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Rogers v. City of College Park

United States District Court, N.D. Georgia, Atlanta Division

September 3, 2019

Roderick J. Rogers, Plaintiff,
v.
City of College Park, Georgia, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION & ORDER

          MICHAEL L. BROWN, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         City of College Park police officers mistakenly arrested Plaintiff Roderick Rogers for a crime he did not commit. He sued the individual officers for malicious prosecution and the City for negligence. While the case was pending, the City issued him several municipal citations involving his auto repair business. Plaintiff thus amended his complaint, adding a claim that the City was retaliating against him in violation of his First Amendment rights. The individual Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing qualified immunity shielded them from any liability arising from the mistaken arrest. The City moved for summary judgment on the negligence claim arising from the mistaken arrest and the First Amendment retaliation claim. The Court grants Defendants' motion.

         I. Factual Background

         A. Plaintiff's Wrongful Arrest

         In September 2014, non-party Rodrick L. Rodgers ran over Paulette Carter with his car. (Dkt. 17 ¶ 14.) She sought medical treatment at a local hospital. (Id. at ¶ 15.) Defendant Officers Silvers and Ferguson went to the hospital to interview her. (Id. ¶ 16.) She told them about the assault, said she knew the person who hurt her, and identified him as “Rodrick Rodgers.” (Id. ¶ 17.) She described him as a “black male in his mid-40s, slender build, around 6'1” or 6'2”, and dark-skinned.” (Dkts. 59-27 ¶ 3; 68 ¶ 3.) She did not know the suspect's date of birth. (Dkts. 59-27 ¶ 3; 68 ¶ 3.)

         Defendant Silvers contends that Ms. Carter also said the man had a business on Riverdale Road. (Dkt. 78 at 25:24-26:2.) Defendant Ferguson “testified that Carter said the man owned an auto shop at the corner of Riverdale Road and Hersel.” (Dkt. 59-27 ¶ 5.) Ms. Carter denies saying this. She provided Plaintiff a declaration stating she told them the man who assaulted her sold t-shirts for a living. (Dkt. 81 ¶ 4.)[1]She claims she never said he owned a business on Riverdale Road. (Id.)

         After speaking with Ms. Carter at the hospital, Defendants Silvers and Ferguson ran the name “Roderick Rogers” through their RMS software, which the College Park Police Department uses to maintain information about people with whom police officers have contact. (Dkts. 59-27 ¶ 7; 68 ¶ 7.) The system provides basic identifying information like an individual's race, height, and weight, and other details. (Dkts. 59-27 ¶ 6; 68 ¶ 6.) Apparently, the officers did not ask Ms. Carter how to spell her assailant's name. (Dkt. 68 ¶ 3.) In addition, while she said his name was “Rodrick Rodgers, ” they must have heard it as “Roderick Rogers” as that was the “common spelling” of the name they ran through the system. The record lacks any evidence to suggest Defendants knew they were misspelling Ms. Carter's assailant's name. (See Dkt. 78 at 24:19-21 (“I just used the common spelling for Roderick, even though that could be spelled different ways, too.”).)

         The RMS system provided information for three people. First, it identified Plaintiff. The system described him as a forty-year-old African-American male from College Park, weighing 205 pounds and standing six feet two inches tall. (Dkt. 59-7 at 2.) Defendant Officers Ferguson and Silvers believed that description of Plaintiff was “spot-on” to Ms. Carter's description of her attacker. (Dkt. 59-27 ¶ 9; 68 ¶ 9.) Second, the system identified Plaintiff's son, who was born in 1990 and nowhere near the age of the person Ms. Carter described. (Dkt. 59-7 at 3.) Third, the system identified a man from Cordele, Georgia, who was six inches shorter and 45 pounds lighter than Plaintiff. (Dkt. 68 ¶ 8.)[2]

         As explained above, both Defendant Officers testified that Ms. Carter said the man who assaulted her ran a business or auto repair shop on Riverdale Road. Before the interview with Ms. Carter, Defendant Silvers knew Plaintiff has such a business because Plaintiff had worked on cars for police officers. (Dkt. 78 at 30:10-25.)[3] Defendant Silvers testified that this was an important piece of information to him and “the primary reason” why he believed Plaintiff assaulted Ms. Carter. (Id. at 26:8.) Of course, Ms. Carter denies having said this.

         While at the hospital, Defendants Ferguson and Silvers concluded Plaintiff had committed the assault. (Dkts. 59-27 ¶ 10; 68 ¶ 10.) They never showed Ms. Carter a photograph of Plaintiff from the RMS system so that she could positively identify him as the man who hurt her. They also never presented her a photographic lineup that included his photo and asked her to identify her attacker. (Dkt. 78 at 32:11-16.) Instead, they returned to the police station to obtain an arrest warrant. (Dkt. 59-27 ¶ 10.)

