777 F.3d 838 (6th Cir. 2015), 14-5484, Johnson v. Memphis Light Gas & Water Division

Docket Nº:14-5484
Citation:777 F.3d 838
Opinion Judge:JANE B. STRANCH, Circuit Judge.
Party Name:DOROTHY MAE JOHNSON; LOIS TOWNES, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. MEMPHIS LIGHT GAS & WATER DIVISION, Defendant-Appellee
Attorney:Mark Ledbetter, HALLIBURTON & LEDBETTER, Memphis, Tennessee, Kathleen L. Caldwell, KATHLEEN CALDWELL, PLLC, Memphis, Tennessee, for Appellants. David L. Bearman, Julia Kavanagh, BAKER, DONELSON, BEARMAN, CALDWELL & BERKOWITZ, PC, Memphis, Tennessee, for Appellee.
Judge Panel:Before: MERRITT, STRANCH, and DONALD, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:February 06, 2015
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
SUMMARY

Johnson, a long-time city employee (garbage collectors) was denied utility services by Memphis Light, Gas & Water, a division of the city, in February 2010 because he did not possess a state-issued photo identification card. Johnson, born in rural Mississippi, lacked a birth certificate, was illiterate and had intellectual disabilities that made it difficult for him to navigate the process of... (see full summary)

 
FREE EXCERPT

Page 838

777 F.3d 838 (6th Cir. 2015)

DOROTHY MAE JOHNSON; LOIS TOWNES, Plaintiffs-Appellants,

v.

MEMPHIS LIGHT GAS & WATER DIVISION, Defendant-Appellee

No. 14-5484

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

February 6, 2015

Page 839

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee at Memphis. No. 2:12-cv-02664--S. Thomas Anderson, District Judge.

ON BRIEF:

Mark Ledbetter, HALLIBURTON & LEDBETTER, Memphis, Tennessee, Kathleen L. Caldwell, KATHLEEN CALDWELL, PLLC, Memphis, Tennessee, for Appellants.

David L. Bearman, Julia Kavanagh, BAKER, DONELSON, BEARMAN, CALDWELL & BERKOWITZ, PC, Memphis, Tennessee, for Appellee.

Before: MERRITT, STRANCH, and DONALD, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

Page 840

JANE B. STRANCH, Circuit Judge.

J. Dean Johnson was denied utility services by Memphis Light, Gas & Water (MLGW), a division of the City of Memphis, in February 2010 because he did not possess a state-issued photo identification card. Mr. Johnson, who lacked a birth certificate, was illiterate and had intellectual disabilities that made it difficult for him to navigate the process of obtaining the necessary state identification. He lived without utilities for over eighteen months and died of heat stroke in August 2011. Plaintiffs--his wife and sister--sued MLGW bringing claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983; the Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA), Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-205 et seq.; and Tennessee's wrongful death statute, Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-5-106 et seq. The court granted summary judgment for MLGW on the grounds that all of Plaintiffs' claims were barred by the applicable statutes of limitations. We REVERSE and REMAND for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

BACKGROUND

J. Dean Johnson, a long-term employee of Memphis's Public Works Division, worked in sanitation, lifting and emptying garbage cans. MLGW denied him public utility services for his new apartment in February 2010 because he could not produce state-issued photo identification. On August 4, 2011, Johnson died of heat stroke in his apartment, where the internal temperature was 93.2 degrees Fahrenheit. He was sixty-five years old at the time of his death and had no electricity, heat, or air conditioning in his home. Plaintiffs allege that his death was caused by MLGW's denial of services. Id.

Johnson, an African American, was born in rural Mississippi and delivered by a midwife. He had no birth certificate and had difficulty acquiring one from the state, in part due to his intellectual disabilities. In sworn affidavits, Johnson's niece, Lorena Jackson, and a longtime co-worker, Melvin Hunt, testified that although Johnson was able-bodied, he was substantially intellectually impaired. Ms. Jackson described Johnson as having " severe learning disabilities," such that he was unable to read and write, could not do basic math, had " severe memory problems" and difficulty planning, and was unable to care for himself without help. He had problems communicating with others and often became angry or frustrated as a result. Johnson could apparently write his name but would misspell it and was unsure of his birthdate, he did not drive or keep a bank account, and he was dependent on co-workers to bring him to and from work. In order to pay bills and feed himself, Johnson used cash, but he was often cheated

Page 841

and did not know the meaning of any documents he signed. He is not known to have attended school beyond second grade. Mr. Hunt, who worked with Johnson for over forty years, confirmed that Johnson had to be driven to and from work, needed help filling out forms or legal documents, and that he was " unable to give a complete answer or to carry [on] a conversation, or to understand simple mathematical problems." Although Johnson lived by himself, he was evidently highly reliant on nearby family, friends, neighbors and co-workers for regular assistance with the routines of everyday life.1

When Johnson moved to 2931 Park Avenue, #8, in Memphis, Tennessee, two nieces--Ms. Lois Taylor and Ms. Jackson--accompanied him on two different occasions in February 2010 to MLGW offices to help him obtain services for his new apartment. Johnson apparently had had utility services in past residences, and Ms. Jackson had accompanied him to MLGW offices on several previous occasions and dealt with bill irregularities and service problems on his behalf. Both nieces characterized Johnson as easily confused and frustrated by such encounters. When she accompanied him to MLGW on February 5, 2010, Ms. Taylor had to explain to Johnson that he could not go straight to the billing department but had to inform another employee there that he wanted utilities turned on. Ms. Taylor then waited with him until his name was called. She went back to an office with him and participated in the conversation, during which the MLGW employee told Johnson that he didn't have the proper identification--he " had to either have a State I.D. or a driver's license." Ms. Taylor described Johnson's attempts to communicate his situation: " He didn't drive, and he was explaining that he couldn't get a State I.D., and he was asking what was wrong with [his work] I.D., it had a picture on it." Ms. Taylor showed the MLGW employee Johnson's work identification card while Johnson showed his social security card. Ms. Taylor then asked if the MLGW employee could call Johnson's job to verify his identity, but she refused. The MLGW employee then gave Ms. Taylor a copy of a slip on which she had written " invalid I.D." As they left Johnson appeared to be upset or " heated." Ms. Taylor testified in her deposition that to her knowledge Johnson only contacted MLGW while with her or her sister, as " [h]e wouldn't have called because he didn't know how to call, . . . he wouldn't know what to say." After their encounter with MLGW, Ms. Taylor told Johnson that she would need to take him to Jackson, Mississippi, to see about getting a birth certificate, and he agreed, but she never did so.

After MLGW denied Johnson utility services, he spoke with his sister, Lois Townes, who told him that to get a state identification card he had to go to Brownsville, Tennessee, where he had started school, and get his school record. Ms.

Page 842

Jackson testified that " Uncle David" had apparently written away for some information on Johnson's behalf and then taken Johnson to Brownsville. Johnson was " excited" because he had obtained some papers there and he thought that these would be sufficient for him to obtain utilities. On February 26, 2010, Ms. Jackson accompanied Johnson to an MLGW office for a second time, although she stayed in the waiting area while he went back to speak with an MLGW employee. She testified that she " let him go back there because he knew . . . what to say and everything." A short while later she heard a " commotion" as a woman accompanied Johnson out of the office, apparently trying to get him out quickly " because he was really upset." She explained to Ms. Jackson that Johnson did not have...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP