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Wright v. Fentress County

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

May 29, 2018

FENTRESS COUNTY, TENNESSEE, and CHARLES SCOTT “CHUCKY” CRAVENS, in his official and individual capacity, Defendants.



         In yet another case arising out of Charles Cravens' tenure as Sheriff of Fentress County, Tennessee, Fentress County moves to dismiss the claims against it brought by Dustin Shane Wright (“Wright”), a former inmate at the county jail. Just as in Doe #1 v. Cravens, No. 2:17-CV-00049, 2018 WL 1522401, at *1 (M.D. Tenn. Mar. 28, 2018), it argues that Cravens' conduct did not represent a policy or custom so as to make the county liable for the deprivation of civil right in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Also as in Doe #1, Fentress County argues that it is not liable for state common law intentional tort claims because of the governmental immunity provisions set forth in Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act (“TGTLA”), Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-21, et seq.

         In Doe #1, the Court dismissed the state law claims against Fentress Country pursuant to the TGTLA, but declined to dismiss the federal claims. This time, the Court reaches the same result, albeit for slightly different reasons.

         I. Factual Background

         The allegations in the Complaint, accepted as true and construed in Wright's favor for present purposes, Mills v. Barnard, 869 F.3d 473, 480 (6th Cir. 2017), are as follow:

         During the relevant period, Sheriff Cravens was the chief law enforcement officer of Fentress County and responsible for the operation of the county jail. On November 13, 2016, Wright was confined at the jail when two inmates began “picking on” another inmate. (Doc. No. 1, Complaint ¶ 8). This prompted the jail administrator to “chastise[]” the other inmates for not doing anything to stop the altercation. (Id. ¶ 9). Shortly thereafter, Sheriff Cravens entered the housing unit and “screamed at the inmates and told them they should not be able to look at themselves in a mirror. He also challenged their collective manhood.” (Id. ¶ 10). When Wright spoke up on behalf of his fellow inmates, Sheriff Cravens became “visibly irate” and ordered Wright to follow him to the booking area. (Id.).

         Once in the booking area, Sheriff Cravens “continued to berate” Wright, and struck him in the head. Wright was then “shot with a taser and incapacitated.” (Id. ¶ 11). Thereafter, Wright was “placed in a headlock and handcuffed, . . . struck two (2) to three (3) more times in the head by [Sheriff] Cravens, and “then kicked . . . in the back.” (Id.).

         After the assault, Wright was placed “in an isolated, padded holding cell” that had “no running water or facilities of any kind.” (Id.). Four days later he was placed in a different, isolated, holding cell for an additional four weeks. (Id. ¶ 14). He was then allowed to return to general population where he served out the remainder of his sentence without incident.

         Wright was not charged with a crime or a jail policy violation in relation to these events. Sheriff Cravens, on the other hand, was criminally charged in this Court with depriving Wright of his federal constitutional rights. Sheriff Cravens pled guilty to the charges on April 20, 2017.

         Wright claims that, as a result of the events that began on November 13, 2016, he “suffered injuries and/or damages, including, but not limited to, mental anguish, physical and mental pain and suffering, embarrassment, and humiliation.” (Id. ¶ 16). He brings federal claims under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985 against Sheriff Cravens and Fentress County for the deprivation of his constitutional rights under the Fourth, Fifth, Eighth and Fourteen Amendments. He also brings state law claims for assault, battery, and the intentional infliction of emotional distress.

         II. Federal Claims

         In Monell v. Department of Social Services of New York, 436 U.S. 658, 691 (1978), Supreme Court held that “a municipality cannot be held liable solely because it employs a tortfeasor[.]” In other words, “under § 1983, local governments are responsible only for ‘their own illegal acts.' . . . They are not vicariously liable under § 1983 for their employees' actions.” Connick v. Thompson, 131 S.Ct. 1350, 1359 (2011) (quoting Pembaur v. Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 479 (1986)). Therefore, “a municipality is liable under § 1983 only if the challenged conduct occurs pursuant to a municipality's ‘official policy, ' such that the municipality's promulgation or adoption of the policy can be said to have ‘cause[d]' one of its employees to violate the plaintiff's constitutional rights.” D'Ambrosio v. Marino, 747 F.3d 378, 386 (6th Cir. 2014) (quoting Monell, 436 U.S. at 692).

         “Official municipal policy includes the decisions of a government's lawmakers, the acts of its policymaking officials, and practices so persistent and widespread as to practically have the force of law.” Connick, 131 S.Ct. at 1359. Thus, to state a municipal liability claim, a plaintiff must adequately allege “(1) the existence of an illegal official policy or legislative enactment; (2) that an official with final decision making authority ratified illegal actions; (3) the existence of a policy of inadequate training or supervision; or (4) the existence of a custom of tolerance [of] or acquiescence [to] federal rights violations.” Burgess v. Fischer, 735 F.3d 462, 478 (6th Cir. 2013); accord Boulton v. Swanson, 795 F.3d 526, 531 (6th Cir. 2015).

         Based upon those principles, Fentress County moves to dismiss the federal claims relying (as it did in Doe #1) on the Sixth Circuit's decision in Wooten v. Logan, 92 Fed.Appx. 143, 146 (6th Cir. 2004), and the Second ...

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