Stafford v. City of Argo

Citation514 F.Supp.3d 1353
Decision Date21 January 2021
Docket NumberCase No. 4:20-cv-00340-SGC
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Alabama
Parties Pamela STAFFORD, et al., Plaintiffs, v. CITY OF ARGO, et al., Defendants.

Brandon Jack Gilham, Harry Emmanuel Scozzaro, Jr., Scozzaro Law, LLC, Helena, AL, for Plaintiffs.

James W. Porter, II, Richard Warren Kinney, III, Hobart H. Arnold, III, Porter Porter & Hassinger PC, Birmingham, AL, for Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION1

STACI G. CORNELIUS, U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE

This case arises out of the fatal shooting of a dog owned by the plaintiffs, Pamela Stafford and Matthew Shaw. Pending before the undersigned is a renewed motion to dismiss filed by the defendants, the City of Argo and R. Hughes, an officer with the Argo Police Department who the plaintiffs sue in his individual capacity only. (Doc. 26). For the reasons discussed below, the defendants’ motion is due to be granted, and this action is due to be dismissed.

I. Allegations of Amended Complaint

The plaintiffs reside within the city limits of Argo, Alabama. (Doc. 21 at ¶ 5). On September 13, 2019, the plaintiffs’ dog escaped from a harness that tethered her to a tree in the plaintiffs’ front yard. (Id. at ¶ 7). While Stafford was not home and was unaware the dog had escaped, Shaw noticed the dog's absence and left the property to search for her. (Id. at ¶ 8). In the meantime, a neighbor's guest saw the plaintiffs’ dog roaming free and contacted the Argo Police Department to report the observation. (Id. at ¶¶ 7, 9). Officer Hughes responded to the location from which the neighbor's guest made the report and then proceeded to the plaintiffs’ residence. (Id. at ¶¶ 10, 11). According to the plaintiffs, Officer Hughes had no plan or equipment to capture or restrain their dog with less-than-lethal force. (Id. at ¶ 11).

Officer Hughes walked up the steps to the plaintiffs’ front porch and knocked on their unlocked screen door. (Id. at ¶ 12). At this time, the plaintiffs’ dog came around the side of the house, walked to the bottom of the steps leading up to the front porch, and began barking at Officer Hughes. (Id. at ¶ 13). Officer Hughes then shot the plaintiffs’ dog three times – once between the eyes, once on the left side of the neck, and once on the right side of the thorax – resulting in the dog's death. (Id. at ¶ 14). Officer Hughes designated the plaintiffs’ property a crime scene, prohibited anyone (including the plaintiffs) from entering, and completed an investigation. (Id. at ¶ 15). At Officer Hughes’ request, Shaw brought the plaintiffs’ dog to a veterinarian to be decapitated and inspected for rabies. (Id. at ¶ 16). The plaintiffs allege that as the result of this incident they have suffered and continue to suffer emotional distress and have lost the enjoyment of their pet and, due to the location of their pet's death, their real property. (Id. at ¶ 17).

The plaintiffs further allege the City of Argo was aware of the large dog population within the city limits and the likelihood police officers frequently would encounter dogs and that is was highly predictable an officer who did not know how to handle dog encounters would violate citizens’ constitutional rights. (Id. at ¶¶ 23-24). According to the plaintiffs, the City of Argo nonetheless adopted a policy of inadequate training and failed to adopt necessary policies. (Id. at ¶¶ 24-25).

Based on the foregoing allegations, the plaintiffs claim (1) Officer Hughes unconstitutionally seized their dog without due process in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution; (2) the City of Argo is responsible for these constitutional violations because it failed to train its police officers adequately regarding the appropriate way to respond to a dog encounter; (3) Officer Hughes intentionally and unlawfully interfered with the plaintiffs’ personal property (i.e., their dog), in violation of Ala. Code. § 6-5-262 ; (4) Officer Hughes committed negligence per se , for which the City of Argo also is liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior ; (5) Officer Hughes committed simple negligence, for which the City of Argo also is liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior; and (6) Officer Hughes committed the tort of outrage, for which the City of Argo also is liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior.2

The defendants argue Officer Hughes is entitled to qualified immunity with respect to the federal constitutional claims asserted against him and that the plaintiffs have failed to state a plausible failure-to-train claim against the City of Argo. (Doc. 27).3 Accordingly, they seek dismissal of the amended complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure .

II. Standard of Review

Rule 12(b)(6) must be considered against the backdrop of Rule 8(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure . Rule 8(a)(2) "requires only ‘a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,’ in order to ‘give the defendant fair notice of what the ... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.’ " Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson , 355 U.S. 41, 47, 78 S.Ct. 99, 2 L.Ed.2d 80 (1957) ). 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, 677, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) (quoting Twombly , 550 U.S. at 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955 ). "[L]abels and conclusions," "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action," and "naked assertion[s] devoid of further factual enhancement" are insufficient. Id. at 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (quoting Twombly , 550 U.S. at 555, 557, 127 S.Ct. 1955 ) (internal quotation marks omitted).

To survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim on which relief may be granted brought pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), "a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’ " Id. (quoting Twombly , 550 U.S. at 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955 ). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. (citing Twombly , 550 U.S. at 556, 127 S.Ct. 1955 ). "The plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement,’ but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id. (citing Twombly , 550 U.S. at 556, 127 S.Ct. 1955 ).

III. Discussion
A. Section 1983 Claims Against Officer Hughes

Section 1983 provides a cause of action for the deprivation of a federal statutory or constitutional right by a person acting under color of state law. See 42 U.S.C. § 1983. However, "[q]ualified immunity protects government officials performing discretionary functions from suits in their individual capacities unless their conduct violates clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Andujar v. Rodriguez , 486 F.3d 1199, 1202 (11th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks omitted).

"The qualified immunity standard gives ample room for mistaken judgments by protecting all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law." Coffin v. Brandau , 642 F.3d 999, 1017 (11th Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks omitted). "This accommodation for reasonable error exists because officials should not err always on the side of caution because they fear being sued." Id. at 1018 (internal quotation marks omitted).

"An official asserting the affirmative defense of qualified immunity must initially establish that he was acting within his discretionary authority." Skop v. City of Atlanta, Georgia , 485 F.3d 1130, 1136 (11th Cir. 2007). "If the official was acting within the scope of his discretionary authority ... the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show that the official is not entitled to qualified immunity." Id. at 1136-37. "To overcome qualified immunity, the plaintiff must satisfy a two prong test; he must show that: (1) the defendant violated a constitutional right, and (2) this right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation." Holloman ex rel. Holloman v. Harland , 370 F.3d 1252, 1264 (11th Cir. 2004).

"Because qualified immunity is a defense not only from liability, but also from suit, it is important for a court to ascertain the validity of a qualified immunity defense as early in the lawsuit as possible." Lee v. Ferraro , 284 F.3d 1188, 1194 (11th Cir. 2002) (internal quotation marks omitted). "It is therefore appropriate for a district court to grant the defense of qualified immunity at the motion to dismiss stage if the complaint fails to allege the violation of a clearly established constitutional right [against an official who was acting within his discretionary authority]." Gonzalez v. Reno , 325 F.3d 1228, 1233 (11th Cir. 2003) (internal quotation marks omitted).

1. Officer Hughes Was Acting Within His Discretionary Authority

In determining whether a government official was acting within his discretionary authority, a court considers whether the official "was (a) performing a legitimate job-related function (that is, pursuing a job-related goal), (b) through means that were within his power to utilize." Holloman ex rel. Holloman , 370 F.3d at 1265. "In applying each prong of this test, [a court] look[s] to the general nature of the defendant's action, temporarily putting aside the fact that it may have been committed for an unconstitutional purpose, in an unconstitutional manner, to an unconstitutional extent, or under constitutionally inappropriate circumstances." Id. at 1266 ; see also Harbert Int'l, Inc. v. James , 157 F.3d 1271, 1282 (11th Cir. 1998) ("The inquiry is not whether it was within the defendant's authority to commit the allegedly illegal act. Framed that way,...

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