Luna v. Bell et al
MEMORANDUM signed by District Judge Aleta A. Trauger on 05/11/2017. (DOCKET TEXT SUMMARY ONLY-ATTORNEYS MUST OPEN THE PDF AND READ THE ORDER.)(ab)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF TENNESSEE
JANE LUNA, as Administratrix of the
Estate of Charles Jason Toll, deceased,
RICKY BELL, et al.,
Case No. 3:11-cv-0093
Judge Aleta A. Trauger
Before the court is the defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. No. 269.) The
motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for review. For the reasons set forth herein, the court
will grant the motion and dismiss this case with prejudice.
The plaintiff’s decedent, Jason Toll, died during a cell extraction and strip search at
Riverbend Maximum Security Institution (“RMSI”), in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2010. The court
presumes familiarity with the transcript of the trial in this matter, conducted in August 2013 (see
Trial Tr., Doc. Nos. 201–09), and will not reiterate the evidentiary background here except as
strictly necessary to discuss the claims at issue.
In 2011, Jane Luna, Toll’s mother, brought this action as administratrix of her son’s
estate against nine correctional officers who were allegedly personally involved in the incident,
as well as against Ricky Bell, then warden of RMSI. (Compl., Doc. No. 1.) The plaintiff asserted
claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the correctional officers who were involved in the cell
extraction for the use of excessive force and against Warden Bell, in his individual capacity, for
failure to train and supervise. In an Amended Complaint filed in October 2012, the plaintiff
voluntarily abandoned her claims against two of the nine officer defendants. (Am. Compl., Doc.
No. 52.) Prior to trial, she voluntarily dismissed the claims against five of the remaining seven
individual officers, leaving only the claims against Officer Gaelan Doss, Captain James Horton,
and Warden Bell to proceed to trial. (See Doc. No. 152 (Order granting oral Motion to Dismiss
defendants Reckart, Jackson, Stewart, Freeman, and Bishop).)
Senior Judge John T. Nixon, now retired, conducted a nine-day trial beginning on August
13, 2013. The jury returned verdicts in favor of the defendants, specifically concluding that Doss
and Horton did not violate Toll’s constitutional right to be free from the use of excessive force
during the cell extraction and that Bell did not violate Toll’s constitutional rights by failing to
adequately train the corrections officers involved in the cell extraction. (See Redacted Verdict
Forms, Doc. Nos. 157, 160, 161.) The court thereafter denied the plaintiff’s timely Rule 59(a)
Motion for a New Trial (Doc. Nos. 168, 172.)
Nearly a year later, the plaintiff filed a Motion to Reopen Case (Doc. No. 173) and Rule
60(b) Omnibus Motion for Relief from Judgments (Doc. No. 174). The court granted relief under
Rule 60(b)(2), on the basis that the plaintiff was in possession of newly discovered evidence—
namely, the February 7, 2011 resignation letter of former defendant and correctional officer
William Amonette (“resignation letter”).1 The court found that the plaintiff had established that,
despite reasonable diligence, the resignation letter could not have been discovered in time to
move for a new trial under Rule 59(b) and that the letter constituted material and controlling
evidence which, if it had been produced in time to be introduced into evidence at trial, would
Amonette was one of the two officers who were named as defendants in the original
Complaint but not the Amended Complaint. While he was technically part of the team
conducting the cell extraction, his only role was to videotape the entire incident.
have produced a different result at trial. In ruling on the motion, the court found that the “newly
discovered resignation letter is material evidence that would have assisted the jury in weighing
the credibility of the defense witnesses, would have affected depositions and the parties’
presentation of trial evidence, and would most likely have led the parties to other material
evidence.” (Order, Doc. No. 187, at 7.) The court specifically did not find fraud,
misrepresentation or misconduct by the defendants or their attorneys.
Following entry of the Order granting relief, the Judgments in favor of the defendants
were vacated. Judge Nixon recused himself, and the matter was reassigned to Judge Todd
Campbell. The defendants promptly filed a Rule 59 motion, seeking reconsideration of the Order
granting a new trial. (Doc. No. 191.) Judge Campbell denied the motion. (Doc. No. 198.) The
court also denied the plaintiff’s Motion for Sanctions (Doc. No. 213), finding no evidence that
the defendants or their counsel acted in bad faith. (Doc. Nos. 256 (Report and Recommendation)
and 261 (Order adopting Report and Recommendation).) Meanwhile, new Case Management
Orders were entered, setting a trial date as well as deadlines for amending pleadings, discovery,
and the filing of dispositive motions. In November 2016, with the retirement of Judge Campbell,
this case was transferred to the undersigned.
