United States District Court, W.D. Tennessee, Eastern Division
ORDER GRANTING PARTIAL MOTION TO DISMISS
THOMAS ANDERSON, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
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”). (ECF No. 18.) For the following
reasons, the Partial Motion to Dismiss is
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Civil Rights Exception
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
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
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 §
1983 claim. Clearly, the basis of Plaintiff's claims ...