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Jones v. Dallas County

United States District Court, Fifth Circuit

December 6, 2013

DENNIS JONES, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DALLAS COUNTY, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

SIDNEY A. FITZWATER, Chief District Judge.

In this action alleging claims for race discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1983, and the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act ("TCHRA"), Tex. Lab. Code Ann. §§ 21.001-21.556 (West 2006), and for intentional infliction of emotional distress under Texas law, the seven remaining defendants who were sued in their individual capacities move pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c) for judgment on the pleadings.[1] For the reasons that follow, the court denies without prejudice the motion filed collectively by six of the individual defendants and instead orders plaintiffs to file a Rule 7(a) reply. The court grants the other individual defendant's motion, but also grants plaintiffs leave to replead.

I

As this lawsuit now stands, three plaintiffs-Dennis Jones ("Dennis"), R.L. Lawson ("Lawson"), and Clarence Jones ("Clarence")-are suing Dallas County, the Dallas County Commissioners Court ("Commissioners Court"), [2] and seven individual defendants: Mattye Mauldin-Taylor ("Mauldin-Taylor"), Shannon Brown ("Brown"), Dale Lilley ("Lilley"), Darrell Howerton ("Howerton"), Terry Glynn Jones ("Terry"), and Paul Wright ("Wright") (collectively, the Individual Defendants"), and David Womble ("Womble").[3] Dallas County Facilities Management ("Facilities Management"), which is administered by the Commissioners Court, is the institution charged with managing a complex of four Dallas County jail properties. At all relevant times, Dennis was employed as a maintenance technician for Facilities Management, and Lawson and Clarence were employed as building mechanics.

Plaintiffs allege that, during their employment, they were subjected to discrimination and harassment based on race, a hostile work environment, disparate terms and conditions of employment, retaliation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.[4] The Individual Defendants move for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c), contending they are entitled to dismissal of all of plaintiffs' claims against them based on qualified immunity. Womble also moves for a dismissal under Rule 12(c), asserting that he cannot be held liable under Title VII or the TCHRA, that plaintiffs have failed to state either a retaliation or discrimination claim against him under § 1981 or § 1983, and that plaintiffs' intentional infliction of emotional distress claim is preempted by the TCHRA. Plaintiffs oppose the motions.

II

The court turns first to the Individual Defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings based on the defense of qualified immunity.

A

"[G]overnment officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). Qualified immunity likewise applies to state officials sued for constitutional violations under § 1983. See id. at 818 n.30 (citing Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478, 504 (1978)); Palmer v. Johnson, 193 F.3d 346, 351 (5th Cir. 1999). "The Supreme Court has characterized the doctrine as protecting all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.'" Cozzo v. Tangipahoa Parish Council-President Gov't, 279 F.3d 273, 284 (5th Cir. 2002) (quoting Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341(1986)).

"To decide whether defendants are entitled to qualified immunity, the court must first answer the threshold question whether, taken in the light most favorable to plaintiffs as the parties asserting the injuries, the facts they have alleged show that defendants' conduct violated a constitutional right." Ellis v. Crawford, 2005 WL 525406, at *3 (N.D. Tex. Mar. 3, 2005) (Fitzwater, J.) (citing Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001) ("A court required to rule upon the qualified immunity issue must consider, then, this threshold question: Taken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury, do the facts alleged show the officer's conduct violated a constitutional right? This must be the initial inquiry.")).[5] "If no constitutional right would have been violated were the allegations established, there is no necessity for further inquiries concerning qualified immunity." Saucier, 533 U.S. at 201. "[I]f a violation could be made out on a favorable view of the parties' submissions, the next, sequential step is to ask whether the right was clearly established." Id. "Even if the government official's conduct violates a clearly established right, the official is nonetheless entitled to qualified immunity if his conduct was objectively reasonable." Wallace v. County of Comal, 400 F.3d 284, 289 (5th Cir. 2005). "The objective reasonableness of allegedly illegal conduct is assessed in light of the legal rules clearly established at the time it was taken." Salas v. Carpenter, 980 F.2d 299, 310 (5th Cir. 1992) (citing Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 639 (1987)). "The defendant's acts are held to be objectively reasonable unless all reasonable officials in the defendant's circumstances would have then known that the defendant's conduct violated the' plaintiff's asserted constitutional or federal statutory right." Cozzo, 279 F.3d at 284 (emphasis in original) (quoting Thompson v. Upshur County, Tex., 245 F.3d 447, 457 (5th Cir. 2001)).

