692 F.2d 387 (5th Cir. 1982), 81-3627, Brewer v. Blackwell

Docket Nº:81-3627.
Citation:692 F.2d 387
Party Name:Joseph BREWER, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. M. Prentiss BLACKWELL, et al., Defendants-Appellees.
Case Date:November 29, 1982
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
 
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Page 387

692 F.2d 387 (5th Cir. 1982)

Joseph BREWER, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants,

v.

M. Prentiss BLACKWELL, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

No. 81-3627.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

November 29, 1982

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Deutsch, Kerrigan & Stiles, Frank M. RePass, III, Slidell, La., for plaintiffs-appellants.

Edward A. Shamis, Jr., Slidell, La., for Blackwell.

Ronald W. Guth, Wm. J. Faustermann, Jr., Slidell, La., for McGehee and Pearl River.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

Before RUBIN and JOHNSON, Circuit Judges, and VERON [*], District Judge.

ALVIN B. RUBIN, Circuit Judge:

On a winter day in 1978, four young men working for a company engaged in pruning trees were sent to dump a load of what they thought to be tree branches at a rural landfill. Their arrest on the felony charge of contaminating water supplies, see La.Rev.Stat.Ann. 14:58 (West 1974), because the load they dumped contained garbage, led to this suit for $1.5 million in compensatory and $1.5 million in punitive damages. They sued a justice of the peace, the mayor of the town in whose jail they were confined, the town's chief of police, and the town both for violation of their civil rights and on pendent state tort claims. The district court rendered a directed verdict in favor of the justice of the peace on the ground of judicial immunity, and in favor of the chief of police and the town on the ground that their conduct was neither wrongful nor constituted a tort under state law. 1 The court then dismissed the pendent state claims against the justice of the peace on the ground that the basis for invoking federal jurisdiction was insubstantial and the claims should be tried in state court. We affirm in part but, finding that there was sufficient evidence in support of some of the federal claims to warrant jury submission, we reverse and remand for a new trial of those claims.

I.

Much like the load of refuse, the facts were dumped in disorderly fashion. The district judge, in ruling on the motion for directed verdict, made no separate findings of fact. We must, however, deduce his fact findings because whether an official is protected by judicial immunity is a question of law 2 and the facts found by the district judge in making that determination are to

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be reviewed under the "clearly erroneous" standard. See Pullman-Standard v. Swint, --- U.S. ----, ---- n. 16, 102 S.Ct. 1781, 1788 n. 16, 72 L.Ed.2d 66, 78 n. 16 (1982). On jury-determinable issues, the sufficiency of the evidence to make a jury case is also a question of law, and we must reassess the trial judge's appraisal of the evidence to determine whether a reasonable juror could have reached a verdict for the plaintiffs. Boeing Co. v. Shipman, 411 F.2d 365 (5th Cir.1969) (en banc). In reviewing the grant of a motion for a directed verdict, we consider all of the testimony in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion, in this case the plaintiffs. New England Merchants National Bank v. Rosenfield, 679 F.2d 467, 473 (5th Cir.1982). With these several standards in mind, we sort out the leaves and branches of testimony.

Asplundh Tree Experts, the plaintiffs' employer, furnishes various dendrological services including trimming branches from trees. Using mechanical equipment, Asplundh grinds the debris and deposits it in a truck. When the truck is full, the load is carted to a dump for disposal. Asplundh had been dumping at a landfill waste depository in a rural part of St. Tammany Parish known as Florenville.

The residents of the area near Florenville use artesian wells for water. They had become concerned about the possible contamination of their water supply as a result of the deposit of garbage in the landfill and had instituted civil litigation to enjoin use of the landfill. 3

In December, 1978, four youthful Asplundh employees, plaintiffs Joseph Brewer, age 19, Lionel Matherne, age 20, Gerry Guidry, age 18, and Robert Brewer, age 18, were sent by their supervisor, Jesse Reavis, to dump a truck load of trash at the landfill. A number of local citizens, including M. Prentiss Blackwell, a Justice of the Peace for the Sixth Ward of the Parish, were at the entrance to the landfill when the truck arrived. Two of the persons present had been deputized as constables by the elected Sixth Ward constable, but the constable himself was not present.

