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Robinson v. City of Darien

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

April 16, 2019




         Before the Court is Defendants Donnie Howard, Ryan Alexander, and Joseph Creswell's, in their individual capacities, Motion for Summary Judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. Dkt. No. 46. This Motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for review. For the following reasons, Defendants' Motion is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.


         On January 22, 2019, the Court issued an Order denying Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment, [1] dkt. no. 45, on Plaintiff's claims of racial discrimination under 42 U.S.C. § 2OOOe et seq. and 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1983, intimate association under the First Amendment, and conspiracy under 42 U.S.C. § 1985 against the Defendants. Specifically, the Court found that genuine disputes of material fact made summary judgment on Plaintiff's claims improper. In that Order, the Court noted that Defendants had raised, for the first time, in their supplemental brief the defense of qualified immunity. Dkt. No. 45 at 54 n.l4. The Court declined to address the qualified immunity defense because Defendants had not met their burden to show a discretionary function and Plaintiff had no opportunity to respond to the qualified immunity argument. Id. However, the Court gave leave to the Defendant to move for summary judgment based on qualified immunity in a separate motion to be filed within ten days of the Order. Id. The Court indicated that the Plaintiff would have ten days to respond. Id.

         On February 1, 2019, Defendants Howard, Alexander, and Creswell filed a Motion for Summary Judgment arguing that they are entitled to qualified immunity in their individual capacities from Plaintiff's discrimination claims under § 1983 for violation of the Equal Protection Clause and Plaintiff s First Amendment intimate association claim.[2] Dkt. No. 46. Plaintiff responded to Defendants' Motion disputing the qualified immunity defense. Dkt. Nos. 49, 51.[3]

         As the Court described the factual background and evidence in this case in lengthy detail in its prior Order, it will not reiterate all of those facts here. Rather, all of the facts from the prior summary judgment Order, dkt. no. 45 at 1-18, are incorporated herein by reference. However, Plaintiff has submitted new evidence into the record since the Court's prior Order.

         First, Plaintiff submitted copies of the Darien Personnel Policies and Procedure manual (``City Manual") and the Darien Police Department's ``Standard Operating Procedure" (``SOP"), which set forth, among other things, the city and police department's policies for discipline. Dkt. Nos. 48-2, 48-3. . The relevant sections of those documents are discussed in the analysis below. Plaintiff also submitted the deposition testimony of Dr. Kidder, the counselor who Plaintiff saw upon Howard's recommendation during Plaintiff's two-week suspension. Dkt. No. 48-1. This testimony provides support for Plaintiff s claims that he was experiencing negative treatment at work because of his relationship with Miller. The relevant statements from the testimony are included below. Finally, Plaintiff also submitted a second affidavit in which he explains more details about his relationship with Miller, and specifically, he explains when Miller divorced her ex-husband. Dkt. No. 48-5. These facts are also discussed further below.


         Summary judgment is required where "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). A fact is "material" if it "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." FindWhat Inv'r Grp. v., 658 F.3d 1282, 1307 (11th Cir. 2011) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). A dispute is "genuine" if the "evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id. In making this determination, the court is to view all of the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. See Johnson v. Booker T. Washington Broad. Serv., Inc., 234 F.3d 501, 507 (11th Cir. 2000).

         The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The movant must show the court that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case. See id. at 325. If the moving party discharges this burden, the burden shifts to the nonmovant to go beyond the pleadings and present affirmative evidence to show that a genuine issue of fact does exist. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 257.

