Mississippi v. Rinehart, CIVIL ACTION NO. 1:15-cv-00077-GHD-DAS

CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Mississippi
PartiesSTATE OF MISSISSIPPI ex rel.; STEELY DANIELLE WHITAKER, Individually and as Wrongful Death Beneficiary of William Danny Whitaker, Deceased; DANIEL RYAN BONDS, Individually and as Wrongful Death Beneficiary of William Danny Whitaker, Deceased; and ESTATE OF WILLIAM DANNY WHITAKER PLAINTIFFS v. GEORGE CHARLES RINEHART, Individually and in his Official Capacity; ALCORN COUNTY; and RLI INSURANCE COMPANY DEFENDANTS
Decision Date07 September 2016
Docket NumberCIVIL ACTION NO. 1:15-cv-00077-GHD-DAS

STATE OF MISSISSIPPI ex rel.; STEELY DANIELLE WHITAKER,
Individually and as Wrongful Death Beneficiary of William Danny Whitaker,
Deceased; DANIEL RYAN BONDS, Individually and as Wrongful Death Beneficiary of
William Danny Whitaker, Deceased; and ESTATE OF WILLIAM DANNY WHITAKER PLAINTIFFS
v.
GEORGE CHARLES RINEHART, Individually and in his Official Capacity;
ALCORN COUNTY; and RLI INSURANCE COMPANY DEFENDANTS

CIVIL ACTION NO. 1:15-cv-00077-GHD-DAS

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF MISSISSIPPI ABERDEEN DIVISION

September 7, 2016


MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING COUNTY DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR JUDGMENT ON THE PLEADINGS

Presently before the Court is a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings [21] filed by Defendants George Charles Rinehart, individually and in his official capacity ("Rinehart"), and Alcorn County, Mississippi ("Alcorn County") (collectively, the "County Defendants"). Plaintiffs State of Mississippi ex rel., Steely Danielle Whitaker, Daniel Ryan Bonds, and the Estate of William Danny Whitaker (collectively, "Plaintiffs") filed a joint response [38], and the County Defendants filed a reply [43]. In addition, after seeking leave and being granted leave to do so, the County Defendants filed a supplemental memorandum in support of their motion [52] based on the recent holding of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Legate v. Livingston, 822 F.3d 207 (5th Cir. 2016), and Plaintiffs filed a brief in response [53]. These matters are now ripe for review. Upon due consideration and for

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the reasons stated below, the Court finds that the County Defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings [21] should be granted in its entirety.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

On April 24, 2015, Plaintiffs initiated this suit against Rinehart, the former sheriff of Alcorn County; Alcorn County; and RLI Insurance Company. In their complaint, Plaintiffs assert 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims that Defendants "knowing[ly] or willful[ly] fail[ed], neglect[ed,] or refus[ed] to perform duties required by law" in violation of the Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment and Fourteenth Amendment right to substantive due process; Plaintiffs also assert state law claims for civil liability under Mississippi Code § 25-1-45 and wrongful death. Pls.' Compl. [1] at 1. Plaintiffs allege that this Court has federal question jurisdiction over the federal claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a).

Plaintiffs allege in pertinent part that the Decedent William Danny Whitaker (the "Decedent") was a "poly-substance abuser who struggled with addiction his entire adult life," id. ¶ 14; was "[a]t all times relevant to this civil action, . . . under sentence for violent felonies: robbery, burglary, and aggravated assault," id. ¶ 16; and was "classified by the Mississippi Department of Corrections ('MDOC') as 'medium custody,' " id. ¶ 17. Plaintiffs further allege that the Decedent was a lifelong resident of Alcorn County and personally knew Rinehart. Id. ¶ 14. Plaintiffs aver that Rinehart had knowledge of the Decedent's "criminal history as well as his past and continuing struggles with poly-substance abuse and the interplay between [the Decedent's] criminal history and his poly-sub stance abuse." Id. ¶ 15.

With the alleged relationship between the Decedent and Rinehart as backdrop, Plaintiffs assert the following allegations. Plaintiffs maintain that Rinehart "caused to be filed and did file

