Sligh v. City of Conroe

Decision Date05 August 2022
Docket NumberCivil Action 4:20-cv-01417
PartiesOLIVIA SLIGH, Plaintiff, v. CITY OF CONROE, et al, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of Texas


Plaintiff Olivia Sligh alleges that the City of Conroe and members of the Conroe Police Department and the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office violated her constitutional rights when a trained police dog severely bit her during what turned into her arrest.

The motions to dismiss by Defendants the City of Conroe Montgomery County, Deputy Alexis Alias Montes, and Officer Tyson Sutton are granted. Dkts 55, 59 & 77.

1. Background

Sligh alleges that a change in her psychotropic medication caused her to become “suicidal and cut herself with a foot scraper which has a razor blade in it” in the early morning hours of July 5, 2018. She also says that her boyfriend called 911 to report that she'd hurt herself and then left the house on foot headed into a wooded area when he tried to take her to the hospital. She asserts that her boyfriend didn't report a crime or that she had weapon. Dkt 54 at ¶¶ 12-14.

Sutton and Montes responded to the call. They each wore bodycams, which recorded the entirety of their interactions with Sligh. See Dkt 55-1 at 2. Sligh's allegations contradict such video in certain respects. See Dkt 54 at ¶¶ 13-23. As noted below, such contrary allegations are properly disregarded. For as shown in the first thirteen minutes of Sutton's bodycam video, the events proceeded substantially as follows.

0:00:20 to 0:01:50. Sutton arrives with a police dog trained by the Conroe Police Department. Montes is already on the scene. They are informed by other officers of report by Sligh's boyfriend that a suicidal Sligh wanted to “die in peace,” was bleeding heavily after having cut herself, had been drinking heavily that night, and left on foot when he tried to take her to the hospital.

0:03:56 to 0:05:21. After brief survey of the neighborhood, Sutton retrieves the canine from his cruiser, leashes it, and begins to search for Sligh in the areas surrounding her home.

0:09:10 to 0:10:27. Sutton and the canine enter into a wooded area with dense underbrush, searching by flashlight. He notes that he sees her but can't reach her.

0:10:45 to 0:11:40. Montes arrives, and Sutton informs him of the situation. Sutton then states that Sligh “is taking off.” He proceeds with the canine to follow her into the underbrush.

0:11:40 to 0:12:02. Sutton catches up to Sligh in the underbrush beside a fence. He shines the flashlight in her face as the canine barks and strains towards her on a leash. She approaches towards Sutton, who loudly says, “Wait, wait, wait, don't! Do not walk towards me! Do not walk towards me! The dog will bite you!”

0:12:00 to 0:12:19. Sligh can be heard to acknowledge the commands. She then refuses multiple commands by Montes to place her hands behind her back, to which she responds with profanity. She also slaps at Montes's hands and arms, attempting to pull away.

0:12:19 to 0:12:30. A physical struggle begins between Sligh and Montes. She strikes him at least once and then breaks free. 0:12:30 to 0:13:33. Sutton releases the canine, which bites Sligh's upper thigh. Sligh screams in obvious pain. Sutton commands the canine multiple time to release its bite. It doesn't immediately comply and instead bites Sligh twice more on the upper leg and ankle.

Sligh was eventually arrested. She maintains that Sutton and Montes misrepresented in their reports that she'd “resisted arrest, tried to escape, and assaulted Montes.” Dkt 54 at ¶ 24. She was taken to the hospital for stitches and other treatment for the dog bites, which wounds later became infected. Id. at ¶¶ 25-26.

Sligh filed this lawsuit in federal court to assert claims (i) under 42 USC § 1983 against the City of Conroe, Montgomery County, and each officer individually; (ii) under Title II of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act against Montgomery County (and its Sheriff's Department) and the City of Conroe (and its Police Department); (iii) under various state-law tort claims against all Defendants; and (iv) for punitive damages. Dkt 23 at ¶¶ 30-52.