         Defendant Ferguson drafted the incident report and arrest warrant. (Dkts. 59-27 ¶ 13; 68 ¶ 13.) In the arrest warrant, he did not explain how he and Defendant Silvers identified Plaintiff as the assailant. Both Defendant Sergeant Ware and Defendant Patterson reviewed the warrant, with Defendant Ware requesting minor changes. (Dkt. 59-27 ¶¶ 14-15.) Defendants Ferguson and Silvers presented the warrant to a judge and explained what happened and why they believed they had probable cause to arrest Plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 18.) A judge signed the arrest warrant. (Id. ¶ 19; Dkt. 68 ¶ 19.)[4]

         Defendants Silvers and Ferguson arrested Plaintiff at his business on Riverdale Road. (Dkts. 59-27 ¶ 20; 68 ¶¶ 20-21.) They took him to the College Park jail. (Dkts. 59-27 ¶ 20; 68 ¶¶ 20-21.) Law enforcement then transported him to the Fulton County jail. (Dkts. 59-27 ¶ 22; 68 ¶ 22.) The jail held him for about 54 hours before releasing him on bond. (Dkts. 59-27 ¶¶ 23-24; 68 ¶¶ 23-24.)

         A few days later, Plaintiff went to the police station and filed a complaint about his wrongful arrest. (Dkts. 59-27 ¶ 31; 68 ¶ 31.) Another officer conducted a follow-up investigation, including showing Ms. Carter a photographic lineup from which she failed to identify Plaintiff. (Dkt. 59-12 at 2.) The officer then ran the name “Rodrick” through the RMS system and identified Rodrick Rodgers. (Id. at 3.) The system described him as a forty-two-year-old African-American man from College Park, weighing 220 pounds and standing six feet four inches tall. Ms. Carter identified him in a photographic lineup as her attacker. (Id.)

         B. Law Enforcement Drops the Charges

         Law enforcement dismissed the charges against Plaintiff. An internal affairs review later criticized Officer Silvers's and Officer Ferguson's actions. It found they had “made assumptions without basis” and filed an incomplete report that did not include the description the victim gave of the suspect or explain how they identified the suspect. (Id.) The investigation concluded that “the officers did not show an attention to duty to complete the incident report so that the suspect could have been properly identified.” (Id.)

         The investigation also concluded that Defendant Ware, as the shift supervisor, did not adequately perform oversight or correct “glaring mistakes if he had reviewed all material associated with this incident.” (Id.) The report also concluded that Defendant Patterson “should have questioned the officers on how they arrived at the conclusion of the suspect, before approving the report, ” though did not find him in violation of any of the Department's SOPs. (Id.)

         C. The Alleged Retaliation

         On March 13, 2015, Plaintiff notified the City of College Park that he intended to sue it for damages arising from his false arrest. (Dkts. 59-27 ¶ 34; 68 ¶ 34.) He also claimed the City harassed him repeatedly by issuing several citations to his business because City officials did not like the business and wanted him to move it or close it down. (Dkts. 59-27 ¶ 34; 68 ¶ 34.) Three days later, Plaintiff sued City of College Park and the individual Defendants for false arrest and malicious prosecution. (Dkts. 59-27 ¶ 35; 68 ¶ 35.)

         The City claims it received notice of the suit on May 17, 2016, when a private attorney read about it online and notified the City Attorney. (Dkts. 59-27 ¶ 36; 68 ¶ 36.) The City Attorney then forwarded the complaint to the City Manager and the Director of Human Resources and Risk Management. (Dkts. 59-27 ¶ 37; 68 ¶ 37.) Plaintiff presented no evidence raising a genuine issue of material fact to contradict this timeline.

         The day after the City Attorney learned of the lawsuit, City Councilman Roderick Gay emailed Alexandria Porter, the City Code Enforcement Officer responsible for the area encompassing Plaintiff's business, about possible code violations at Plaintiff's business. (Dkts. 59-27 ¶ 38; 68 ¶ 38.) Councilman Gay, who lives three blocks from Plaintiff's business and drives by it nearly every day, asked Porter to “please start [the] process to remove storage bin and derelict vehicle at business on Riverdale Drive.” (Dkts. 59-27 ¶ 39; 68 ¶ 39.) That afternoon, Porter issued a citation to Plaintiff for a “derelict vehicle.” (Dkts. 59-27 ¶ 40; 68 ¶ 40.) The City ultimately dismissed that citation because Porter used a code section not intended for automotive shops like Plaintiff's business but one used in residential or non-automotive commercial locations. (Dkts. 59-27 ¶ 41; 68 ¶ 41.)

