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Patel v. Lanier County

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

March 29, 2019

NILESH S. PATEL, Plaintiff,
v.
LANIER COUNTY, GEORGIA; CHARLES N. “NICK” NORTON, Sheriff, Lanier County Georgia, in his official, supervisory, and individual capacities; and JAMES SMITH, Deputy Sheriff, Lanier County, Georgia, in his official and individual capacities, Defendants.

          ORDER

          HUGH LAWSON, SENIOR JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Nilesh “Neil” S. Patel filed this lawsuit against Defendants Lanier County, Georgia, Charles N. “Nick” Norton, and James Smith alleging violations of his constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, as well as Georgia state law tort claims. Plaintiff contends that Defendants violated his constitutional rights by using excessive force and delaying medical care in response to his serious medical needs. Plaintiff voluntarily dismissed Defendants Lanier County and Charles N. “Nick” Norton, Lanier County Sheriff on August 20, 2018. (Doc. 51). Now before the Court is Defendant Deputy Smith's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. 56). For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's Motion is GRANTED.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND[1]

         On August 29, 2016, Plaintiff was arrested in Lanier County on charges of theft by taking and criminal damage to property, and, following his arrest in August of 2016, Plaintiff was detained at Cook County jail for the next five weeks. (Doc. 74, ¶¶ 2-4). On October 4, 2016, Plaintiff was transported from Cook County jail to the Lanier County courthouse for a bond hearing. (Id. at ¶ 1). At the hearing, Plaintiff was granted bond, but the bond order only allowed Plaintiff to be released once a cash or property bond in the amount of $25, 000 was posted. (Id. at ¶ 6). Plaintiff did not post bond while at the Lanier County courthouse and had to be transported back to Cook County jail. (Id. at ¶ 7). After the bond hearing, Defendant Deputy Smith directed Plaintiff and other inmates into a Lanier County Sheriff's Office transport van. (Id. at ¶ 10). Defendant then made two stops. First, he stopped at Berrien County jail where several detainees exited. (Id. at ¶ 12). Next, Defendant went to Cook County jail where Plaintiff returned to his original cell. (Id. at ¶ 15). Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff's name was called, and he went to the front desk where he was told that his friend Mike had posted a transfer property bond for him using property located in Clinch County as surety. (Id. at ¶ 17).

         Lanier County Sheriff's Office then contacted Defendant to inform him that an individual had posted bond for Patel and that he needed to be transferred back to Lanier County Sheriff's Office to finish his bond paperwork for release. (Id. at ¶¶ 19-20). Defendant informed the caller from Lanier County that he had inmates in the van that needed to be transferred to the Lowndes County jail before returning Plaintiff to Lanier County. (Id. at ¶ 21). The caller from Lanier County agreed because another inmate needed to be transported from Lowndes County jail to Lanier County Sheriff's Office. (Id. at ¶ 22).

