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Fisher v. Prine

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Valdosta Division

April 27, 2015

TERESA FISHER, Plaintiff,
v.
CHRIS PRINE, Individually and in his official capacity as Sheriff of Lowndes County, Georgia; LOWNDES COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE; and LOWNDES COUNTY, GEORGIA, Defendants.

ORDER

HUGH LAWSON, Senior District Judge.

Before the Court is Defendants' Partial Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint. (Doc. 8). Defendants move to dismiss all claims against the Lowndes County Sheriff's Office ("LCSO") and Lowndes County, Georgia ("Lowndes County"). Defendants also move for the dismissal of Plaintiff's claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Chris Prine ("Prine"), in his official capacity. For the reasons stated below, Defendants' motion is granted in part and denied in part.

I. MOTION TO DISMISS STANDARD

To avoid dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), "a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007)). A claim is plausible if its factual allegations allow "the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. The plausibility standard "calls for enough fact to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence" of the defendant's liability. Twombly , 550 U.S. at 556.

In ruling on a motion to dismiss, the court must accept "all well-pleaded facts... as true, and the reasonable inferences therefrom are construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Bryant v. Avado Brands, Inc. , 187 F.3d 1271, 1273, n. 1 (11th Cir. 1999). However, this tenet does not apply to legal conclusions in the complaint. Iqbal , 556 U.S. at 679. A court must dismiss the complaint if, "on the basis of a dispositive issue of law, no construction of the factual allegations will support the cause of action." Marshall Cnty. Bd. of Educ. v. Marshall Cnty. Gas Dist. , 992 F.2d 1171, 1174 (11th Cir. 1993) (citing Executive 100, Inc. v. Martin County , 992 F.2d 1536, 1539 (11th Cir. 1991) and Bell v. Hood , 327 U.S. 678, 682, 66 S.Ct. 773, 90 L.Ed.2d 939 (1946)). "[C]onclusory allegations, unwarranted deductions of fact, or legal conclusions masquerading as facts will not prevent dismissal." Oxford Asset Mgmt., Ltd. v. Jaharis , 297 F.3d 1182, 1188 (11th Cir. 2002). The court may not "accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation." Twombly , 550 U.S. at 555.

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

As alleged in the Complaint (Doc. 1), Plaintiff Theresa Fisher ("Plaintiff") began working as a deputy sheriff in the LCSO in September 1995. Having risen to the position of corporal within the LCSO's K9 Unit, in February 2009 Plaintiff applied for a sergeant position that had become open in the unit. Despite Plaintiff's superior qualifications, Prine chose to hire a male deputy from outside the LCSO to fill the position. Although Plaintiff was eventually promoted to sergeant, when she applied for a staff sergeant position in the Road Patrol Division in December 2011, she was again passed over for a less-qualified male candidate. When Plaintiff applied for a similar position in June 2012, Prine once more hired a male candidate who was less qualified than Plaintiff based on her training, experience, and education. (Id. at ¶¶ 12-15).

Plaintiff brought suit in this Court on June 4, 2013, and named Chris Prine, in his individual and official capacities, the LCSO, and Lowndes County, Georgia as defendants. Asserted against all of the Defendants, Count One of the Complaint seeks damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for gender discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Asserted against all of the Defendants except Prine in his individual capacity, Count Two seeks redress under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"). In her general prayer for relief, Plaintiff also asks for various forms of equitable relief. (Complaint, ¶¶ 28-29). Defendants now move, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), for the dismissal of all counts except for the § 1983 claim against Prine in his individual capacity and the Title VII claim against Prine in his official capacity.

III. LEGAL ANALYSIS

A. Claims against the Lowndes County Sheriff's Office

The claims against the LCSO are dismissed because it is not an entity that is capable of being sued. The question of whether a government entity is capable of being sued is determined by the law of the state in which the deciding court is located. Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 17(b)(3). As explained by the Supreme Court of Georgia, state law "recognizes only three classes as legal entities, namely (1) natural persons; (2) an artificial person (a corporation); and (3) such quasi-artificial persons as the law recognizes as being capable to sue." Georgia Insurers Insolvency Pool v. Elbert County , 258 Ga. 317, 318, 368 S.E.2d 500, 502 (1988) (internal quotation omitted). Because a county sheriff's office does not fall into any of these categories, it is not capable of being sued. See Presnell v. Paulding County , 454 F.Appx. 763, 768 (11th Cir. 2011); Lawal v. Fowler , 196 F.Appx. 765, 768 (11th Cir. 2006); accord Dean v. Barber , 951 F.2d 1210, 1214 (11th Cir. 1992) ("Sheriff's departments and police departments are not usually considered legal entities subject to suit..."). Thus, Defendants' motion to dismiss is granted with regard to the LCSO, and all of Plaintiff's claims against the sheriff's office are dismissed.

B. Claims against Lowndes County, Georgia

The motion to dismiss is also granted with respect to Lowndes County. Plaintiff has filed claims against the county under both Title VII and § 1983. Title VII authorizes a cause of action against an employer for sex discrimination. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a); Busby v. City of Orlando , 931 F.2d 764, 772 (11th Cir. 1991). However, the law is well established that in Georgia the sheriff, not the county, employs the sheriff's deputies. See generally Manders v. Lee , 338 F.3d 1304, 1311 (11th Cir. 2003); Teasley v. Freeman , 305 Ga.App. 1, 3-4, 699 S.E.2d 39 (2010). In Georgia, "[s]heriffs alone hire and fire their deputies, " for a sheriff's office is an independent entity from the county. Manders , 338 F.3d at 1310-11. Thus, the Title VII claim against Lowndes County must be dismissed.

Plaintiff's § 1983 claim must likewise be dismissed. The Eleventh Circuit has generally "rejected the notion that a Georgia county can be liable under § 1983 for the actions of members of a sheriff's office, finding that, pursuant to the Georgia Constitution, a sheriff's office is independent from the county in which it operates." Townsend v. Coffee Cnty., Ga. , 854 F.Supp.2d 1345, 1350 (S.D. Ga. 2011) (citing Grech v. Clayton County , 335 F.3d 1326, 1332, 1335 (11th Cir. 2003)). Given the strict limitations of municipal liability under § 1983, a local government entity such as a county will be held responsible only when the county's "official policy" causes a constitutional violation. Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. , 436 U.S. 658, 694, 98 S.Ct. 2015, 56 ...


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