Recent Federal Fifth Circuit Cases of Interest to Cities

Note: Included cases are from September 1, 2023, through September 30, 2023. 

Civil Rights: Guerra v. Castillo, No. 22-40196, 2023 WL 5764278 (5th Cir. Sept. 7, 2023). Guerra, a sergeant at the City of Alamo police department, sued the city’s former Chief of Police, