Recent Federal Fifth Circuit Cases of Interest to Cities

Note: Included cases are from May 1, 2024, through May 31, 2024.

Procedure: Greenwald v. Murrill, No. 23-30429, 2024 WL 1929012 (5th Cir. May 2, 2024). This case stems from the repeated arrests of Kendra Greenwald for failing to comply with Louisiana’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA). After serving her sentence for the initial convictions, she was subsequently arrested for violating SORNA again. During these proceedings, she argued that she had mental disabilities that prevented her from complying with SORNA, and after multiple hearings was declared to be an “unrestorable incompetent.” Following this determination, she was subsequently arrested for failing to register under SORNA. Greenwald then filed a lawsuit against city officials and state officials for violating her procedural and substantive due process rights and alleged she was subjected to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The district court ultimately dismissed all claims except for Greenwald’s substantive due process claim against the state officials and granted Greenwald’s leave to amend her complaint. Greenwald then filed her amended complaint, and the state appealed. The state’s appeal challenged the district court’s decision to deny their motion to dismiss the substantive due process claim as pleaded in Greenwald’s original complaint. Because Greenwald’s original complaint was superseded by an amended complaint and she had not specifically incorporated the original complaint (thereby rendering the original complaint a legal nullity), the Fifth Circuit concluded that it lacked jurisdiction to hear the state’s appeal.

Immunity: Med Care Emergency Med. Services, Inc. v. Flores, No. 23-40340, 2024 WL 2271841 (5th Cir. May 20, 2024). In 2021, the City of Pharr passed resolutions involving the purchase of emergency medical assets and later passed an ordinance declaring the city’s ambulance services the sole provider for the city. In response, Med Care Emergency Medical Services (Med Care), sued the city, its mayor, and its commissioners for, among other things, violations of the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments. As to the individual city officials, Med Care’s complaint alleged they voted for resolutions and held discussions in closed session.  The city officials filed a motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity and absolute legislative immunity. The district court effectively denied the motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity when it both orally denied the motion “without prejudice” and claimed to “not rul[e] on [the] qualified immunity [claim].” Challenging the denial of its motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity, the mayor and commissioners appealed.

In its decision, the Fifth Circuit determined that Med Care’s complaint only referenced two acts by the mayor and commissioners, both of which were not discretionary, executive functions protected by qualified immunity. Instead, participating in executive session discussions about the resolutions and ordinance and voting on these measures were legislative functions. Noting that although the officials are likely entitled to official immunity, because the city officials’ appeal was limited to challenging the denial of its motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s order.

First Amendment/Employment: Bevill v. Wheeler, No. 23-40321, 2024 WL 2762493 (5th Cir. May 30, 2024). In 2017, Terry Bevill, a police captain with the City of Quitman was terminated after he signed an affidavit supporting a motion to transfer in a criminal case involving his friend and former colleague. Bevill claimed the district attorney (DA), judge, and sheriff had a close relationship that would interfere with his friend’s ability to receive a fair trial. Because the substance of the affidavit violated the city’s police department policies, the mayor, David Dobbs, terminated Bevill. Bevil then sued the city, Mayor Dobbs, among other local officials (DA, judge, and sheriff) under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985(2) alleging that the mayor retaliated against him for exercising his First Amendment rights and along with the other local officials conspired to commit First Amendment retaliation against him. In a second interlocutory appeal, the mayor and local officials challenged the district court’s ruling denying their motion for summary judgment asserting that: (1) there was insufficient evidence of a conspiracy between them (mayor, DA, sheriff, and judge) to terminate Bevill in retaliation for his affidavit; and (2) qualified immunity shielded the officials from Bevill’s claims. The mayor additionally claimed qualified immunity for the first time at this stage.

The Fifth Circuit, in affirming the district court’s ruling, clarified that at the summary judgment stage, it lacked interlocutory jurisdiction to consider a sufficiency-of-the-evidence argument (here, challenging the determination that the officials conspired to terminate Bevill’s employment). Instead, courts of appeals are limited in considering only whether a particular course of action would be objectively unreasonable in light of clearly established law.  In addition, because Bevill met his summary judgment burden for establishing his First Amendment retaliatory-discharge claim where: (1) he suffered an adverse employment decision; (2) even though statements in his affidavit were for the benefit of his friend and colleague, Bevill spoke as a citizen on a matter of public concern; (3) Bevill’s protected speech related to potential governmental misconduct, specifically the criminal justice system, which outweighed the city’s interest in the efficient provision of public services; (4) his protected speech motivated the adverse employment action; and (5) the officials had “fair warning” that terminating Bevill for his affidavit alleging official misconduct in a judicial proceeding would violate his First Amendment rights. Therefore, the officials were not entitled to qualified immunity.