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Christmas v. Harris County

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

August 9, 2019

HARRIS COUNTY, GEORGIA, et al., Defendants.



         Lynette Christmas alleges that former Harris County deputy sheriff Thomas Carl Pierson sexually assaulted her during a traffic stop. Christmas brought this action against Pierson under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 based on his alleged violations of her rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Christmas also asserts state law claims against Pierson. In addition, Christmas brought § 1983 and state law claims against Harris County and the Harris County Sheriff, Robert Michael Jolley. Presently pending before the Court are Defendants' motion to dismiss (1) all official capacity claims against Pierson and Jolley, (2) all individual capacity claims against Jolley, and (3) all claims against Harris County. As discussed in more detail below, the motion to dismiss (ECF No. 6) is granted in part and denied in part.


         “To survive a motion to dismiss” under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). The complaint must include sufficient factual allegations “to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. In other words, the factual allegations must “raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of” the plaintiff's claims. Id. at 556. But “Rule 12(b)(6) does not permit dismissal of a well-pleaded complaint simply because ‘it strikes a savvy judge that actual proof of those facts is improbable.'” Watts v. Fla. Int'l Univ., 495 F.3d 1289, 1295 (11th Cir. 2007) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).


         Christmas alleges the following facts in support of her claims. The Court must accept these allegations as true for purposes of the pending motion.

         On the afternoon of February 14, 2016, Pierson pulled Christmas over for speeding. Pierson was on duty and wearing his uniform, and he had his badge and firearm. Pierson flirted with Christmas, then gave her a warning. He asked Christmas to drive up the road and turn right onto a deserted dirt road so he could speak to her “unfiltered.” Compl. ¶ 16, ECF No. 1. Christmas drove past the dirt road; then Pierson activated the emergency equipment on his Harris County Sheriff's vehicle. When Christmas stopped, he instructed her to follow him to a more secluded location on a dirt road. Christmas complied. Once they stopped on the secluded dirt road, Pierson approached Christmas's vehicle and instructed her to exit. She did not. Pierson reached into her car, unlocked the door, took her by the arm, and removed her from the car. Christmas tried to return to her car, but Pierson pulled her from the car and led her to the front of his patrol vehicle. While still armed, Pierson forced Christmas to perform oral sex on him. Afterwards, Pierson released Christmas but warned her not to say anything. Christmas immediately went to the Pike County Sheriff's Office to report the assault. Pierson was later found guilty of sexual assault, false imprisonment, tampering with evidence, and violation of oath by a public officer.

         Before his assault on Christmas, Pierson engaged in inappropriate behavior with at least two other women during traffic stops. Pierson told one woman that he would like to arrest her so he could look at her all day; then he followed her and placed her under surveillance “to harass and intimidate her.” Id. ¶¶ 10-11. Pierson stopped another woman and detained her for approximately forty-five minutes; during this time, he took her phone from her and began looking through it, showed her a video of him having sex with an unidentified female, and leaned into her window and brushed his hand against her breast. Later, Pierson “showed up at her home uninvited on at least two separate occasions in his Harris County Sheriff's Office patrol car.” Id. ¶¶ 12-13.[1]

         Christmas brought § 1983 claims against Pierson for violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. She also asserts § 1983 claims against Harris County based on Jolley's policies and customs. And, Christmas asserts § 1983 claims against Jolley, alleging that Pierson had a persistent pattern of “engaging in sexually abusive conduct toward female citizens in the course and scope of his employment while in uniform, on the clock, and driving a Harris County Sheriff's Department Patrol Car.” Compl. ¶ 44. Further, Christmas alleges that Pierson's prior misconduct of “sexually harassing and/or sexually assaulting two female citizens . . . demonstrates a history of abuse that put Jolley on notice of the need to correct the violations by Pierson but he failed to take any action.” Id. ¶ 45. And, she alleges that Jolley “had reason to know that Pierson would act unlawfully but failed to stop him from doing so” and that he “had a policy or practice of not tracking officers who had already been accused of constitutional violations and allowing them to continue in their job.” Compl. ¶¶ 46, 48. In addition to her § 1983 claims, Christmas asserts various state law claims against Pierson, Jolley, and Harris County.


         I. Official Capacity Claims Against Jolley and Pierson

         Christmas's official capacity claims against Jolley and Pierson are considered claims against the office of the Sheriff. See Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 165-66, (1985) (“Official-capacity suits . . . ‘generally represent only another way of pleading an action against an entity of which an officer is an agent.'” (quoting Monell v. New York City Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 690 (1978)). Defendants argue that Christmas's § 1983 official capacity claims are barred by Eleventh Amendment immunity and that her state law official capacity claims are barred by Georgia sovereign immunity.

         A. § 1983 Claims

         Under the Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, “[a] state is immune from a suit for damages in federal court by one of its own citizens.” Lake v. Skelton, 840 F.3d 1334, 1337 (11th Cir. 2016) (quoting Hans v. Louisiana, 134 U.S. 1, 14-17 (1890)), reh'g denied871 F.3d 1340 (11th Cir. 2017) (en banc). Eleventh Amendment immunity extends beyond actions that name a state directly as a party. It also protects “an official when he acts [in his official capacity] as an ‘arm of the State.'” Id. at 1337 (quoting Manders v. Lee, 338 F.3d 1304, 1308 (11th Cir. 2003 (en banc)). But this immunity “does not extend to counties and similar municipal corporations.” Mt. Healthy City Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274, 280 (1977). In determining whether an official acts as an arm of the State when performing a particular function, the courts in this Circuit weigh four factors: ...

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