Estate of James Hatley v. Etowah County et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Annemarie Carney Axon on 6/4/2021. (KAM)
2021 Jun-04 AM 10:31
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
ESTATE OF JAMES HATLEY,
ETOWAH COUNTY, et al.,
Case No.: 4:20-cv-01334-ACA
Before the court is Defendant Etowah County’s motion to dismiss (doc. 18)
and Defendant Sheriff Jonathan Horton’s motion to dismiss (doc. 20). The plaintiff
is the Estate of James Hatley, who committed suicide while incarcerated in Etowah
County Detention Center. Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Estate asserts claims
for deliberate indifference to serious medical needs and failure to protect from
suicidal action in violation of the Eighth Amendment. (Doc. 16 at 9, 11). The Estate
also asserts claims for wrongful death and negligent hiring, training, and supervision.
(Id. at 18, 21).
Because Etowah County is not responsible for jail personnel, the court WILL
GRANT Etowah County’s motion to dismiss. Because Sheriff Horton is entitled to
qualified immunity from the § 1983 claims and sovereign immunity from the tort
claims, the court also WILL GRANT Sheriff Horton’s motion to dismiss.
At this stage, the court must accept as true the factual allegations in the
amended complaint and construe them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.
Butler v. Sheriff of Palm Beach Cnty., 685 F.3d 1261, 1265 (11th Cir. 2012).
Mr. Hatley was incarcerated in Etowah County Detention Center. (Doc. 16 at
6 ¶¶ 19–20). He suffered severe mental health issues at the jail and expressed intent
to commit suicide. (Id. at 7, 13, 17 ¶¶ 24, 46, 57). He gave five handwritten notes
to Defendant Deputy David Farley—who has not filed a motion to dismiss—and
another deputy expressing concerns about his mental health and requesting medical
treatment. (Id. at 7, 17–18 ¶¶ 24, 57). In the notes, Mr. Hatley wrote, “I need to talk
to someone”; “I[’]m having bad thoughts”; “I need to see doctor”; “needed
something for pain”; “I[’]m hurt”; “I can[’]t go to . . . will hurt me”; and “kill
himself.” (Id. at 13, 17 ¶¶ 46, 57). He also wrote three times that his 20-year
sentence ended on March 27, 2020, and he could therefore return home. (Id. at 17–
18 ¶ 57). And he made verbal pleas for medical attention. (Id. at 9 ¶ 33). However,
he did not receive any adequate medical treatment. (Id. at 6–7, 9–10 ¶¶ 22–25, 33,
Mr. Hatley attempted suicide on March 28, 2020. (Doc. 16 at 7 ¶ 25). The
attempt left visible damage on his face. (Id. at 14 ¶ 51). After the attempt, Defendant
Doctors’ Care Physicians, P.C., the medical provider at the jail, did not refer Mr.
Hatley for a psychiatric evaluation, transfer him to a psychiatric unit, provide
appropriate medicine, or provide any other appropriate treatment. (Id. at 19–21
¶¶ 62, 64, 66–67).
Mr. Hatley committed suicide on March 30, 2020, by hanging himself in his
cell. (Doc. 16 at 6 ¶ 19). The Estate “believe[s] that [Mr.] Hatley had already
reached his End of Sentence (E.O.S.) and thus should have been released by law”
before the day he committed suicide. (Id. at 7–8 ¶ 26).
From these allegations, the Estate asserts two § 1983 claims against Sheriff
Horton and Deputy Farley for violations of Mr. Hatley’s Eighth Amendment rights.
(Doc. 16 at 9, 11). One § 1983 claim alleges that those defendants were deliberately
indifferent to Mr. Hatley’s serious medical needs by denying him adequate medical
care for his mental health and attempted suicide, and the other § 1983 claim alleges
that those defendants were deliberately indifferent to Mr. Hatley’s serious medical
needs by failing to protect him from suicidal action. (Id.). The Estate also brings
state law claims for wrongful death against Doctors’ Care Physicians and negligent
hiring, training, and supervision against Etowah County and Sheriff Horton. (Id. at
On April 7, 2021, the court ordered the Estate to show cause why the court
should not grant Etowah County’s motion to dismiss and to respond to Sheriff
Horton’s motion to dismiss. (Docs. 22, 23). On May 6, 2021, the Estate responded
to the court’s order to show cause and both motions to dismiss. (Doc. 26). On May
13, 2021, Etowah County and Sheriff Horton filed a joint reply. (Doc. 27). The
motions to dismiss are ripe for adjudication.
