Spencer et al v. McLaughlin et al
OPINION AND ORDER: (1) The Scott County Dfts' 39 Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part. (2) The Plas' claim under 42 USC 1983 against the Scott County Dfts is DISMISSED with prejudice. (3) The Plas' claim under 42 USC 1983 against unknown Dfts is DISMISSED without prejudice. (4) The Plas' state law claims against all Dfts are DISMISSED without prejudice. (5) The Scott County Dfts' 60 Supplemental Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED as moot. (6) A separate judgment shall issue. Signed by Judge Karen K. Caldwell on September 14, 2017. (AWD) cc: COR
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF KENTUCKY
SIERRA SPENCER, individually and
as Co-Administrator of the Estate of
GENEVA ROSE SPENCER, deceased,
and as Next Friend of A.D.M., A.L.M.,
J.M., and S.M, et al.,
OPINION & ORDER
KEENAN McLAUGHLIN, et al.,
*** *** ***
This matter is before the Court on the motion for summary judgment filed by defendants
Sheriff Tony Hampton, individually and in his official capacity as Scott County Sheriff, and
Deputy Jeremy Johnson, individually and in his official capacity as a deputy sheriff with the
Scott County Sheriff’s Office, collectively known as “Scott County defendants.” (DE 39).
For the reasons that follow, the Scott County defendants’ motion will be granted as to the
plaintiffs’ claim brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Additionally, the plaintiffs’ state law claims
against all defendants will be dismissed without prejudice.
On January 14, 2014, Deputy Johnson pursued suspect Keenan McLaughlin in an
automobile chase after the suspect sold heroin to an informant. Deputy Johnson’s siren was
malfunctioning, so he only activated the lights on the cruiser during the chase. Shortly after
Deputy Johnson allegedly decided to terminate the chase, McLaughlin crashed head-on into
the vehicle of Geneva Rose Spencer. McLaughlin fled from the scene. Deputy Johnson
approached the scene of the crash and called for emergency services, but Spencer died while
The plaintiffs1 brought suit against the Scott County defendants alleging a violation of 42
U.S.C. § 1983 and asserting Kentucky state law claims against the Scott County defendants,
McLaughlin, and Stephen Sheffield, who the plaintiffs allege loaned McLaughlin his car. The
Scott County defendants have moved for summary judgment, arguing in part that they are
immune from suit on the plaintiffs’ § 1983 claim.
A. Standard of Review
Summary judgment is proper “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to
any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P.
56(a). Moreover, entry of summary judgment is mandated, “after adequate time for discovery
and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the
existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which that party will bear the
burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).
When a defendant moves for summary judgment, “[t]he mere existence of a scintilla of
evidence in support of the plaintiff’s position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on
which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477
U.S. 242, 252 (1986).
“Credibility judgments and weighing of the evidence are prohibited during the
consideration of a motion for summary judgment; rather, the evidence should be viewed in
the light most favorable to the non-moving party.” Ahlers v. Schebil, 188 F.3d 365, 369 (6th
The plaintiffs are: Sierra Spencer, individually, as co-administrator of the estate of Geneva Rose
Spencer, and as next friend of A.D.M, A.L.M., J.M., and S.M.; and Pete Spencer, as co-administrator
of the estate of Geneva Rose Spencer. (DE 1-1).
Cir. 1999) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255). Based on this standard, “any direct evidence
offered by the plaintiff in response to a summary judgment motion must be accepted as true.”
Muhammad v. Close, 379 F.3d 413, 416 (6th Cir. 2004).
B. Plaintiffs’ Claims
1. 42 U.S.C. § 1983
The plaintiffs assert that the conduct of the Scott County defendants violated 42 U.S.C. §
1983 by infringing upon Spencer’s rights under the Fourth Amendment and under the Due
Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Scott County defendants have argued
that they are immune from suit in their individual and official capacities. Relevant case law
provides adequate grounds for the Scott County defendants to claim immunity, and thus,
their motion for summary judgment will be granted on the plaintiffs’ § 1983 claim.
The plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment argument can be dealt with in short order. Because
the Fourth Amendment covers only “searches and seizures,” and neither took place here, see
Cty. of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 843 (1998), the Court will grant the Scott County
defendants’ motion for judgment as a matter of law against the plaintiffs’ claim under this
theory. Now, the Court will turn to an analysis of the plaintiffs’ claim under the rubric of
substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment.
When determining whether qualified immunity applies, it is necessary to determine if a
constitutional right has been violated and if that right was clearly established at the time.
See Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 239 (2009); Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 648
(1987); see also Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982) (“[G]overnment officials
performing discretionary functions generally are shielded from liability for civil damages
insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights
of which a reasonable person would have known.”).
As the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has explained, “[a]s of January
18, 2002, it was clearly established that a police officer’s conduct during the course of a highspeed pursuit could violate the substantive due process rights of persons injured during the
pursuit.” Meals v. City of Memphis, 493 F.3d 720, 729 (6th Cir. 2007). Moreover, “[t]he
Supreme Court has held that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment includes
within its boundary ‘protection of the individual against arbitrary action of government.’” Id.
However, “only the most egregious official conduct can be said to be ‘arbitrary in the
constitutional sense’ thus amounting to a violation of constitutional dimensions.” Id. at 730.
(internal quotation marks omitted).
