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Anderson v. Sumner County Sheriff's Office

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

September 20, 2017



          ALETA A. TRAUGER, United States District Judge

         Before the court is the defendants' Corrected Motion to Dismiss Amended Complaint (Doc. No. 20). The motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for review. For the reasons stated herein, the court will grant the motion and dismiss this action in its entirety.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         The plaintiff filed her initial Complaint in this action on March 17, 2017, asserting claims against defendants the “Sumner County Sheriff's Office and/or Sumner County, ” Sumner County Sheriff Sonny Weatherford, Sumner County Chief Deputy Aaron Pickard, and Officers Kelly Smart, Keith Bean, Geoffrey Wall, and Jordan Holleran. (Doc. No. 1.) Rather than filing a responsive pleading, the defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss (Doc. No. 5) and supporting Memorandum (Doc. No. 6). The plaintiff filed a Response to Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (Doc. No. 9) and, at the same time, a Motion to Amend Complaint as a Matter of Course Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(1)(B) (Doc. No. 10) and the Preliminary Psychiatric Report (Doc. No. 8), prepared by the plaintiff's treating psychiatrist at her attorney's request. Strictly speaking, the motion was unnecessary, as the plaintiff did, in fact, have a right under Rule 15(a) to amend her complaint in response to the defendant's Motion to Dismiss without seeking leave of court. The court nonetheless granted leave, and, after prompting by the court, the plaintiff has now filed her Amended Complaint. (Doc. No. 26.)[1]

         In her Amended Complaint, the plaintiff alleges that she is an “older African-American female” (Am. Compl. ¶ 35) who, at the time she initiated this action, was employed by the Sumner County Sheriff's Office as a Correctional Officer at the Sumner County Jail in Gallatin, Tennessee. (Am. Comp. ¶¶ 1, 3.) Defendants Wall and Holleran, also Correctional Officers, are white males who were twenty and twenty-one years old, respectively, in October 2016. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 7, 8.) On October 22, 2016, the plaintiff, Wall, and Holleran left work at the same time and walked to the parking lot together. (Am. Compl. ¶ 20.) Wall and Holleran walked to Wall's vehicle while the plaintiff walked to her vehicle. When Wall and Holleran reached Wall's vehicle, Wall reached in and removed something from the vehicle. The plaintiff initially did not know what it was, but she saw a red laser light hitting her vehicle and around her feet. She then saw that Wall was holding a gun in his hand that had a flashlight and a laser pointer. (Am. Compl. ¶ 21.) In response, the plaintiff, very frightened, screamed at Wall to stop before she was accidentally shot. Wall laughed in response. The plaintiff's fright and anxiety at having an actual gun pointed at her caused her to need to use the bathroom, so she returned to the Sheriff's Office to do so. While she walked quickly back into the building, Wall kept the gun and its red laser light trained on her, causing her additional fear and mental distress. The plaintiff used the restroom, composed herself, and returned to her vehicle after she saw that Wall and Holleran had left. (Am. Compl. ¶ 21.)

         The plaintiff asserts that the acts of Wall and Holleran “were likely violations of Tennessee criminal law.” (Am. Compl. ¶ 22.) Specifically, the plaintiff cites to the Tennessee statutes that define the offense of aggravated assault as the act of “intentionally or knowingly caus[ing] another to reasonably fear imminent bodily injury” if such action also involves “the use or display of a deadly weapon.” Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 39-13-101(a)(2), 39-13-102(a)(1)(A)(iii). (Am. Compl. ¶ 23.)

         The plaintiff alleges that Sumner County Sheriff's Office policy requires all employees to report to their immediate supervisor any violation of the law by anyone on the jail premises. (Am. Compl. ¶ 24.) After this incident, the plaintiff “followed proper procedure for such an event occurring on the premises of the jail” (Am. Compl. ¶ 21) by immediately calling her supervisor, defendant Kelly Smart, to report that she had been the victim of an aggravated assault on the jail premises. (Am. Compl. ¶ 24.) Under jail policy, Smart, as the plaintiff's supervisor, was required to notify the appropriate deputy sheriff, who was supposed to “investigate, report, and, if necessary, obtain a warrant for the arrest of the person.” (Am. Compl. ¶ 24.)

         The plaintiff also reported that Holleran had violated jail policy by bringing a personal firearm onto jail premises. The plaintiff further alleges that, because Holleran was not yet twenty-one years old at the time, [2] it was illegal for him to possess a firearm without a permit and that her report gave rise to a need to investigate Holleran and Wall for a possible violation of Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-1317(a)(1), which pertains to the illegal possession and carrying of a firearm. (Am. Compl. ¶ 25.)

