Williams v. City of Dothan, Alabama et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER directing as follows: (1) def Culbreath's 39 MOTION TO DISMISS for failure to state a claim is GRANTED as to Count C, but DENIED as to Count D; this case will continue against culbreath as to Counts D and E; ( 2) defendant City of Dothan's 43 MOTION to Dismiss plaintiff's first amended complaint is DENIED, as further set out in order. Signed by Honorable Judge W. Harold Albritton, III on 7/25/14. (Attachments: # 1 civil appeals checklist)(djy, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
CITY OF DOTHAN, et al.,
CIVIL ACTION NO. 1:14-cv-287-WHA
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
This action is before the court on Defendant Officer James Culbreath’s Motion to
Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim (Doc. # 39) filed on June 9, 2014 and Defendant City of
Dothan’s Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff’s First Amended Complaint (Doc. # 43) filed on June 12,
John Williams (“Williams”) filed a Complaint in this case on April 16, 2014. On May 30,
2014, Williams filed his First Amended Complaint. The First Amended Complaint brings claims
for unreasonable/excessive force under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count A); negligent hiring, retention,
and failure to supervise police officers under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count B); state-law battery
(Count C); failure to intervene under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count D); and a “deliberate
indifference” due-process violation under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count E). The First Amended
Complaint seeks relief from the individual defendants in their individual capacities only.
For reasons to be discussed, Officer Culbreath’s Motion is due to be GRANTED IN
PART and DENIED IN PART. Further, the City’s Motion is due to be DENIED.
II. STANDARDS OF REVIEW
The court accepts the plaintiff's factual allegations as true, Hishon v. King & Spalding,
467 U.S. 69, 73 (1984), and construes the complaint in the plaintiff's favor, Duke v. Cleland, 5
F.3d 1399, 1402 (11th Cir. 1993). In analyzing the sufficiency of pleading, the court is guided by
a two-prong approach: one, the court is not bound to accept conclusory statements of the
elements of a cause of action and, two, where there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court
should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to entitlement
to relief. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678-79 (2009). “[A] plaintiff's obligation to
provide the ‘grounds’ of his ‘entitle[ment] to relief’ requires more than labels and conclusions,
and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v.
Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint need not
contain “detailed factual allegations,” but instead the complaint must contain “only enough facts
to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Id. at 570. The factual allegations “must be
enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Id. at 555.
The Plaintiff alleges the following facts:
On April 20, 2012, Williams was driving his vehicle in Ozark, Alabama.1 On that date,
law-enforcement officials had received a “tip”2 from a citizen and were watching Williams from
When Williams discovered that he was being watched, he “exited his vehicle and began
to run, not knowing who was pursuing him at the time.” (Doc. # 33 ¶ 4). “Suddenly, Ray Mock
. . . tackled Williams to the ground, injuring Williams’ knee.” (Id.). While “Williams was on the
ground, lying on his stomach, with no weapons in his possession,” Chad Hammack, David
Saxon, and Jason Adkins of the Dothan City Police Department and Mason Bynum of the Dale
County Sheriff’s Office “began assaulting Williams with deadly force.” (Id.). “Specifically, these
defendants . . . began to punch, kick, and stomp Williams on and about the head, face, and body,
while tasing him repeatedly.” (Id.). Williams was on his stomach throughout the attack, and “[h]e
did not resist or assert any offensive measures once he determined that it was police officers who
were pursuing him.” (Id.). “The assault continued for several moments.” (Id.).
During the attack, Culbreath, an officer for the Ozark City Police Department, “sat in his
police vehicle parked nearby and watched the entire incident without intervening or offering any
assistance to Williams.” (Id.). “After the assault ended, . . . Culbreath transported Williams to the
Dale County Jail and processed him in.” (Id. ¶ 5).
“The individual defendants [were] members in a joint Wiregrass Violent Crime/Drug
Task Force, a law enforcement unit which works for and under the control of the City of Dothan,
and their penchant for excessive force is well-documented and well-known by the citizens of
Dothan.” (Id. ¶ 4). “In fact, several of these individual officers are the focus of either past or ongoing and current investigations relating to brutality and excessive force claims filed by
Ozark, Alabama is located in Dale County, Alabama.
