authority; (3) a policy of inadequate training or supervision; or (4) a custom of tolerance or acquiescence of federal rights violations." Spears v. Ruth, 589 F.3d 249, 256 (6th Cir. 2009) (quoting Thomas v. City of Chattanooga, 398 F.3d 426, 429 (6th Cir. 2005)).

         1. Ms. Colson's Allegations

         In Count Five, Ms. Colson alleges that Officer Cook and Officer Wilson's use of excessive force against her while she was suffering a panic attack "evidences a complete lack of training" from the City of Alcoa regarding the appropriate use of force against mentally ill inmates. [Compl. ¶ 125]. Similarly, she maintains that the City of Alcoa fails to supervise and train its officers in handling and protecting inmates who suffer from mental disorders. [Id. ¶ 127]. According to Ms. Colson, the City of Alcoa's failures in training its officers illustrate a policy of "deliberate indifference" to the constitutional rights of mentally ill inmates and indicate that the City of Alcoa "condoned" or "ratified" this policy. [Id. ¶¶ 123-24]. Ms. Colson reiterates these same allegations in Count Seven, in which she asserts that the City of Alcoa's various "failures" and "complete lack of training" amount to ratification of "a de facto policy of. . . allowing the unnecessary and unreasonable use-of-force to go unchecked." [Id. ¶¶ 145, 148, 151]. In sum, Ms. Colson, in her municipal liability claims against the City of Alcoa, bases liability on "a policy of inadequate training or supervision" and "a custom of tolerance or acquiescence of federal rights violations." Spears, 589 F.3d at 256 (quoting Thomas, 398 F.3d at 429).[3] In arguing that Ms. Colson's municipal liability claims require dismissal, the City of Alcoa attacks the sufficiency of the allegations only as they pertain Ms. Colson's inadequate-training theory. [See Defs.' Br. at 8-9]. The Court will therefore limit its analysis to this theory of liability. Also, the City of Alcoa argues that if the Court declines to dismiss the municipal liability claims, it should as a matter of course dismiss the official-capacity claims against its officers-Chief Potter, Lieutenant Fletcher, Officer Cook, and Officer Wilson- because those claims are duplicative. [Id. at 4-5].

         2. Municipal Liability under an Inadequate-Training Theory

         To state a plausible claim for municipal liability based on a policy of inadequate training or supervision, a plaintiff has to allege sufficient facts showing that "(1) the training or supervision was inadequate for the tasks performed; (2) the inadequacy was the result of the municipality's deliberate indifference; and (3) the inadequacy was closely related to or actually caused the injury." Ellis ex rel. Pendergrass v. ClevelandMun. Sch. Dist., 455 F.3d 690, 700 (6th Cir. 2006) (citation omitted). Deliberate indifference, under the second element, "is a stringent standard of fault" and requires allegations from which the Court can infer that a municipality's policy-maker disregarded a known or an obvious risk of a constitutional violation. Stemler v. City of Florence, 126 F.3d 856, 865 (6th Cir. 1997) (quoting Bryan Cty., 520 U.S. at 410); see Pembaur v. City of Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 483-84 (1986) ("[M]unicipal liability . . . attaches where-and only where-a deliberate choice to follow a course of action is made from among various alternatives by the official or officials responsible for establishing final policy with respect to the subject matter in question." (citation omitted)).

         3. The Factual Sufficiency of Ms. Cols on's Allegations

         In challenging the sufficiency of Ms. Colson's municipal liability claims, the City of Alcoa targets the element of deliberate indifference, arguing that these claims fail because Ms. Colson does not "identify prior constitutional violations." [Defs.' Br. at 9]. In response, Ms. Colson concedes that she does not allege prior constitutional violations by the City of Alcoa's officers. [PL's Br. at 15-17]. But she contends that an inadequate-training theory does not always require assertions of prior violations to establish deliberate indifference. [Id. at 15-16]. According to Ms. Colson, allegations of prior constitutional misconduct are unnecessary when a plaintiffs allegations support an inference that a municipality's failure to train is so egregious that future constitutional infringements are inevitable. [Id. at 15]. Ms. Colson is correct on this point.