In early 2017, the defendants filed a Rule 54(b) Motion to Reconsider Order Vacating
Jury Verdict (Doc. No. 271), as well as their Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 268). The
court denied the Rule 54(b) motion, finding that the defendants did not carry their burden but
noting that the substantive issues raised therein could be addressed in the context of the alsopending Motion for Summary Judgment.
The plaintiff filed a Response in Opposition to the Motion for Summary Judgment,
arguing that disputed issues of fact preclude summary judgment in favor of any of the
defendants. In this response, the plaintiff relies entirely upon the trial transcript; she does not
reference Amonette’s resignation letter or any other new evidence; she does not suggest how the
resignation letter calls into question any of the evidence offered at the 2013 trial of this matter.
Consequently, the court entered an order directing her to file a sur-reply that “cites to evidence
other than what was introduced at trial. Plaintiff’s Motion for New Trial was granted on the basis
of new evidence. Plaintiff risks the granting of this Motion for Summary Judgment should the
Sur-Reply not convince the court that a new trial is warranted.” (Doc. No. 288.)
The plaintiff filed her Sur-Reply (Doc. No. 290), in which she refers to the resignation
letter and quotes extensively from the transcript of Amonette’s September 12, 2015 sworn
Statement on the Record (“Statement”) (Doc. No. 222-4).2
The motion before the court stands in a highly unusual procedural posture. Typically, of
course, Rule 56 requires the court to grant a motion for summary judgment 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). There clearly are disputed issues of fact in this case—that
is why it went to trial in the first place. The jury, however, resolved those factual disputes in the
first trial in favor of the defendants. The court granted a new trial based on the new evidence
that, the plaintiff claimed, “could have substantially affected the credibility of every witness who
testified.” (Doc. No. 175, at 6.)
This Statement, given under oath, is essentially an ex parte deposition with the same
evidentiary value as a sworn declaration or affidavit. The court may consider the Statement for
purposes of ruling on a motion for summary judgment to the same extent as a declaration or
affidavit. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(A) (providing that materials in the record that parties may
rely upon in support of their factual assertions include “depositions, documents, . . . affidavits or
declarations . . . or other materials”).
Thus, the question implicit in the defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment is whether
the plaintiff’s new evidence is sufficient to call into doubt the credibility of any of the witnesses
on a material matter or to cast any of the evidence offered at trial in a different light, such that a
new trial is actually warranted. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986)
(“[T]the judge’s function is not . . . to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter,
but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.”). “The mere existence of a scintilla of
evidence in support of the [non-moving party’s] position will be insufficient,” and the party’s
proof must be more than “merely colorable.” Id. at 252.
In their motion, the defendants argue that (1) any claim against Bell in his official
capacity is barred by the Eleventh Amendment; (2) the plaintiff cannot establish that Doss and
Horton engaged in the use of excessive force; (3) because the plaintiff cannot establish a
constitutional violation by Doss and Horton, the failure-to-train claim against Bell necessarily
fails; (4) even if a question of fact exists as to the use of excessive force, a supervisor cannot be
individually liable under § 1983 for failure to train; and (5) Bell was not directly involved in and
had no knowledge of the cell extraction and, therefore, cannot be individually liable for the use
of excessive force.
In response, the plaintiff points out, first, that Bell was never sued in his official capacity,
only in his individual capacity. She insists, however, that (1) the facts show that Doss and Horton
used excessive force during the cell extraction, thus violating Toll’s constitutional rights; (2) Bell
failed to train and supervise his correctional officers in the use of excessive force and cell
extractions, and this failure violated Toll’s constitutional rights insofar as it directly caused or
contributed to Toll’s death; and (3) the defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity.
In her Sur-reply, the plaintiff asserts that Amonette’s resignation letter and Statement
“bolster” her failure-to-train claim against Bell. (Doc. No. 290, at 3.) In addition, she argues very
generally that the new evidence calls into question the credibility of unspecified witnesses. Her
[T]his information will impact how Plaintiff examines several witnesses in this
case, including Defendant Bell. This information questions the credibility of these
witnesses and directly relates to Plaintiff’s failure to train claim. Further, should
the credibility of these witnesses be called into question, it would permeate
throughout the entire trial.
