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Blash v. City of Hawkinsville

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

June 27, 2018

JOHNNY BLASH, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF HAWKINSVILLE AND PULASKI COUNTY, GEORGIA SHERIFF'S OFFICE; HAWKINSVILLE-PULASKI COUNTY, GEORGIA; BILLY W. CAPE; and DANNY BRANNEN; Defendants.

          ORDER ON DEFENDANTS' MOTIONS TO DISMISS

          TILMAN E. SELF, III, JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

         Before the Court for consideration is Defendant Danny Brannen's Motion to Dismiss [Doc. 10], Defendant Billy Cape's Motion to Dismiss [Doc. 11], Defendant Pulaski County Sheriff's Office's Motion to Dismiss [Doc. 12], and Defendant Pulaski County's Motion to Dismiss [Doc. 13]. As explained below, the Court GRANTS each Defendants' motion except to certain claims against Defendants Brannen and Cape.

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff's Complaint

         The Court takes the following facts from Plaintiff's Complaint [Doc. 1] and assumes them to be true for the purposes of ruling on Defendants' Motions to Dismiss [Docs. 10, 11, 12, 13]. See Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556 (2007). Plaintiff is an African-American male alleging race discrimination under 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq. (“Title VII”) and 42 U.S.C. § 1981.[1] Plaintiff contends that Defendant Brannen created (and Sheriff Cape tolerated) a racially-hostile workplace environment and that Sheriff Cape fired him because he is black. [Doc. 1, at ¶¶ 1, 7].

         Plaintiff served as a Deputy in the Pulaski County Sheriff's Office from June 10, 2010, to on or about December 1, 2014. [Id. at ¶ 9]. At some point following Plaintiff's employment, Defendant Brannen (a former Captain in the Pulaski County[2] Sheriff's Office) succeeded Defendant Billy Cape as the Pulaski County Sheriff. [Id. at ¶¶ 10, 11]. Plaintiff alleges Defendant Brannen (during his tenure as a Captain) made four “unambiguous” statements causing Plaintiff to believe that Brannen “harbored racial animus against African Americans in general and against Plaintiff Blash specifically.” [Id. at ¶ 15] (italics in original).

         First, Plaintiff contends that Defendant Brannen stated, “If you're black and your lips are moving you're lying.” [Id. at ¶ 16]. After learning of Brannen's alleged statement (apparently from someone other than Plaintiff), former Sheriff Cape directed Brannen to take an anger management course. [Id. at ¶ 17].[3] Second, after Plaintiff arrested a white woman (at the direction of Cape), Plaintiff contends that Brannen told the woman, “Don't worry, I will get that [ni-er] before you do.” [Doc. 1, at ¶ 18]. Third, Plaintiff alleges that a white deputy, Jay Wood, received a promotion over an African American deputy, Mike Thomas. [Id. at ¶ 19]. Apparently, Thomas, who had worked for the Sheriff's Office longer than Wood, asked Defendant Brannen why he did not receive the promotion, and Brannen replied, “We promote one black and one white.” [Id.]. Finally, Plaintiff alleges that Brannen ordered Deputy Thomas (the same deputy described above) to use a Taser on a black inmate. When Deputy Thomas refused, Brannen allegedly said, “When I tell you to Taze a [m ---------- r], you better Taze him.” [Id. at ¶ 20]. Plaintiff further complains that former Sheriff Cape knew of Brannen's statements and “did nothing about it.” [Id.]. Based on these “and other similar actions, ” Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Brannen created and maintained, and former Sheriff Cape tolerated, a racially-hostile workplace. [Id. at ¶ 21].

         On or about December 1, 2014, Sheriff Cape terminated Plaintiff for allegedly interfering with a criminal investigation involving a postal employee suspected of stealing pills being sent in the mail. See [Doc. 1, at ¶¶ 24, 29]. However, Plaintiff alleges that Sheriff Cape actually fired him simply because he is black.

         The events surrounding Plaintiff's termination involve an October 2014 Sheriff's Office investigation and successful sting operation that resulted in the arrest of a female postal worker suspected for theft of or improper acquisition of medication for the purpose of distribution. [Id. at ¶ 25]. Plaintiff allegedly told a civilian to stay away from the postal employee suspected of stealing pills. [Id. at ¶ 24]. According to his complaint, Plaintiff allegedly made this communication despite a lack of probable cause or the fact that authorities never identified the civilian as a potential suspect or person of interest. [Id. at ¶¶ 24, 25].