The First Amended Complaint does not allege what the “tip” concerned.
citizens.” (Id.). Despite these complaints, the City of Dothan continued to employ the drug task
force officers. (Id. ¶ 6).
A. Claims against Officer Culbreath
Williams brings claims against Culbreath in his individual capacity for state-law battery
(Count C); failure to intervene under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count D); and a “deliberate
indifference” due-process violation under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count E). Culbreath only seeks
dismissal of Counts C and D. For the reasons that follow, Culbreath’s Motion is due to be
GRANTED as to Count C, but DENIED as to Count D.
1. State-Law Battery
Plaintiff Williams “concedes dismissal of the state law battery claim (Count C) against
Culbreath.” (Doc. # 42 ¶ 2). Specifically, the battery “claim was not intended to be asserted
against Culbreath as it is undisputed that Culbreath did not strike or touch the Plaintiff in
connection with this action.” (Id.). Accordingly, the state-law battery claim against Culbreath is
due to be dismissed.
2. Failure to Intervene under 42 U.S.C. § 1983
Defendant Culbreath argues that he is entitled to qualified immunity against the § 1983
failure-to-intervene claim for two reasons. First, Culbreath argues that the First Amended
Complaint does not show that Culbreath had a duty to intervene. Specifically, Defendant
Culbreath contends that, because the arrest had a lawful basis,3 the Plaintiff ran from the police,
“the officers did not use any force after the Plaintiff was fully subdued and secured,” and “it was
not clearly established that police officers could not use punches, kicks, stomps and a Taser to
subdue a drug offender who resisted a lawful felony arrest by flight,” the Plaintiff has not met his
burden to show that Culbreath had a duty to intervene. (Doc. # 40 at 17). Second, the Defendant
argues that “[t]he First Amended Complaint does not plausibly demonstrate that Officer
Culbreath was close enough to intervene while the alleged use of force was ongoing,” “does not
plausibly demonstrate that the use of force lasted long enough for Officer Culbreath to
intervene,” and “does not plausibly demonstrate that Officer Culbreath could actually see the
specific applications of force that were allegedly used against the Plaintiff.” (Id. at 25–26).
In response, the Plaintiff argues that “Culbreath’s assertions concerning how long the
attack on the Plaintiff lasted, whether or not he could have intervened, whether there was time to
say or do anything to prevent the attack, and whether he should ultimately be liable for this
claim” cannot support a motion to dismiss “because these are all factual issues that can be
fleshed out through discovery.” (Doc. # 36 ¶ 4). According to the Plaintiff, “[t]he amended
complaint [satisfies pleading requirements because it] asserts that Culbreath watched with apathy
and did nothing to prevent Plaintiff’s constitutional rights from being violated.” (Id.). Finally, the
Plaintiff argues that running from the police does not validate the use of excessive force.
Defendant Culbreath attached two records of conviction for this court to consider with his
motion to dismiss. The court notes that, even if the arrest was made for a lawful reason, the
officers could still have used excessive force in effecting the arrest. Bashir v. Rockdale Cnty.,
Ga., 445 F.3d 1323, 1332 (11th Cir. 2006) (“An excessive force claim evokes the Fourth
Amendment’s protection against the use of an unreasonable quantum of force . . . in effecting an
otherwise lawful arrest.” (emphasis added)). The court further notes that the extent of the force
used is a factual issue that cannot be resolved at this stage of the proceedings. Thus, even if the
court were to consider or take judicial notice of the attached records of conviction against the
Plaintiff, the records would have no impact on the court’s analysis of the Plaintiff’s excessiveforce claim—and thus of the Plaintiff’s failure-to-intervene claim—at this point. As a result, the
court will not consider the records of conviction for the purposes of this motion to dismiss.
As an initial matter, the court agrees with the Plaintiff that many of Culbreath’s
arguments for dismissal concern factual issues. As the Plaintiff argues, “Culbreath’s assertions
concerning how long the attack on the Plaintiff lasted, whether or not he could have intervened,
[and] whether there was time to say or do anything to prevent the attack . . . are all factual
issues.” (Doc. # 36 ¶ 4). Moreover, the Defendant’s arguments concerning whether the officers
stopped using force after Williams was subdued and secured and whether Defendant Culbreath
could see the alleged force raise factual issues. Because the court accepts the Plaintiff’s
allegations as true at this stage, the Defendant’s factual arguments fail.