Regarding the defendants’ first argument, the court finds that the Amended Complaint
clearly asserts a claim against defendant Bell in his individual capacity only. Because the
plaintiff never stated a claim against him in his official capacity, the defendants cannot bar the
claim against him based on the Eleventh Amendment. Likewise, it is clear that the plaintiff did
not intend to state a claim against Bell in his individual capacity for the actual use by him of
excessive force. Rather, the claim against him is based solely on a failure to train the employees
under his supervision. (See Proposed Joint Pretrial Order,3 Doc. No. 118, at 10 (identifying as
Question 10 for the jury: “Whether former Warden Ricky Bell is liable for failure to train the
officers which resulted in inmate Tolls’ constitutional rights being violated by the use of
excessive force in the incident on August 17, 2010?”).)
However, as discussed in greater detail below, the court finds that the plaintiff has not
shown that her new evidence affects or calls into question the jury’s previous determination that
defendants Doss and Horton did not violate Toll’s constitutional rights. As a result, even
It does not appear that the parties’ Proposed Joint Pretrial Order was ever entered prior
to trial. However, the Proposed Order clearly states the parties’ joint intent that it supplant the
pleadings and that the pleadings be amended to conform with the Proposed Order. (Doc. No.
118, at 1.)
assuming that Bell acted with deliberate indifference in failing to ensure that his staff was
adequately trained in the performance of cell extractions, the court must conclude that his failure
in that regard did not result in a constitutional violation. As a result, he cannot be liable under §
1983 for failure to train.
The Excessive Force Claim
An Eighth Amendment excessive-force claim demands an examination of “the state of
mind of the prison officials. The relevant inquiry is ‘whether force was applied in a good faith
effort to maintain or restore discipline or maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of
causing harm.’” Williams v. Curtin, 631 F.3d 380, 383 (6th Cir. 2011) (quoting Hudson v.
McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 6 (1992)).4 Under this standard, the plaintiff’s burden at trial was to
prove both that the defendants used force maliciously and sadistically and that their use of force
actually caused Toll’s death.5
The jury unanimously determined that Doss and Horton did not violate Toll’s right to be
free from the use of excessive force during the cell extraction. In other words, based on the
evidence before it at the time, the jury resolved all material factual disputes in favor of the
defendants. The question now is whether the plaintiff’s new evidence puts that resolution in
doubt. The answer: it does not. In her Response to the Defendants’ Statement of Undisputed
The Supreme Court recently confirmed that courts analyzing an excessive-force claim
by a pretrial detainee under the Fourth Amendment must use an objective standard only: that the
force “purposely or knowingly used . . . was objectively unreasonable.” Kingsley v. Hendrickson,
135 S. Ct. 2466, 2473 (2015). For now, at least, the subjective standard still applies to Eighth
Amendment claims. See Cordell v. McKinney, 759 F.3d 573, 580 (6th Cir. 2014).
The manner and cause of death were hotly disputed by the parties’ experts. The
plaintiff’s expert testified that the manner of death was homicide and that the cause of death was
asphyxia during physical restraint. (See Doc. No. 202, at 122.) The plaintiff’s expert was largely
discredited in cross-examination (see id. at 130–56), and the defendants’ expert testified that the
manner of death was undetermined and that the cause of death was not asphyxia but sudden
cardiac arrest. (Doc. No. 206, at 109.)
Facts, the plaintiff contends that there are numerous factual disputes relating specifically to the
question of whether Toll and/or Horton used excessive force during the cell extraction and strip
search of Toll. (Doc. No. 282 ¶¶ 45–53, 55–57, 60–65, 67–72, 75–77, 80–81.) The plaintiff also
filed her own Additional Material Facts in Support of Her Response in Opposition to
Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment.6 (Doc. No. 283.) But in support of her factual
contentions in both of these documents, the plaintiff cites exclusively to the trial transcript and
the videotape of the August 17, 2010 cell extraction, which was also introduced at trial. She
makes no reference to Amonette’s Statement or resignation letter.
