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Litton v. City of Millersville

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

January 10, 2020

ROBERT CHRISTOPHER LITTON, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
CITY OF MILLERSVILLE, et al., Defendants.

          William L. Campbell, Jr. Judge

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          ALISTAIR E. NEWBERN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This civil rights action arises out of an altercation that took place on October 14, 2017, involving pro se Plaintiffs Robert Christopher Litton and Jennifer Marie Litton and their minor daughter D.L. (Doc. No. 19.) The altercation resulted in Mr. Litton's arrest for domestic assault of D.L. (Id.) Now pending are Defendants Officer Eric Richards's and the City of Millersville's motions to dismiss the amended complaint for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) (Doc. Nos. 22, 27), to which the Littons have filed a response in opposition (Doc. No. 31). Richards and the City have filed a combined reply. (Doc. No. 32.) For the reasons that follow, the Magistrate Judge will recommend that Richards's motion be granted and that the City's motion be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. Background

         A. Factual Background[1]

         On October 14, 2017, Mr. Litton, his ex-wife Ms. Litton, and their daughter D.L. were spending time together at their home in Millersville, Tennessee. (Doc. No. 19.) Mr. and Ms. Litton gave D.L. permission to go get ice cream at Wendy's with a friend and the friend's grandmother. (Id.) When D.L. did not come home at the appointed hour, Mr. and Ms. Litton found out that D.L. “instead had been picked up by an unknown family and taken to the Highland Rim Racetrack in Millersville . . . .” (Id. at PageID#110, ¶ 5.4.) Mr. and Ms. Litton “had never . . . permitted [D.L.] to go to this racetrack due to safety concerns and the history of open drinking, fights and dangerous crashes at the racetrack.” (Id. at PageID# 111, ¶ 5.5.)

         Mr. Litton went to the racetrack to find D.L. and bring her home while Ms. Litton stayed home in case D.L. returned. (Doc. No. 19.) At the racetrack, Mr. Litton found D.L. and “calmly told [her] it was time to go home . . . .” (Id. at PageID# 111, ¶ 5.8.) D.L. “began to get emotional and cry and refused to leave and go home with her dad because she knew she was in so much trouble because she had broken the rules and disobeyed her mom and dad.” (Id.) Mr. Litton called Ms. Litton and asked her to come to the racetrack to help take D.L. home. (Doc. No. 19.) When Ms. Litton arrived, D.L. “continued to cry and say she didn't want to go home . . . .” (Id. at PageID# 111, ¶ 5.10.) Mr. and Ms. Litton “both took [D.L.] by the arm to get her to stand up . . . and began walking her to the exit towards the parking lot that was several hundred feet away.” (Id. at PageID# 111, ¶ 5.11.) D.L. “continued to cry and resist being le[d] to the parking lot . . . .” (Id. at PageID# 111, ¶ 5.12.)

         An onlooker named Mr. Biles “began to yell and scream belligerently at [Mr.] Litton to take his f[*]cking hands off” of D.L. (Id.) “Biles looked very angry and red in the face and his hands were balled up like . . . someone who wanted to fight . . . .” (Id.) Mr. Litton told Biles that D.L. was his daughter, that she did not have permission to be at the racetrack, and that he was taking her home. (Doc. No. 19.) But “Biles continued to yell and aggressively followed [Mr.] Litton and [Ms.] Litton as they both took [D.L.] to the parking lot.” (Id. at PageID# 112, ¶ 5.14.) On the way to the parking lot, D.L. “stopped walking several times” and “Mr. and Ms. Litton had to regain and maintain control of [her].” (Id. at PageID# 112, ¶ 5.16.) Ms. Litton also “attempted to talk to Mr. Biles and explained to him that [D.L.] had no permission to be there and that she was her mother and was taking her home.” (Id. at PageID# 112, ¶ 5.15.) Ms. Litton later “discovered that it was Mr. Bile[s]'s wife who had picked up [D.L.] from their neighborhood and brought her to the racetrack . . . .” (Id. at PageID# 113, ¶ 5.28.)

         “Biles became very aggressive and started yelling and saying things like, you don't know who you're messing with and you don't know who I am.” (Id. at PageID# 112, ¶ 5.17.) “Biles then began to walk towards [Mr.] Litton in an aggressive manner, with his fist balled up[, ] and [he] was being held back by two or three people . . . .” (Id. at PageID# 112, ¶ 5.18.) Mr. Litton “felt he was about to be assaulted by Mr. Biles[, ]” so he “released [D.L.] and let [Ms.] Litton take [D.L.] by herself . . . .” (Id. at PageID# 112, ¶ 5.19.) Ms. Litton attempted to put D.L. into their car, but D.L. “resisted and tried to push away from her mother and [Ms.] Litton had to use her hip to maintain control of [D.L.] and keep her between the open door and herself so that [D.L.] could not leave.” (Id. at PageID# 112, ¶ 5.20.) “Biles then screamed repeatedly at Mr. Litton, don't you f[*]cking push her.” (Id. at PageID# 113, ¶ 5.21.) Mr. Litton, who was at the back of the car, “showed his hands to Mr. Biles and said he didn't push her.” (Id.)

         The Millersville Police arrived, separated the parties, took D.L. from her parents, “and put her in the back of a police car and did not allow either parent to speak to her after that.” (Id. at PageID# 113, ¶ 5.22.) Defendant Officer George Aldridge asked Mr. Litton what happened, and Mr. and Ms. Litton explained “that they were there to pick up their juvenile daughter [D.L.] who had been taken to the racetrack without their knowledge or permission.” (Id. at PageID# 113, ¶ 5.23.) Aldridge said that the police were there because they got a call about an assault and child abuse. (Doc. No. 19.) Mr. Litton assured Aldridge that D.L. had not been “assaulted or abused and that he and her mother had every right to remove their underage, minor daughter from a place they felt was unsafe and dangerous for her to be . . . .” (Id. at PageID# 113, ¶ 5.25.) He also told Aldridge that he saw several people taking video of the incident on their cell phones and suggested that Aldridge “look at those videos to see that there was no assault/abuse.” (Id. at PageID# 113, ¶ 5.27.)

         Ms. Litton told Aldridge that “she wanted Mr. and Mrs. [Biles] arrested for custodial interference or kidnapping” and Mr. Litton said he wanted Mr. Biles “arrested for assault because he was in fear [that] Mr. [Biles] was going to assault him.” (Id. at PageID# 114, ¶¶ 5.29, 5.30.) Aldridge then spoke to Mr. Biles and a few other witnesses, and Aldridge “appeared to be smiling and laughing with Mr. [Biles].” (Id. at PageID# 114, ¶ 5.31.) “All the witnesses were sat together at one table and given statement forms to fill out together.” (Id.) Mr. Litton later asked Aldridge if he “could separate [the] witnesses while they wrote their statements because” Litton was concerned that the witnesses would coordinate their stories “since it appeared they knew each other[, ]” but “Aldridge did not respond.” (Id. at PageID# 114, ¶ 5.34.) At one point, Aldridge took D.L. out of the police car and asked her if the real reason she did not want to go home was because she was in trouble. (Doc. No. 19.) Ms. Litton heard D.L. say “yes[, ] I'm going to be grounded for the rest of my life.” (Id. at PageID# 114, ¶ 5.33.)

         Aldridge arrested Mr. Litton for domestic assault. (Doc. No. 19.) Mr. Litton asked Aldridge if he had watched the cell phone videos, and Aldridge said that “he looked at one [video] and it did not show [Mr.] Litton doing anything wrong and . . . he could hear Mr. [Biles] yelling in the background.” (Id. at PageID# 114, ¶ 5.36.) Aldridge said that “he received several cell phone videos” and would either “look at them later” or “just send them to the DA's office to see if charges would be dropped.” (Id. at PageID# 115, ¶ 5.37.) Mr. Litton alleges that Aldridge submitted conflicting accounts of what happened at the racetrack reporting both “that [D.L.] said her father Robert Litton hurt her and she did not want to go home with either her mother or father as she was afraid they would beat her[, ]” and that D.L. “said either her father Robert or her mother Jenny slammed her against the car” and did not mention being hurt. (Id. at PageID# 115, ¶ 5.38.) “No ambulance was called or pictures taken or documented in the police report of any visible or other injuries.” (Id. at PageID# 115, ¶ 5.39.) The Littons allege that D.L. told Aldridge that her mom pushed her against the car, not her dad, and she never told Aldridge that she was afraid she would be beaten if she went home. (Doc. No. 19.)

