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Hutcheson v. Dallas County

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

May 2, 2019

NICOLE HUTCHESON, ET AL., Plaintiffs,
v.
DALLAS COUNTY, TEXAS, ET AL., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          DAVID L. HORAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         After the parties filed a written consent, the Court, on February 14, 2019, referred this action to the undersigned United State magistrate judge for all further proceedings, including entry of judgment. See Dkt. Nos. 38 & 39; see also 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).

         On March 6, 2019, the Court converted those portions of Defendants Dallas County, Texas, Fernando Reyes, Trenton Smith, Betty Stevens, and Elvin Hayes's motion to dismiss Plaintiffs Nicole Hutcheson and Ruth Boatner's amended complaint under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) and 12(b)(1) [Dkt. No. 41] raising the individual officer defendants' entitlement to qualified immunity to a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 motion for summary judgment on each officer's qualified immunity defense. See Dkt. No. 43; see also Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(d). The Court then allowed Plaintiffs to file a motion for leave to conduct limited discovery in order to respond to the qualified immunity issues raised in the converted summary judgment motion. See Dkt. No. 43. Plaintiffs filed their motion for leave on April 5, 2019. See Dkt. No. 46. And Defendants filed a response opposing leave on April 19, 2019. See Dkt. No. 47.

         Legal Standards and Analysis

         Plaintiffs allege under 42 U.SC. § 1983 that each officer defendant violated Decedent Joseph Hutcheson's constitutional right to be free from excessive force. See Dkt. No. 40 at 13-16. “A plaintiff makes out a § 1983 claim if he ‘shows a violation of the Constitution or of federal law, and then shows that the violation was committed by someone acting under color of state law, '” Rich v. Palko, 920 F.3d 288, 293-94 (5th Cir. 2019) (quoting Brown v. Miller, 519 F.3d 231, 236 (5th Cir. 2008); brackets omitted); see also Shepherd v. Shreveport, 920 F.3d 278, 283 (5th Cir. 2019) (“To prevail on a Section 1983 excessive force claim, ‘a plaintiff must establish: (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.'” (quoting Harris v. Serpas, 745 F.3d 767, 772 (5th Cir. 2014) (quoting, in turn, Ramirez v. Knoulton, 542 F.3d 124, 128 (5th Cir. 2008)); citing Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 393-97 (1989))).

         “But government officials performing discretionary duties” can respond to such a claim by asserting qualified immunity. Rich, 920 F.3d at 294 (citing Haverda v. Hays Cnty., 723 F.3d 586, 598 (5th Cir. 2013)).

         And “[w]hen a defendant asserts qualified immunity, the plaintiff bears the burden of pleading facts that demonstrate liability and defeat immunity.” Shaw v. Villanueva, 918 F.3d 414, 416-17 (5th Cir. 2019) (citing Zapata v. Melson, 750 F.3d 481, 485 (5th Cir. 2014); McClendon v. City of Columbia, 305 F.3d 314, 323 (5th Cir. 2002) (en banc)); see also McLin v. Ard, 866 F.3d 682, 688 (5th Cir. 2018) (“When the motion to dismiss raises the defense of qualified immunity, the plaintiff ‘must plead specific facts that both allow the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the harm ... alleged and that defeat a qualified immunity defense with equal specificity.'” (quoting Zapata, 750 F.3d at 485 (quoting, in turn, Backe v. LeBlanc, 691 F.3d 645, 648 (5th Cir. 2012)))).

         To overcome immunity, “[t]he plaintiff must show ‘(1) that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that the right was clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct.'” Shaw, 918 F.3d at 417 (quoting Whitley v. Hanna, 726 F.3d 631, 638 (5th Cir. 2013)); see also Rich, 920 F.3d at 294 (“Once an officer invokes the defense, the plaintiff must rebut it by establishing (1) that the officer violated a federal statutory or constitutional right and (2) that the unlawfulness of the conduct was ‘clearly established at the time.'” (quoting Dist. of Columbia v. Wesby, 138 S.Ct. 577, 589 (2018)); Harris, 745 F.3d at 771 (“Once the defendant raises the qualified immunity defense, ‘the burden shifts to the plaintiff to rebut this defense by establishing that the official's allegedly wrongful conduct violated clearly established law.'” (quoting Brumfield v. Hollins, 551 F.3d 322, 326 (5th Cir. 2008))).

