Tews v. Terrell

Decision Date19 February 2021
Docket NumberCase No. 3:20-cv-810-MMH-JBT
PartiesCAROLYN LUKE TEWS, Plaintiff, v. OFFICER T.L. TERRELL, Defendant.
CourtUnited States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Florida

THIS CAUSE is before the Court on Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint (Doc. 3; Motion), filed July 22, 2020, and Defendant's Memorandum of Law in Support of his Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint With Prejudice (Doc. 6; Memo of Law), filed August 06, 2020 (collectively "Motion to Dismiss"). In the Motion to Dismiss, Defendant Officer T.L. Terrell, seeks dismissal of the claims in Plaintiff Carolyn Luke Tews' Complaint (Doc. 2; Complaint). Tews filed her Response to Motion to Dismiss on September 10, 2020 (Doc. 11; Response). Accordingly, this matter is ripe for the Court's consideration.

I. Motion to Dismiss Standard

In ruling on a motion to dismiss, the Court must accept the factual allegations set forth in the complaint as true. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 508, n.1 (2002); see also Lotierzo v. Woman's World Med. Ctr., Inc., 278 F.3d 1180, 1182 (11th Cir. 2002). In addition, all reasonable inferences should be drawn in favor of the plaintiff. See Omar ex rel. Cannon v. Lindsey, 334 F.3d 1246, 1247 (11th Cir. 2003) (per curiam). Nonetheless, the plaintiff must still meet some minimal pleading requirements. Jackson v. BellSouth Telecomm., 372 F.3d 1250, 1262-63 (11th Cir. 2004) (citations omitted). Indeed, while "[s]pecific facts are not necessary," the complaint should "'give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'" Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007) (per curiam) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). Further, the plaintiff must allege "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. "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." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). The "plaintiff's obligation to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citations omitted); see also BellSouth Telecomm., 372 F.3d at 1262 (explaining that "conclusory allegations, unwarranted deductions of facts or legal conclusions masquerading as facts will not prevent dismissal")(citations and quotations omitted). Indeed, "the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions," which simply "are not entitled to [an] assumption of truth." See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. Thus, in ruling on a motion to dismiss, the Court must determine whether the complaint contains "sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Id. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570).

II. Background

In her Complaint, Tews alleges that Officer Terrell violated her constitutional right to be free from unreasonable seizure under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment when he executed his arrest with excessive force. Complaint at 4. Additionally, she alleges that Officer Terrell is liable under Florida state law for the tort of battery. Id. at 5. As the underlying facts of her claims, Tews asserts that Officer Terrell pulled her over while she was driving her car on February 9, 2016, because he suspected her of driving while intoxicated. Id. at 2, ¶ 6. Officer Terrell drove Tews a mile from where he pulled her over to conduct a field sobriety test. Id. at 2, ¶ 8. After conducting the test, Officer Terrell arrested Tews for driving under the influence. See id. at 2, ¶ 9. In doing so, Officer Terrell handcuffed Tews and placed her in the back of the patrol car. However, Tews, who at 60 years of age was five feet one inch tall, and weighed 100 pounds, was able to slip the handcuffs off her wrist.Id. at 2, ¶ 10, 12. According to Tews, Officer Terrell was approximately a foot taller than she and double her weight. Id. at 3, ¶ 12-13.

Tews asserts that upon realizing that Tews had freed her hands from the handcuffs in the back of the car

Officer Terrell became enraged . . . and he pulled her out of his car and slammed her to the ground causing Ms. Tews serious physical injuries including but not limited to a concussion and damage to her jaw and teeth including a tooth having been dislodged and aggravation of a prior shoulder injury.

Id. at 3, ¶ 14. Tews also lost consciousness, suffered ongoing mental disorientation, and continues to suffer from nerve damage and numbness in her face and lips. Id. at 3, ¶ 17-18. Tews maintains that immediately leading up to the incident she was in "obvious mental distress" and ". . . expressed suicidal thoughts even imploring Officer Terrell to kill her." Id. at 3, ¶ 15-16. Tews alleges that in using his full strength to slam Tews to the ground, Officer Terrell used excessive and unnecessary force and ". . . knowingly and intentionally or wantonly [struck] her head upon the paved surface." Id. at 3, ¶ 16.

III. Summary of the Arguments

In Count I, Tews asserts a federal excessive force claim based on the force Officer Terrell used to effectuate her arrest. Officer Terrell seeks to dismiss this claim, asserting that he is entitled to qualified immunity. Motion at 1;Memo of Law at 7-11. In Count II, Tews brings a state law tort claim for battery against Officer Terrell. Complaint at 5. In his Motion to Dismiss, Officer Terrell asserts that Tews has failed to assert sufficient facts to establish that Officer Terrell is not entitled to sovereign immunity under Florida Statutes section 768.28(9)(a). Memo of Law at 1-2. In response to the Motion to Dismiss, Tews maintains that she has sufficiently pleaded facts to show that Officer Terrell is not entitled to qualified immunity or sovereign immunity in regard to either claim. See generally Response. The Court will first address the excessive force claim and then turn to the state law tort claim for battery.

IV. Discussion
a. Count I: Excessive Force Claim

The doctrine of "[q]ualified immunity protects from civil liability government officials who perform discretionary functions if the conduct of the officials does not violate 'clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'" Nolin v. Isbell, 207 F.3d 1253, 1255 (11th Cir. 2000) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). As a result, this defense protects from suit "'all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.'" Carr v. Tatangelo, 338 F.3d 1259, 1266 (11th Cir. 2003) (quoting Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341 (1986)). Indeed, as "'government officials are not required to err on the side of caution,' qualified immunity is appropriate in close cases where a reasonable officer could havebelieved that his actions were lawful." Lee v. Ferraro, 284 F.3d 1188, 1200 (11th Cir. 2002) (quoting Marsh v. Butler Cnty., 268 F.3d 1014, 1031 n.8 (11th Cir. 2001)).

In order to be entitled to qualified immunity, the defendant must first establish that his conduct was within the scope of his discretionary authority. See Webster v. Beary, 228 F. App'x 844, 848 (11th Cir. 2007) (per curiam); Lee, 284 F.3d at 1194. Here, neither party contends that Officer Terrell was acting outside the scope of his discretionary authority when he arrested Tews.1 Lee, 284 F.3d at 1194 (finding that "there can be no doubt that the [officer] was acting in his discretionary capacity when he arrested [the plaintiff]" even though the plaintiff asserted that the officer used excessive force in effectuating the arrest). Therefore, the burden shifts to Tews "to show that qualified immunity is not appropriate." Lee, 284 F.3d at 1194. To do so, Tews must establish two elements: (a) that the defendant violated a constitutional right, and (b) the right violated was clearly established. Kingsland v. City of Miami, 382 F.3d 1220, 1232 (11th Cir. 2004) (citing Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001)). In his Motion to Dismiss, Officer Terrell argues that Tews has failed to sufficientlystate a claim that Officer Terrell violated Tews' constitutional rights. See Memo of Law at 9. Tews asserts that Officer Terrell violated her Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure when he employed excessive force to effectuate her arrest. See Complaint at 4.

As a preliminary matter, the Court finds that Tews' claim must be analyzed under the Fourth Amendment rather than the Fourteenth Amendment. According to the Supreme Court:

all claims that law enforcement officers have used excessive force - deadly or not - in the course of arrest, investigatory stop, or other "seizure" of a free citizen should be analyzed under the Fourth Amendment and its "reasonableness" standard, rather than under a "substantive due process" approach. Because the Fourth Amendment provides an explicit textual source of constitutional protection against this sort of physically intrusive governmental conduct, that Amendment, not the more generalized notion of "substantive due process," must be the guide for analyzing these claims.

Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 395 109 S. Ct. 1865, 1871, 104 L. Ed.2d 443 (1989).

"The Fourth Amendment's freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures encompasses the plain right to be free from the use of excessive force during the course of a criminal apprehension." Oliver v. Fiorino, 586 F.3d 898, 905 (11th Cir. 2009). However, "'Fourth Amendment jurisprudence has long recognized that the right to make an arrest or investigatory stop necessarily carries with it the right to use some degree of physical coercion or threat thereofto effect...

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