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Allred v. Rodriguez

United States District Court, W.D. Tennessee, Eastern Division

June 24, 2019

JAMES ALLRED, Plaintiff,
v.
MATTHEW RODRIGUEZ, STEPHEN WHITLOCK, and DECATUR COUNTY, TENNESSEE, Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING PARTIAL MOTION TO DISMISS

          S. THOMAS ANDERSON, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This case revolves around Defendants' alleged refusal to relinquish Plaintiff's ear. Plaintiff filed his Amended Complaint on December 11, 2018, pursuant to the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act, and Tenn. Code Ann. § 8-8-302. (ECF No. 15.) Before the Court is a Partial Motion to Dismiss, which was filed on December 19, 2018, by Defendants Stephen Whitlock and Decatur County, Tennessee (“Defendants”).[1] (ECF No. 18.) For the following reasons, the Partial Motion to Dismiss is GRANTED.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff alleges that on September 16, 2017, he was the victim of an atrocious attack by Randal K. Yarbro, who is not a party to this suit. Plaintiff incurred stab wounds and at least one serious bite, leaving Plaintiff without his left ear. Defendants Rodriguez and Whitlock, both deputies with the Decatur County Sheriff's Department, responded to the scene. Plaintiff alleges that the Defendant officers on the scene refused to remit Plaintiff's ear to Katherine Nanney, who planned to transport the ear from the scene to Decatur County Hospital for reattachment at Vanderbilt University Hospital. Plaintiff asserts that the Defendant officers' refusal to relinquish his ear amounted to a violation of Plaintiff's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Thus, Plaintiff filed suit against the officers and Decatur County pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Alternatively, Plaintiff filed suit, sounding in negligence, against Decatur County pursuant to the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act (“TGTLA”) for its failure to adequately train its officers to deal with severed tissues and related issues. Pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 8-8-302, Plaintiff further asserts that Defendant Decatur County is responsible for all injuries resulting from the actions of the Defendant deputies.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         A motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint. RMI Titanium Co. v. Westinghouse Elec. Corp., 78 F.3d 1125, 1134 (6th Cir. 1996). A complaint need not contain “detailed factual allegations, ” but it must contain more than “labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). A complaint does not “suffice if it tenders ‘naked assertions' devoid of ‘further factual enhancement.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557). “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). The plausibility standard “does not impose a probability requirement at the pleading stage; it simply calls for enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of illegal [conduct].” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556.

         ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff alleges that Defendants Whitlock and Rodriguez violated his civil rights when they collected Plaintiff's ear as evidence and then refused to relinquish the ear to Ms. Nanney. Plaintiff asserts that this seizure was unreasonable, in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Additionally, Plaintiff contends that Decatur County is liable for the civil rights violation because the County was “deliberately indifferent to [Plaintiff's] serious medical needs by failing to provide its employees with adequate training, supervision, policies, and procedures that would have allowed for the proper handling” of Plaintiff's ear. (ECF No. 15 at 9.) Defendants do not challenge these claims in its Motion to Dismiss.

         Rather, Defendants challenge Plaintiff's alternative pleading, in which Plaintiff asserts that Defendant Decatur County was negligent in failing to exercise its reasonable duty of care not to cause harm when the officers failed to return Plaintiff's ear. (ECF No. 15 at 10.) Plaintiff contends that because Defendants Whitlock and Rodriguez were acting within the scope of their employment, Decatur County's immunity from suit is removed pursuant to the TGTLA, Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-205.

         Defendants have moved to dismiss Plaintiff's alternatively pleaded state law claims on the ground that Defendant Decatur County retains sovereign immunity. (ECF No. 18.) According to Defendants, the TGTLA's civil rights exception preserves immunity from suit for claims arising under § 1983, and a plaintiff cannot avoid that immunity by bringing its civil rights claim as a negligence claim. Plaintiffs have responded that they are allowed to plead in the alternative that either the Decedent was deprived of his civil rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 or Defendants' conduct was negligent pursuant to the TGTLA. Defendants replied reiterating their arguments as well as asserting that the County also retains its immunity pursuant to the TGTLA's discretionary-function exception. (ECF No. 22.) The Court finds Defendants' arguments persuasive.

         I. Civil Rights Exception

         The liability of Defendant Decatur County for torts committed by its employees and agents is governed by the TGTLA, which codifies the Tennessee common law rule of sovereign immunity for counties, municipalities, and other governmental entities. Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-201; Limbaugh v. Coffee Medical Ctr., 59 S.W.3d 73, 79 (Tenn. 2001). The TGTLA provides that Tennessee governmental entities “shall be immune from suit for an injury which may result from the activities of such governmental entities” except as otherwise provided in the statute. Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-201(a). The statute removes immunity for “injury proximately caused by a negligent act or omission of any employee within the scope of his employment except if the injury arises out of . . . civil rights” violations. Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-205(2) (emphasis added). The civil rights exception has been construed to include 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims. Johnson v. City of Memphis, 617 F.3d 864, 872 (2010).

         A negligence claim falls under the civil rights exception where “the same circumstances giv[e] rise to both the negligence and civil rights claims.” Partee v. City of Memphis, 449 Fed.Appx. 444, 448 (6th Cir. 2011) (alteration in original). A plaintiff cannot circumvent a defendant's immunity by couching its civil rights claim as one of negligence. See, e.g., Campbell v. Anderson Cty., 695 F.Supp.2d 764, 778 (E.D. Tenn. 2010) (holding that a plaintiff whose alleged injuries arose in the context of her civil rights claims could not avoid TGTLA immunity merely by “couching” her claim in terms of negligence).

         Here, Plaintiff alleges that “Defendant Decatur County is vicariously liable for the negligent acts and omissions of its agents and/or employees who had possession of [Plaintiff's] ear.” (ECF No. 15 at 7.) The officers' negligence sounds in their “failing to return [Plaintiff's] ear.” ECF No. 21 at 2. This failure to return Plaintiff's ear, however, is the sole basis for Plaintiff's § 1983 claim. Plaintiff repeatedly and specifically states that Defendants were deliberately indifferent to Plaintiff's medical needs and his rights as a victim of crime. (See, e.g., ECF No. 15 at 6.) Plaintiff states no facts in his Amended Complaint for tort violations other than those underlying the ยง 1983 claim. Clearly, the basis of Plaintiff's claims ...


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