“To survive a [Rule 12(b)(6)] motion to dismiss, the plaintiff must plead ‘a
claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’” Butler, 685 F.3d at 1265 (quoting Bell
Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). “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.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal,
556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). “A pleading that offers ‘labels and conclusions’ or ‘a
formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.’” Id. (quoting
Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). In deciding whether a plaintiff has stated a claim, the
court follows a two-step approach, “first separating out the complaint’s conclusory
legal allegations and then determining whether the remaining well-pleaded factual
allegations, accepted as true, ‘plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.’”
Franklin v. Curry, 738 F.3d 1246, 1251 (11th Cir. 2013) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at
Etowah County’s Motion to Dismiss
Etowah County contends that the Estate has not pled a plausible claim for
negligent hiring, training, and supervision because Etowah County is not responsible
for jail personnel. (Doc. 19 at 7–11). The court agrees.
Alabama counties are “creatures of the State who have only the powers
granted to them by the State.” McMillian v. Monroe Cnty., 520 U.S. 781, 790 (1997).
The Alabama Legislature has imposed some duties on counties with respect to jails,
but those duties “are limited to funding the operation of the jail and to providing
facilities to house the jail.” Turquitt v. Jefferson Cnty., 137 F.3d 1285, 1289 (11th
Cir. 1998) (internal quotation marks omitted). Alabama counties have no duties
“relate[d] to the daily operation of the jails or to the supervision of inmates.” Id.
Instead, county sheriffs, not the counties themselves, have “control over the inmates
of the jail, the employees of the jail, and the jail itself.” Id. “The sheriff appoints,
directs, and controls the deputies and jailers who work at the jail. . . . The County
has no authority to manage the sheriff’s employees.”
Id. (citation omitted).
Likewise, “a county commission does not have the authority, or the responsibility,
to promulgate policies and work rules for employees of the sheriff’s office, nor does
a county commission have authority over law-enforcement policies or the training,
supervision, hiring, or firing of the sheriff’s employees.” Ex parte Sumter Cnty.,
953 So. 2d 1235, 1238 (Ala. 2006).
Pursuant to the well settled law discussed above, “[a county] cannot be held
liable for any action resulting from the hiring, training, or supervising of jail
personnel.” Ex parte Sumter Cnty., 953 So. 2d at 1238. Accordingly, the court
WILL GRANT Etowah County’s motion to dismiss.
Sheriff Horton’s Motion to Dismiss
Sheriff Horton contends that his qualified immunity bars the Estate’s § 1983
claims against him. (Doc. 21 at 6–12). He is correct.
Government officials performing “discretionary functions” are entitled to
qualified immunity from § 1983 claims “unless their conduct violates ‘clearly
established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would
have known.’” Dalrymple v. Reno, 334 F.3d 991, 994 (11th Cir. 2003) (quoting
Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 739 (2002)). A discretionary function is “a legitimate
job-related function” performed “through means . . . within [the official’s] power to
utilize.” Holloman ex rel. Holloman v. Harland, 370 F.3d 1252, 1265 (11th Cir.
2004). If the official establishes that he was performing a discretionary function,
then, to overcome qualified immunity, the plaintiff must show: “(1) the defendant
violated a constitutional right, and (2) this right was clearly established at the time
of the alleged violation.” Id. at 1264. In ruling on qualified immunity, the court is
permitted to decide which of these two prongs should be addressed first. Pearson v.
Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009).
Here, it is undisputed that Sheriff Horton was acting within the scope of his
discretionary authority. So the burden shifts to the Estate to allege that Sheriff
Horton plausibly violated Mr. Hatley’s clearly established constitutional rights.
