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Cunningham v. City of Balch Springs

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Dallas Division

March 31, 2017




         Before the court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 44), filed May 4, 2016. Having considered the motion, response, reply, summary judgment evidence, record, and applicable law, the court denies Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment.

         I. Background

         This lawsuit arises from the December 7, 2011 arrest of Plaintiff Michael Cunningham (“Plaintiff” or “Cunningham”) by City of Balch Springs police officers who, acting pursuant to a warrant, arrested him at his home and charged him with the offense of making a false report of assault to a police officer in violation of Section 37.08 of the Texas Penal Code, a Class B misdemeanor. This offense is punishable by a fine not to exceed $2000, confinement in jail not to exceed 180 days, or both. Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 12.22. On December 3, 2011, Cunningham, a City of Balch Springs employee, reported to City of Balch Springs police officers that Edward Ortega (“Ortega”), also a City of Balch Springs employee, had assaulted him with a tire iron in the parking lot of a One Stop convenience store located at 3708 Sheperd Lane, Balch Springs, Texas (“One Stop”). Based on Cunningham's report, Ortega was arrested. The City of Balch Springs dropped the assault charges and released Ortega a few days later after obtaining a warrant for the arrest of Cunningham on charges that his report that Ortega assaulted him was false.

         Cunningham filed this action on November 27, 2013, in the 14th Judicial District Court, Dallas County, Texas, against the City of Balch Springs (“the City”), James Young (“Young”), Jonathan Haber (“Haber”), William Morris, a/k/a Ed Morris (“Morris”), and Ortega. Cunningham alleged, among other things, that City of Balch Springs police officers, in violation of his constitutional rights, knowingly used false information and fabricated evidence to procure the issuance of the warrant for his arrest. The City, Young, Haber, and Morris removed this action to federal court on January 9, 2014, on the basis that the action involves a federal question. All Defendants, except Ortega, filed motions to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The court granted the motions to dismiss, but allowed Cunningham a chance to replead. See Cunningham v. City of Balch Springs, 2014 WL 4851576 (N.D. Tex. Sept. 30, 2014) (Lindsay, J.) (“Cunningham I”).

         On October 21, 2014, Cunningham filed his First Amended Complaint asserting claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law against the City, Young, Haber, and Morris, and state law claims for assault against Ortega. See First Am. Compl. (Doc. 19). Following renewed motions to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) by the various Defendants, the court dismissed all claims against the City and Morris, dismissed Cunningham's state law and §1983 claims against Young and Haber, remanded the assault claim against Ortega to state court, and entered a final judgment dismissing Cunningham's claims. See Cunningham v. City of Balch Springs, 2015 WL 3822212 (N.D. Tex. June 19, 2015) (Lindsay, J.) (“Cunningham II”).

         On July 17, 2015, Cunningham moved for a new trial, which the court construed as a motion to alter or amend judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e). While the court denied the motion with respect to Cunningham's claims against the City and Morris, the court granted the motion with respect to his § 1983 claims against Officers Haber and Young. The court set forth its reasoning, as follows:

With regard to Plaintiff's § 1983 claims against Officers Haber and Young, however, the court concludes that Plaintiff's motion should be granted. Plaintiff's § 1983 claim against Defendants Haber and Young is premised on their alleged roles in procuring the warrant with false information that led to his arrest, which Plaintiff contends was without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment. With regard to Young's and Haber's role in procurement of the arrest warrant, Plaintiff alleges that “upon further investigation and discovery, evidence will show that Young and/or Haber and/or other police officers with the City of Balch Springs Police Department knowingly filed a false affidavit to secure an arrest warrant for [Plaintiff's] arrest when the affiant(s) 1) knew it was false, or 2) would have known it was false had the affiant not recklessly disregarded the truth.” Pl.'s Am. Compl. ¶ 29. Plaintiff further alleges that even though the One Stop video corroborates his assault claim, “somehow, the Balch Springs police secured an arrest warrant to have [Plaintiff] arrested for making a false report” and “[p]resumably the warrant was obtained by sworn statements made by Balch Springs police officers in an affidavit, claiming that [Plaintiff] made a false report to the police regarding the assault by Ortega.” Id. ¶¶ 30-31. Plaintiff also alleges that, “upon further investigation and discovery the evidence will show that the warrant for arrest was obtained by Young and/or Haber and/or other City of Balch Springs police officers after they knowingly and intentionally, or with reckless disregard for the truth, presented to a Judge an affidavit that contained misleading and/or incorrect assertions of fact.” Id. ¶ 33.
Upon reconsideration, the court concludes that at the motion to dismiss stage of these proceedings, and upon further review of the allegations in the First Amended Complaint pertaining to Officers Haber and Young, Plaintiff's pleadings assert facts which, if true, would overcome the defense of qualified immunity. Further, under these circumstances, the district court may “allow discovery necessary to clarify those facts upon which the immunity defense turns.” Wicks v. Mississippi State Employment Svcs., 41 F.3d 991, 995 (5th Cir. 1995); see also Lion Boulos v. Wilson, 834 F.2d 504, 507 (5th Cir, . 1987). The court will re-assess whether these officers are entitled to qualified immunity after limited discovery necessary to clarify the facts relevant to this inquiry. Such discovery shall be “narrowly tailored to uncover only those facts needed to rule on the immunity claims[.]” Lion Boulos, 834 F.2d at 507. Cunningham v. City of Balch Springs, 2016 WL 235966, at *3 (N.D. Tex. Jan. 20, 2016) (Lindsay, J.) (“Cunningham III”).[1]