         Plaintiff changed into his own clothes, was loaded into the back compartment of the van, and the van departed from Cook County jail. (Id. at ¶ 23). Defendant parked the van in the sally port at Lowndes County jail at 2:53 p.m. (Doc. 72, ¶ 18). Defendant turned off the van and proceeded to unload inmates from the van's middle and rear compartments. (Id. at ¶ 19). Once the inmates were unloaded, Defendant escorted the other inmates inside the jail and left Plaintiff locked inside the van. (Id. at ¶ 21). The windows were rolled up; however, there is a dispute of fact as to whether Defendant left the ventilation fans on inside the van. (Doc. 74, ¶ 27). The outside temperature was approximately 85 degrees Fahrenheit. (Id. at ¶ 26). Defendant returned to the van fifty-five minutes later with the inmate he was to transport to Lanier County, Brittney Grant. (Id. at ¶ 28). After Defendant opened the side door of the van to allow Grant to get into the van, Defendant then walked to the back of the van to open the two rear doors. (Id. at ¶ 29). Defendant found Plaintiff “sitting on the bench towards the back door, leaned up, ” and appearing to be asleep. (Doc. 65, 58:1-2). Defendant testified that Plaintiff “had some sweat on his forehead, ” but he did not seem to be breathing heavily. (Id. at 59:23-60:2). When Plaintiff did not respond to Defendant calling his name, Defendant performed a sternum rub. (Id. at 58:9-18). Defendant testified that once revived, Plaintiff told Defendant he had passed out from the heat. (Id. at 58:19-24). Plaintiff then asked Defendant for a bottle of water. (Id. at 60:8-10; Doc. 61, 34:3-4). Defendant testified that he did not have any bottles of water with him and offered to stop at a store on the way to purchase water for the Plaintiff, but Plaintiff “threw up his hand and [] said, no, let's just go.” (Doc. 65, 60:12-17). Plaintiff testified that he does not remember Defendant's response to his request for water or that he told Defendant to continue on instead of stopping to get water. (Doc. 61, 34:1-16).

         Defendant left Lowndes County jail at 3:58 p.m. for Lanier County Sheriff's Office in Lakeland, Georgia. (Doc. 72, ¶ 56). When the parties arrived at Lanier County Sheriff's Office at 4:20 p.m., Defendant found Plaintiff laying on the floor of the van. (Doc. 74, ¶ 35; Doc. 65, 61:13-18). The parties dispute whether Plaintiff was unconscious at the time Defendant saw Plaintiff laying on the floor of the van. (Doc. 74, ¶ 36). Plaintiff advised Defendant that he had passed out again during the drive. (Id.). However, Plaintiff then got out of the van and was able to walk without assistance into Lanier County Sheriff's Office. (Doc. 56, ¶¶ 38-39). Cameras in Lanier County Sheriff's Office hallway and holding room capture the events that unfolded next on video. (see Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. L).[2]

         While in the hallway of Lanier County Sheriff's Office, Plaintiff stopped to get a cup of water from the water cooler before entering Lanier County Sheriff's Office holding room at 4:22 p.m. (Ex. L “Hall, ” 00:00:35). As Plaintiff stopped to get water Defendant followed Grant into the holding room, leaving Plaintiff in the hallway. (Id.). Plaintiff then entered the holding room where he and Grant sat in chairs while waiting for Defendant to return with their paperwork. (Id. at 00:01:14). Defendant reentered the room at 4:23 p.m. (Id. at 00:01:37). The video shows that once Defendant came back into the holding room with Plaintiff's paperwork, Plaintiff appeared sitting upright in the chair, talked to Defendant, and signed the paperwork given to him by Defendant. During the exchange, there are a few instances where Plaintiff appeared to be breathing heavily. (Id. at 00:01:54). Defendant then exited the room again, and at this time Plaintiff visibly declined: he began breathing rapidly, leaned his head back with his eyes closed, and his mouth opened and closed in quick succession. (Id. at 00:03:54). Grant used a shirt to dab Plaintiff's face, neck, and head and splashed his face with water. (Id. at 00:04:23). Defendant then returned to the holding room, where, as he testified in his deposition, he observed Plaintiff shaking and saw his nose was running. (Doc. 65, 76:22-77:2). Defendant put on gloves, walked over to Plaintiff, and appeared to check his vital signs. (Ex. L “A&B, ” 00:06:52). Paramedics arrived at 4:31 p.m. and began immediately assisting Plaintiff. (Id. at 00:10:28). Plaintiff was then transported to South Georgia Medical Center in Valdosta. (Doc. 74, ¶ 46). Plaintiff was diagnosed and treated for heat exhaustion, heat syncope, dehydration, and panic attack. (Id.).