Critically, the Estate does not allege any facts showing Sheriff Horton’s personal
involvement in the events leading up to Mr. Hatley’s suicide. Instead, the Estate
alleges that Mr. Hatley’s written requests for medical attention “are imputed to
[Sheriff] Horton . . . via respondeat superior.” (Doc. 16 at 7 ¶ 24). Similarly, the
Estate alleges that knowledge of Mr. Hatley’s suicide attempt “is imputed to
[Sheriff] Horton as the supervising agent of Deputy Farley.” (Id. at 14 ¶ 49).
However, “[i]t is well established in [the Eleventh Circuit] that supervisory officials
are not liable under § 1983 for the unconstitutional acts of their subordinates on the
basis of respondeat superior or vicarious liability.” Hartley v. Parnell, 193 F.3d
1263, 1269 (11th Cir. 1999) (internal quotation marks omitted). So the Estate’s
respondeat superior argument fails.
The Estate also has not alleged facts showing Sheriff Horton’s awareness of
Mr. Hatley’s circumstances. The Estate alleges that it is “entitled to infer from the
obviousness of the risk that Defendants knew of the risk. Defendants Horton and
Farley knew from the obviousness of suicide notes, medical requests and the
attempted suicide of on or about March 28, 2020 that Hatley was in need of medical
attention.” (Doc. 16 at 10 ¶ 36). The Estate also contends that “knowledge is
imputed to [Sheriff] Horton” because “the suicide attempt was reported.” (Id. at 14
¶ 49). True, Mr. Hatley’s serious medical needs were obvious from his several
requests for medical attention and his suicide attempt. But the Estate has not alleged
any facts showing that Sheriff Horton knew or should have known about Mr.
Hatley’s requests or suicide attempt. For example, the Estate does not allege that
Deputy Farley told Sheriff Horton about Mr. Hatley’s situation or that Sheriff Horton
was ever present at the jail. Also, the Estate does not allege to whom the suicide
attempt “was reported.”
So, without any facts showing Sheriff Horton’s personal involvement in or
awareness of the events giving rise to this case, the Estate seeks to hold Sheriff
Horton liable as a supervisor of jail personnel. “[T]o hold a supervisor liable [under
§ 1983,] a plaintiff must show that the supervisor either directly participated in the
unconstitutional conduct or that a causal connection exists between the supervisor’s
actions and the alleged constitutional violation.” Keith v. DeKalb Cnty., 749 F.3d
1034, 1047–48 (11th Cir. 2014). A causal connection exists “when a history of
widespread abuse puts the responsible supervisor on notice of the need to correct the
alleged deprivation, and he fails to do so”; the supervisor’s “custom or
policy . . . result[s] in deliberate indifference to constitutional rights”; or when “facts
support an inference that the supervisor directed the subordinates to act unlawfully
or knew that the subordinates would act unlawfully and failed to stop them from
doing so.” Cottone v. Jenne, 326 F.3d 1352, 1360 (11th Cir. 2003) (internal
quotation marks and citations omitted).
The Estate has not alleged that Sheriff Horton directed subordinates to act
unlawfully or knew that subordinates would act unlawfully and failed to stop them.
Instead, the Estate relies on the “history of widespread abuse” and “custom or
policy” theories of liability. First, the Estate alleges that Sheriff Horton was
responsible for a history and custom of denying inmates reasonable medical care that
caused Mr. Hatley’s death. (Doc. 16 at 9–15; see Doc. 26-1 at 13–16). But that bare
allegation of a history or custom of denying inmates reasonable medical care is
conclusory, and thus does not establish supervisor liability. See Doe v. Sch. Bd. of
Broward Cnty., 604 F.3d 1248, 1267 (11th Cir. 2010) (finding that a conclusory
assertion of a custom or policy resulting in deliberate indifference cannot establish
Furthermore, one or two deputies’ failure to respond to
Mr. Hatley’s requests for medical care and a single instance of substandard medical
care after Mr. Hatley’s suicide attempt does not constitute “obvious, flagrant,
rampant and of continued duration . . . deprivations that constitute widespread abuse
sufficient to notify” Sheriff Horton of constitutional violations. See Keith, 749 F.3d
at 1048. Instead, those events are isolated incidents incapable of establishing
supervisor liability. See id. (finding that “isolated occurrences” of abuse do not
constitute widespread abuse sufficient to establish supervisor liability).