Moreover, although she argues very generally in her Sur-reply that the Statement “will
impact how Plaintiff examines several witnesses in this case” and “questions the credibility of
these witnesses” in a way that will affect the “entire trial,” she does not specifically identify any
witnesses, other than Bell, whose credibility would be called into question. Bell himself was not
involved in the cell extraction, did not authorize it or know that it was taking place, and was not
even at the prison on the night it happened, so his credibility would have no impact on the
Further, while it is certainly true that the court may not resolve a credibility dispute on
summary judgment, Dawson v. Dorman, 528 F. App’x 450, 452 (6th Cir. 2013) (citing Anderson
v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986)), this rule applies only “where there is a genuine
conflict in the evidence, with affirmative support on both sides, and where the question is which
The court rejects the defendants’ arguments that this filing constitutes an improper
statement of undisputed facts that is not authorized by Local Rule 56.01(c). The court construes
the filing as setting forth facts as to which the plaintiff contends there is a factual dispute, as
contemplated by the local rule, in an attempt to defeat summary judgment. See Anderson v.
McIntosh Const., LLC, No. 3:13-CV-0304, 2014 WL 2207924, at *2 (M.D. Tenn. May 28, 2014)
(“Local Rule 56.01(c) permits a plaintiff to file a responsive statement of disputed facts in an
effort to avoid the grant of summary judgment.”), aff’d, 597 F. App’x 313 (6th Cir. 2015).
witness to believe.” Id. (citing 10A Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Mary Kay Kane,
Federal Practice & Procedure § 2726, at 447 (3d ed. 1998) (“Thus, for example, if conflicting
testimony appears in affidavits and depositions that are filed, summary judgment may be
inappropriate as the issues involved will depend on the credibility of the witnesses.”); Nelms v.
Wellington Way Apartments, LLC, 513 F. App’x 541, 548 (6th Cir. 2013) (summary judgment
inappropriate given “differing verbal accounts of what transpired inside the apartment”)). Here,
the plaintiff has not pointed to any statement by Amonette that directly contradicts the testimony
of any particular witness on issues that are relevant to the determination of whether the officers
used excessive force. In fact, in his Statement, Amonette expressly denied that any of the
corrections officers intentionally violated Toll’s rights. (See Statement, Doc. No. 222-4, at 13
(stating his opinion that Toll’s death resulted from “oversight, you know, it was a lot of things
that went wrong that day”); id. at 21 (stating that he did not “believe . . . that anybody did
anything willfully wrong”).)7 Thus, the plaintiff’s vague assertion that Amonette’s Statement and
resignation letter affect the credibility of every witness at trial is insufficient to establish that the
plaintiff is entitled to a new trial on the issue of Doss’s and Horton’s liability for the use of
The procedural limbo of this case does not lend itself to easy application of the ordinary
standards for resolving motions for summary judgment. Here, as previously indicated, there
clearly are—or were—a number of material factual disputes regarding the excessive-force claim.
The jury resolved those disputes in favor of the defendants. Although the new evidence upon
Interestingly, plaintiff’s counsel, in his questioning of Amonette for purposes of the
Statement, stated unequivocally, “[W]e are not even accusing anybody of anything willfully
wrong.” (Statement, Doc. No. 222-4, at 22.) Counsel’s disclaimer in the context of Amonette’s
Statement is not necessarily binding on his client, but the court nonetheless finds that it is likely
indicative of counsel’s own assessment of the evidence.
which the plaintiff’s Rule 60(b) motion was premised largely implicated only the question of
training, the trial court granted the motion as to all of the plaintiff’s claims and reopened
discovery. Judge Nixon’s decisions—both to grant a new trial on all issues and to reopen
discovery—were presumably based on an assumption that the new evidence would lead to
additional undiscovered evidence.
That assumption has now been proven false, both because the plaintiff never took
additional discovery and because she has failed to show how Amonette’s Statement or
resignation letter—the only new evidence in the record—has any impact on any of the evidence
concerning the defendants’ alleged use of excessive force or the cause of Toll’s death. Under
these circumstances, the plaintiff is not entitled to another bite at that apple, and the court will
grant summary judgment in favor of defendants Horton and Doss.
Failure to Train
The defendants are simply incorrect in asserting that a supervisor can never be
individually liable under § 1983. See, e.g., Taylor v. Mich. Dep’t of Corrs., 69 F.3d 76, 80–81
(6th Cir. 1995) (“It is true, as the Supreme Court has stated, that in a § 1983 action liability
cannot be based on a theory of respondeat superior. However, this does not automatically mean
that a supervisor can never incur liability under § 1983.” (citing Monell v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs.,
436 U.S. 658, 691 (1978))). To establish a § 1983 claim of personal liability for a failure to train
and supervise—as distinct from a § 1983 claim against a municipality for a failure to train and
supervise—a plaintiff must show
that the supervisor encouraged the specific incident of misconduct or in some
other way directly participated in it. At a minimum, a § 1983 plaintiff must show
that a supervisory official at least implicitly authorized, approved or knowingly
acquiesced in the unconstitutional conduct of the offending subordinate.
