560 F.3d 404 (5th Cir. 2009), 08-50217, Lytle v. Bexar County, Texas

Docket Nº:08-50217.
Citation:560 F.3d 404
Party Name:Ernest LYTLE, Individually and as Representative of the Estate of Heather Lytle, Deceased, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. BEXAR COUNTY, TEXAS; Bexar County Sheriff's Office; Robert O'Donnell, in his Individual Capacity, Defendants-Appellants.
Case Date:February 23, 2009
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
 
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560 F.3d 404 (5th Cir. 2009)

Ernest LYTLE, Individually and as Representative of the Estate of Heather Lytle, Deceased, Plaintiff-Appellee,

v.

BEXAR COUNTY, TEXAS; Bexar County Sheriff's Office; Robert O'Donnell, in his Individual Capacity, Defendants-Appellants.

No. 08-50217.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit.

February 23, 2009

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Sonia M. Rodriguez (argued), Branton & Hall, San Antonio, TX, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Clarkson F. Brown (argued), San Antonio, TX, for Defendants-Appellants.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas.

Before SMITH, BARKSDALE and PRADO, Circuit Judges.

PRADO, Circuit Judge:

Bexar County Sheriff's Deputy Robert O'Donnell (" O'Donnell" ) fired his sidearm at the rear of a vehicle, striking and killing fifteen-year-old passenger Heather Lytle. Heather Lytle's father, Ernest Lytle (" Lytle" ), brought suit individually and on behalf of his daughter's estate against Bexar County, the Bexar County's Sheriff's Office, and O'Donnell, alleging violations of Heather Lytle's civil rights. O'Donnell moved to dismiss the suit against him on the basis of qualified immunity. The district court denied this motion, and O'Donnell now brings this interlocutory appeal. Because genuine issues of material fact preclude a determination of qualified immunity, we dismiss this appeal.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Factual Background

On February 28, 2006, O'Donnell responded to a report that a complainant's ex-boyfriend had made threats of violence against her. The complainant stated that her ex-boyfriend was driving a stolen, primer-grey Ford Taurus. O'Donnell contacted a detective in the county auto theft unit and learned that the ex-boyfriend was a known car thief. O'Donnell also learned that the ex-boyfriend was on bond for charges of felony theft and unlawfully carrying a weapon. O'Donnell later spotted a primer-black Ford Taurus-a possible match to the ex-boyfriend's vehicle-at a known drug location. After the Taurus left the location, O'Donnell began to follow it.

Shortly after O'Donnell began following the Taurus, it changed lanes without signaling. O'Donnell activated his emergency lights in an effort to initiate a traffic stop. Instead of stopping, the Taurus turned right and began to accelerate. O'Donnell activated his siren and pursued the Taurus for a quarter-to-half mile. O'Donnell characterizes the chase as exceeding sixty-five miles per hour, while Lytle asserts that the speed was " well over" the thirty mile per hour speed limit. After this brief chase, the Taurus attempted to make a right turn, but it took the turn too widely and collided with a vehicle in the oncoming lane. The Taurus came to a stop and O'Donnell pulled his police cruiser twelve-to-fifteen feet behind the Taurus. The Taurus then began backing up toward O'Donnell's police cruiser.

The parties dispute what exactly happened next. In any event, sometime after

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O'Donnell stopped his police cruiser, he twice fired at the rear of the Taurus. Heather Lytle was sitting in the center of the back seat of the vehicle, and one of the shots struck and killed her. After firing, O'Donnell returned to his police cruiser and continued the pursuit. Upon later crashing the Taurus into a car port and fleeing on foot, the driver of the Taurus was apprehended.

B. Procedural Background

Lytle brought suit against O'Donnell, Bexar County, and the Bexar County Sheriff's Department, alleging, inter alia, that O'Donnell violated Heather Lytle's constitutional rights by unreasonably seizing her in violation of the Fourth Amendment. O'Donnell filed a motion to dismiss on the basis of qualified immunity. Because O'Donnell had referenced material outside the pleadings, the district court treated his motion as one for summary judgment. See FED.R.CIV.P. 12(d).