In Meals, the Sixth Circuit further elaborated that “[a] § 1983 claim may be brought
against a police officer under the Fourteenth Amendment for death or injury to innocent third
parties where the injury results from the pursuit.” Id. However, “[t]o prevail on such a claim,
a plaintiff must prove that the police officer’s conduct ‘shocks the conscience.’” Id.
Even when law enforcement inadvertently causes harm in the pursuit of a suspect, “only
a purpose to cause harm unrelated to the legitimate object of arrest will satisfy the element
of arbitrary conduct shocking to the conscience, necessary for a due process violation.” Lewis,
523 U.S. at 836. Conduct that flagrantly and brutally violates liberties is said to shock the
conscience. See Rochin v. California, 342 U.S. 165, 172 (1952) (The Supreme Court coined
the phrase when describing the behavior of officers who illegally broke into a suspect’s home,
pinned him down, and forcibly pumped his stomach to prove morphine possession. This was
characterized as “methods too close to the rack and the screw to permit of constitutional
Even when the facts are viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, the conduct
of the Scott County defendants did not result in a violation of Spencer’s constitutional rights.
In this case, the harm stemmed from the conduct of the suspect rather than the officer, and
the vehicular pursuit of McLaughlin did not fall outside the legitimate means for
apprehending a suspect.
Although the outcome was undeniably tragic, Deputy Johnson’s behavior did not shock
the conscience because there was not a flagrant violation of the victim’s liberties on the part
of law enforcement. See Lewis, 523 U.S. at 855 (The Supreme Court held that vehicular
pursuit of a lawlessly behaving suspect did not shock the conscience and that it should not
be considered the catalyst for a suspect’s crass indifference to the safety of other motorists.).
Consequently, Deputy Johnson is entitled to qualified immunity.
Moreover, the malfunctioning siren does not make Deputy Johnson liable for an alleged
§ 1983 violation. KRS 189.940 establishes the conditions for when law enforcement and
emergency personnel are exempted from traffic regulations, but “a state actor’s failure to
follow state procedures does not necessarily establish a federal due process violation.” Partin
v. Davis, 675 F. App’x 575, 580 (6th Cir. 2017) (emphasis in original). The Due Process Clause
of the Fourteenth Amendment forbids the state from “depriv[ing] any person of life, liberty,
or property, without due process of law.” U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1. However, Deputy
Johnson is not liable for the actions of the suspect who crashed into the decedent’s vehicle.
Consequently, Deputy Johnson’s choice to pursue the suspect despite the cruiser’s
malfunctioning siren does not constitute a due process clause violation.
Sheriff Hampton is also not liable under § 1983 because “§ 1983 liability must be based
on more than respondeat superior.” Shehee v. Luttrell, 199 F.3d 295, 300 (6th Cir. 1999). In
order for a supervisory defendant to liable for a § 1983 violation, the defendant must have
“at least implicitly authorized, approved, or knowingly acquiesced in the unconstitutional
conduct of the offending officers.” Hays v. Jefferson Cty., 668 F.2d 869, 874 (6th Cir. 1982).
As previously noted, Deputy Johnson is not responsible for a constitutional violation. Thus,
Sheriff Hampton may also claim immunity. Further, no evidence presented leads the Court
to conclude that Sheriff Hampton implicitly authorized or approved of the vehicular pursuit.
Consequently, Sheriff Hampton is not constitutionally liable for the calamitous outcome.
In addition, the Scott County defendants are entitled to immunity in their official
capacities. Section 1983 actions against local officials are tantamount to actions against the
municipality. Shamaeizadeh v. Cunigan, 338 F.3d 535, 556 (6th Cir. 2003); Barber v. City of
Salem, 953 F.2d 232, 237 (6th Cir. 1992). If defendants acting in their individual capacities
have not committed a constitutional violation, then “municipal defendants cannot be held
liable under § 1983.” Watkins v. City of Battle Creek, 273 F.3d 682, 687 (6th Cir. 2001).
Because the Court has already determined that the Scott County defendants are not liable
in their individual capacities, they are also not liable in their official capacities for the alleged
§ 1983 violation.
Finally, the plaintiffs’ § 1983 claim against unknown defendants will be dismissed
without prejudice. See Jackson v. Steele, No. 11-cv-72-DLB-EBA, 2014 WL 2801337, at *4
(E.D. Ky. June 19, 2014).
2. State Law Claims
Having found no constitutional violations by Deputy Johnson or Sheriff Hampton in this
case, the Court will decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the plaintiffs’
remaining state law claims against all defendants. See 28 U.S.C. § 1367(c). “[I]f the federal
claims are dismissed before trial, even though not insubstantial in a jurisdictional sense, the
state claims should be dismissed as well.” United Mine Workers of America v. Gibbs, 383 U.S.
715, 726 (1966). However, dismissal of the plaintiffs’ state law claims is without prejudice,
and the plaintiffs may elect to pursue those claims in state court.
Accordingly, it is hereby ORDERED that:
(1) The Scott County defendants’ motion for summary judgment (DE 39) is GRANTED
in part and DENIED in part;
(2) The plaintiffs’ claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Scott County defendants is
DISMISSED with prejudice;
(3) The plaintiffs’ claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against unknown defendants is
DISMISSED without prejudice;
(4) The plaintiffs’ state law claims against all defendants are DISMISSED without
(5) The Scott County defendants’ supplemental motion for summary judgment (DE 60) is
DENIED as moot; and
(6) A separate judgment shall issue.
Dated September 14, 2017.
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