Recent Federal Fifth Circuit Cases of Interest to Cities

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

Public Improvement Districts: Smith v. The City of Bastrop, et al., No. 21-51039, 2023 WL 2890162 (5th Cir. Apr. 11, 2023). In 2019, the City of Bastrop enacted Ordinance No. 2019-40 creating the Hunters Crossing Public Improvement District (PID), allowing for public improvement projects in a particular 283.001-acre parcel of land. Two Hunters Crossing property owners filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging that the 2019 Ordinance violated federal procedural due process protections by increasing their PID assessments without following state procedural requirements. Additionally, they claimed that the Bastrop City Council failed to annually review and approve the developer’s actual capital expenditures and update the PID’s service and assessment plan (SAP) accordingly. The district court rejected the federal due process challenges to the 2019 Ordinance, and the landowners appealed. While noting that the Texas Public Improvement District Assessment Act (Act) is not a model of clarity, the court determined that the 2019 ordinance and SAP did not clearly violate the Act. Additionally, the landowners failed to show any actual prejudice resulting from Bastrop’s alleged failure to perform annual ministerial duties. Furthermore, the court concluded that the landowners were not deprived of federal due process protections, as they received sufficient notice and opportunity to be heard prior to the passing and approval of the 2019 Ordinance and SAP. Consequently, the appellate court affirmed the lower court’s order. With regard to state law claims related to a state constitutional prohibition against retroactive laws, the appellate court remanded the claims back to the district court to develop the record.

Civil Rights: Allen v. Hays, 65 F.4th 736 (5th Cir. 2023). After John Allen, Sr. was fatally shot during a routine traffic stop, his survivors filed a § 1983 action against the city of Houston and police officer Justin Hays asserting claims for, among others, unlawful arrest and detention, excessive force, denial of medical care, and racial discrimination. The district court dismissed the complaint, and the plaintiffs appealed. The Fifth Circuit reversed the lower court’s judgment regarding the § 1983 claims for excessive force, denial of medical care, and unlawful arrest but affirmed the dismissal of the racial discrimination claim.

The Fifth Circuit found that plaintiffs plausibly alleged that because Hays: (1) had no reason to believe Allen was armed and knew he was seriously injured and likely could not move, a police officer would know that to handcuff Allen was an arrest without probable cause under clearly established law; (2) failed to perform any medical care or call for medical assistance for six minutes knowing he had shot Allen multiple times, his actions were in violation of clearly established law; and (3) knew Allen was unarmed and not aggressive at the time of the shooting, using deadly force was a constitutional violation. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision with regard to the racial discrimination claim because plaintiffs failed to allege Hays had a discriminatory purpose. Regarding the claims against the city, the Court found that the plaintiffs failed to allege the city had ratified Hays’s actions on the night of the shooting.

Civil Rights: Dave v. O’Carroll, No. 22-40653, 2023 WL 2983567 (5th Cir. Apr. 18, 2023). Beri Dave, a First Amendment Auditor, brought a § 1983 action against the City of South Padre Island and various city officers (Officer Laird, Detective Rodriguez, and Chief of Police O’Carroll), alleging that his First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated. The suit stems from an encounter with the officers in which he was temporarily handcuffed after he failed to identify himself and was warned that he was trespassing. The district court, in separate orders, dismissed all of Dave’s claims. Dave appealed the district court’s order with regard to his claims against Detective Rodriguez.

In affirming the district court, the Fifth Circuit agreed that because Detective Rodriguez died during the litigation and was never properly served, Dave’s claims against Rodriguez were properly dismissed. In addition, because supervisors cannot be held vicariously liable under § 1983 and Dave’s claims against O’Connell were based on Rodriguez’s conduct, the Court affirmed the dismissal of the claims against O’Connell. Regarding the city, the Court concluded that Dave failed to show a widespread practice or policy constituting the moving force behind his alleged constitutional violations.

Civil Rights: Adams v. City of Harahan, 65 F.4th 267 (5th Cir. 2023). Manuel Adams, Jr., a former Captain with the City of Harahan police department, filed a § 1983 action against the city alleging, among other things, that his procedural due process rights were violated when he was subject to disciplinary action before he had a chance to exercise his right to an appeal of the chief’s determinations. As a result of the disciplinary determinations, his name was added to the district attorney’s list (a “Giglio” list) of prosecution witnesses that had evidence which could be used against Adams for impeachment purposes. Adams argued this amounted to a “death knell to a career in law enforcement.” As such, he argued that because he was not given his chance to appeal the determination, he was deprived of his liberty interest in his occupation as a law enforcement officer without adequate due process of law. The district court, in denying the city’s motion for a judgment on the pleadings, ruled in favor of Adams.

The Fifth Circuit reversed the district court and found that Adams failed to allege a deprivation of a protected liberty interest. The court reasoned that neither Supreme Court nor Fifth Circuit precedent recognized continued employment in law enforcement as a protected liberty interest.

Civil Rights: Ellis v. Clarksdale Pub. Utilities, No. 21-60885, 2023 WL 3302839 (5th Cir. May 8, 2023). Bruce and Willie Ellis (“Ellis”) sued the City of Clarksdale Public Utilities and Public Works (“the city”) for inverse condemnation. They alleged that the city’s operation of the sewer and storm water system and the city’s transportation of raw sewage and storm water across their private property caused a 17-foot hole under their business, causing damage for which they were not justly compensated. After an evidentiary hearing at which a city expert witness disputed the allegations that the city had caused the damage alleged, Ellis filed a Daubert motion after the deadline had passed. Both parties thereafter filed motions for summary judgment. However, the Ellis motion was three weeks late. The district court granted the city’s summary judgment motion and struck both motions by Ellis as untimely. Ellis subsequently appealed.

The Fifth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s order and concluded that it was within the district court’s discretion to reject the untimely motions. In addition, Ellis failed to offer any evidence to refute the city’s expert evidence indicating it did not cause the damage alleged by Ellis, therefore failing to create a factual dispute on the issue of liability.

Civil Rights: Reynolds v. Wood Cnty., Tex., No. 22-40381, 2023 WL 3175467 (5th Cir. May 1, 2023). Dustin Reynolds sued Wood County and jail officers under § 1983 for excessive force, deliberate indifference, and bystander liability stemming from an incident in which he was arrested, strapped into a restraint chair for 14 hours, and allowed to urinate on himself after he attempted to kick, spit, and shout profanities at officers. The district court, in granting the county’s motion for summary judgment, found that the jail officers were entitled to qualified immunity and Reynolds had failed to establish liability against the county. As a result, Reynolds appealed.

Affirming the lower court, the Fifth Circuit held that with regard to the excessive force claims and deliberate indifference, Reynolds failed to establish that his restraint was a violation of his clearly established constitutional rights when the record reflected that the officers had checked on him every 15 minutes, had placed him in a climate controlled facility, offered water and medical care, and he was only detained in the chair because of his unsafe behavior. In addition, there was no evidence to suggest the officers acted with deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm. As a result, Reynolds’s bystander liability claims could not be supported. Regarding his deliberate indifference claim against the county, Reynolds was unable to establish a custom or policy of improperly using the restraint chair constituting a constitutional violation.