         Plaintiff filed this lawsuit asserting constitutional violations for use of excessive force and failure to provide medical care pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Doc. 1). Plaintiff also asserts state law claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligence. (Id.). Defendant moves the Court to grant summary judgment in his favor because Plaintiff's claims both fail on the merits and are barred by qualified and official immunity. Plaintiff's Response to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 73) withdraws his claims against Defendant in his official capacity. Thus, the only remaining claims for the Court's consideration against Defendant Smith in his individual capacity are the following: (1) § 1983 claim for excessive force; (2) § 1983 claim for failure to provide medical care; (3) intentional infliction of emotional distress; (4) negligence; (5) attorney fees; and (6) punitive damages.

         II. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

         A 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(a). “When the nonmoving party has the burden of proof at trial, the moving party is not required to ‘support its motion with affidavits or other similar material negating the opponent's claim.'” United States v. Four Parcels of Real Prop., 941 F.2d 1428, 1437 (11th Cir. 1991) (emphasis in original) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986)). The moving party “simply may show . . . that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Id. at 1438 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). If the movant meets this burden, the burden shifts to the party opposing summary judgment to go beyond the pleadings and present specific evidence showing that there is a genuine issue of material fact, or that the movant is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. This evidence must consist of more than conclusory allegations. See Avirgan v. Hull, 932 F.2d 1572, 1577 (11th Cir. 1991).

         In determining whether a genuine dispute of material fact exists, “[t]he evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986) (citation omitted). A material fact is any fact relevant or necessary to the outcome of the suit, and a factual dispute is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id. at 248. Summary judgment must be entered “against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322.

         III. ANALYSIS

         Defendant argues he is entitled to qualified immunity as to the excessive force and deliberate indifference claims, and official immunity as to the state law claims. The Court agrees.

         A. Qualified Immunity

         “Qualified immunity offers complete protection for individual public officials performing discretionary functions ‘insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'” Sherrod v. Johnson, 667 F.3d 1359, 1363 (11th Cir. 2012) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). When properly applied, it protects ‘all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.'” Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 743 (2011) (quoting Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341 (1986)). “Once discretionary authority is established, the burden then shifts to the plaintiff to show that qualified immunity does not apply.” Edwards v. Shanley, 666 F.3d 1289, 1294 (11th Cir. 2012) (quoting Lewis v. City of W. Palm Beach, 561 F.3d 1288, 1291 (11th Cir. 2009)). To meet this burden, a plaintiff must establish that “the officer's conduct amounted to a constitutional violation” and “the right violated was ‘clearly established' at the time of the violation.” City of W. Palm Beach, 561 F.3d at 1291. This two-step analysis may be completed in whatever order is deemed most appropriate for the case. Manners v. Cannella, 891 F.3d 959, 968 (11th Cir. 2018) (quoting District of Columbia v. Wesby, 138 S.Ct. 577, 589 (2018)).

         The clearly established law must provide a defendant with “fair warning” that his conduct deprived the plaintiff of a constitutional right. Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 739-41 (2002). A plaintiff “can demonstrate that the contours of the right were clearly established in several ways.” Terrell v. Smith, 668 F.3d 1244, 1255 (11th Cir. 2012). First, a plaintiff can show that “a materially similar case has already been decided.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Second, a plaintiff can point to a “broader, clearly established principle [that] should control the novel facts [of the] situation.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “Finally, the conduct involved in the case may ‘so obviously violate th[e] constitution that prior case law is unnecessary.'” Id. (citation omitted). “It is not enough that the rule is suggested by then-existing precedent.” Wesby, 138 S.Ct. at 590. “The precedent must be clear enough that every reasonable official would interpret it to establish the particular rule the plaintiff seeks to apply.” Id. “Otherwise, the rule is not one that ‘every reasonable official' would know.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Plaintiff argues Defendant is not entitled to qualified immunity because: (1) a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether Defendant was acting pursuant to his discretionary authority when the incident occurred; and (2) a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether Defendant violated Plaintiff's clearly established constitutional rights.

         i. Discretionary v. ...


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