         All discovery is typically stayed pending a ruling on a defendant's entitlement to the defense of qualified immunity. See Wicks v. Miss. State Employment Servs., Inc., 41 F.3d 991, 994-95 (5th Cir. 1995); accord Foreman v. Texas A&M Univ. Sys. Health Sci. Ctr., No. 3:08-cv-1469-L, 2008 WL 494267, at *4 (N.D. Tex. Nov. 12, 2008) (citing Wicks in ruling that discovery is stayed pending a ruling on an individual defendant's dispositive motion); see also Zapata, 750 F.3d 481; Backe, 691 F.3d 645; Lion Boulos v. Wilson, 834 F.2d 504 (5th Cir. 1987); Webb v. Livingston, 618 Fed.Appx. 201 (5th Cir. 2015) (per curiam).

         But, where a defendant has asserted a qualified immunity defense, the Court may, under certain circumstances, permit limited discovery that is narrowly tailored to uncover facts that the Court needs to rule on that defense. See Wicks, 41 F.3d at 994; Backe, 691 F.3d at 648 (“[T]his court has established a careful procedure under which a district court may defer its qualified immunity ruling if further factual development is necessary to ascertain the availability of that defense.”); see also Burkett v. Kenner Police Dep't, No. Civ. A. 02-1858, 2003 WL 1340294, at *1 (E.D. La. Mar. 17, 2003) (allowing the exchange of initial disclosures targeted at identifying officers involved in incident at issue after finding that plaintiff's Rule 7(a) reply met the heightened pleading requirement).

         As the Court set out in the March 6, 2019 order, any motion for leave to conduct limited discovery in order to respond to the qualified immunity issues raised in the converted summary judgment motion

must include: (1) the specific interrogatories, if any, that Plaintiffs want to send to Defendants; (2) a list of the specific documents or specific categories of documents, if any, that Plaintiffs want to obtain from Defendants; and (3) an explanation of why this discovery is necessary to enable Plaintiffs to respond to the specific qualified immunity issues raised in the converted motion for summary judgment. The requested discovery must be narrowly tailored to uncover only those facts needed for the Court to rule on the qualified immunity defense and will only be permitted if Defendants' immunity defense turns at least partially on a factual question and the Court is unable to rule on the immunity defense without further clarification of the facts.

Dkt. No. 43 at 4-5 (citing Lion Boulos, 834 F.2d at 507-08; Webb, 618 Fed.Appx. at 206 (“If the complaint alleges facts sufficient to overcome the defense of qualified immunity, and the district court is ‘unable to rule on the immunity defense without further clarification of the facts,' then it may allow discovery ‘narrowly tailored to uncover only those facts needed to rule on the immunity claim.'” (quoting Backe, 691 F.3d at 648 (in turn quoting Lion Boulos, 834 F.2d at 507-08))); Hinojosa v. Livingston, 807 F.3d 657, 670 (5th Cir. 2015) (“[A] district court may elect the defer-and-discover approach ‘when the defendant's immunity claim turns at least partially on a factual question' that must be answered before a ruling can issue.” (quoting Lion Boulos, 834 F.2d at 507))).[1]

         Plaintiffs request leave to serve 3 interrogatories and 2 related requests for production asking that Defendants “identify the name, address, telephone number, and e-mail address of all individuals interviewed in your investigation of the incident that is the subject of this suit” and answer whether they are “in possession of [1] any witness statements regarding the incident that is the subject of this suit, whether written or recorded by audio or video ... [and 2] any notes or audio or video ...


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