         Ms. Litton asked Aldridge and Richards, a “back up officer and supervisor[, ]” if they were going to arrest her, too, “because she did the same thing [Mr.] Litton did to get their daughter to come home and he was arrested.” (Id. at PageID# 115, ¶¶ 5.42, 5.44.) Aldridge and Richards said “no, why would we arrest you, you did nothing wrong” and told her that “they only wanted her husband[.]” (Id. at PageID# 115, ¶¶ 5.43, 5.45.) Ms. Litton asked to have D.L. returned to her, but Richards refused. (Doc. No. 19.) Richards said that, because someone called in an anonymous complaint of child abuse, he had to take D.L. to the police department to talk to the Department of Children's Services (DCS). (Id.) Richards took D.L. to the police department, put her in a room by herself to wait for DCS, and did not allow Ms. Litton any contact with her daughter for the next several hours. (Id.) Ms. Litton said she did not want her daughter talking to anyone without an attorney, but DCS interviewed D.L. anyway. (Id.) D.L. was released to her mother later that night. (Id.)

         After Mr. Litton was arrested, he “had to make bond to be released from jail, and had to hire an attorney to successfully have the criminal charge against him dismissed.” (Id. at PageID# 124, ¶ 13.4.) The domestic assault charge against Mr. Litton was dismissed during a preliminary hearing on March 5, 2018. (Id. at PageID# 118, ¶ 6.5.)

         B. Procedural History

         Mr. Litton initiated this action on October 12, 2018. (Doc. No. 1.) His original pro se complaint alleged claims against Aldridge and the City of Millersville under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law for false arrest and malicious prosecution. (Id.) Ms. Litton and D.L. were not named as plaintiffs, and Richards was not mentioned or named as a defendant. (Id.) Aldridge answered Mr. Litton's complaint. (Doc. No. 12.) On January 28, 2019, the City filed a motion to dismiss Mr. Litton's complaint for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), arguing that Mr. Litton had failed to plead sufficient facts to show municipal liability under § 1983 and that it is immune from Mr. Litton's state-law claims under the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act (TGTLA). (Doc. Nos. 13, 14.)

         On February 12, 2019, Mr. Litton moved for an extension of time to respond to the City's motion to dismiss. (Doc. No. 17.) Mr. Litton asked for “an additional thirty (30) days from the date of the entry [of the Court's order on his motion] to respond and prepair [sic] an amended complaint.” (Id. at PageID# 104.) The Court granted Mr. Litton's motion on February 13, 2019 (Doc. No. 18), and he filed an amended complaint on March 14, 2019 (Doc. No. 19). The amended complaint adds Ms. Litton and D.L. as plaintiffs and adds Richards as a defendant. (Id.) It also adds claims. (Id.) In Count I, brought under § 1983, Mr. Litton alleges that Aldridge violated his Fourth Amendment rights by arresting him for domestic assault without probable cause and by participating in or influencing his subsequent prosecution. (Id.) Count II alleges that the City is liable under § 1983 for Aldridge's and Richards's violations of all three plaintiffs' “rights to be free from unreasonable seizures as guaranteed under the Fourth Amendment” (id. at PageID# 118, ¶ 7.1) because it “contemporaneously approved and ratified [Aldridge's and Richards's] conduct and actions” and “failed to adequately train its police officers . . .” (id. at PageID# 119, ¶¶ 7.2, 7.4). Count III is comprised of Mr. Litton's state-law claims against Aldridge for false arrest and malicious prosecution. (Doc. No. 19.) Count IV is brought on behalf of D.L. against Richards under § 1983 for violations of her Fourth Amendment rights, and Count V is brought on behalf of D.L. against Richards and the City for false arrest under state law. (Id.) Counts VI and VII are brought by Mr. and Ms. Litton, respectively, against Richards and the City under § 1983 for violation of their fundamental parental rights “to oversee the care, custody, and control[ ] of [their] child . . . .” (Id. at PageID# 123, ¶ 11.1; id. at PageID# 124, ¶ 12.1.) The amended complaint seeks compensatory and punitive damages and costs. (Doc. No. 19.) Aldridge answered the amended complaint (Doc. No. 26), and Mr. Litton's claims against him in Counts I and III are therefore not before the Court.