Defendants previously moved to dismiss all claims against them. Dkts 27, 28 & 29. Sligh at hearing abandoned her state-law tort claims (except as against Sutton) and withdrew the municipal-liability claim against Montgomery County, which claims were dismissed with prejudice. Her claims under the ADA for intentional discrimination were also dismissed with prejudice. And her claims for failure to accommodate under the ADA, under Section 1983 against Montes, and for municipal liability against the City of Conroe were dismissed without prejudice. See Dkt 43 (Minute Entry of 05/07/2021).

Sligh filed a third amended complaint asserting claims (i) under Section 1983 for violation of her Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights against the City of Conroe as a municipality and against Sutton and Montes individually; (ii) under Title II of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act against Montgomery County and the City of Conroe; and (iii) for punitive damages as to all reasserted claims. Dkt 54 at ¶¶ 37-63. Montgomery County, Montes, and the City of Conroe moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Dkts 55 & 59. The parties were ordered to mediation at hearing. See Dkt 67 (Minute Entry of 11/10/2021). Upon impasse, Sutton moved for judgment on the pleadings. Dkt 77.

2. Legal standard

Rule 8(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires a plaintiff's complaint to provide “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Rule 12(b)(6) allows the defendant to seek dismissal if the plaintiff fails “to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Read together, the Supreme Court holds that Rule 8 “does not require ‘detailed factual allegations,' but it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Ashcroft v Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009), quoting Bell Atlantic Corp v Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the complaint “must provide the plaintiff's grounds for entitlement to relief- including factual allegations that when assumed to be true ‘raise a right to relief above the speculative level.' Cuvillier v Taylor, 503 F.3d 397, 401 (5th Cir 2007), quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

Review on motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) is constrained. The reviewing court “must accept all well-pleaded facts as true, and . . . view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Walker v Beaumont Independent School District, 938 F.3d 724, 735 (5th Cir 2019). But courts don't accept as true “conclusory allegations, unwarranted factual inferences, or legal conclusions.” Gentiello v Rege, 627 F.3d 540, 544 (5th Cir 2010). And the court generally “must limit itself to the contents of the pleadings, including attachments thereto.” Brand Coupon Network LLC v Catalina Marketing Corp, 748 F.3d 631, 635 (5th Cir 2014), quoting Collins v Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, 224 F.3d 496, 498 (5th Cir 2000).

Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides, “After the pleadings are closed-but early enough not to delay trial-a party may move for judgment on the pleadings.” A motion seeking such relief “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.” Great Plains Trust Co v Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co, 313 F.3d 305, 312 (5th Cir 2002), quoting Hebert Abstract Co Inc v Touchstone Properties Limited, 914 F.2d 74, 76 (5th Cir 1990, per curiam). This means the legal standard for motions under Rule 12(c) is the same as those for motions pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). See Gentilello v Rege, 627 F.3d 540, 543-44 (5th Cir 2010).

Although review is constrained, a notable exception permits consideration of documents or other undisputed materials “if they are referred to in the plaintiff's complaint and are central to her claim.” Collins, 224 F.3d at 498-99 (quotation marks omitted), quoting Venture Associates Corp v Zenith Data Systems Corp, 987 F.2d 429, 431 (7th Cir 1993). The Fifth Circuit has characterized this as a “limited exception.” Scanlan v Texas A&M University, 343 F.3d 533, 536 (5th Cir 2003), citing Collins, 224 F.3d at 498-99. But it has expressly recognized that a district court may consider pertinent video (like that from an officer's body camera) if the requirements stated above are satisfied. For example, see Robles v Ciarletta, 797 F App'x 821, 831-32 (5th Cir 2019, per curiam). This is so because review of such evidence, where appropriate, can assist the court “in making the elementary determination of whether a claim has been stated.” Collins, 224 F.3d at 499. Likewise, a court isn't required to accept as true allegations that are contradicted by the materials attached to the complaint or otherwise appropriate for judicial consideration. For example, see Cicalese v University of Texas Medical Branch, 456 F.Supp.3d 859, 872 (SD Tex 2020), citing R2 Investments LDC v Phillips, 401 F.3d 638, 642 (5th Cir 2005). And so, any allegation contradicted by a video segment will be disregarded.

3. Excessive-force and bystander-liability claims

Sligh brings claims against Sutton and Montes pursuant to Section 1983. These officers assert qualified immunity, which protects government officials “from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable...

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