Further, the court finds that the First Amended Complaint states a plausible claim for
relief against Defendant Culbreath for the alleged failure to intervene and that Defendant
Culbreath is not entitled to qualified immunity at this stage of the proceedings. “To receive
qualified immunity, the officer must first show that he acted within his discretionary authority.”
Lewis v. City of W. Palm Bch., Fla., 561 F.3d 1288, 1291 (11th Cir. 2009). “Once discretionary
authority is established, the burden then shifts to the plaintiff to show that qualified immunity
should not apply.” Id. To determine whether qualified immunity applies, the “court first
determines whether the officer’s conduct amounted to a constitutional violation” and second
“whether the right violated was ‘clearly established’ at the time of the violation.” Id. The court
can exercise its “sound discretion in deciding which of the two prongs of the qualified immunity
analysis should be addressed first in light of the circumstances in the particular case at hand.”
Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009). Finally, “‘[i]f a police officer, whether
supervisory or not, fails or refuses to intervene when a constitutional violation such as an
unprovoked beating takes place in his presence, the officer is directly liable under Section
1983,’” but only if the officer was in a position to intervene. Ensley v. Soper, 142 F.3d 1402,
1407 (11th Cir. 1998) (quoting Byrd v. Clark, 783 F.2d 1002, 1007 (11th Cir. 1986)).
The First Amended Complaint alleges sufficient facts to state a claim such that Defendant
Culbreath’s qualified-immunity defense fails at this time. First, it is undisputed for the purposes
of this motion that Culbreath was acting in his discretion. Thus, the issue turns to “whether the
officer’s conduct amounted to a constitutional violation” and “whether the right violated was
‘clearly established’ at the time of the violation.” Lewis, 561 F.3d at 1291.
The First Amended Complaint sufficiently alleges that excessive force was used against
Williams and that Culbreath failed to intervene. For an excessive-force analysis, the court looks
to several factors to determine whether an officer’s use of force was objectively reasonable in
effecting an arrest, including “‘(1) the need for the application of force, (2) the relationship
between the need and the amount of force used, (3) the extent of the injury inflicted and, (4)
whether the force was applied in good faith or maliciously and sadistically.’” Hadley v.
Gutierrez, 526 F.3d 1324, 1329 (11th Cir. 2008) (quoting Slicker v. Jackson, 215 F.3d 1225,
1233 (11th Cir. 2000)). As alleged in the First Amended Complaint, “[a]lthough [Culbreath] did
not physically join in the attack [by the other individual defendants], he sat in his police vehicle
parked nearby and watched the entire incident without intervening or offering any assistance to
Williams.” (Doc. # 33 ¶ 4). Further, the First Amended Complaint alleges that Williams watched
while the other individual defendants “began assaulting Williams with deadly force” by
“punch[ing], kick[ing], and stomp[ing] Williams on and about the head, face, and body, while
tasing him repeatedly.” (Id.). Culbreath allegedly watched this attack and failed to intervene even
though “Williams remained on the ground[,] . . . on his stomach during [the] brutal attack,”
without weapons, and without resisting after determining that his pursuers were police officers.
(Id.). Moreover, the First Amended Complaint states that the alleged force “continued for several
moments.” (Id.). Based on these allegations, and construing the First Amended Complaint in the
Plaintiff’s favor, the court finds that the First Amended Complaint “identifie[s] each of the
alleged acts of excessive force and the claim that [Culbreath] was in the vicinity of the attacks
and [was] capable of intervening to prevent the use of unnecessary force.” Dukes v. Miami–Dade
Cnty., 232 F. App’x 907, 913 (11th Cir. 2007) (citing Velazquez v. City of Hialeah, 484 F.3d
1340, 1341 (11th Cir. 2007)); see also Detris v. Coats, 523 F. App’x 612, 616–17 (11th Cir.