         Plaintiff also contends that “[a]t the time of his alleged ‘interference with an investigation' . . . the investigation had already been concluded and the sting successful.” [Id.]. Initially, the Sheriff's Office asked Plaintiff to resign, but Plaintiff refused to do so because he believed he had done nothing wrong. [Id. at ¶ 30]. Plaintiff alleges that he- as well as Defendants Brannen and Cape-was aware of the “common practice of officers telling civilians that they should stay away from potential criminals” and, in essence, asserts that his termination for the alleged offense of interference with an investigation “was bogus.” [Doc. 1, at ¶ 27]. Plaintiff was especially upset that he was fired without the Sheriff or the Georgia Bureau of Investigation conducting an “official investigation” into his conduct like two white officers received when they were accused of committing a crime.[4] [Id. at ¶¶ 33, 35].

         Plaintiff appealed his termination to the sole commissioner for Pulaski County. [Doc. 1, at ¶ 32]. The Commissioner ultimately upheld the termination on the grounds that “the Sheriff . . . is a Constitutional Officer who has exclusive authority over employees of the Sheriff's [O]ffice.” [Id.]. After his termination, the Pulaski County Grand Jury indicted him for interfering with an investigation. [Id. at ¶ 37]. Subsequently, authorities arrested Plaintiff. [Id. at ¶¶ 38, 39]. The District Attorney ultimately moved to dismiss the indictment against Plaintiff, whereupon the superior court entered an order to “nol pross[]” Plaintiff's charges. [Id. at ¶¶ 39, 41].

         To summarize, Plaintiff avers that Defendants Brannen and Cape subjected him to a racially hostile workplace environment and discharged him on the basis of race. [Id. at ¶¶ 42, 43]. As a result, Plaintiff asserts the following claims: Count 1, race discrimination under Title VII; Count 2, racial harassment under Title VII; Count 3, race discrimination under § 1983; and Count 4 racial harassment under § 1983. [Doc. 1, at 13, 14].

         DISCUSSION

         A. Motion to Dismiss Standard of Review

         Defendants seek to dismiss Plaintiff's action against them for failure to state a claim pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). When ruling on a 12(b)(6) motion, a district court must accept the facts set forth in the complaint as true. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 572. Only a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives a motion to dismiss. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009). In fact, a well-pled complaint may proceed even if it strikes a savvy judge that actual proof of those facts is improbable, and “that a recovery is very remote and unlikely.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556. The issue to be decided when considering a motion to dismiss is not whether the claimant will ultimately prevail, but “whether the claimant is entitled to offer evidence to support the claims.” Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974), overruled on other grounds by Davis v. Scheuer, 468 U.S. 183 (1984).

         Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. While courts, in ruling on a motion to dismiss, must take all of the factual allegations in the complaint as true; they are not bound to accept a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation. Id. at 678. Further, a complaint fails to state a claim if it does not include “sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). The factual allegations in a complaint “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level” and cannot “merely create[] a suspicion [of] a legally cognizable right of action.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 545, 555 (first alteration in original). Finally, complaints that tender “‘naked assertion[s]'[5] devoid of ‘further factual enhancement'” will not survive against a motion to dismiss. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557) (alteration in original). Stated differently, the complaint must allege enough facts “to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence” supporting a claim. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556.

         With the foregoing standard in mind, and taking the facts asserted in Plaintiff's complaint as true, the Court rules on the Defendants' respective Motions to Dismiss [Docs. 10, 11, 12, 13].

         B. Analysis

         In his complaint, Plaintiff asserts four counts: racial discrimination and racial harassment under Title VII (Counts 1 & 2) and racial discrimination and racial harassment under § 1981 via § 1983 (Counts 3 & 4). [Doc. 1, at 13-14]. In deciding the pending Motions to Dismiss [Docs. 10, 11, 12, 13], the Court takes each claim as it relates to each Defendant, in turn below:

         1. Defendant Pulaski County Sheriff's Office's Motion to Dismiss [Doc. 12]

         As an initial matter, the Court addresses Plaintiff's claims for race discrimination and racial harassment asserted against Defendant Pulaski County Sheriff's Office. The issue of whether a government entity is capable of being sued is “determined by the law of the state in which the district court is held.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 17(b); accord Lawal v. Fowler, 196 F. App'x. 765, 768 (11th Cir. 2006). Under Georgia law, only three classes of legal entities are capable of being named in a lawsuit: “(1) natural persons; (2) an artificial person (a corporation); and (3) such quasi-artificial persons as the law recognizes as being capable to sue.” Lawal, 196 Fed.Appx. at 768 (citing Ga. Insurers Insolvency Pool v. Elbert Cty., 368 S.E.2d 500, 502 (Ga. 1988)). A sheriff's office does not fall into any of the categories and therefore is not capable of being sued. Ashley v. Chafin, No. 7:07-cv-177(HL), 2009 WL 3074732, at *3 (M.D. Ga. Sept. 23, 2009).

