Marsh v. Butler County Alabama, 99-12813

Decision Date26 September 2001
Docket NumberNo. 99-12813,99-12813
Citation268 F.3d 1014
Parties(11th Cir. 2001) JOE MARSH, LEROY OWENS, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. BUTLER COUNTY, ALABAMA, THE BUTLER COUNTY COMMISSION, et al., Defendants-Appellees
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit

Page 1014

268 F.3d 1014 (11th Cir. 2001)
JOE MARSH, LEROY OWENS, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
No. 99-12813
September 26, 2001

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Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, D. C. Docket No. 97-01421-CV-D-N


EDMONDSON, Circuit Judge:

This case is about Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the defense of qualified immunity.1 We first decide whether Plaintiffs have sufficiently stated a claim against a County, its governing

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body, and its Sheriff for deliberate indifference to unsafe conditions at the county jail and for deliberate indifference to the serious medical needs of Plaintiff Owens following an assault. And if so, we then must decide whether the stated claims survive in the face of an asserted defense of qualified immunity. The district court dismissed the case altogether. We reverse the district court's order, except for the dismissal of certain claims alleged against the Sheriff and the dismissal of the claim against the County for deliberate indifference to Owens's serious medical needs.

For the sufficiency of the complaint, the Supreme Court has given us this guidance: "a complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it appears beyond a doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Conley v. Gibson, 78 S.Ct. 99, 102 (1957). A complaint is also subject to dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) when its allegations -- on their face -- show that an affirmative defense bars recovery on the claim. See Quiller v. Barclays American/Credit, Inc., 727 F.2d 1067, 1069 (11th Cir. 1984) vacated on petition for rehearing, reinstated by 764 F.2d 1400 (11th Cir. 1985) (saying that complaint essentially is "self-defeating" when claim adequately stated but includes matters of avoidance that preclude pleader's ability to recover, because plaintiff's "own allegations show that the defense exists"); see also, Oaxaca v. Roscoe, 641 F.2d 386, 391 (5th Cir. 1981) (saying that affirmative defense alleging failure to bring Title VII claim to EEOC in timely fashion was properly asserted in 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss); Kincheloe v. Farmer, 214 F.2d 604, 605 (7th Cir. 1954) (when "allegations of [plaintiff's] complaint erected [the affirmative defense]... it was his duty in order to extricate himself therefrom to plead any exceptions upon which he relied"); Larter & Sons, Inc. v. Dinkler Hotels Co., 199 F.2d 854, 855 (5th Cir. 1952) (holding that affirmative defense of res judicata can be raised properly and decided in12(b)(6) motion).

Once the affirmative defense of qualified immunity is advanced, the allegations of the complaint take on great importance in a lawsuit. "Unless the plaintiff's allegations state a claim of violation of clearly established law, a defendant pleading qualified immunity is entitled to dismissal before the commencement of discovery." Mitchell v. Forsyth, 105 S. Ct. 2806, 2815 (1985); Behrens v. Pelletier, 116 S.Ct. 834, 840 (1996) ("At the [12(b)(6)] stage, it is the defendant's conduct as alleged in the complaint that is scrutinized for `objective legal reasonableness.'"). The Supreme Court has urged us to apply the affirmative defense of qualified immunity at the earliest possible stage in litigation because the defense is immunity from suit and not from damages only. See Hunter v. Bryant, 112 S.Ct. 534, 536 (1991) ("[W]e repeatedly have stressed the importance of resolving immunity questions at the earliest possible stage in the litigation."); Mitchell, 105 S.Ct. at 2815 (entitlement of qualified immunity is "immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability; effectively lost if a case is erroneously permitted to go to trial")

We have applied the qualified immunity defense at the 12(b)(6) stage before. See, e.g., Chesser v. Sparks, 248 F.3d 1117, 1121 (11th Cir. 2001); Denno v. School Board of Volusia County, 218 F.3d 1267, 1275 (11th Cir. 2000); Kyle v. Chapman, 208 F.3d 940, 943 (11th Cir. 2000); Maggio v. Sipple, 211 F.3d 1346,

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1355 (11th Cir. 2000) (reversing district court's failure to grant 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss because defendants entitled to qualified immunity). We apply the qualified immunity defense to dismiss a complaint at the 12(b)(6) stage where, (1) from the face of the complaint, (2) we must conclude that (even if a claim is otherwise sufficiently stated), (3) the law supporting the existence of that claim -- given the alleged circumstances - - was not already clearly established, (4) to prohibit what the government-official defendant is alleged to have done, (5) before the defendant acted.