2013) (reversing a district court’s dismissal of a failure-to-intervene claim where the complaint
alleged that the defendants “stood by and watched” while other officers used excessive force);
Rivas v. Figueroa, No. 11-23195-CIV, 2011 WL 5084654, at *3 (S.D. Fla. Oct. 26, 2011)
(rejecting an argument that a failure-to-intervene claim was insufficiently pled because the court
“disagree[d] that Plaintiff must allege such specific facts [like where the defendant was standing,
his proximity to the officer using excessive force, and the duration of the alleged force] to state a
claim”). Thus, the Plaintiff has pled sufficient facts “to establish a constitutional violation that
would have been reasonably known to the Defendants,” and Culbreath’s Motion to Dismiss is
due to be denied. Id.
B. Claim against the City of Dothan
Williams brings a claim against the City of Dothan under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for negligent
hiring, retention, and failure to supervise police officers (Count B).4 The City argues for
The Plaintiff styles this claim as “negligent hiring, retention, and failure to supervise police
officers.” As discussed below, city policymakers’ negligence is insufficient for a § 1983 claim
requiring deliberate indifference. However, despite the Plaintiff’s label for the claim, the Plaintiff
alleges reckless conduct on the part of the City. (Doc. # 33 ¶ 6 (“The City of Dothan has a duty
to supervise and terminate [the Dothan officer defendants] due to their constant contact with the
public in order to safeguard the constitutional rights of the citizens that the defendants are sworn
dismissal of this claim because the Plaintiff “cannot present any factual support for allegations in
his Amended Complaint that Defendant’s police officers have a history of misconduct such that
their retention by Dothan constitutes deliberate indifference to his constitutionally protected
rights.” (Doc. # 51 ¶ 1). In particular, “Plaintiff clearly asserts that the purpose of discovery is for
him to ascertain whether his allegations are true and if they are not, only then is it [the] proper
time for this Court to dismiss this lawsuit.” (Id.). Further, the City argues that “Plaintiff . . . fails
to point explicitly to any prior instances of misconduct by any officer of the Dothan Police
Department involved in this lawsuit” and “fails to aver how Defendant City of Dothan knew or
should have known of any of these officers’ alleged but unspecified incidents.” (Id. ¶ 2).
The Plaintiff contends that he has “allege[d] in his amended complaint . . . a widespread
history of excessive force incidents and constitutional violations involving the City of Dothan
Police Department which amounts to a de facto policy or custom ratifying this behavior and
allowing it to continue.” (Doc. # 50 ¶ 3). Thus, according to the Plaintiff, he “has met his
pleading burden” for the claim against the City for “a failure to remove and/or supervise officers
when they do not adhere to [the City’s] training and [for] retaining officers who have previously
demonstrated a disregard for the constitutional rights of citizens.” (Id.).
Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, “a municipality may be held liable for the actions of a police
officer only when municipal ‘official policy’ causes a constitutional violation;” a municipality
to serve, and its failure to do so constituted a reckless disregard for those rights.”)). Further, the
Plaintiff alleges that the Dothan officers’ “misconduct was sanctioned and allowed by the city.”
(Id. ¶ 10). Thus, construing the First Amended Complaint in the Plaintiff’s favor, the court finds
that the Plaintiff has pled more than mere negligence by the City in hiring, retaining, and failing
to supervise police officers. See Keene v. Prine, 477 F. App’x 575, 583 (11th Cir. 2012) (“[T]he
pleading standard set forth in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8 evaluates the plausibility of the
facts alleged, and the notice stemming from a complaint’s allegations. Where those two
requirements are met, we have recognized that the form of the complaint is not significant if it
alleges facts upon which relief can be granted, even if it fails to categorize correctly the legal
theory giving rise to the claim.”).
cannot be held liable on a theory of respondeat superior liability. Gold v. City of Miami, 151 F.3d
1346, 1350 (11th Cir. 1998). A plaintiff must “identify a municipal ‘policy’ or ‘custom’ that
caused the plaintiff’s injury.” Bd. of Cnty. Comm’rs of Bryan Cnty., Okla. v. Brown, 520 U.S.