         The nonmovant may satisfy this burden in one of two ways. First, the nonmovant ``may show that the record in fact contains supporting evidence, sufficient to withstand a directed verdict motion, which was `overlooked or ignored' by the moving party, who has thus failed to meet the initial burden of showing an absence of evidence." Fitzpatrick v. City of Atlanta, 2 F.3d 1112, 1116 (11th Cir. 1993) (quoting Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 332 (Brennan, J., dissenting)). Second, the nonmovant ``may come forward with additional evidence sufficient to withstand a directed verdict motion at trial based on the alleged evidentiary deficiency." Id. at 1117. Where the nonmovant attempts to carry this burden instead with nothing more ``than a repetition of his conclusional allegations, summary judgment for the [movant is] not only proper but required." Morris v. Ross, 663 F.2d 1032, 1033-34 (11th Cir. 1981) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)).


         Defendants assert that they are entitled to qualified immunity from Plaintiff's claims under § 1983 for discrimination in violation of the Equal Protection Clause and interfering with Plaintiff's right to intimate association under the First Amendment. Plaintiff responds that Defendant Alexander is not entitled to qualified immunity because he was not performing a discretionary function within the scope of his authority, and even if he was, all three Defendants violated Plaintiff's clearly established constitutional rights.

         Qualified immunity grants "complete protection for government officials sued in their individual capacities if their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Vinyard v. Wilson, 311 F.3d 1340, 1346 (11th Cir. 2002). The Eleventh Circuit has summarized the qualified immunity framework as follows:

To establish the defense of qualified immunity, the burden is first on the defendant to establish that the allegedly unconstitutional conduct occurred while he was acting within the scope of his discretionary authority. If, and only if, the defendant does that will the burden shift to the plaintiff to establish that the defendant violated clearly established law.

Estate of Cummings v. Davenport, 906 F.3d 934, 940 (11th Cir. 2018), petition for cert, filed., No. 18-1191 (U.S. Mar. 3, 2019). The Plaintiff's burden is divided into a two-step inquiry. ``First, the court must ask whether the plaintiff's allegations, if true, establish the violation of a constitutional or statutory right. If a constitutional or statutory right would have been violated under the plaintiff's version of the facts, the next step is to ask whether the right was clearly established." Bogle v. McClure, 332 F.3d 1347, 1355 (11th Cir. 2003) (citations omitted). The Court has discretion to analyze these two-steps in either order. Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009).

         I. Discretionary Function

         Plaintiff first argues that Alexander is not entitled to qualified immunity because the adverse actions that he took against Plaintiff were not within the scope of his discretionary authority. Defendants argue that Alexander was acting within the scope of his discretionary authority to administer discipline.

         ``To establish that the challenged actions were within the scope of his discretionary authority, a defendant must show that those actions were (1) undertaken pursuant to the performance of his duties, and (2) within the scope of his authority." Estate of Cummings, 906 F.3d at 940 (citation omitted). ``In other words, `[w]e ask whether the government employee was (a) performing a legitimate job-related function (that is, pursuing a job-related goal), (b) through means that were within his power to utilize.'" Id. (citation omitted) . ``The inquiry is not whether it was within the defendant's authority to commit the allegedly illegal act," rather, ``a court must ask whether the act complained of, if done for a proper purpose, would be within, or reasonably related to, the outer perimeter of an official's discretionary duties." Harbert Int'l, Inc. v. James, 157 F.3d 1271, 1282 (11th Cir. 1998). `` [A] government official can prove he acted within the scope of his discretionary authority by showing `objective circumstances which would compel the conclusion that his actions were undertaken pursuant to the performance of his duties and within the scope of his authority."' Estate of Cummings, 906 F.3d at 940 (citation omitted). However, `` [a] bald assertion by the defendant that the complained-of actions were . . . within the scope of his discretionary authority is insufficient." Id. (quotation and citation omitted). In conducting this analysis, the Court must not characterize the issue of an officer's discretion too narrowly or at too high of a level of generality; instead, the Court should "consider a government official's actions at the minimum level of generality necessary to remove the constitutional taint." Holloman ex rel. Holloman v. Harland, 370 F.3d 1252, 1266 (11th Cir. 2004) (explaining, for example, that for a proper characterization for an alleged use of excessive force claim, ``we do not ask whether police have the right to use excessive force" or "immediately jump to a high level of generality and ask whether police are responsible for enforcing the law or promoting the public interest," but "instead ask whether they have the power to attempt to effectuate arrests").