Two more points are worth mentioning preliminarily. The complaint was drafted by lawyers. Plaintiffs have at all times been represented by legal counsel. In addition, never in the district court did Plaintiffs seek to amend the complaint (for example, by adding facts), even after the complaint's sufficiency had been specifically challenged and the qualified immunity defense expressly advanced by opposing counsel and even after a recommendation to dismiss had been made by the magistrate judge.

A complete copy of the complaint is made an appendix to this opinion. Accepting all well-pleaded factual allegations (with reasonable inferences drawn favorably to Plaintiffs) in the complaint as true, we will summarize the allegations.2

I. The Allegations

While incarcerated, Plaintiffs Joe Marsh ("Marsh"), a convicted inmate, and Leroy Owens ("Owens"), a pretrial detainee (together "Plaintiffs") were assaulted and injured by other prisoners in the Butler County Jail (the "Jail"). Defendants Butler County, Alabama, and the Butler County Commission were sued as the government entities responsible under state law for properly maintaining, operating and funding the Jail.3 Defendant Diane Harris (the "Sheriff"), Sheriff of Butler County, was sued in her individual and official capacities as the party responsible under state law for the Jail's general supervision and control.4 The Sheriff has

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acted as the final policymaker of Butler County for those aspects of jail operation under her control.

In Counts I and II of the Complaint, Plaintiffs allege that Defendants' deliberate indifference to the unreasonably dangerous conditions at the Jail deprived Plaintiffs of their Eighth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights under the United States Constitution. In Count III of the Complaint, Owens claims that Defendants' deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs deprived him of his rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.5

The Jail was an old building that had become extremely dilapidated by the summer of 1996. Inmates were able to obtain makeshift weapons by cannibalizing parts of the decaying building. Lack of adequate monitoring of the inmates allowed inmate activities to go mostly unchecked. Locks to the doors of the inmates' cells did not work, resulting in the inability of the guards to lock down the prisoners. Because prisoners were never locked down, jailers were afraid to conduct visual inspections of inmate cells on the second floor; most of the inmate population was kept on the second floor. No visual or

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audio surveillance system was in place on the second floor Nor, did prisoners have means to contact guards other than by screaming or banging on the walls. Jailers never conducted prisoner headcounts.

Often, only one jailer was on duty at the Jail at a time. This single jailer was responsible for controlling the entire inmate population, administering inmate intake and release, controlling the gate and fence surrounding the Jail, supervising visitation and outdoor exercise, handling mail, coordinating food service, dispensing medication, supervising trustees, answering the Jail telephone, and (at times) answering calls to the Butler County Sheriff's Department and operating the dispatch radio. Because the Jail was understaffed, inmate trustees were given many responsibilities for taking care of other inmates and maintaining the operation of the Jail.

In August 1995, the jail inspector for the Alabama Department of Corrections recommended that all Butler County jailers be trained in jail-management seminars. By the time of the incidents underlying the complaint, few jailers had been so trained. Written procedures did not govern the Jail's operations.

Inmates entering the Jail were not screened for mental impairments or for whether they had conflicts with other inmates in the Jail. No system of classification existed at the Jail: pretrial detainees were housed with convicted inmates, nonviolent offenders with violent offenders, juveniles with adults, and mentally ill persons with those in good mental health. Never were prisoners disciplined or segregated for assaulting other inmates, destroying jail property, or threatening jailers. The Jail contained four eight-person cells, one four-person cell, trustee cells, two holding cells, one isolation cell and a cell for female inmates; but sometimes more than 50 inmates were imprisoned at the Jail.

Jail Administrator Thelma Teague ("Teague") told the Sheriff several times that the Jail needed more staff. In February 1996, the jail inspector for the Alabama Department of Corrections informed Defendants that the Jail was not reasonably secure. Defendants also received many complaints and requests for assistance from prisoners. A letter...

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