397, 403 (1997). “[A]n act performed pursuant to a ‘custom’ that has not been formally approved
by an appropriate decisionmaker may fairly subject a municipality to liability on the theory that
the relevant practice is so widespread as to have the force of law.” Id. at 404. “Since a
municipality rarely will have an express written or oral policy of inadequately training or
supervising its employees, the Supreme Court has . . . explained that a plaintiff may prove a city
policy by showing that the municipality’s failure to train [or supervise its employees] evidenced
a ‘deliberate indifference’ to the rights of its inhabitants.” Gold, 151 F.3d at 1350. To show the
requisite “deliberate indifference,” “a plaintiff must present some evidence that the municipality
knew of a need to . . . supervise in a particular area and the municipality made a deliberate choice
not to take any action;” mere negligence will not suffice. Id.; see also Brown, 520 U.S. at 407
(“A showing of simple or even heightened negligence will not suffice.”). Finally, the Plaintiff
“must show that the municipal action was taken with the requisite degree of culpability and must
demonstrate a direct causal link between the municipal action and the deprivation of federal
rights.” Id. at 404.
The court finds that the Plaintiff has alleged sufficient facts to state a plausible claim for
relief against the City. The First Amended Complaint states that the individual defendants in this
case were “members in a joint Wiregrass Violent Crime/Drug Task Force” and that, as such, they
were “work[ing] for and under the control of the City of Dothan.” (Doc. # 33 ¶ 4). Further, the
First Amended Complaint alleges that “several of [the] officers are the focus of either past or ongoing and current investigations relating to brutality and excessive force claims filed by
citizens.” (Id.). Indeed, according to the Plaintiff, “[m]ultiple citizen complaints of excessive
force, brutality, and misconduct have been submitted involving the defendants and their willful
violation of the constitutional rights of citizens.” (Id.). But, “[d]espite these complaints, [the drug
task force officers] continue to be employed in their law enforcement capacity.” (Id.). Further,
the Plaintiff alleges that “[t]he City of Dothan has a duty to supervise and terminate these
individuals due to their constant contact with the public in order to safeguard the constitutional
rights of . . . citizens,” and the City’s “failure to [supervise and terminate the defendants]
constituted a reckless disregard for those rights [of citizens], as a direct causal link existed
between the defendants’ continued employment and the violation of Williams’ constitutional
rights.” (Id.). Finally, the Plaintiff alleges that the task force officers’ “misconduct was
sanctioned and allowed by the city,” and “[t]he city’s indifference to, and approval of, [the
officers’ alleged] misconduct constitutes an approved city policy or custom.” (Id. ¶ 10).
Based on these allegations, the Plaintiff has stated a plausible claim for relief against the
City. Specifically, the Plaintiff has sufficiently alleged that the City had a custom of ignoring the
use of excessive force by the drug task force officers who are named Defendants in this case.
Further, the allegations specify that the City’s custom of ignoring the defendants’ use of
excessive force was the “direct causal link” between the Plaintiff’s injury and the alleged
excessive force in this case because the excessive-force complaints the City ignored were against
the officers who allegedly used excessive force against the Plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 4). Finally, although
mere negligence is insufficient, the Plaintiff has pled that the City recklessly disregarded the
constitutional rights of citizens by ignoring complaints against the officers and that the City
sanctioned the officers’ misconduct. Thus, accepting the allegations as true, the court finds that
the First Amended Complaint sufficiently alleges a plausible claim for relief against the City of
Dothan, and the City’s Motion to Dismiss is due to be denied.
The court finds that Count C of the First Amended Complaint against Defendant
Culbreath is due to be dismissed. Further, the court finds that the First Amended Complaint has
alleged sufficient facts to state plausible claims for relief against Culbreath for a failure to
intervene and against the City of Dothan for improper hiring, retention, and failure to supervise.
For the stated reasons,
It is hereby ORDERED as follows:
1. Defendant Culbreath’s Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim (Doc. # 39) is
GRANTED as to Count C, but DENIED as to Count D. This case will continue
against Culbreath as to Counts D and E.
2. Defendant City of Dothan’s Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff’s First Amended Complaint
(Doc. # 43) is DENIED.
DONE this 25th day of July, 2014.
/s/ W. Harold Albritton
W. HAROLD ALBRITTON
SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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