         A plaintiff can establish that inadequate-training is the product of deliberate indifference "in one of two ways." Shadrick v. Hopkins County, 805 F.3d 724, 738 (6th Cir. 2015). He can plead sufficient facts showing (1) the municipality's officers engaged in a pattern of comparable constitutional violations or (2) "a single violation of federal rights, accompanied by a showing that [the municipality] has failed to train its employees to handle recurring situations presenting an obvious potential" for a violation. Id. at 738-39 (quoting Bryan Cty., 520 U.S. at 409). An allegation of a pattern of similar misconduct-the first of the two approaches-is the "ordinar[y]" or traditional way for a plaintiff to establish an inadequate-training theory. See Connick, 563 U.S. at 62. This is so because repetitive wrongdoing by officers who exercise their discretion is a sure sign that those officers require additional training, and it should be "plainly obvious to the city policymakers." Bryan Cty., 520 U.S. at 407 (quoting Canton, 489 U.S. at 390 n.10).

         But the Supreme Court has acknowledged "the possibility, " "in a narrow range of circumstances, " Connick, 563 U.S. at 63 (quoting id. at 409), that a municipal policymaker's deliberate indifference "could" arise without a pattern of prior constitutional misconduct, Bryan Cty., 520 U.S. at 409. This is where the second of the two approaches has its application. The Supreme Court confined this second approach to cases in which there is (1) a "likelihood that [a] situation will recur" (2) with such a "high degree of predictability" that "an officer lacking specific tools to handle that situation will violate citizens' rights." Id. at 409-10. To flesh out these elements, the Supreme Court provided the hypothetical of a municipality that arms its officers and then mobilizes them into the public to capture absconding felons without training them to use proper force. Canton, 489 U.S. at 390 n. 10; Connick, 563 U.S. at 63-64. "Given the known frequency with which police attempt to arrest fleeing felons and the 'predictability that an officer lacking specific tools to handle that situation will violate citizens' rights, " the consequences of the municipality's failure to train the officers "could be so patently obvious" that the municipality could be liable without a pattern of previous violations. Connick, 563 U.S. at 63-64 (emphasis added) (quotation omitted).

         The City of Alcoa, however, attempts to procure dismissal of Ms. Colson's municipal liability claims by relying solely on the first approach; it makes no effort to perform any analysis as to whether Ms. Colson's municipal liability claims suffice under the equally viable, though narrow, second approach. Even if Ms. Colson's claims are insufficient under the first approach, as the City of Alcoa contends they are, they may still pass muster under the second approach, as Ms. Colson contends they do. The Court therefore deems the City of Alcoa's argument to be incomplete. See McPherson v. Kelsey, 125 F.3d 989, 995-96 (6th Cir. 1997) ("[I]ssues adverted to in a perfunctory manner, unaccompanied by some effort at developed argumentation, are deemed waived. It is not sufficient for a party to mention a possible argument in the most skeletal way, leaving the court to . . . put flesh on its bones." (quotation omitted)). As a result, the Court will decline its invitation to dismiss Ms. Colon's municipal liability claims. In allowing the municipal liability claims against the City of Alcoa to remain intact, however, the Court will dismiss the official-capacity claims against Chief Potter, Lieutenant Fletcher, Officer Cook, and Officer Wilson because they are duplicative. See Thorpe ex rel. D.T. v. Breathitt Cty. Bd. of Educ, 932 F.Supp.2d 799, 802 (E.D. Ky. 2013) ("[W]hen a § 1983 complaint asserts a claim against a municipal entity and a municipal official in his or her official capacity, federal courts will dismiss the official-capacity claim." (citing Claiborne County, 103 F.3d at 509)).[4]

         B. Chief Potter and Lieutenant Fletcher: Supervisory Liability ...

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