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Spoon v. City of Galveston

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Galveston Division

June 19, 2018

MELANIE SPOON, et al, Plaintiffs,
CITY OF GALVESTON, TEXAS, et al, Defendants.



         Before the Court is the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Defendants Sergeant Herbert Graves (“Sergeant Graves”) and Officers Ronnie Driver (“Officer Driver”), Jeffrey Dagle (“Officer Dagle”), and Joe Duenez (“Officer Duenez”) (collectively “Galveston Defendants”). Dkt. 25. After considering the motion, the response, the evidence in the summary judgment record, and the record of this case as a whole, the Court GRANTS the Galveston Defendants' motion for summary judgment.

         Factual Background

         Plaintiff Melanie Spoon went to buy a car from All American Chevrolet of Odessa (“All American”). Dkt. 23 at ¶ 17. She drove the car from the Odessa dealership to Galveston. Id. All American demanded that Spoon return the car, but she refused. Id. at ¶¶ 17-22. Pete Estrada (“Estrada”) of All American reported to the Odessa Police Department that the car had been stolen. Id. at ¶ 25. Sergeant Monise of the Odessa Police Department entered the car into a law enforcement computer system-the Texas Crime Information Center & Texas Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (“TCIC”)-as a stolen vehicle. Id.

         TCIC reports show that by 2:12 PM on April 8, 2016, the car had been entered into the system as stolen. Dkt. 25-7. At approximately 2:35 PM on the same day, officers from the Galveston Police Department met with Melanie and Cal Spoon (collectively “the Spoons”) at their business to talk to them about the car. Dkt. 23 at ¶ 23. After speaking with the Spoons, the officers decided that the dispute over the ownership of the car was a civil matter and left. Id. at ¶ 24. Among the officers at the scene was Officer Driver. Later that afternoon, Officer Driver learned from Estrada that the car had been reported as stolen to the Odessa Police Department. Id. at ¶ 25. Officer Driver spoke with his supervisor, Sergeant Graves, about what to do next. At about 3:40 PM, Officer Driver returned to the Spoon's business followed later by Sergeant Graves and Officers Dagle and Duenez. Id. at ¶ 28; see also Dkt. 25-2.

         A video recording from Officer Driver's police vehicle shows Cal Spoon telling Officer Driver and Sergeant Graves, “Nobody is taking the car.” Dkt. 25-2.[1] Sergeant Graves told Cal Spoon that the officers had come to recover the car because it had been reported as stolen. Id. Sergeant Graves also told Cal Spoon, “If the car is here, we have to tow it.” Id. Cal Spoon then stood at the door, directly in front of Sergeant Graves and Officer Driver, and said, “You can't come into my property without me saying so.” Id. Cal Spoon was subsequently handcuffed for about 15 minutes, and Sergeant Graves ordered the car to be towed away. Dkt. 23 at ¶ 28; Dkt. 25-2.

         The Spoons have brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Galveston Defendants alleging that their actions to have the car towed away and to detain Cal Spoon violated the Spoons' rights guaranteed by the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. In their pending motion for summary judgment, the Galveston Defendants assert that they are entitled to qualified immunity from this suit. Specifically, they assert that their actions did not violate clearly established law because 1) the Galveston Defendants' actions to have the car towed away and to detain Cal Spoon were reasonable and 2) they did not use excessive force in handcuffing Spoon. For the reasons stated below, the Court finds that the Galveston Defendants' motion for summary judgment should be granted.

         Standard of Review

         A. Summary Judgment

         Summary judgment is appropriate where “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); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). A fact is “material” if its resolution in favor of one party might affect the outcome of the suit under governing law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). An issue or dispute is “genuine” if the evidence is sufficient for a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Id. If the movant demonstrates the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact, the burden shifts to the nonmovant to provide “specific facts” showing the existence of a genuine issue for trial. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986). The reviewing court must “construe all facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Dillon v. Rogers, 596 F.3d 260, 266 (5th Cir. 2010) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). However, the nonmovant cannot avoid summary judgment simply by presenting “conclusory allegations and denials, speculation, improbable inferences, unsubstantiated assertions, and legalistic argumentation.” The nonmovant must identify specific evidence in the record and articulate how that evidence supports that party's claim. Baranowski v. Hart, 486 F.3d 112, 119 (5th Cir. 2007); Adams v. Travelers Indem. Co. of Conn., 465 F.3d 156, 164 (5th Cir. 2006) (“Rule 56 does not impose upon the district court a duty to sift through the record in search of evidence to support a party's opposition to summary judgment.”). Also, the Court gives “greater weight, even at the summary judgment stage, to the facts evident from video recordings taken at the scene.” Griggs v. Brewer, 841 F.3d 308, 312 (5th Cir. 2016) (citing Carnaby v. City of Houston, 636 F.3d 183, 187 (5th Cir. 2011)).

         Allegations in a plaintiff's complaint are not evidence. Wallace v. Texas Tech Univ., 80 F.3d 1042, 1047 (5th Cir. 1996) (“[P]leadings are not summary judgment evidence.”); Johnston v. City of Houston, Tex., 14 F.3d 1056, 1060 (5th Cir. 1995) (For the party opposing the motion for summary judgment, “only evidence-not argument, not facts in the complaint-will satisfy the burden.”), citing Solo Serve Corp. v. Westowne Assoc., 929 F.2d 160, 164 (5th Cir. 1991). Additionally, “self-serving statements, without more, will not defeat a motion for summary judgment, particularly one supported by plentiful contrary evidence.” Smith v. Sw. Bell Tel. Co., 456 Fed.Appx. 489, 492 (5th Cir. 2012).

         B. Qualified Immunity

         As the Fifth Circuit recently noted, “The Supreme Court has ‘mandated a two-step sequence for resolving government officials' qualified immunity claims.'” Darden v. City of Fort Worth, Texas, 880 F.3d 722, 727-28 (5th Cir. 2018) (citing Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 232, 129 S.Ct. 808, 172 L.Ed.2d 565 (2009)). The court must determine (1) “whether the facts that a plaintiff has alleged … make out a violation of a constitutional right” and (2) “whether the right at issue was ‘clearly established' at the time of defendant's alleged misconduct.” Id. “A right may be clearly established without ‘a case directly on point, ' but ‘existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate.'” Id. (citing Hanks v. Rogers, 853 F.3d 738, 746- 47 (5th Cir. 2017)).

         Once an official raises the defense of qualified immunity, “the burden then shifts to the plaintiff, who must rebut the defense by establishing a genuine fact issue as to whether the official's allegedly wrongful conduct violated clearly established law.” Brown v. Callahan, 623 F.3d 249, 253 (5th Cir. 2010). Still, at the summary judgment stage, this Court must “view the facts in the light most favorable to … the nonmoving party.” City & Cty. of San Francisco v. Sheehan, ---- U.S. __, 135 S.Ct. 1765, 1769, 191 L.Ed.2d 856 (2015). “The evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). However, the nonmovant must “come forward with specific facts indicating a genuine issue for trial” and cannot merely rely on the allegations in the complaint. Vela v. City of ...

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