Recent Federal Fifth Circuit Cases of Interest to Cities

Note: Included cases are from May 11, 2023, through June 10, 2023.

Civil Rights: Baker v. Coburn, No. 21-10303, 2023 WL 3573302 (5th Cir. May 17, 2023), as revised (May 19, 2023). Darion Baker was shot and killed by police officers after he attempted to evade arrest by fleeing in a stolen vehicle. Coburn, one of the officers, fired multiple shots before the car moved, and he and the other officer continued to fire shots after the car drove away. Baker’s family filed suit against the officers under § 1983, claiming that the officers used excessive force. The officers claimed qualified immunity and moved for summary judgment. The district court granted the officers’ motion for summary judgment, and Baker’s family appealed.

The appellate court reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment. The court found that Baker’s family presented sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact to show that: (1) the officers violated Baker’s constitutional rights by using excessive force because there was no immediate threat to the officers’ safety; and (2) it became unreasonable for the officers to believe that Baker could use the vehicle to harm the officers once he began to drive away in the other direction.

Legislative Privilege: La Union Del Pueblo Entero v. Abbott, No. 22-50435, 2023 WL 3494770 (5th Cir. May 17, 2023). The United States and others filed suit, alleging that amendments made to the Election Code were racially discriminatory, and, therefore, violated the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act. When the plaintiffs asked for certain documents from the Texas Legislature during discovery, the legislators withheld some documents, claiming legislative privilege. The district court rejected the legislators’ legislative privilege claims, ordering them to produce the documents, so the legislators appealed.

The appellate court reversed, upholding the legislators’ legislative privilege. The appellate court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the legislators waived or must yield their privilege because they participated in outside communication because outside communication is often necessary in modern legislative procedure, and forbidding legislative procedure to apply in this circumstance would protect too little of the legislative process. Therefore, the scope of legislative privilege must extend to outside communications. The court also rejected that this was a situation in which the legislative privilege must yield, for yielding is a rare instance which occurs only when there are important federal interests at stake, and this was not the case here.

Civil Rights: Wood v. Bexar Cnty., Texas, No. 22-50888, 2023 WL 3563012 (5th Cir. May 19, 2023). Amanda Wood filed suit against Officer Gerald Gereb and Bexar County for violating her constitutional rights after Officer Gereb pulled her over without providing a basis for the stop, accused her of driving while intoxicated, and then arrested her when she refused to participate in a field sobriety test. The district court granted Gereb and Bexar County’s motion to dismiss because the blood-draw warrant affidavit attached to the motion to dismiss showed probable cause to pull Wood over. Wood appealed the dismissal of her claims.

The appellate court found that the magistrate judge erred in relying entirely on the blood-draw warrant affidavit attached to the motion to dismiss because a court may only consider documents attached to a motion to dismiss when such documents are referred to in a plaintiff’s complaint and are central to the plaintiff’s claims. In addition, the appellate court stated that the district court erred by neglecting to accept the plaintiff’s version of the facts as true, which is required at this stage of the case. Therefore, the appellate court reversed and remanded the case.

Civil Rights: Tuttle v. Sepolio, No. 22-20279, 2023 WL 3635817 (5th Cir. May 23, 2023). The plaintiffs’ estates filed suit against various police officers after one police officer applied for and received a no-knock search warrant for the plaintiffs’ home based on a fraudulent affidavit stating that the plaintiffs sold drugs at the home, which resulted in a group of officers entering the home to execute the warrant and shooting and killing the plaintiffs after gunfire broke out.

The district court denied the motions to dismiss the excessive force claims asserted against the individual officers. The appellate court, accepting the plaintiffs’ version of the facts as true, found them sufficient at this stage in the suit to establish that the plaintiff was injured as a result of force that was objectively unreasonable in light of the circumstances and affirmed the district court’s decision on this aspect of the judgment.

The district court denied one of the supervising officer’s motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s excessive force and search and seizure claims based on a failure-to-supervise theory. The appellate court found that the facts alleged by the plaintiffs satisfied the requirements for a failure-to-supervise claim to proceed and there was a causal link between his failure to supervise and the injuries that occurred. Therefore, the appellate court affirmed the district court’s decision.

