Brooks v. Harris County Jail
MEMORANDUM AND OPINION. The officers motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity is granted, andthe claims against them are dismissed. The claims against Harris County Jail are dismissed as itlacks the capacity to be sued. (Signed by Chief Judge Lee H Rosenthal) Parties notified.(olindor, 4)
United States District Court
Southern District of Texas
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF TEXAS
DONALD RAY BROOKS,
HARRIS COUNY JAIL, et al.,
July 16, 2021
Nathan Ochsner, Clerk
CIVIL ACTION NO. H-19-4801
MEMORANDUM AND OPINION GRANTING MOTION
FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
Donald Ray Brooks was a pretrial detainee at the Harris County Jail on November 14,
2018. Representing himself, he sued the Harris County Jail, three detention officers working at
the jail on that date, the Harris County Sheriff, and three night shift supervisors under 42 U.S.C.
§ 1983, alleging excessive force by the three detention officers. (Docket Entry Nos. 1, 8). The
court has previously dismissed Brooks’s claims against the Sheriff and the night shift supervisors.
(Docket Entry No. 9). The three detention officers have moved for summary judgment, asserting
qualified immunity. (Docket Entry No. 26). The court grants the motion for the reasons that
This suit arises from an altercation during a group inmate count. The officers filed
summary judgment evidence showing that a non-party officer conducting the count ordered
Brooks to remove a sheet covering him and a cloth tied on his head. (Docket Entry No. 26-4, at
5). Brooks refused and swore at the officer. (Id.). Officer Smith overheard the exchange, ordered
Brooks to step out of the pod and into a hallway, and then to put his hands behind his back. (Id.).
Brooks refused, and then also refused an order to face the wall, instead turning toward Smith,
raising his fist and attempting to hit Smith. (Id.). Another officer—Officer Walter—came to
Smith’s aid and pushed Brooks away. (Id.). As Brooks continued to resist, Smith grabbed his
shoulder to try to control his arm. (Id.). Brooks, Smith, and Walter fell to the floor, but Brooks
continued to throw punches. (Id.). According to the officers, they continued to order Brooks to
stop resisting, and he continued to resist. (Id.). Smith and Walter administered what they describe
as “several controlled strikes in self-defense.” (Docket Entry Nos. 26-1, at 3; 26-2, at 3). Walter
got control over Brooks’s wrists, and yet another officer, Officer Roquemore, put him in handcuffs.
(Id.). Brooks was taken to the jail clinic, where he refused treatment. (Docket Entry No. 26-4, at
Brooks filed a grievance, which was denied on a finding that the use of force was
reasonable and that Brooks had ignored orders and exaggerated his injuries. (Id. at 8-9). This
lawsuit followed. Smith, Walter, and Roquemore moved for summary judgment on the basis of
qualified immunity. (Docket Entry No. 26). Brooks did not respond.
The Legal Standards
A district court “shall grant 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. The substantive law determines what facts are “material.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby,
Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact issue is “material” if its resolution could affect the outcome
of the action. Poole v. City of Shreveport, 691 F.3d 624, 627 (5th Cir. 2012). A dispute is
“genuine” if the evidence is sufficient for a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the non-moving
A court considering a motion for summary judgment must view “all evidence in the light
most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in the non-movant’s
favor.” Hutcheson v. Dallas Cnty., Tex., 994 F.3d 477, 479 (5th Cir. 2021). “However, to avoid
summary judgment, the non-movant must go beyond the pleadings and come forward with specific
facts indicating a genuine issue for trial.” LeMaire v. La. Dep’t of Transp. & Dev., 480 F.3d 383,
387 (5th Cir. 2007). The non-movant must “make a sufficient showing of an essential element of
the case to which [he] has the burden of proof.” Melton v. Teachers Ins. & Annuity Ass’n of Am.,
114 F.3d 557, 559 (5th Cir. 1997). But “‘the mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support
of the plaintiff’s position will be insufficient [to preclude summary judgment]; there must be
evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff.’” Doe v. Dallas Indep. Sch.
Dist., 153 F.3d 211, 215 (5th Cir. 1998) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252) (alteration in
In addition, Rule 56 does not impose a duty on the court “to ‘sift through the record in
search of evidence to support’ the non-movant’s opposition to summary judgment.” Carr v. Air
Line Pilots Ass’n Int’l, 866 F.3d 597, 601 (5th Cir. 2017) (quoting Forsyth v. Barr, 19 F.3d 1527,
1537 (5th Cir. 1994)). Instead, the non-movant must identify specific evidence in the record and
explain how that evidence supports the non-movant’s claim.
speculation, and unsubstantiated assertions cannot defeat a motion for summary judgment. RSR
Corp. v. Int’l Ins. Co., 612 F.3d 851, 857 (5th Cir. 2010).
Qualified immunity protects government officials from civil liability in their individual
capacities to the extent that their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or
constitutional rights. See Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009) (quoting Harlow v.
Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)); see also Garcia v. Blevins, 957 F.3d 596, 600 (5th Cir.
2020), cert. denied, 141 S. Ct. 1058 (2021). “[A] good-faith assertion of qualified immunity alters
the usual summary judgment burden of proof, shifting it [back] to the plaintiff to show that the
defense is not available.” Garcia, 957 F.3d at 600 (quoting Ratliff v. Aransas Cnty, Tex., 948 F.3d
281, 287 (5th Cir. 2020)); see also McClendon v. City of Columbia, 305 F.3d 314, 323 (5th Cir.
2002) (en banc).