When the truck, driven by Joseph Brewer, arrived at the landfill, one of the persons already present instructed the plaintiffs that they could enter the landfill area to dump trash but that, if they dumped a load that included garbage, they would be arrested. The explanation offered at the trial for this instruction was that tree cuttings would not pollute the artesian well water but that garbage would. Two of the plaintiffs testified that Blackwell, the Justice of the Peace, gave this instruction. One of the deputized constables, Joseph Yates, testified that he gave this instruction, and both plaintiff Matherne and defendant Blackwell supported that testimony.

Obeying his supervisor's instructions, Joseph Brewer drove into the landfill area, and dumped the load. The Asplundh employees testified that the load contained tree cuttings but no food waste except a few cans and bags that they had thrown in the truck after lunch the previous day. They did not know whether there was other debris beneath the surface of the load. Blackwell and Yates testified that, when the load was dumped, it contained plastic

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garbage bags, one or more of which was broken, exposing garbage. The bags were not seized or retained as evidence.

When Brewer attempted to drive out of the landfill area, his truck's path was blocked by a pickup truck that had been parked so as to bar the exit. Someone ordered all four Asplundh employees to dismount and informed them that they were under arrest. 4 Two of the plaintiffs testified that it was Blackwell who made the arrest. Blackwell denied arresting anyone, and he and Yates both testified that Yates made the arrest. Plaintiff Matherne also testified that Yates made the arrest. 5 The four plaintiffs were then ordered to get into the back of the pickup truck so that they could be taken to Blackwell's office, which was at his home. Three mounted the pickup, but Joseph Brewer insisted on following in the truck he had driven to the site. The Justice of the Peace followed in his automobile, and the convoy headed for his residence. However, when the trucks reached a fork in the road where the route to the Blackwell's residence diverged from the road to Slidell, Louisiana, Brewer made for his supervisor's home in Slidell, seeking help. Blackwell pursued Brewer in his personal car. When Brewer stopped at his supervisor's residence, Blackwell leaped out of his vehicle, showed the supervisor his identification card, and, according to the supervisor, said: "that boy is under arrest." Blackwell stated, the supervisor testified, that he would call the state police if Brewer refused to go with him. The supervisor testified that he "assume[d] the boy [was] under arrest." Brewer testified that he understood Blackwell to have arrested him. Blackwell testified, however, that he did not then place Brewer under arrest or force Brewer to accompany him. At any rate, on the supervisor's advice, Brewer left the truck in Slidell and went with Blackwell in Blackwell's car.

What happened when Blackwell arrived at his office-residence is also disputed. The four plaintiffs gave varying accounts but there was testimony that Blackwell told them that: he had seen them pollute the water supply so they were guilty and could be put in jail or fined $1,000; he would act as their attorney and also as their prosecutor; he would "give them a break" and "fine" them only $37.50 each, and he was fining each of them $37.50 except the driver, who was also charged with reckless driving and would be fined $75. The plaintiffs' testimony, in sum, is that Blackwell conducted a trial, found them guilty (or forced them to plead guilty), and sentenced them to pay a fine. There was testimony, disputed by Blackwell, that, while the parties were at Blackwell's residence, he had a telephone conversation with Assistant District Attorney Kurt Sinns. Sinns was familiar with the water pollution complaint, which had become a local cause celebre, and had seen a report about the landfill (featuring an interview with Blackwell) on television. Sinns testified that he told Blackwell that the plaintiffs should be released.

Blackwell and Yates testified that: no trial was held; Yates executed an affidavit to support a warrant for the arrest of the four, and Blackwell issued the warrant and then fixed bail for three of the plaintiffs at $37.50 and for Joseph Brewer at $75. Yates' affidavit and the arrest warrant were introduced into evidence. Blackwell testified that, because none of the plaintiffs had money for bail, Yates and Blackwell's first cousin, Walter, another deputy constable, transported the four to the Pearl River jail, where they were booked. 6

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While the plaintiffs were at the jail, Assistant District Attorney Sinns telephoned Pearl River Chief of Police McGehee. He stated that the case should not be handled as a criminal matter and advised the Chief that he was nolle prossing the charges and that the four plaintiffs should be released. 7 The Chief had the plaintiffs booked, then telephoned the City Attorney, who advised the Chief to release the four on their own recognizance but to obtain an agreement from each of them holding the City and the Chief harmless for their detention. The four signed the agreement and the Chief...

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