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pro se a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus Ad Testificandum in the Circuit Court of Alcorn County in the case of Mississippi v. William Danny Whitaker, No. CR09-005." Id. ¶ 10. Plaintiffs aver that the purpose of the writ was for "[the Decedent] to aid in an investigation as a 'material witness,' " but that "[u]pon information and belief, no pending case existed in which [the Decedent's] testimony or deposition was necessary or required." Id. ¶¶ 12-13. Alcorn County Circuit Court Judge James S. Pounds entered an Order/Writ for MDOC to produce the body of the Decedent to the Alcorn County Jail and to ensure the Decedent remained in custody without any passes. Id. ¶¶ 18, 20. Plaintiffs allege that "[i]n direct contravention of the Order, Mississippi law, MDOC regulations, and the Inmate Housing Agreement, [Rinehart] personally authorized a weekend pass for [the Decedent] to stay with his mother," during which visit [the Decedent] purchased narcotics in Alcorn County," and "[t]hat same day, while at his mother's home, . . . died of a mixed drug overdose (cocaine, methamphetamine)." Id. ¶¶ 23-25. Plaintiffs maintain that the death of the Decedent was wrongful and "was directly and proximately caused by his release on an inmate pass" issued by Rinehart, who was "act[ing] under color of state law" and was "a final policy making official with respect to law enforcement decisions within Alcorn County and the administration of the [Alcorn County Jail]." Id. ¶¶ 26-28. Plaintiffs maintain that Rinehart "acted with deliberate indifference and reckless disregard to the Plaintiffs' federally protected rights and with gross negligence evidencing willful, wanton, or reckless disregard for the Plaintiffs' rights under Mississippi law." Id. ¶ 30. Plaintiffs also maintain that Rinehart's actions amounted to knowing and willful neglect to perform a duty required by law, "namely the duty not to release an inmate on a pass," that Rinehart "otherwise violated his official obligations," and that Plaintiffs bring a claim on Rinehart's public official bond for damages. Id. ¶ 47. Plaintiffs seek actual, compensatory, and punitive damages for Rinehart's alleged acts.

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On August 21, 2015, Rinehart and Alcorn County jointly filed their answer and affirmative defenses [5]. Subsequently, RLI Insurance Company filed a motion to dismiss or, alternatively, to stay [12] which the Court denied in an Order [45] and memorandum opinion [46] dated February 23, 2016; the Court also stayed the case against RLI Insurance Company pending the liability determination as to Rinehart. Subsequently, the County Defendants filed the present Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings [21].

II. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) Standard

A Rule 12(c) motion is governed by the same standards as a Rule 12(b)(6) motion—that is, the Court must determine upon a review of the pleadings whether the plaintiff has stated a valid claim for relief. See McDonnell v. Miller, No. 15-60905, 2016 WL 3974111, at *2 (5th Cir. July 22, 2016) (citing Gentilello v. Rege, 627 F.3d 540, 543-44 (5th Cir. 2010)).

"After the pleadings are closed—but early enough not to delay trial—a party may move for judgment on the pleadings." Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c). "A motion brought pursuant to [Rule] 12(c) is designed to dispose of cases where the material facts are not in dispute and a judgment on the merits can be rendered by looking to the substance of the pleadings and any judicially noticed facts." Hebert Abstract Co. v. Touchstone Props., Ltd., 914 F.2d 74, 76 (5th Cir. 1990) (per curiam) (citing 5A Charles A. Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1367, at 509-10 (1990)). So, too, when deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the Court is limited to the allegations set forth in the complaint and any documents attached to the complaint. See Walker v. Webco Indus., Inc., 562 F. App'x 215, 216-17 (5th Cir. 2014) (per curiam) (citing Kennedy v. Chase Manhattan Bank USA, NA, 369 F.3d 833, 839 (5th Cir. 2004)).

"[A plaintiff's] complaint . . . 'must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to "state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." ' " Phillips v. City of Dallas, Tex., 781 F.3d

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772, 775-76 (5th Cir. 2015) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 173 L. Ed. 2d 868 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S. Ct. 1955, 167 L. Ed. 2d 929 (2007))). A claim is facially plausible when the pleaded factual content "allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S. Ct. 1937 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556, 127 S. Ct. 1955). "[P]laintiffs must allege facts that support the elements of the cause of action in order to make out a valid claim." City of Clinton, Ark. v. Pilgrim's Pride Corp., 632 F.3d 148, 152-53 (5th Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks omitted). "[C]onclusory allegations or legal conclusions masquerading as factual conclusions will not suffice to prevent a motion to dismiss." Fernandez-Montes v. Allied Pilots Ass'n, 987 F.2d 278, 284 (5th Cir. 1993). "Dismissal is appropriate when the plaintiff has not alleged 'enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face' and has failed to 'raise a right to relief above the speculative level.' " Emesowum v. Hous. Police Dep't, 561 F. App'x 372, 372 (5th Cir. 2014) (per curiam) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 570, 127 S. Ct. 1955).

The Fifth Circuit has explained the Iqbal/Twombly standard as follows:

In order for a claim to be plausible at the pleading stage, the complaint need not strike the reviewing court as probably meritorious, but it must raise "more than a sheer possibility that the defendant has violated the law as alleged." See [Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S. Ct. 1937.] . . . In determining whether a complaint states a claim that is plausible on its face, the court "draw[s] on its judicial experience and common sense." [Id. at 679, 129 S. Ct. 1937.]

Oceanic Exploration Co. v. Phillips Petroleum Co. ZOC, 352 F. App'x 945, 950 (5th Cir. 2009) (per curiam).

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Dismissal is appropriate only "when it is clear that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim that would entitle him to relief." Jones v. Greninger, 188 F.3d 322, 324 (5th Cir. 1999) (per curiam) (citing Fee v. Her...

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