The district court denied the motions to dismiss the plaintiffs’ excessive force and search and seizure claims based on a failure-to-intervene theory. The appellate court found that the plaintiffs were unable to show that an officer was present while another officer violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights, was aware of the violation, and had a clear opportunity to intervene but failed to do so. Therefore, the appellate court found that the district court erred in allowing these claims to proceed, and it reversed this part of the decision.

The appellate court reversed the district court’s denial of one of the supervising officer’s motion to dismiss the plaintiffs’ excessive force and search and seizure claims based on a direct liability theory because the supervising officer was not personally involved in obtaining the search warrant or in effectuating the search, so he had no direct role in the activity.

Civil Rights: Scott v. City of Mandeville, No. 20-30507, 2023 WL 3592138 (5th Cir. May 23, 2023). The plaintiff was arrested for driving while intoxicated and sued under § 1983, alleging false arrest and excessive force along with the Louisiana state law claims of false arrest, excessive force, negligence, and vicarious liability. The trial court granted summary judgment and the plaintiff appealed.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit affirmed, finding: (1) the officers were entitled to qualified immunity on the false arrest claims because the officers had probable cause to arrest the plaintiff despite the fact that they did not believe she was under the influence of alcohol; (2) the officers did not use excessive force in handcuffing the plaintiff behind her back when she said she had surgery and asked them to stop because the force used was not clearly unreasonable; and (3) the state law claims failed because there was no evidence to support the plaintiff’s claims of negligence.

Civil Rights: Gorsky v. Deputy Guajardo, No. 20-20084, 2023 WL 3690429 (5th Cir. May 26, 2023). The plaintiffs sued law enforcement officers under § 1983 based on the officers’ unlawful arrest of one of the plaintiffs, illegal entry and search of the plaintiffs’ home, and use of excessive force against the plaintiffs. The officers moved for summary judgment and the trial court denied it. The officers appealed.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit found it lacked jurisdiction to review the district court’s decision that a fact issue is genuine as to the illegal entry, illegal search, and excessive force claims; therefore, the court dismissed the appeal regarding those claims. Regarding the false arrest claims, the Fifth Circuit found that the plaintiff presented sufficient facts that the plaintiff was arrested without probable cause and a reasonable officer could not have believed he had probable cause to arrest the plaintiff for failure to comply with instructions to get his wife from inside the house as part of a criminal mischief investigation. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s order denying summary judgment for the false arrest claims.

Civil Rights: Ellis v. Garza-Lopez, No. 23-10022, 2023 WL 3723634 (5th Cir. May 30, 2023). The plaintiff brought a § 1983 action against two police officers based on his detention and subsequent search. He also alleged cruel and unusual punishment in violation of his Eighth Amendment rights because he was directed to destroy his marijuana or receive a citation. The district court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the grounds of qualified immunity. Plaintiff appealed.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit found: (1) the officers had reasonable suspicion to detain the plaintiff and probable cause to conduct a warrantless search because they could smell marijuana coming from the car; and (2) the complaint about being forced to destroy the marijuana did not present an Eighth Amendment claim. Because the officers did not violate any of the plaintiff’s constitutional rights, the Fifth Circuit affirmed and found the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.

Civil Rights: Edwards v. City of Balch Springs, Texas, No. 22-10269, 2023 WL 3916280 (5th Cir. June 9, 2023). The city employed a police officer who a jury later convicted of murdering a teenage boy while on duty. The boy’s father sued the city under § 1983. The trial court granted the city’s motion for summary judgment, reasoning that the city’s police department’s use-of-force policy was constitutional, and also that plaintiff’s training, supervisory, and disciplinary theories of liability lacked factual support. 

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit affirmed, finding: (1) the city’s use-of-force policy did not have to list out every constitutional requirement to be constitutional; (2) the city’s use-of-force policy did not affirmatively allow or compel an officer to use deadly force based solely on the officer’s own “underlying intent or motivation”; (3) the officer’s isolated instances of previous departures from the overall use-of-force policy did not establish a pattern of the city’s deliberate indifference and therefore the failure to train claim failed; and (4) the failure to supervise claim failed because the city’s lack of a system to track use of force incidents did not amount to a complete disregard of the risk that a violation of a particular constitutional right would follow.