Next, the Estate alleges that Sheriff Horton was responsible for a history and
custom of inhumane living conditions at Etowah County Detention Center that
caused Mr. Hatley’s death. (Doc. 16 at 7–8, 12–13, 15 ¶¶ 23, 29, 40, 45, 53; see
Doc. 26-1 at 13–16). However, the living condition allegations are conclusory. At
its most vague, the amended complaint simply alleges that “conditions” caused Mr.
Hatley’s suicide. (Doc. 16 at 12–13 ¶¶ 40, 45). In other places, the amended
complaint references underfeeding, hazing, and unhygienic living conditions
without supporting facts. (Id. at 7–8 ¶¶ 23, 29). Elsewhere, the amended complaint
alleges “[i]t is believed” that officers hazed inmates—“likely” through sleep
deprivation—and provided insufficient meals.
(Id. at 15 ¶ 53).
likelihoods, beliefs, and conclusions lacking specific factual allegations cannot
defeat a motion to dismiss.
Even accepting the Estate’s version of Mr. Hatley’s living conditions, the
Estate has not alleged facts establishing a history of widespread abuse or a custom
or policy to hold Sheriff Horton liable for those conditions as a supervisor. The
Estate has not alleged a causal connection between the living conditions at Etowah
County Detention Center and the constitutional violations alleged. No factual
allegations bridge the gap between poor living conditions and notice of a risk of
Accordingly, the Estate has failed to plausibly allege that Sheriff Horton
violated Mr. Horton’s constitutional rights, and the court will not address the clearly
established prong of qualified immunity. Therefore, the court WILL GRANT
Sheriff Horton’s motion to dismiss as to the § 1983 claims against him on grounds
of qualified immunity.
State Sovereign Immunity
Finally, Sheriff Horton is immune from the Estate’s claim for negligent hiring,
training, and supervision pursuant to Article I, Section 14 of the Alabama
Constitution. Section 14 provides that “the State of Alabama shall never be made a
defendant in any court of law or equity.” Ala. Const. § 14. This sovereign immunity
shields sheriffs in Alabama from tort claims when acting within the line and scope
of their employment. Ex parte Walker, 97 So. 3d 747, 753 (Ala. 2012); Ex parte
Sumter Cnty., 953 So. 2d at 1239–40; Ex parte Haralson, 853 So. 2d 928, 932 (Ala.
2003); Ex parte Purvis, 689 So. 2d 794, 796 (Ala. 1996); Parker v. Amerson, 519
So. 2d 442, 445 (Ala. 1987). However, according to five exceptions to the rule,
sheriffs do not have sovereign immunity from actions brought “(1) to compel him to
perform his duties[;] (2) to compel him to perform ministerial acts[;] (3) to enjoin
him from enforcing unconstitutional laws[;] (4) to enjoin him from acting in bad
faith, fraudulently, beyond his authority, or under mistaken interpretation of the
law[;] or (5) to seek construction of a statute under the Declaratory Judgment Act.”
Ex parte Davis, 930 So. 2d 497, 501 (Ala. 2005) (quoting Alexander v. Hatfield, 652
So. 2d 1142, 1143 (Ala.1994)).
Here, the Estate does not allege any facts showing Sheriff Horton ever acted
outside the line and scope of his employment. To the contrary, the Estate alleges
that Sheriff Horton was negligent in the execution of his official duties. Also, the
Estate does not seek injunctive or declaratory relief (see doc. 16 at 23–24), so no
exception to Sheriff Horton’s sovereign immunity applies. Therefore, the court
WILL GRANT Sheriff Horton’s motion to dismiss as to the tort claims against him
on grounds of sovereign immunity.
For the reasons stated above, the court WILL GRANT Etowah County’s and
Sheriff Horton’s motions to dismiss and WILL DISMISS WITHOUT
PREJUDICE the Estate’s claims against Etowah County and Sheriff Horton. The
claims against Deputy Farley and Doctors’ Care Physicians will proceed.
The court will enter a separate order consistent with this opinion.
DONE and ORDERED this June 4, 2021.
ANNEMARIE CARNEY AXON
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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