         Councilman Gay testified that he does not recall the exact date when he first learned of Plaintiff's lawsuit, but that he does “remember it being in [a City Council] executive session.” (Dkt. 72 at 71:2-8.) City documents show that the first Executive Session after the City Attorney received notice of the suit occurred on June 6, 2016 - 19 days after Plaintiff's May 18th code citation. (Dkts. 59-27 ¶ 43; 68 ¶ 43.)

         Four months later, Karen Banks, a Code Enforcement Officer, issued Plaintiff a citation for storing vehicles longer than fourteen days, a violation of College Park's municipal code. (Dkts. 59-27 ¶ 44; 68 ¶ 44.) She issued him another citation a few days later, this one for working on vehicles outside a service bay. (Dkts. 59-27 ¶ 44; 68 ¶ 44.) She explained that she issued these citations after receiving several complaints. She did not know about Plaintiff's lawsuit against the City at the time. (Dkts. 59-27 ¶ 45; 68 ¶ 45.)

         In November 2016, six months after filing his complaint, Plaintiff amended his complaint to add a First Amendment retaliation claim against the City, claiming the City retaliated against him by issuing the municipal citations. (Dkts. 59-27 ¶ 46; 68 ¶ 46.)

         II. Legal Standard

         Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that 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).

         A factual dispute is genuine if the evidence would allow a reasonable jury to find for the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact is “material” if it is “a legal element of the claim under the applicable substantive law which might affect the outcome of the case.” Allen v. Tyson Foods, Inc., 121 F.3d 642, 646 (11th Cir. 1997).

         The party moving for summary judgment bears the initial burden of showing a court, by reference to materials in the record, that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact. Hickson Corp. v. N. Crossarm Co., 357 F.3d 1256, 1260 (11th Cir. 2004) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986)). A moving party meets this burden merely by “ ‘showing'-that is, pointing out to the district court-that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325. The movant, however, need not negate the other party's claim. Id. at 323. In determining whether the moving party has met this burden, a court must view the evidence and all factual inferences in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Johnson v. Clifton, 74 F.3d 1087, 1090 (11th Cir. 1996).

         Once the movant has adequately supported its motion, the nonmoving party then has the burden of showing that summary judgment is improper by coming forward with specific facts showing a genuine dispute. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). Ultimately, there is no “genuine [dispute] for trial” when the record as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party. Id. But “the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-48. The court, however, resolves all reasonable doubts in favor of the non-movant. Fitzpatrick v. City of Atlanta, 2 F.3d 1112, 1115 (11th Cir. 1993). Additionally, “[i]t is not the court's role to weigh conflicting evidence or to make credibility determinations; the non-movant's evidence is to be accepted for purposes of summary judgment.” Mize v. Jefferson City Bd. of Educ., 93 F.3d 739, 742 (11th Cir. 1996).

         III. Discussion

         In his response brief in opposition to Defendants' motion for summary judgment, Plaintiff voluntarily dismissed five of the eight counts in his amended complaint.[5] All that remains for the Court to consider then is (1) Count II (§ 1983 claim for malicious prosecution); (2) Count III (§ 1983 claim for First Amendment retaliation); and (3) Count IV (state-law claim of negligence against Defendant City of College Park).

         A. Federal Claims & Qualified Immunity

         Defendants argue that qualified immunity protects them from Plaintiff's claims arising under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. “Qualified immunity offers 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) (internal quotation marks omitted). So “[q]ualified immunity gives government officials breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments about open legal questions.” Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 743 (2011). Qualified immunity allows officials “to carry out their discretionary duties without the fear of personal liability or harassing litigation.” Lee v. Ferraro, 284 F.3d 1188, 1194 (11th Cir. 2002). When properly applied, qualified immunity “protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” al-Kidd, 563 U.S. at 743 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Qualified immunity may attach only when the officer is “acting within the scope of his discretionary authority when the allegedly wrongful acts occurred.” Grider v. City of Auburn, 618 F.3d 1240, 1254 n.19 (11th Cir. 2010) (citing Lee, 284 F.3d at 1194). A public official acts within the scope of his discretionary authority where the acts complained of were “undertaken pursuant to the performance of his duties and within the scope of his authority.” See Rich v. Dollar,841 F.2d 1558, 1564 (11th Cir. 1988). “Once the defendant establishes that he was acting within his discretionary authority, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show that qualified immunity is not appropriate.” Lee, 284 F.3d at 1194. The parties agree all individual Defendants acted within the scope of their discretionary authority when arresting Plaintiff. See, e.g., ...


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