         Richards filed a motion to dismiss all claims against him in the amended complaint under Rule 12(b)(6). (Doc. No. 22.) He argues that Counts IV and V should be dismissed because Mr. and Ms. Litton may not assert claims on behalf of D.L. while appearing pro se and that Counts VI and VII should be dismissed as untimely because the amended complaint was filed after the relevant statutes of limitations had run and the original complaint did not name Ms. Litton or Richards as parties. (Doc. No. 23.) The City has also moved to dismiss the amended complaint under Rule 12(b)(6). (Doc. No. 27.) It argues that D.L.'s claims in Counts II and V should be dismissed because Mr. and Ms. Litton may not represent D.L. pro se, that Ms. Litton's claims in Counts II and VII should be dismissed as untimely, and that Mr. and Ms. Litton's claims in Counts II, VI, and VII should be dismissed for failure to adequately allege municipal liability under § 1983. (Doc. No. 28.) Richards and the City also note that Mr. Litton filed the amended complaint more than 21 days after the City filed its first motion to dismiss and that Ms. Litton did not sign the amended complaint. (Doc. Nos. 23, 28.)

         The plaintiffs filed a combined response in opposition to Richards's and the City's motions to dismiss. (Doc. No. 31.) They do not address Richards's or the City's arguments about Mr. and Ms. Litton's ability to assert claims on behalf of D.L. while appearing pro se. In response to Richards's and the City's arguments about the timeliness of Ms. Litton's claims, Mr. and Ms. Litton argue that Ms. Litton's “name being left off [of the] original complaint[']s header was a technical error[, ]” that her claims “relat[e] back to [the] same incident[, ]” and that “the defendants were on notice” of her claims because of “the frequency of . . . [Ms.] Litton['s] name in [the] original complaint . . . .” (Doc. No. 31, PageID# 191.) They also argue that they were unable to name Richards in the original complaint because “they were unable to identify [him] at the time due to . . . [the] improper identification of Officer Richards on the arrest warrant . . . as CPL Eric Roberts . . . .” (Id.) With respect to their municipal liability claims against the City, Mr. and Ms. Litton argue generally that the City's “lack of any official policy or procedure” regarding “domestic violence calls [and] child abuse calls, ” notifying DCS, and juvenile arrests and custody caused their constitutional injuries. (Id. at PageID# 193.)

         Richards replies that, because Mr. Litton did not name “Eric Roberts” or any other officer besides Aldridge as a defendant in the original complaint, Mr. and Ms. Litton's attempt to name Richards in the amended complaint is untimely and there was no mistake of identity that would excuse that untimeliness. (Doc. No. 32.) Similarly, Richards and the City argue that, because the original complaint only asserted claims relating to Mr. Litton's arrest and did not advance any claims on behalf of Ms. Litton, her claims in the amended complaint are untimely. (Id.) The City also reiterates its arguments regarding municipal liability. (Id.)

         II. Legal Standard

         In deciding a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the Court must “construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, accept all well-pleaded factual allegations in the complaint as true, and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff.” Courtright v. City of Battle Creek, 839 F.3d 513, 518 (6th Cir. 2016). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires only that a complaint contain “a short and plain statement of the claim[.]” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). However, “[t]he factual allegations in the complaint need to be sufficient to give notice to the defendant as to what claims are alleged, and the plaintiff must plead ‘sufficient factual ...


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