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Neal v. City of Hempstead

United States District Court, Fifth Circuit

December 5, 2013

DARRELLE NEAL, as Representative of the Estate of TERRELLE HOUSTON Plaintiff,
CITY OF HEMPSTEAD, TEXAS, et al., Defendants.


KEITH P. ELLISON, District Judge.

Pending before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim ("Motion to Dismiss"; Doc. No. 40). After considering the Motion, the response thereto, and the applicable law, the Court concludes that Defendants' motion should be GRANTED.


This lawsuit arises from the death of Terrelle Houston ("Houston"). Houston was raised by Plaintiff Darrelle Neal, who is his maternal aunt. FAC ¶ 2. After Houston's death in 2010, Neal brought this suit individually and as representative of the Estate of Terrelle Houston ("the Estate").

On the night of June 8, 2010, Defendant Sgt. Byron Fausset, an employee of the Hempstead Police Department ("HPD"), was responding to a 911 hang-up call that had come in from a phone line at or near the Willowchase Apartments in Hempstead, Texas. Id. ¶ 15. Shortly after arriving at the Willowchase Apartments, Fausset encountered Houston, a twenty-two-yearold male. Id. ¶¶ 15-16. Houston attempted to run away from Fausset, but tripped and fell to the ground. Id. ¶ 16. Fausset then drew his Taser weapon and shocked Houston. Id. Both before and after gaining control of Houston and restraining him, Fausset repeatedly shocked Houston with the Taser weapon until he became unresponsive. Id. Throughout this incident, Houston was lying face down, restrained, in a pool of water; he was also unarmed. Id. Houston remained alive for an uncertain period of time, estimated to be one or two hours. Id. ¶ 26. Despite being aware that Houston was struggling to breathe, Fausset delayed calling 911 and did not offer Houston any emergency assistance. Id. ¶¶ 26-27.

Neal brought this suit against Fausset, Police Chief David Hartley ("Hartley"), and the City of Hempstead ("City") on June 8, 2012. Neal's complaint contains several claims against Hartley in his official capacity, the City, and Fausset in both his individual and official capacities under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1988 for violations of the Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Id. ¶¶ 30-42. Neal also alleges state common law torts arising out of the above facts. Id. ¶¶ 43-44. Neal seeks to hold the City liable for these torts under the Texas Tort Claims Act, Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §§ 101.001-101.109. The First Amended Original Complaint also includes claims under the Texas Survival Statute, Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §§ 71.021-71.022, which Neal brings as representative of the Estate. FAC ¶ 46. Neal seeks actual and punitive damages, as well as attorneys' fees and costs.

Neal originally brought this suit claiming to be Houston's mother. However, she is not his biological mother, but, rather, his maternal aunt. Defendants initially moved to dismiss the case on a number of grounds, including for lack of jurisdiction, alleging defects in Neal's capacity to bring suit. Doc. Nos. 9, 24. Neal subsequently sought dismissal of her individual claims and a stay of the case pending her appointment as administrator of the Estate. Doc. Nos. 19, 21. The Court granted Neal time to cure any defects in capacity and denied the Defendants' motions. Doc. No. 27. The Court also granted Neal's motion and stayed the case pending her appointment as administrator of the Estate. On June 11, 2013, Neal advised the Court that she had been named administrator of the Estate. The Court then lifted the stay. Neal filed an amended complaint, Doc. No. 36, and shortly after that, Defendants filed the pending motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6).


A court may dismiss a complaint for a "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). "To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, a complaint does not need detailed factual allegations, ' but 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) (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007)). That is, a complaint must "contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d. 868 (2009) (quoting 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." Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). The plausibility standard "is not akin to a probability requirement, '" though it does require more than simply a "sheer possibility" that a defendant has acted unlawfully. Id. Thus, a pleading need not contain detailed factual allegations, but must set forth 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 (citation omitted).

Ultimately, the question for the court to decide is whether the complaint states a valid claim when viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. The court must accept wellpleaded facts as true, but legal conclusions are not entitled to the same assumption of truth. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678-79 (citation omitted). The court should not "strain to find inferences favorable to the plaintiffs'" or "accept conclusory allegations, unwarranted deductions, or legal conclusions.'" R2 Invs. LDC v. Phillips, 401 F.3d 638, 642 (5th Cir. 2005) (quoting Southland Sec. Corp. v. Inspire Ins. Solutions, Inc., 365 F.3d 353, 361 (5th Cir. 2004)). A court may consider the contents of the pleadings, including attachments thereto, as well as documents attached to the motion, if they are referenced in the plaintiff's complaint and are central to the claims. Collins v. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, 224 F.3d 496, 498-99 (5th Cir. 2000). Importantly, the court should not evaluate the merits of the allegation, but must satisfy itself only that the plaintiff has adequately pled a legally cognizable claim. United States ex rel. Riley v. St. Luke's Episcopal Hosp., 355 F.3d 370, 376 (5th Cir. 2004).

Nevertheless, a court may not assume that a plaintiff can prove facts that were not alleged. Campbell v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 781 F.2d 440, 443 (5th Cir. 1986). Indeed, dismissal is appropriate where the complaint "lacks an allegation regarding a required element necessary to obtain relief." Blackburn v. City of Marshall, 42 F.3d 925, 931 (5th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted). Even so, "[m]otions to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) are viewed with disfavor and are rarely granted.'" Lormand v. U.S. Unwired, Inc., 565 F.3d 228, 232 (5th Cir. 2009) (quoting Test Masters Educ. Servs., Inc. v. Singh, 428 F.3d 559, 570 (5th Cir. 2005)).

Finally, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provide that a court "should freely give leave [to amend the complaint] when justice so requires." Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(2). "[G]ranting leave to amend is especially appropriate... when the trial court has dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim." Great Plains Trust Co. v. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co., 313 F.3d 305, 329 (5th Cir. 2002) (citation omitted). A court should generally "afford plaintiffs at least one opportunity to cure pleading deficiencies before dismissing a case, unless it is clear that the defects are incurable or the plaintiffs advise the court that they are unwilling or unable to amend in a manner that will avoid dismissal." Id. Courts must have a "substantial reason" to deny leave to amend, but leave to amend is not automatic. Jones v. Robinson Prop. Grp., L.P., 427 F.3d 987, 994 (5th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted). In deciding whether to grant leave to amend, courts may consider many factors, "including undue delay, bad faith or dilatory motive on the part of the movant, repeated failures to cure deficiencies by amendments previously allowed, undue prejudice to the opposing party by virtue of allowance of the amendment, and futility of the amendment." Id. (citing Dussouy v. Gulf Coast Inv. Corp., 660 F.2d 594, 598 (5th Cir. 1981)).


By this motion, Defendants seek to dismiss the claims against Hartley and Fausset in their official capacities, as well as all Eighth Amendment claims, and the Texas state law claims against the City. Defendants argue that the claims against Hartley and Fausset in their official capacities amount, legally speaking, to nothing more than claims against the City. Therefore, Defendants contend, those official-capacity claims are duplicative of the claims brought against the City and should be dismissed. Defendants argue further that under prevailing precedent, an individual's Eighth Amendment rights are implicated only after a conviction. Here, they reason, Plaintiff has not pleaded a conviction, so there can be no rights protected by the Eighth Amendment, and no Eighth Amendment violations. Thus, they assert, all Eighth Amendment claims should be dismissed as well. Finally, Defendants also read the allegations against Fausset to constitute intentional torts, and argue ...

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