Coley v. Lucas Cnty., 799 F.3d 530, 542 (6th Cir. 2015) (quoting Taylor, 69 F.3d at 81, and
Bellamy v. Bradley, 729 F.2d 416, 421 (6th Cir. 1984)). Accord Harvey v. Campbell Cnty., 453
F. App’x 557, 563 (6th Cir. 2011) (“[W]hereas the County’s liability [for failure to train] may be
premised on its policymaker’s deliberate indifference, neither of the individual defendants . . .
can be held liable in his individual capacity [on a failure to train theory] unless he either
encouraged the specific incident of misconduct or in some other way directly participated in it.”
(citation omitted)); Phillips v. Roane Cnty., 534 F.3d 531, 543 (6th Cir. 2008) (“While an
individual supervisor may still be held liable in his or her individual capacity under a failure-totrain theory, the [plaintiff] must point to a specific action of each individual supervisor to defeat
a qualified immunity claim.”).
As part of the inquiry into whether the defendant was personally involved in the “specific
incident of misconduct,” the court must consider “whether there is a causal connection between
the defendant’s wrongful conduct and the violation alleged.” Peatross v. City of Memphis, 818
F.3d 233, 242 (6th Cir. 2016). This causal connection is required by the text of § 1983 itself:
A close reading of § 1983 affirms this point. The statute states that every person
acting under color of law who “subjects, or causes [a person] to be subjected” to
deprivation of constitutional rights “shall be liable to the party injured[.]”
Accordingly, where an official’s execution of his or her job function causes injury
to the plaintiff, the official may be liable under the supervisory-liability theory.
Id. (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1983) (emphasis in original).
In this case, for purposes of the Motion for Summary Judgment, the court presumes that
the plaintiff’s new evidence is sufficient at least to create a material factual dispute as to whether
the corrections officers involved in Toll’s cell extraction had received adequate training and as to
whether Bell, acting in his individual capacity, “abandon[ed] the specific duties of his
position . . . in the face of actual knowledge” that the necessary training was not being done and
that the lack of such training gave rise to an unacceptably high risk of injury and death to inmates
during cell extractions. See Taylor, 69 F.3d at 81 (quoting Hill v. Marshall, 962 F.2d 1209, 1213
(6th Cir. 1992)).
Even under such circumstances, however, Bell is entitled to summary judgment in his
favor on the failure-to-train claim, because the plaintiff cannot show a causal connection between
Bell’s failures and Toll’s injury. To be more precise, as set forth above, the plaintiff has not
established that Toll suffered a constitutional injury. Certainly, the facts in this case may evince a
deplorable level of negligence on the part of every party involved in the cell extraction, but mere
negligence is not sufficient to support a cause of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See Farmer v.
Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 835 (1994) (“Eighth Amendment liability requires ‘more than ordinary
lack of due care for the prisoner’s interests or safety.’” (quoting Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312,
Because the plaintiff failed to prove that Doss and Horton violated Toll’s constitutional
rights, she necessarily cannot establish that Bell’s failure to ensure adequate training caused any
such violation. Summary judgment in Bell’s favor on the failure-to-train claim is therefore
warranted. Accord Peatross, 818 F.3d at 242 (“[W]here an official’s execution of his or her job
function causes injury to the plaintiff, the official may be liable under the supervisory-liability
theory.” (emphasis added)). See also City of Los Angeles v. Heller, 475 U.S. 796, 799 (1986)
(per curiam) (“If a person has suffered no constitutional injury at the hands of the individual
police officer, the fact that the departmental regulations might have authorized the use of
unconstitutionally excessive force is quite beside the point.”); Scott v. Clay Cnty., 205 F.3d 867,
879 (6th Cir. 2000) (“[O]ur conclusion that no officer-defendant had deprived the plaintiff of any
constitutional right a fortiori defeats the claim against the County as well.”).
For the reasons set forth herein, the defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment will be
granted and this action, dismissed. An appropriate order is filed herewith.
ALETA A. TRAUGER
United States District Judge
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