Sweetin v. City of Texas City, Texas, 21-40784

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
PartiesZane Sweetin; Rebecca Foster, as personal representative and next friend of A.S., a minor, in place and stead of Michael Stefek, deceased, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. City of Texas City, Texas; Wendell Wylie, Defendants-Appellees.
Docket Number21-40784
Decision Date02 September 2022

Zane Sweetin; Rebecca Foster, as personal representative and next friend of A.S., a minor, in place and stead of Michael Stefek, deceased, Plaintiffs-Appellants,

City of Texas City, Texas; Wendell Wylie, Defendants-Appellees.

No. 21-40784

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

September 2, 2022

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas USDC No. 3:19-CV-233

Before STEWART, ELROD, and GRAVES, Circuit Judges.


Texas City's "permit officer" handles applications for ambulance permits for the City. One day, he spotted an ambulance without a permit. He knew he was powerless to issue citations to the drivers himself, so he summoned someone who could (the Fire Marshal). While waiting for the Fire Marshal to show up, the officer repeatedly told the ambulance drivers that they were detained, that they could not leave, and that they must stay. He did not have that power, but he did it anyway. The Fire Marshal showed up about thirty minutes later and issued them citations. The ambulance


drivers sued, claiming this violated their Fourth Amendment rights. We agree. And because the officer acted beyond the scope of his discretionary duties as "permit officer," he is not entitled to qualified immunity. But the claim against the City fails because the officer did not have final policymaking authority. Thus, we AFFIRM in part, REVERSE in part, and REMAND for proceedings consistent with this opinion.


Wendell Wylie is a captain in the Texas City Fire Department. The Fire Marshal authorized him to serve as the City's "EMS Administrator," to handle the permitting of private-sector, non-emergency ambulances. Wearing this hat, he can investigate whether permit-applicants meet state and local ambulance requirements. He is also given the authority to "[d]evelop such reasonable regulations subject to the approval of the City Commission as may be necessary for the proper enforcement and implementation" of the City's rules about ambulance services.

Zane Sweetin and Michael Stefek worked for Windsor as emergency medical technicians. They drove their ambulance to Texas City for a routine pick-up at a nursing home. Unbeknownst to them, Windsor no longer had a permit, so driving into the City for this routine pick-up would violate a Texas City ordinance. Sweetin and Stefek parked the ambulance outside the nursing home and went inside to get the patient. Wylie was driving by in his Fire Department vehicle when he spotted the Windsor ambulance parked outside. He knew Windsor was permitless, so he pulled in to "investigate," which just meant snapping a few pictures of the ambulance.

Around this time, Sweetin and Stefek came out with their patient. Once the patient was in the ambulance, Wylie pulled up and asked Sweetin and Stefek some questions about why they were there and where they were headed. They declined to answer, citing the patient's confidentiality. Then


Wylie said he would let them complete their trip before talking with them. Off they went to drop the patient off at a dialysis clinic in La Marque. During the drive, Wylie called the Fire Marshal and asked him to come issue citations to Sweetin and Stefek. Sweetin and Stefek parked under the awning outside the entrance of the clinic; Wylie backed into a spot near the front of the ambulance.

The Fire Marshal had not yet arrived when Sweetin and Stefek finished their drop-off. As they loaded the stretcher back into the ambulance, Wylie approached them and said: "You are detained. You are not allowed to leave. You must wait right here." This struck Sweetin and Stefek as bizarre-a man in a paramedic's uniform, driving a Texas City Fire Department vehicle, detaining them in a city other than Texas City. They sat in their ambulance and discussed whether they should just drive off. On the one hand, they knew Wylie was not a police officer. On the other, they did not know whether he nevertheless had the authority to detain them.

They ended up waiting around and submitting to Wylie's apparent show of authority. Sweetin finished some of the paperwork for the transfer they had just completed. Stefek called their supervisor at Windsor to try and talk with Wylie, but Wylie told them to stay in the ambulance and wait for the Fire Marshal. Sweetin recalls that Wylie was "rude" and told them to "get the F back into the vehicle." They waited there until the Fire Marshal showed up. He asked them a few questions, gave them their citations, and they went on with their work day.

Wylie knew he did not have the authority to detain Sweetin and Stefek. He called the Fire Marshal because he did not even have the power to issue them a citation. But he maintains that they were free to leave whenever they wanted. By his telling, he identified himself as the EMS


supervisor, sat in his vehicle while they waited, and never displayed a weapon or used any physical force.

Subsequently, Sweetin and Stefek sued Wylie (in his individual capacity) and the City under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that they were unreasonably seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment. After discovery, Wylie and the City moved for summary judgment, which the district court granted.

The court held that even if there was a genuine dispute of material fact about whether Wylie unconstitutionally seized Sweetin and Stefek, the law was not clearly established enough to survive qualified immunity. And as for the City, the court held that under Texas law, Wylie did not have "final policymaking authority," so the City could not be held liable for his actions. Sweetin and Stefek appealed.


We review the grant of summary judgment de novo. Lewis v. Sec'y of Pub. Safety &Corr., 870 F.3d 365, 368 (5th Cir. 2017). Summary judgment is proper if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute of material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Sanders v. Christwood, 970 F.3d 558, 561 (5th Cir. 2020) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a)). A fact is "material" if resolving it...

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