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Molina v. Collin County

United States District Court, E.D. Texas, Sherman Division

November 14, 2017




         Pending before the Court is Defendant Deputy Langwell's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. #30). After reviewing the relevant pleadings and motion, the Court finds the motion should be denied in part and granted in part.


         This is an excessive force case arising from a dog bite Plaintiff Guillermo Murillo Molina (“Molina”) sustained from a Collin County police canine under the control of Deputy Robert Langwell (“Deputy Langwell”). As a result of the incident, Plaintiff alleges Defendants Collin County and Deputy Langwell violated 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and Defendant Collin County violated the Texas Tort Claims Act.

         On January 6, 2015, at approximately 2:30 a.m., Molina and an alleged accomplice were walking in a neighborhood when a police officer, Officer Juan Flores (“Officer Flores”), flashed his lights. Upon seeing the officer, Molina and the accomplice ran. While the accomplice continued to run, Molina hid under bushes outside a nearby house. As a result of the two individuals' running, Officer Flores called for backup. Subsequently, Deputy Langwell and his police canine Elo arrived on the scene. Upon arriving, Officer Flores, Deputy Langwell, and Elo started searching for Molina. As they approached Molina's hiding spot the bite apprehension occurred. It is at this point the stories deviate. Deputy Langwell contends Elo bit Molina as he lay motionless, facedown, and beneath the bushes. Conversely, Molina claims after he heard the dog nearby he decided to surrender and started to stand up and climb over the bush he used to hide himself. Molina alleges that as he swung his leg over the bush Elo attacked him, biting him and thrashing about with Molina's leg in his mouth. In the course of Elo's biting of Molina, the two tumbled down the incline of the lawn. Molina asserts that although Deputy Langwell pulled Elo's leash, he never issued any commands to Elo or made any other efforts to remove Elo from Molina's leg. According to Molina, Elo maintained his bite for approximately fifteen to thirty seconds before finally releasing Molina.

         As a result of the underlying facts, on January 6, 2017, Molina initiated this suit against Defendants (Dkt. #1). On August 18, 2017, Deputy Langwell filed his Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. #30). Subsequently, Molina filed his response (Dkt. #37) on September 15, 2017. Deputy Langwell, on September 28, 2017, filed his reply (Dkt. #42), and on October 5, 2017, Molina filed his sur-reply (Dkt. #52).


         The purpose of summary judgment is to isolate and dispose of factually unsupported claims or defenses. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986). Summary judgment is proper under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure “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). A dispute about a material fact is genuine when “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Substantive law identifies which facts are material. Id. The trial court “must resolve all reasonable doubts in favor of the party opposing the motion for summary judgment.” Casey Enters., Inc. v. Am. Hardware Mut. Ins. Co., 655 F.2d 598, 602 (5th Cir. 1981).

         Normally, the movant bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a material fact issue. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256. But a “good-faith assertion of qualified immunity alters the usual summary judgment burden of proof, shifting it to the plaintiff to show that the defense is not available.” Cass v. City of Abilene, 814 F.3d 721, 728 (5th Cir. 2016) (internal quotation omitted). To satisfy this burden, the plaintiff must “identify specific evidence in the summary judgment record demonstrating that there is a material fact issue concerning the essential elements of its case for which it will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Forsyth v. Barr, 19 F.3d 1527, 1533 (5th Cir. 1994). “Conclusory allegations and denials, speculation, improbable inference, unsubstantiated assertions, and legalistic argumentation are all insufficient to overcome immunity.” Orr v. Copeland, 844 F.3d 484, 490 (5th Cir. 2016) (citing Reyes v. Hornbeck Offshore Servs., L.L.C., 383 Fed.Appx. 442, 443-44 (5th Cir. 2010)). However, “where a factual dispute exist, [the Court] accept[s] the plaintiff's versions.” Cooper v. Brown, 844 F.3d 517, 522 (5th Cir. 2016).


         Deputy Langwell argues summary judgment is proper because he is entitled to qualified immunity. Further, Deputy Langwell claims Molina is prohibited from recovering punitive damages. The Court addresses each argument in turn.

         I. Qualified Immunity

         “Qualified immunity provides government officials with immunity from suit insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Cooper, 844 F.3d at 522 (citations omitted). In determining whether qualified immunity applies, the Court conducts a two-part test: “(1) whether the plaintiff has alleged a violation of an actual constitutional right; and (2) if so, whether the right was clearly established at the time of the violation.” Id. “Both questions are matters of law.” Id. (citing Brothers v. Zoss, 837 F.3d 513, 517 & n.8 (5th Cir. 2016)).

         a. Violation of an Actual Constitutional Right

         Molina alleges Deputy Langwell violated his Fourth Amendment rights by applying excessive force. To prevail on an excessive-force claim, Molina must show “(1) injury, (2) which resulted directly and only from a use of force that was clearly excessive, and (3) the excessiveness of which was clearly unreasonable.” Id. (quoting Elizondo v. Green, 671 F.3d 506, 510 (5th Cir. 2012)).

         Here, neither party disagrees that Molina suffered an injury. Instead, Deputy Langwell contends his application of force was objectively reasonable. As such, the Court must determine whether Deputy Langwell acted ...

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