The district court ultimately concluded that a genuine issue of material fact precluded granting summary judgment on qualified immunity. The district court found that the parties genuinely disputed the direction and distance that the Taurus had traveled at the moment O'Donnell fired: O'Donnell asserted that he fired as or immediately after the Taurus backed up toward him, but Lytle contended that the Taurus was three or four houses down the block when O'Donnell fired. The district court indicated that O'Donnell would be entitled to qualified immunity were the facts as he alleged-implying that O'Donnell would not be entitled to qualified immunity were the facts as Lytle alleged-but stated that O'Donnell's entitlement to qualified immunity hinged on the resolution of this factual issue. The district court thus found a genuine issue of material fact that would have to be resolved by the factfinder and denied O'Donnell's motion. O'Donnell filed this interlocutory appeal.

II. JURISDICTION AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

" The denial of a motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity is immediately appealable under the collateral order doctrine ‘ to the extent that it turns on an issue of law.’ " Flores v. City of Palacios, 381 F.3d 391, 393 (5th Cir.2004) (quoting Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 530, 105 S.Ct. 2806, 86 L.Ed.2d 411 (1985)). Where the district court has determined that genuine issues of material fact preclude a determination of qualified immunity, we have jurisdiction only to address the legal question of whether the genuinely disputed factual issues are material for the purposes of summary judgment. See Wagner v. Bay City, 227 F.3d 316, 320 (5th Cir.2000) (" In deciding an interlocutory appeal of a denial of qualified immunity, we can review the materiality of any factual disputes, but not their genuineness. " ); see also Colston v. Barnhart, 130 F.3d 96, 98 (5th Cir.1997). " A genuine issue of material fact exists if a reasonable jury could enter a verdict for the non-moving party." Brumfield v. Hollins, 551 F.3d 322, 326 (5th Cir.2008) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986)). If the determination of qualified immunity would require the resolution of a genuinely disputed fact, then that fact is material and we lack jurisdiction over the appeal. See Bazan ex rel. Bazan v. Hidalgo County, 246 F.3d 481, 483 (5th Cir.2001) ( " [T]he threshold issue is whether the facts the district judge concluded are genuinely disputed are also material. If they are material, we lack jurisdiction." ); see also Estate of Starks v. Enyart, 5 F.3d 230, 232-33 (7th Cir.1993) (" If ... we cannot

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decide the qualified immunity question without resolving an issue of disputed fact, then we lack jurisdiction over the question. Therefore, if the record read favorably to the plaintiff supports a version of the facts which would not entitle the defendants to immunity, we will dismiss the interlocutory appeal for lack of jurisdiction." (citation omitted)).

Since we are limited solely to legal questions for this interlocutory appeal, we " are required to view the facts and draw reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the party opposing the summary judgment motion." Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 127 S.Ct. 1769, 1774, 167 L.Ed.2d 686 (2007) (quotation marks and alteration omitted). " Thus, a defendant challenging the denial of a motion for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity ‘ must be prepared to concede the best view of the facts to the plaintiff and discuss only the legal issues raised by the appeal.’ " Freeman v. Gore, 483 F.3d 404, 410 (5th Cir.2007) (quoting Gonzales v. Dallas County, 249 F.3d 406, 411 (5th Cir.2001)). If the defendant would still be entitled to qualified immunity under this view of the facts, then any disputed fact issues are not material, the district court's denial of summary judgment was improper, and we must reverse; otherwise, the disputed factual issues are material and we lack jurisdiction over the appeal.

We therefore adopt Lytle's version of the facts and make all reasonable inferences in his favor for the purposes of this appeal. We assume that after the Taurus made the wide right turn and collided with the car in the oncoming lane, O'Donnell stopped his police cruiser behind it. The Taurus reversed course and began backing up toward O'Donnell's police cruiser in an effort to free itself from the collision. The Taurus then began to drive away and made it three or four houses down the block. At this point, there were no bystanders in the path of the vehicle, and, according to Lytle, neither the Taurus nor any of its occupants posed a threat of harm to O'Donnell or others. When the Taurus was three to four houses down the block, O'Donnell twice fired at it. O'Donnell did not issue a warning before firing and was not aiming for the driver or any other individual inside the Taurus. Although this account leaves several factual gaps, we make all reasonable inferences in Lytle's favor when filling those gaps.

Once we have narrowed the interlocutory appeal solely to issues of law, we review the district court's resolution of these issues de novo. Ramirez v. Knoulton, 542 F.3d 124, 128 (5th Cir.2008); Freeman, 483 F.3d at 410.

III. DISCUSSION

Qualified immunity protects government officials " from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982). To determine whether a government official is entitled to qualified immunity for an alleged constitutional violation, we conduct the two-step...

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