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Corbitt v. Wooten

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Waycross Division

December 5, 2017

AMY CORBITT, individually and as parent and natural guardian of SDC; JERRY RICH, individually; ELIZABETH BOWEN, as parent and natural guardian of AMB; TONYA JOHNSON, as parent and natural guardian of ERA; DAMION STEWART, individually and as parent and natural guardian of JDS and as parent and natural guardian of MS, Plaintiffs,
v.
DOYLE WOOTEN, individually; and MICHAEL VICKERS, individually, Defendants.

          ORDER

          HON. LISA GODBEY WOOD UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (Dkt. No. 4) pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. This Motion has been fully briefed and orally argued, and is now ripe for review. For the following reasons, the Motion to Dismiss is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

         BACKGROUND

         At this stage of the case, the facts are taken from the Complaint and assumed to be true pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). On July 10, 2014, Defendant Michael Vickers ("Vickers") and other officers of the Coffee County Sheriff's Department and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation participated in an operation to apprehend criminal suspect Christopher Barnett. Dkt. No. 1 ¶ 23. They entered Plaintiff Amy Corbitt's ("Corbitt") property at 145 Burton Road, Lot 19 and ordered all persons to get down on the ground. Id. ¶ 24. Inside the property were Plaintiff Corbitt and non-party minors JVR and ST. Id. Outside the property were Plaintiff Stewart and minor Plaintiffs Rich, JDS, MS, SDC, AMB, and ERA. Id. Officers handcuffed Plaintiff Stewart and placed the barrel of a gun in his back in the presence of his two children under the age of three. Id. Those children roamed the adjacent street, screaming and crying. Id. at ¶ 25. The remaining minors were each held at gunpoint, lying on the ground, when Defendant Vickers intentionally fired two shots at the family pet named "Bruce." Id. at ¶ 27, 28. The first shot missed. Id; at ¶ 28. The second shot missed the pet and hit ten-year-old SDC in the back of his right knee. Id. at ¶¶ 28, 32.

         None of the Plaintiffs had ever met the criminal suspect Christopher Barnett. Id. ¶ 23. All of the plaintiffs followed Defendant Vickers's orders. Id. ¶ 32. The complaint alleges that no officer at the scene was required to discharge a firearm. Id. ¶ 29. At the time he fired two bullets at the pet, Vickers was armed with a gun, a Taser, and pepper spray. Id. ¶ 41. Before Vickers shot at Bruce, neither he nor any other agent attempted to restrain the animal, whether directly or otherwise. Id. ¶ 28. Vickers was only eighteen inches from SDC when he shot the child. Id. ¶ 29.

         Tests run at Coffee Regional Medical Center and the University Medical Center in Savannah, GA confirmed multiple bullet fragments throughout the area of SDCs wound, and, at the time the Complaint was filed, SDC was under evaluation by an orthopedic surgeon for the removal of the bullet fragments. Id. ¶ 33-34.

         Eight Plaintiffs filed suit, asserting various state and federal claims against the County, the sheriff, and Vickers. The only remaining claims are by all Plaintiffs against Vickers in his individual capacity and by Plaintiffs ERA, Stewart, JDS, and MS against Wooten in his individual capacity.[1]

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) requires that a plaintiff's complaint contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a). In order to state a claim for relief, a plaintiff s complaint must include "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (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). The Court accepts the allegations in the complaint as true and draws all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. Ray v. Spirit Airlines, Inc., 836 F.3d 1340, 1347 (11th Cir. 2016). However, the Court does not accept as true threadbare recitations of the elements of the claim and disregards legal conclusions unsupported by factual allegations. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678-79. At a minimum, a complaint should "contain either direct or inferential allegations respecting all the material elements necessary to sustain a recovery under some viable legal theory." Fin. Sec. Assurance, Inc. v. Stephens, Inc., 500 F.3d 1276, 1282-83 (11th Cir. 2007) (per curiam) (quoting Roe v. Aware Woman Ctr. for Choice, Inc., 253 F.3d 678, 683 (11th Cir. 2001)).

         DISCUSSION

         Plaintiffs have brought 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims asserting that Vickers and Wooten[2] deprived them of their constitutional rights to be free from excessive force. In response, Vickers and Wooten have raised the defense of qualified immunity and argued that Plaintiffs have failed to state claims upon which relief may be granted.

         The Supreme Court has held that "all claims that law enforcement officers have used excessive force-deadly or not-in the course of [a] 'seizure' of a free citizen should be analyzed under the Fourth Amendment and its 'reasonableness' standard." Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 394 (1989). The Fourth Amendment provides that "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated." U.S. Const, amend. IV. "To assert a Fourth Amendment claim based on the use of excessive force, the plaintiffs must allege (1) that a seizure occurred and (2) that the force used to effect the seizure was unreasonable." Troupe v. Sarasota Cnty., Fla., 419 F.3d 1160, 1166 (11th Cir. 2005).

         Vickers has raised the defense of qualified immunity. "The defense of qualified immunity requires courts to enter judgment in favor of a government employee unless the employee's conduct violates clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Morse v. Frederick, 551 U.S. 393, 429 (2007). "[T]he burden is on the plaintiff to show that, when the defendant acted, the law established the contours of a right so clearly that a reasonable official would have understood his acts were unlawful." Post v. City of Fort Lauderdale, 7 F.3d 1552, 1557 (11th Cir. 1993).

         "'Once the affirmative defense of qualified immunity is advanced . . ., [u]nless the plaintiff's allegations state a claim of violation of clearly established law, a defendant pleading qualified immunity is entitled to dismissal before the commencement of discovery.'" Cottone v. Jenne, 326 F.3d 1352, 1357 (11th Cir. 2003) (quoting Marsh v. Butler Cnty., 268 F.3d 1014, 1022 (11th Cir. 2001) (en banc)). "Absent such allegations, [i]t is . . . appropriate for a district court to grant the defense of qualified immunity at the motion to dismiss stage.'" Id. (quoting Gonzalez v. Reno, 325 F.3d 1228, at *3 (11th Cir. 2003)).

         The defense of qualified immunity presents a two-step inquiry. First, the government official must prove that he was acting within his discretionary authority. Lee v. Ferraro, 284 F.3d 1188, 1194 (11th Cir. 2002). Then, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show that the defendant's actions violated a constitutional right, and that such right was clearly established. Id. Vickers argues throughout his brief that no Fourth Amendment violation occurred because he did not intend to shoot SDC. He does not articulate whether he means that no seizure occurred or that the force was not excessive, so the Court will address the argument under both prongs.

         A. Seizure

         A Fourth Amendment seizure occurs "when there is a governmental termination of freedom of movement through means intentionally applied." Id. (quoting Brower v. Cnty. of Inyo, 489 U.S. 593, 597 (1989) (emphasis in original)). A seizure is an "intentional acquisition of physical control" by a government actor. Brower, 489 U.S. at 596.

         A person is "'seized' within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment only if, in view of all of the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave." United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 554 (1980). "Examples of circumstances that might indicate a seizure, even where the person did not attempt to leave, would be the threatening presence of several officers [and] the display of weapons by an officer . . . ." Id. "A seizure occurs even when an unintended person or thing ...


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