Recent Federal Fifth Circuit Cases of Interest to Cities

Note: Included cases are from November 11, 2022 through December 10, 2022.

Immunity: McWilliams v. City of Houston, No. 21-20369, 2022 WL 17337820 (5th Cir. Nov. 30, 2022) (per curiam). After Robert Stephen Jr. was placed under arrest for public intoxication and transported to Houston Central Jail, he was later determined to have passed away from a cocaine overdose while in jail. Charmaine McWilliams and other relatives of Robert Stephen Jr. sued city officials and the city of Houston on claims of negligence under the Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA) and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims for violations of his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. McWilliams alleged: (1) governmental immunity was waived for property torts under the TTCA because “the jail, as property of the City, provided the backdrop for actions of City employees”; (2) regarding her § 1983 claims against the individual city officials, the evidence showed jail officials deliberately failed to tend to Stephen’s serious medical needs violating his Fourteenth Amendment rights; and (3) the City was liable under § 1983 stemming from their illegal policies which dictated illegal conduct and practices, failure to adequately train jail employees, and ratifying illegal conduct by refusing to discipline the employees.

McWilliams’s claims were subsequently dismissed by the district court. The district court found there was no waiver of immunity for the negligence claim and the alleged facts for the § 1983 claims were insufficient to overcome city officials’ qualified immunity and did not support any municipal liability theory.

The court of appeals, in upholding the lower court’s decision, determined that although the TTCA provides for governmental immunity waiver for property torts, the use of the property did not cause Stephen’s death, rather it only furnished the condition. Further, the alleged facts were insufficient to overcome qualified immunity because they failed to show: (1) officials knew of facts leading to an inference of a substantial risk of serious harm to Stephen; (2) that the officials drew that inference; and (3) the officials disregarded the excessive risk to his safety. Lastly, because there was no showing of specific official policies or a specific ratification of policies that violated Stephen’s constitutional rights, the court affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the § 1983 claims against the city.

Immunity: Herrera v. Acevedo, No. 21-20520, 2022 WL 17547449 (5th Cir. Dec. 9, 2022) (per curiam). Domingo Herrerawas arrested for obstructing a roadway on May 30, 2020, while attending a George Floyd protest in Houston, but charges were later dropped. Herrera subsequently sued the city of Houston, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, and other Houston Police Department officers (the city) for violations of his First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights for unlawfully detaining him without probable cause during the protests and for malicious prosecution for allegedly creating false police reports indicating he had obstructed the roadway during the protest. The city filed a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss the claims on the grounds of qualified immunity, which the district court later denied.

The city then filed an interlocutory appeal arguing that Herrera failed to plead sufficient facts showing a violation of his constitutional rights and that the constitutional right was clearly established. Because it would have been a violation of Herrera’s First and Fourth Amendment rights to be arrested without probable cause for obstructing a highway, and it was unclear from the record whether officers did have probable cause, the appellate court upheld the lower court’s decision agreeing that Herrera’s claims for relief should survive the motion to dismiss stage.