         In response, Plaintiff conceded the point and agreed that the Pulaski County Sheriff's Office should be dismissed. See [Doc. 28]. Accordingly, the Court GRANTS Defendant Pulaski County Sheriff's Office's Motion to Dismiss [Doc. 12] all claims asserted against it.

         2. Defendant Pulaski County's Motion to Dismiss [Doc. 13]

         Defendant Pulaski County filed its own Motion to Dismiss [Doc. 13]. In short, Pulaski County argues that Georgia law's treatment of sheriff's employees leads to the inevitable conclusion that the county and a sheriff's office are independent, separate, and distinct from one another. See [Doc. 13, at 5]. The County argues that under O.C.G.A. § 15-16-23, sheriffs alone hire and fire their deputies and therefore are employees of the sheriff, not the county. [Id.]; see also Manders v. Lee, 338 F.3d 1304, 1311 (11th Cir. 2003); Employees Retirement Sys. v. Lewis, 136 S.E.2d 518, 521 (Ga.Ct.App. 1964) (holding that sheriffs alone are entitled to appoint and discharge their employees). Most importantly, Defendant Pulaski County points out that “Georgia's Constitution [] makes the sheriff's office a constitutional office[6] independent from the county entity itself, precludes all county control, and grants only the State control over sheriffs . . . .” Manders, 338 F.3d at 1312. Therefore, Pulaski County cannot be held liable under either of Plaintiff's Title VII claims.

         As for Counts 3 and 4, Plaintiff asserts claims against Pulaski County for race discrimination and a hostile work environment pursuant to § 1981, again via § 1983. [Doc. 1, at 14]. Monell v. Department of Social Services of City of New York, holds that local governing bodies can be sued directly under § 1983 for relief where the alleged unconstitutional action implements or executes a policy statement, ordinance, regulation, or decision officially adopted and promulgated by that body's officers. 436 U.S. 658, 690 (1978). The very essence of a § 1983 action against a government body is an allegation that official policy is responsible for a deprivation of constitutionally protected rights. Id. at 690-91. Therefore, “local governments, like every other § 1983 ‘person,' by the very terms of the statute, may be sued for constitutional deprivations visited pursuant to governmental ‘custom' even though such a custom has not received formal approval through the body's official decision-making channels.” Id. (quotations in original). “If a county official holds final policymaking authority for the county in the subject area of the alleged constitutional violation, that official's decisions may constitute county policy.” Gattis v. Brice, 136 F.3d 724, 725 n.2 (11th Cir. 1998). However, the determination of whether a county official holds final policymaking authority is a question of state law. City of St. Louis v. Praprotnik, 485 U.S. 112, 123 (1988).

         Here, Plaintiff seems to allege that the actions of Pulaski County's former sheriff constitute the promulgated policy necessary to subject Pulaski County to § 1983 liability. However, as discussed above, Georgia law makes the Office of the Sheriff a completely independent and separate entity from the county. See Manders supra; see also supra Ga. Const. art. IX, § 2, ¶ 1(c)(1). Finally, while the Sheriff may be considered a “policymaking official, ” the Georgia Court of Appeals has held that the sheriff himself, and not the county, is liable for misconduct within the Office of the Sheriff. Brown v. Jackson, 470 S.E.2d 786, 787 (Ga.Ct.App. 1996). For these reasons, as well the fact that Plaintiff did not oppose the County's Motion to Dismiss [Doc. 29], the Court GRANTS Pulaski County's Motion to Dismiss [Doc. 13] all claims asserted against it.

         3. Defendant Brannen's Motion to Dismiss [Doc. 10]

         Plaintiff brings suit against Danny Brannen in both his individual and official capacities. See [Doc. 1, at ¶ 5]. In his complaint, Plaintiff asserts claims against Defendant Brannen under Title VII and § 1983 relating to Plaintiff's alleged discriminatory termination and Defendant Brannen's purported creation of a racially hostile work environment.

         i. Plaintiff's Title VII Claims Asserted Against Brannen in His Individual Capacity

         First, the Court addresses the individual capacity claims asserted against Defendant Brannen under Title VII: Count One, race discrimination and Count Two, racial harassment. [Doc. 1, at 13-14].

         Defendant Brannen seeks dismissal of the race discrimination and racial harassment claims against him on the grounds that individuals are not amenable to suit under Title VII.[7]See Dearth v. Collins, 441 F.3d 931, 933 (11th Cir. 2006). In his Response [Doc. 30], Plaintiff acknowledges that dismissal of Count One (Race Discrimination, Title VII) and Count 2 (Racial Harassment, Title VII) is appropriate as to Defendant Brannen in his individual capacity because Title VII does not, in fact, provide for individual liability. See [Doc. 30, at 2]. Therefore, the Court GRANTS Defendant ...


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