         Based on jail policy, the plaintiff reasonably believed that Smart and the officers above her in the chain of command would follow jail procedures for investigating the crimes reported by the plaintiff. (Am. Compl. ¶ 25.) Smart, however, took no meaningful action to report, investigate, or arrest Holleran and Wall for their crimes or to report them to a deputy sheriff or the sheriff. (Am. Compl. ¶ 26.) Instead, she issued a verbal counseling to Wall and directed him to apologize to the plaintiff. (Am. Compl. ¶ 27.)

         Upon later learning that Smart had not reported the incident up the chain of command as required by jail policy, the plaintiff submitted a written report concerning the event to Captain Canter, who is not a defendant in this action. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 28-29; Orig. Compl. Ex. A, Doc. No. 1-1.) Captain Canter disclosed the statement to defendant Bean, who advised Canter that he would look into it and would brief Chief Deputy Sheriff Aaron Pickard about it. (Am. Compl. ¶ 30.)

         Bean thereafter investigated the incident by interviewing the plaintiff, Wall, Holleran, and Smart. (Am. Compl. ¶ 31.) On November 9, 2016, he completed the investigation and prepared a written report. (Am. Compl. ¶ 32; Orig. Compl. Ex. B, Doc. No. 1-2.) Bean's report, according to the plaintiff, confirms her version of events and her assertion that Wall, aided and abetted by Holleran, committed the offense of aggravated assault, among other offenses, by intentionally pointing a weapon at her and causing her to reasonably fear imminent bodily injury. (Am. Compl. ¶33.) Rather than arresting and charging Wall and Holleran with criminal offenses, however, Bean sustained the plaintiff's complaint against them and recommended that Wall be issued a written reprimand and that his duty firearm carry privilege be suspended indefinitely, that Holleran receive a counseling session for failing to report misconduct known to personnel, and that Smart receive a counseling session for failing to hand the incident appropriately. (Doc. No. 1-2.)

         On November 10, 2016, Bean submitted his report to Chief Deputy Pickard. (Am. Compl. ¶ 36.) On November 17, 2016, Pickard prepared written disciplinary statements for Wall and Holleran, adopting Bean's factual findings and disciplinary recommendations. (Orig. Compl. Exs. C & D, Doc. Nos. 1-3, 1-4.) The plaintiff alleges that Pickard failed, however, to adopt her most serious allegations regarding Wall's act of following her with the laser beam from the gun as she walked back into the building. (Am. Compl. ¶ 37.) Pickard was on notice that Wall and Holleran had committed the offense of aggravated assault, but, instead of arresting them, he adopted Bean's disciplinary recommendations. (Am. Compl. ¶ 38.) On November 18, 2016, Sheriff Weatherford approved and adopted Pickard's actions (Orig. Compl. Ex. C & D, Doc. Nos. 1-3, 1-4), despite also being on notice that Wall and Holleran had committed the offense of aggravated assault while on jail premises, and despite being on notice that Pickard, Smart, and Bean had “statutory duties to report, investigate, and arrest Wall and Holleran, but breached that duty, ” thus breaching his own statutory duty to report, investigate, and arrest Wall and Holleran. (Am. Compl. ¶ 39.)

         The plaintiff asserts that these decisions were made without consulting her and, therefore, that the defendants' actions “deprived [her] of her statutory victim rights.” (Am. Compl. ¶ 40.) She was not informed of what had transpired until December 2, 2016, when she contacted Bean to find out. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 41, 42.) The plaintiff also provided the Sumner County District Attorney with a copy of Bean's written report, but the district attorney declined to prosecute Wall and Holleran. (Am. Compl. ¶ 47.)

         The plaintiff sought legal counsel. On December 12, 2016, the plaintiff's attorney contacted Sumner County's Law Director, Leah Dennen, to inform her that the plaintiff had been the victim of aggravated assault on jail premises by two officers with the Sumner County Sheriff's Office, that the plaintiff was required to come into regular contact with Wall and Holleran while on the job, and that, as a result, she was being subjected to a hostile work environment. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 45-46; Orig. Compl. Ex. F, Doc. No. 1-6.) The plaintiff's attorney requested, on her behalf, that she be placed on administrative leave with pay until the matter was resolved. (Am. Compl. ¶ 46; Orig. Compl. Ex. F, Doc. No. 1-6.) Sumner County denied the plaintiff's request for leave without pay, and the plaintiff continued to work because she needed the job. (Am. Compl. 67.)