         Here, the proper question is whether Alexander's duties and scope of authority included administering discipline to officers under his command for violations of Chief Howard's orders, his own orders, or other police department policies. In short, the answer to this question is yes. In this case, Alexander was at all times under Chief Howard's command and also Plaintiff's immediate supervisor. Both sides agree that the vehicle order, whatever its actual terms, came from Howard through Alexander to Plaintiff and Miller. Thus, Alexander, as Robinson's immediate supervisor, was entrusted with enforcing that order along with any other directions from Howard concerning Alexander's subordinates-including department vehicle policies set by Howard. So whether Plaintiff's reprimand and three-day suspension in February 2016 was for taking a work vehicle to Atlanta or for riding in the vehicle with Miller against Howard and Alexander's order, Alexander was operating within his capacity as Plaintiff's supervisor and under the authority given by Howard to administer discipline to Plaintiff.

         As for the two-week suspension in May 2016, Alexander was acting in his capacity as Plaintiff s supervisor and head of narcotic investigations when he told Plaintiff and Miller to not work with the sheriff's office, and he acted pursuant to his authority as Plaintiff s supervisor when he suspended him for allegedly participating in an investigation with the sheriffs department. Therefore, Alexander was performing his duties and within his authority as Plaintiff s supervising officer when he administered discipline by reprimanding Plaintiff and suspending him for three days in February 2016 and suspending for two-weeks in May 2016. In other words, these suspensions, ``if done for a proper purpose, would be within, or reasonably related to, the outer perimeter of" Alexander's "discretionary duties'7 as the head of the narcotics investigation unit and Plaintiff's immediate supervisor. See Harbert Int'l, Inc. v. James, 157 F.3d 1271, 1282 (11th Cir. 1998) .

         Plaintiff points to various sections of the City Manual and the Darien Police Department's SOP to argue that Alexander's actions fell outside of his discretionary function. However, the Court cannot say that based on the provisions of these documents highlighted by Plaintiff that Alexander's actions fell outside of his authority as Plaintiff's direct supervisor. In general, just because Alexander allegedly may not have followed proper procedure under the City Manual or SOP in suspending Plaintiff, it does not necessarily mean that he lacked the authority under his job position to do so. For example, Plaintiff argues that Alexander was required to give Plaintiff three-days notice before suspending him, but just because Alexander may have violated this provision does not mean he could not otherwise suspend Plaintiff.

         Indeed, Section IV-A-3 of the SOP gives ``[a]n immediate or higher level supervisor . . . authority to immediately relieve an employee from duty if the retention of such employee will cause or continue a disruption of the workforce" and then give a recommendation for the appropriate disciplinary action to the department head within one day. Dkt. No. 33-23 at 7. Moreover, the SOP does hot require notice for conditions such as "gross insubordination or misconduct" or ``any violation of department rules or regulations that would submit the violating employee to immediate dismissal." Id. at 7-8. Finally, the SOP states that ``a supervisor may suspend an employee up to ten days without prior approval of the Chief of Police" with any suspension longer than ten days requiring approval from the Chief of Police. Id. at 8. So here Alexander either had authority to give these suspensions on his own, or he had that authority through Howard who approved of both suspensions.[4]

         Plaintiff only challenges Alexander's discretionary authority, but Defendants also independently show that Howard as the Chief of the Darien Police Department and Creswell as Plaintiff's immediate supervisor in the summer of 2016 also acted within the scope of their discretionary authority in their actions involving Plaintiff. Thus, Defendants have met their burden, and the burden shifts to Plaintiff to show a violation of clearly established law.

         II. Discrimination Claims

         The Court will address qualified immunity with respect to Plaintiff's § 1983 claims for discrimination ...

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