Ricketts v. City of Columbia, Mo.

Decision Date09 December 1994
Docket NumberA-X,No. 93-3633,93-3633
PartiesPaul RICKETTS, Sr., Plaintiff-Appellant, Paul Ricketts, Survivor of Marge Ricketts; Kimberly Stephens; Plaintiffs, Kimberly Roth, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. CITY OF COLUMBIA, MISSOURI, Defendant-Appellee, Ben White, Officer; Ernie Barbee, Chief of Police, City of Columbia; John Doe, Unknown Officers; Lawrence Brady; Craig Klein; B. Arnold; Dennis Veach; Randy Boehm; Joseph Fagiolo; C. Antimi; L. Calvert, Defendants. Association of Trial Lawyers of America, Amicus Curiae.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eighth Circuit

Michael W. Manners, Independence, MO, argued, for appellant.

Eugene K. Buckley, St. Louis, MO, argued (John S. McCollough, on the brief), for appellee.

Before HANSEN, Circuit Judge, FLOYD R. GIBSON, Senior Circuit Judge, and MORRIS SHEPPARD ARNOLD, Circuit Judge.

HANSEN, Circuit Judge.

Kimberly Roth and her father, Paul Ricketts (the plaintiffs), appeal the district court's 1 grant of judgment as a matter of law in favor of the City of Columbia, Missouri, in their action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983. The plaintiffs sued the City alleging that it carried out a discriminatory custom of treating domestic abuse cases less seriously than nondomestic abuse cases, which was based upon an intent to discriminate against women. The plaintiffs contended that as a result of this custom, Kimberly's husband at the time, Sonny Stephens, harassed and sexually assaulted Kimberly and murdered her mother, Marge Ricketts. The district court set aside a jury verdict in favor of the plaintiffs in the amount of $1,200,000, concluding that the plaintiffs failed to establish the essential elements of their Sec. 1983 equal protection claim. 856 F.Supp. 1337. We affirm.

I. Background

Kimberly met Sonny Stephens in 1978. They began to live together shortly thereafter and married in 1982. Their relationship was riddled with argument and abuse. They temporarily separated several times, once because Sonny was incarcerated. When Sonny was at home, he often abused Kimberly both verbally and physically.

On September 11, 1986, Kimberly sought and received an ex parte order for protection from the Boone County Circuit Court. In her petition, she stated that she feared Sonny because he "has broke[n] my nose" and "threaten[e]d to kill me if I leave him." (Jt.App. at 224.) The Boone County Circuit Court ordered Sonny to refrain from "[a]busing, threatening to abuse, molesting or disturbing the peace of the petitioner ... or [e]ntering the dwelling of petitioner, located at 909 Grand, Columbia, Mo." (Id. at 227.)

After obtaining the protection order, Kimberly and her five children moved from the court order protected location at 909 Grand into her parents' (Paul and Marge Ricketts') home at Holly Park Trailer Court. Sonny was visiting a friend who lived across the street from the Ricketts' home, and he saw Kimberly and her father return from the courthouse. Sonny became enraged and began yelling threats. Kimberly called the sheriff's office and requested that they serve Sonny with the protection order. The sheriff's office responded within ten minutes and served Sonny with the protection order. Paul Ricketts and the sheriff overheard Sonny say that he was going to get a shotgun, and Kimberly knew that Sonny had a shotgun in their home at 909 Grand. The Ricketts called 911 and officers searched the home at 909 Grand but were unable to find either Sonny or a shotgun. When Sonny returned to his friend's trailer across the street from the Ricketts' home, he had a sawed-off shotgun and he continued yelling threats. Kimberly called the police again, discovered that officers had been sent to 909 Grand, and requested protection at her parents' home. About 20 police officers responded to this call and surrounded the home. Sonny finally came outside, but without the shotgun. Eventually, Sonny was subdued. He was allowed to leave the area without being arrested.

That night, Kimberly's father's pickup truck was vandalized. When a police officer responded to a call about the vandalism the next morning, Kimberly told him that she was concerned about Sonny's shotgun and that she believed Sonny was keeping it in his friend's home across the street. The officer questioned Sonny's friend, who surrendered the weapon. During the next week, Sonny telephoned the Ricketts' home repeatedly, but Kimberly refused to talk with him. Sonny knocked on Kimberly's bedroom window one evening, and at another time, he threatened that if she did not return home he would kill her or someone in her family. Kimberly and her family called the police as a result of these threats, but Sonny was never arrested.

