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Molina v. Collin County

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

November 21, 2017




         Pending before the Court is Defendant Collin County's Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. #31). After reviewing the relevant pleadings and motion, the Court finds the motion should be granted.


         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, Collin County filed its Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. #31). Subsequently, Molina filed his response (Dkt. #38) on September 15, 2017, and Collin County, on September 28, 2017, filed its reply (Dkt. #43).


         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).

         The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of informing the court of its motion and identifying “depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials” that demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. If the movant bears the burden of proof on a claim or defense for which it is moving for summary judgment, it must come forward with evidence that establishes “beyond peradventure all of the essential elements of the claim or defense.” Fontenot v. Upjohn Co., 780 F.2d 1190, 1194 (5th Cir. 1986). Where the nonmovant bears the burden of proof, the movant may discharge the burden by showing that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmovant's case. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325; Byers v. Dall. Morning News, Inc., 209 F.3d 419, 424 (5th Cir. 2000). Once the movant has carried its burden, the nonmovant must “respond to the motion for summary judgment by setting forth particular facts indicating there is a genuine issue for trial.” Byers, 209 F.3d at 424 (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248-49). A nonmovant must present affirmative evidence to defeat a properly supported motion for summary judgment. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 257. Mere denials of material facts, unsworn allegations, or arguments and assertions in briefs or legal memoranda will not suffice to carry this burden. Rather, the Court requires “significant probative evidence” from the nonmovant to dismiss a request for summary judgment. In re Mun. Bond Reporting Antitrust Litig., 672 F.2d 436, 440 (5th Cir. 1982) (quoting Ferguson v. Nat'l Broad. Co., 584 F.2d 111, 114 (5th Cir. 1978)). The Court must consider all of the evidence but “refrain from making any credibility determinations or weighing the evidence.” Turner v. Baylor Richardson Med. Ctr., 476 F.3d 337, 343 (5th Cir. 2007).


         Collin County argues summary judgment is proper because: (1) there is no constitutionally deficient policy, practice, or custom of Collin County that caused the purported violation of any of Molina's secured rights; (2) Deputy Langwell is entitled to qualified immunity, which makes Collin County equally immune; (3) Molina failed to provide Collin County with the appropriate notice of its state law claims; (4) punitive damages are not recoverable against Collin County under either Federal or State law; and (5) medical expenses or medical costs are not recoverable because Molina did not incur any. The Court addresses each argument in turn.

         I. Constitutionally Deficient Policy, Practice, or Custom

         In averring that Molina's federal claims fail as a matter of law, Collin County makes four different arguments. Specifically, Collin County claims: (a) it is not vicariously liable for the purported unconstitutional acts committed by its employees; (b) that it did not fail to adequately supervise or train its officers; (c) that compliance with the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (“TCOLE”) bars Molina's failure to train claim; and (d) that Collin County did not act with deliberate indifference in training its employees. The Court addresses each argument in turn.

         “Section 1983 provides for liability to be imposed upon any person who, acting under the color of state law, deprives another of rights or privileges secured by the Constitution. It is well settled that local government units are ‘persons' within the meaning of this statute.” Worsham v. City of Pasadena, 881 F.2d 1336, 1339 (5th Cir. 1989). “To hold a municipality liable under § 1983 for the misconduct of an employee, a plaintiff must show, in addition to a constitutional violation, that an official policy promulgated by the municipality's policymaker was the moving force behind, or actual cause of, the constitutional injury.” James v. Harris Cty., 577 F.3d 612, 617 (5th Cir. 2009) (citing Piotrowski v. City of Houston, 237 F.3d 567, 578 (5th Cir. 2001)). “The official policy itself must be unconstitutional or, if not, must have been adopted with deliberate indifference to the known or obvious fact that such constitutional violations would result.” Id. (citing Johnson v. Deep E. Tex. Reg'l Narcotics Trafficking Task Force, 379 F.3d 293, 309 (5th Cir. 2004)). While an “official policy” can arise in various forms, “[i]t usually exists in the form of written policy statements, ordinances, or regulations, but may also arise in the form of a widespread practice that is ‘so common and well settled as to constitute a custom that fairly represents municipal policy.'” Id. (quoting Piotrowski, 237 F.3d at 579). “Although an official policy can render a municipality culpable, there can be no municipal liability unless it is the moving force behind the constitutional violation.” Id. (citation omitted). “In other words, a plaintiff must show direct causation, i.e., that there was a ‘direct causal link' between the policy and the violation.” Id.

         a. Vicarious Liability

         Collin County claims the law prohibits vicarious liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for the purported unconstitutional acts committed by its employees. Molina states that he “is not seeking to hold Defendant vicariously liable. Rather, Defendant is liable for its own actions and inaction and the customs and policies it maintained.” (Dkt. #38 at p. 19).

         “Municipalities are not liable for the unconstitutional actions of their employees under respondeat superior.” Groden v. City of Dallas, 826 F.3d 280, 283 (5th Cir. 2016) (citing Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978)). “Instead, to establish municipal liability under § 1983, a plaintiff must show that (1) an official policy (2) promulgated by the municipal policymaker (3) was the moving force behind the violation of a constitutional right.” Id. (citing Peterson v. City of Fort Worth, 588 F.3d 838, 847 (5th Cir. 2009)).

         While Collin County's argument that vicarious liability does not apply in this case is correct, the Court finds it is misplaced. As explained above, Molina is not ...

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