         Following the limited period of discovery, on May 4, 2016, Defendants Haber and Young (sometimes collectively, the “Officers”) filed their Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 44), asserting that “the evidence in this record establishes that no deprivation of Plaintiff's legal rights occurred as alleged and therefore the issue of qualified immunity need not be reached.” Doc. 44 at 2. Alternatively, Defendants argue that they are entitled to summary judgment based on qualified immunity because “reasonable officers in the shoes of said Defendants could have believed that the action of Defendants were lawful and consistent with the preservation of Plaintiff's legal rights.” Id. Cunningham has filed an opposition to the Motion for Summary Judgment, arguing that the evidence obtained during discovery is sufficient to raise a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the Officers acted in an objectively unreasonable manner in violation of his clearly established Fourth Amendment right to free from unreasonable seizure of his person.

         II. Applicable Legal Standards

         A. Qualified Immunity

         Government officials who perform discretionary functions are entitled to the defense of qualified immunity, which shields them from suit as well as liability for civil damages, if 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). A defendant official must affirmatively plead the defense of qualified immunity. Gomez v. Toledo, 446 U.S. 635, 640 (1980). Defendants Haber and Young have asserted this defense in their Motion for Summary Judgment.

         In deciding a dispositive motion that raises the defense of qualified immunity, the Supreme Court initially set forth a mandatory two-part inquiry for determining whether a government official was entitled to qualified immunity. Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001). Under Saucier, a court must determine first whether the facts alleged or shown are sufficient to make out a violation of a constitutional or federal statutory right. If the record sets forth or establishes no violation, no further inquiry is necessary. On the other hand, if the plaintiff sufficiently pleads or establishes that a violation could be made out, the court must determine whether the right at issue was clearly established at the time of the government official's alleged misconduct. Id. The Court relaxed this mandatory sequence in Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223 (2009), and stated, “[W]hile the sequence set forth [in Saucier] is often appropriate, it should no longer be regarded as mandatory, ” and judges “should be permitted to exercise their sound discretion in deciding which of the two prongs of the qualified immunity analysis should be addressed first in light of the circumstances in the particular case at hand.” Id. at 236. The second prong of the test “is better understood as two separate inquiries: whether the allegedly violated constitutional right[] [was] clearly established at the time of the incident; and if so, whether the conduct of the defendant[] [official] was objectively unreasonable in light of then clearly established law.” Tarver v. City of Edna, 410 F.3d 745, 750 (5th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted); see also Evans v. Ball, 168 F.3d 856, 860 (5th Cir. 1999); Hare v. City of Corinth, 135 F.3d 320, 326 (5th Cir. 1998); Eugene v. Alief Indep. Sch. Dist., 65 F.3d 1299, 1305 (5th Cir. 1995).

         Ordinarily, one who pleads an affirmative defense must establish his entitlement to such defense. In the context of qualified immunity, however, this burden varies from the norm. In this circuit, the rule is as follows:

Where . . . [a] defendant pleads qualified immunity and shows he is a governmental official whose position involves the exercise of discretion, the plaintiff then has the burden to rebut this defense by establishing that the official's allegedly wrongful conduct violated clearly established law. We do not require that an official demonstrate that he did not ...

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