A plaintiff seeking to overcome qualified immunity must show: “(1) that the official
violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that the right was ‘clearly established’ at the
time of the challenged conduct.” Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 735 (2011); see also Roque v.
Harvel, 993 F.3d 325, 331 (5th Cir. 2021). The first prong requires the plaintiff to allege and prove
facts that establish a violation of a constitutional right. Pearson, 555 U.S. at 232. The second
prong is satisfied only if “the state of the law at the time of the incident provided fair warning to
the defendants that their alleged [conduct] was unconstitutional.” Tolan v. Cotton, 572 U.S. 650,
656 (2014) (internal quotation marks omitted). Courts are free to decide which of the two prongs
of the qualified immunity analysis to address first. Ashcroft, 563 U.S. at 735.
Pro Se Pleadings
Brooks is representing himself, so the court construes his filings liberally, subjecting them
to “less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers[.]” Haines v. Kerner, 404
U.S. 519, 520 (1972) (per curiam). But even under this lenient standard, self-represented litigants
must still “abide by the rules that govern the federal courts.” E.E.O.C. v. Simbaki, Ltd., 767 F.3d
475, 484 (5th Cir. 2014) (quoting Frazier v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 541 F. App’x 419, 421 (5th
Cir. 2013) (internal quotation marks omitted)). “Pro se litigants must properly plead sufficient
facts that, when liberally construed, state a plausible claim to relief, serve defendants, obey
discovery orders, present summary judgment evidence, file a notice of appeal, and brief arguments
on appeal.” Id. (footnotes omitted).
Claims Against the Officers
The officers argue that the record evidence shows that the force they used was
“proportional and controlled,” (Docket Entry No. 26, p. 9), limited to what was needed to control
Brooks after he disobeyed orders, tried to punch an officer, and continued physical resistance when
ordered to stop and submit. The officers argue that because they used only the amount of force
needed to defend themselves, restore order, and maintain security, their actions were objectively
reasonable and they are entitled to qualified immunity. (Id.).
It was clearly established at the time of the altercation that a prisoner has the right to be
free from having excessive force used against him. See Poole, 691 F.3d at 627 (relying on Graham
v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396 (1989)). The remaining question is whether Brooks has pointed to
competent summary judgment evidence sufficient to raise a genuine dispute as to whether his
constitutional rights were violated. To raise a factual dispute on a claim of excessive force, a
plaintiff must point to evidence showing: (1) an injury; (2) which resulted directly and only from
a use of force that was clearly excessive; and (3) the excessiveness of the force was clearly
Poole, 691 F.3d at 628.
The inquiry is “whether the officers’ actions are
‘objectively reasonable’ in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard
to their underlying intent or motivation.” Graham, 490 U.S. at 397. The use of force must be
evaluated “from the perspective of a reasonable officer. . . , rather than with the 20/20 vision of
hindsight.” Poole, 691 F.3d at 628 (quoting Graham, 490 U.S. at 396).
In evaluating the use of force in a prison, the “core judicial inquiry is . . . whether force
was applied in a good-faith effort to maintain or restore discipline or maliciously and sadistically
to cause harm.” Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 7 (1992); see also Bourne v. Gunnels, 921 F.3d
484, 491 (5th Cir. 2019). Courts examine: (1) the extent of the injury suffered; (2) the need for
applying force against the prisoner; (3) the relationship between the need for force and the amount
applied; (4) the threat that could be reasonably perceived by the prison officials; and (5) any efforts
made to temper the severity of a forceful response. Hudson, 503 U.S. at 7. The use of force must
be considered in context. The court’s determination is based on the nature of the force more than
on the extent of the injury. See Bourne, 921 F.3d at 492 (citing Wilkins v. Gaddy, 559 U.S. 34, 34
(2010) (per curiam)).
Brooks has not raised a factual dispute material to determining that the officers’ use of
force against him was limited and objectively reasonable.1 The officers’ declarations detail
Brooks’s refusals to follow orders, his initiation of force by trying to punch Smith, and his
continued physical resistance. (Docket Entry Nos. 26-1, 26-2, 26-3). Brooks has not pointed to
record evidence that raises a factual dispute material to determining whether the force used was
objectively reasonable under all the circumstances. The officers are entitled to judgment as a
matter of law.
Claim Against Harris County Jail
In his original complaint, Brooks also named the Harris County Jail as a defendant.
(Docket Entry No. 1, at 1). The Harris County Jail, as a “non sui juris division of Harris County,”
lacks the capacity to be sued. See Potts v. Crosby Indep. Sch. Dist., 210 F. App’x 342, 344-45 (5th
Brooks did not file a response to the officers’ motion for summary judgment. Under this court’s
order of January 5, 2021, and Southern District of Texas Local Rule 7.4, Brooks’s failure to file a response
is “taken as a representation of no opposition.”
Cir. 2006); see also Darby v. Pasadena Police Dep’t, 939 F.2d 311, 313 (5th Cir. 1991) (holding
that a city or county department may be sued only if it has a “separate legal existence”); Carter v.
Harris Cnty. Jail, No. H-20-1998, 2020 WL 3288124, at *1 (S.D. Tex. June 18, 2020) (holding
that the Harris County Jail lacked the capacity to be sued under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure
17(b)). To the extent that Brooks attempts to assert claims directly against the Harris County Jail,
those claims are dismissed.
The officers’ motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity is granted, and
the claims against them are dismissed. The claims against Harris County Jail are dismissed as it
lacks the capacity to be sued.
SIGNED on July 16, 2021, at Houston, Texas.
Lee H. Rosenthal
Chief United States District Judge
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