         The new allegations in the plaintiff's Amended Complaint primarily concern back-and-forth correspondence between plaintiff's counsel and defense counsel concerning the plaintiff's deteriorating mental health as a result of her continued exposure to what she deemed a hostile work environment, her continued demands that the Sumner County Sheriff's Office place Wall and Holleran on administrative leave and conduct an actual criminal investigation into their actions, and the defendant's assertion that the Sheriff's Office had determined that Wall and Holleran had not committed a crime. In the course of this correspondence, according to the plaintiff, defense counsel admitted that Bean made the determination, even before interviewing them, that Wall and Holleran had not committed a crime. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 68-74 & Exs. I-J, Doc. Nos. 26-1, 26-2.) The plaintiff asserts that this means that Bean “had already prejudiced the case even before he knew what Wall/Holleran would have to say, particularly since he based his opinion on their state of minds, thereby indicating that Sgt. Bean's investigation was a pretext to protect Wall/Holleran from criminal prosecution. This act by the Defendant Sgt. Bean effectively denied the Plaintiff access to criminal justice as a victim of a violent crime.” (Am. Compl. ¶ 75.)

         On May 22, 2017, the plaintiff received a Preliminary Report from psychiatrist Dr. William Kenner, who diagnosed the plaintiff with post traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). (Am. Compl. ¶ 76; Doc. No. 8.) Dr. Kenner further opined that the atmosphere at the Sumner County Sheriff's Office was unsupportive of the plaintiff and that continuing to work there would damage her health and prolong her symptoms. Plaintiff's counsel informed the defendants of Dr. Kenner's assessment and provided them with a copy of the Preliminary Report. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 76, 77 & Ex. K.)

         Based on Dr. Kenner's conclusion that continued employment with the Sumner County Sheriff's Office would be detrimental to her mental health, the plaintiff left her employment effective May 25, 2017. She alleges that she was constructively discharged as a result of the hostile work environment created by the defendants. On May 30, 2017, defense counsel acknowledged the plaintiff's decision to leave her employment and notified plaintiff's counsel that the defendants considered her to have resigned. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 77, 78 & Ex. K.)

         Based on these allegations, the plaintiff purports to state the following claims against the various defendants:

(1) A claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983,
(a) against Wall and Holleran on the basis that these defendants, while acting under color of law, deprived the plaintiff of her rights to liberty and equal protection, when they committed the offense of aggravated assault against her on the premises of the Sumner County Sheriff's Office by creating a hostile work environment after she reported their actions; and
(b) against Smart, Bean, Pickard, and Weatherford on the basis that these defendants, while acting under color of law, deprived the plaintiff her rights to liberty, due process (substantive and procedural), and equal protection by failing to report, investigate, and cause the arrests of Wall and Holleran and by tolerating and causing a hostile work environment and forcing a constructive discharge;
(c) against the Sumner County Sheriff's Office based on a failure to train and supervise.
(2) A claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 against the Sumner County Sheriff's Office and the individual defendants;
(3) Claims of hostile work environment, constructive discharge, and retaliation in violation of Title VII[3] and the Tennessee Human Rights Act, Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-2-101 et seq., against the Sumner County Sheriff's Office, based on the hostile work environment the plaintiff endured as a result of the conduct of individual defendants who were motivated by the plaintiff's age, race, and sex; and based on her constructive discharge;
(4) Claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1985 against all defendants based on a conspiracy to deprive the plaintiff of her right to equal protection; and
(5) Supplemental state law claims against Wall and Holleran for assault, battery, outrageous conduct, and intentional infliction of mental distress, and against the Sumner County Sheriff's Office under a respondeat superior theory and based on its own negligence.

         The plaintiff seeks compensatory and punitive damages, front pay or reinstatement and all other equitable and legal relief to which she is entitled.

         II. Standard of Review

         In deciding a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6), the court must “construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, accept its allegations as true, and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff.” Directv, Inc. v. Treesh, 487 F.3d 471, 476 (6th Cir. 2007); Inge v. Rock Fin. Corp., 281 F.3d 613, 619 (6th Cir. 2002). The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require that a plaintiff provide “‘a short and plain statement of the claim' that will give the defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff's claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)). The court must determine whether “the claimant is entitled to offer evidence to support the claims, ” not whether the plaintiff can ultimately prove the facts alleged. Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 511 (2002) (quoting Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974)).

         The complaint's allegations, however, “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). To establish the “facial plausibility” required to “unlock the doors of discovery, ” the plaintiff cannot rely on “legal conclusions” or “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action”; instead, the plaintiff must plead “factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).

         III. Discussion

         A. ...

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