Wooten v. City of Chattanooga

Decision Date25 March 2020
Docket NumberNo. 1:18-cv-00206-JDB-CHS,1:18-cv-00206-JDB-CHS
PartiesDAVID A. WOOTEN, Plaintiff, v. CITY OF CHATTANOOGA, TENNESSEE, and MICHAEL EARLY, in his official and individual capacities, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Tennessee
ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS' MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
INTRODUCTION

This action was initially brought in the Circuit Court of Hamilton County, Tennessee, on August 7, 2018, by the Plaintiff, David A. Wooten, against the Defendants, the City of Chattanooga, Tennessee (the "City") and Michael Early, individually and in his official capacity as a police officer employed by the City, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Early used excessive force against him in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. (Docket Entry ("D.E.") 1-1.) The complaint also asserted various state law claims. The matter was removed to this Court on September 5, 2018, in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 1441. (D.E. 1.) Before the Court are the Defendants' motions for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.1 (D.E. 19, 23.)

UNDISPUTED FACTS

The following facts are undisputed unless otherwise noted. On August 14, 2017, at approximately 5:00 p.m., Early was on duty as a property crimes detective for the City2 in the 5000 block of Rossville Boulevard in Chattanooga, where he was searching for a burglary suspect. He was familiar with a business located at 5017 Rossville Boulevard called Brew & Cue and knew the owner, Darrin Webb. He was also aware that Webb was a convicted felon who had served time in federal prison.

As he travelled down State Street, which ran behind the club, he observed Wooten standing next to his truck, which was loaded down with construction tools and equipment, and engaged in conversation with Webb. Early was dressed in his "soft uniform," consisting of khaki pants and a dark polo shirt with a badge logo on the left front chest. The officer recognized Wooten, who according to a state court indictment went by the aliases "Baby D," "Bald Head," and "Ball Head" (D.E. 20-1 at PageID 107), as he had known him for several years. Early was also generally familiar with Plaintiff's criminal history. In fact, he had attempted to elicit Wooten's assistance as an informant about a year earlier. At the time he spotted Plaintiff, Early was aware of the existence of an outstanding warrant for Wooten's arrest. The officer called for backup and was soon joined by Officer Chad Yates. Early also contacted the Rossville, Georgia, Police Department, as the establishment was near the Tennessee-Georgia state line.

When Yates arrived, Early proceeded into the Brew & Cue's parking lot to effect the arrest. Wooten got into his truck. Early pulled his unmarked vehicle, a black Ford Fusion, in front of Plaintiff's vehicle. Rossville Officer Robert Llewellyn parked across a nearby railroad track,exited his cruiser, and approached the parking lot on foot. Early got out of his car and walked toward the front of Wooten's truck. Plaintiff put the truck in reverse, causing the taillights to engage. Early drew his weapon, began giving Wooten commands, and approached the truck directly in front of Plaintiff. At that point, Wooten was unable to back up any further because the building behind him blocked his escape to the rear.

Early several times commanded Wooten to get out of the truck and show his hands. Yates, who was in full police uniform, moved to the driver's side of the truck with his hand on his weapon and also began giving verbal commands. As Yates approached the truck, Llewellyn pulled his firearm and pointed it at Wooten. According to the Defendants, the Plaintiff again moved the truck back several feet, stopped, and shifted into drive, heading directly toward Early. At that time, Early was still shouting at Wooten to get out of the truck and show his hands. Early submits that, because he feared imminent bodily injury or death, he fired at Wooten, striking him in the chest. Llewellyn also discharged his weapon.

Plaintiff denies that he failed to follow Early's commands because he could not hear them. He points to his deposition testimony, in which he recalled that he was approached by an individual, whom he did not know to be a police officer, who yelled, "Don't make me kill you MF'er," and then shot him. (D.E. 20-5 at PageID 155.) He further claims that he drove forward and to the right, and not directly toward the officer. The nonmovant also takes exception to Early's claimed fear of imminent bodily injury or death, arguing that "[i]t was his [(Early's)] choice to step in front of Plaintiff's truck while pointing a gun at Mr. Wooten in an effort to block Plaintiff from leaving." (D.E. 26 at PageID 324.)

Wooten left the scene and drove to the home of a friend, who called for an ambulance. Plaintiff was hospitalized until September 1, 2017, when he was released and placed under arrest.On September 13, 2017, a grand jury indicted him for aggravated assault3 on Early and Llewellyn, reckless endangerment, and evading arrest, all felonies, in connection with the August 14, 2017, incident at the Brew & Cue. He entered into a plea and was sentenced to a period of incarceration.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Rule 56 provides that the "court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). "Because a motion for summary judgment necessarily implicates the substantive evidentiary standard of proof that would apply at the trial, [courts] must determine whether reasonable jurors could find by a preponderance of the evidence that the non-moving party is entitled to a verdict." Baker v. City of Trenton, 936 F.3d 523, 529 (6th Cir. 2019) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986)) (brackets and internal quotation marks omitted). "Once the moving party has met the initial burden of showing the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact, the non[]moving party must then come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. (quoting Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986)) (internal quotation marks omitted). "In deciding whether summary judgment [is] appropriate, the court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Morehouse v. Steak N Shake, 938 F.3d 814, 818 (6th Cir. 2019) (quoting Fed. Trade Comm'n v. E.M.A. Nationwide, Inc., 767 F.3d 611, 629 (6th Cir. 2014)). "Summary judgment is an integral part of the Federal Rules as a whole, which are designed to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action rather than a disfavored procedural shortcut." Fed. Deposit Ins. Corp. v. Jeff Miller Stables, 573 F.3d 289, 294 (6th Cir.2009) (quoting Celotex Corp. v Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 327 (1986)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

ARGUMENTS OF THE PARTIES AND ANALYSIS
Section 1983 Claims Generally

Section 1983 provides in pertinent part as follows:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress[.]

To state a claim under the statute, "a plaintiff must set forth facts that, when construed favorably, establish (1) the deprivation of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States (2) caused by a person acting under the color of state law." Doe v. Miami Univ., 882 F.3d 579, 595 (6th Cir. 2018). "Section 1983 creates no substantive rights, but merely provides remedies for deprivations of rights established elsewhere." Flagg v. City of Detroit, 715 F.3d 165, 173 (6th Cir. 2013) (quoting Gardenhire v. Schubert, 205 F.3d 303, 310 (6th Cir. 2000)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Claims Against the City and Early in his Official Capacity

Official capacity suits "generally represent only another way of pleading an action against an entity of which an officer is an agent." Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 165-66 (1985) (quoting Monell v. New York City Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 690 n.55 (1978)). "As long as the government entity receives notice and an opportunity to respond, an official-capacity suit is, in all respects other than name, to be treated as a suit against the entity." Id. at 166. Thus, "where a complaint names an official-capacity defendant and the entity of which the officer is an agent," courts in this circuit have dismissed the officialcapacity defendant as redundant. See Adam Comm'y Ctr. v. City of Troy, 381 F. Supp. 3d 887, 899-900 (E.D. Mich. 2019) (collecting cases). Accordingly, Plaintiff's official capacity claims against Early are DISMISSED. The Court now turns to Wooten's claims against the City.4

A municipality is a "person" for purposes of § 1983 and therefore may be held liable for injuries for which it bears responsibility. Morgan v. Fairfield Cty., Ohio, 903 F.3d 553, 565 (6th Cir. 2018), cert. denied, 139 S. Ct. 1377 (2019). However, municipalities cannot be held liable on a respondeat superior theory. Monell, 436 U.S. at 691. To prevail, "a plaintiff must show that the alleged violation occurred because of a municipal policy, practice, or custom[.]" Brown v. Chapman, 814 F.3d 447, 462 (6th Cir. 2016). "Along with identifying the conduct properly attributable to the municipality, a plaintiff must also demonstrate that, through its deliberate conduct, the municipality was the moving force behind the injury alleged." Rayfield v. City of Grand Rapids, Mich., 768 F. App'x 495, 510 (6th Cir. 2019) (citing Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs v. Brown, 520...

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