B

"[W]hen a plaintiff sues a public official under § 1983, the district court must insist on heightened pleading by the plaintiff." Morin v. Caire, 77 F.3d 116, 121 (5th Cir. 1996) (citing Schultea v. Wood, 47 F.3d 1427, 1433 (5th Cir. 1995) (en banc)). Although a plaintiff may comply with ordinary pleading standards in his initial complaint, and need not anticipate a qualified immunity defense, "[w]hen a public official pleads the affirmative defense of qualified immunity in his answer, the district court may, on the official's motion or on its own, require the plaintiff to reply to that defense in detail" pursuant to Rule 7(a). Schultea, 47 F.3d at 1433 (emphasis added). "[T]he reply must be tailored to the assertion of qualified immunity and fairly engage its allegations." Id. "Heightened pleading requires allegations of fact focusing specifically on the conduct of the individual who caused the plaintiffs' injury." Reyes v. Sazan, 168 F.3d 158, 161 (5th Cir. 1999). The case should not be allowed to proceed unless plaintiffs can assert specific facts that, if true, would overcome the defense. See Morin, 77 F.3d at 120 ("Public officials are entitled to qualified immunity from suit under § 1983 unless it is shown by specific allegations that the officials violated clearly established law."); Schultea, 47 F.3d at 1434 ("The district court need not allow any discovery unless it finds that plaintiff has supported his claim with sufficient precision and factual specificity[.]"). The "district court's discretion not to [require a Rule 7(a) reply] is narrow indeed when greater detail might assist." Schultea, 47 F.3d at 1434; see also Reyes, 168 F.3d at 161 ("Faced with sparse details of claimed wrongdoing by officials, trial courts ought routinely require plaintiffs to file a reply under [Rule] 7(a) to qualified immunity defenses.").

The court concludes in its discretion that requiring plaintiffs to file a Rule 7(a) reply would assist the court in determining whether any of the Individual Defendants is entitled to qualified immunity. Although plaintiffs' fourth amended complaint contains some allegations against specific Individual Defendants, plaintiffs have for the most part grouped all of the defendants together under the term "Defendants, " thereby precluding the court from determining which, if any, Individual Defendant allegedly committed a constitutional violation. See, e.g., 4th Am. Compl. ¶ 68 (alleging, without specifying any particular defendant, that "Defendants subjected plaintiffs to racist words and images including an animation on Defendant David Womble's telephone.... By allowing this animation to be played, Defendants violated federal rights of Plaintiffs."); id. ¶ 71 (alleging, without specifying any particular defendant, that "Defendants subjected Plaintiffs to harassment and to a hostile work environment on the basis of race. There was an offensive ethnocentric caricature drawn on the bulletin or whiteboard on the wall of North Tower purporting to be Plaintiff R.L. Lawson with an Afro, gold tooth, and goatee which remained displayed for 3-4 days." (citation omitted)); id. ¶ 78 (alleging, without specifying any particular defendant, that plaintiffs are entitled to recover under Title VII, § 1981, and § 1983 because "Defendants have engaged in and continue to encourage and foster a policy and practice of intentional and recklessly indifferent violation of Plaintiffs' constitutional and statutory rights to equal employment opportunities").

Additionally, for many of the allegations in support of plaintiffs' claims, it is unclear whether plaintiffs seek to hold any of the Individual Defendants liable. For example, plaintiffs allege that "Defendants" subjected them to "disparate terms and conditions of employment on the basis of race" by denying them access to tools necessary to perform their jobs, while giving Caucasian employees access to all tools, but they do not specify which, if any, of the Individual Defendants was responsible for this alleged disparate treatment. See Id. ¶ 73. Plaintiffs argue that Dennis was "pre-textually terminated" for having a prior felony conviction, whereas Caucasian employees with prior felony convictions were not terminated on the same basis, but they do not allege that any of the Individual Defendants was responsible for the termination decision. Id. ¶ 74. They allege Lawson was retaliated against for making a federally-protected discrimination complaint by being assigned to "Kitchen Duty, " yet they provide no facts linking any of the Individual Defendants to the decision to assign Lawson to kitchen duty. Plaintiffs argue that Dennis was "retaliated against by being singled out by Defendant Paul Wright in November 2012, " yet they ...


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