Only a week after receiving the protection order, Kimberly decided to go back to Sonny in an effort to protect herself and her family from his threats. Kimberly and the five children moved back into their home at 909 Grand, and on September 19, 1986, Kimberly and Sonny filed a signed document with the Boone County Circuit Court in which both parties consented to terminate the protection order. The abuse worsened after Kimberly returned home, but Kimberly did not report further abuse to the police until March 20, 1987, when she again sought and received a protection order.

This second ex parte order of protection prohibited Sonny from, among other things, threatening, disturbing, or "enter[ing] upon the premises of [her] dwelling." (Id. at 234.) This order became a full order of protection on April 3, 1987. Despite the protection order, Sonny continued to call and threaten Kimberly and her family, often while sitting outside in the area around the Ricketts' home where Kimberly again was staying. Kimberly, her family, and her lawyer called the police several times during late March and early April 1987 due to Sonny's continued harassment, but Sonny was never arrested. On one occasion during that period, an officer came to the Ricketts' home to take a report. No physical abuse occurred or was reported after entry of the protection order.

On April 7, 1987, at about 7:30 a.m., Kimberly was in the living room of her parents' home with her mother and her youngest daughter when Sonny entered the home without notice and began an argument. Sonny threatened Kimberly with a shotgun (not the same shotgun previously confiscated). When Kimberly's mother attempted to intervene and calm the situation, Sonny shot her in the stomach. She died later that day. Sonny then dragged Kimberly away to a nearby woods, where he sexually assaulted her. He released her one-and-one-half hours later.

The plaintiffs, Kimberly and her father, filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 against the City of Columbia, Missouri, Police Department and several of its personnel, seeking to obtain compensation for the injuries caused by Sonny's conduct of continued harassment, sexual assault, and murder. The individual defendants were dismissed on grounds of qualified immunity, and the case went to trial against only the City. At trial, the plaintiffs argued that the City violated their rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution on the basis of sex discrimination. They contended through use of statistics and testimony that the City maintained a discriminatory custom of treating domestic abuse less seriously than nondomestic abuse cases, that victims of domestic abuse are most often women, and that this discriminatory custom caused their injury by "emboldening" Sonny to continue his abusive behavior without fear of arrest.

The jury returned verdicts in favor of the plaintiffs, specifically awarding Kimberly $200,000 for the harassment she endured while the protection orders were in effect and $200,000 for the sexual assault on April 7, 1987; and awarding the plaintiffs $800,000 for the April 7, 1987, murder of Marge Ricketts. The district court set aside the verdicts, granting the City's renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law. The district court assumed without deciding that the City had an unwritten policy or custom that resulted in unequal treatment of domestic assaults vis-a-vis nondomestic assaults and reasoned that the plaintiffs (1) failed to prove that the custom caused Marge Ricketts' death or Kimberly's rape, (2) failed to prove that the custom was intended to result in invidious discrimination against women, and (3) failed to identify the final policymaker who had knowledge of the discriminatory custom. The plaintiffs appeal the district court's grant of judgment as a matter of law.

II. Discussion

"In reviewing the district court's grant of JAML [judgment as a matter of law], we apply the same standard that governed the district court." Jacobs Mfg. Co. v. Sam Brown Co., 19 F.3d 1259, 1263 (8th Cir.1994). Considering the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, judgment as a matter of law is not appropriate "unless all the evidence points one way and is susceptible of no reasonable inferences sustaining [the nonmovant's] position." Id.

Section 1983 provides a cause of action against any "person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom or usage, of any State" causes the deprivation of a right protected by federal law or the United States Constitution. 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983. A municipality may be held liable as a "person" under Sec. 1983. Monell v. New York City Dep't of Social Serv., 436 U.S. 658, 690, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 2035, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1977). A municipality is not constitutionally required "to protect an individual against private violence," but a municipality may not operate under a custom in which it "selectively den[ies] its protective services to certain disfavored minorities without violating the Equal Protection Clause." DeShaney v. Winnebago County Dep't of Social Serv., 489 U.S. 189, 197 & n. 3,...

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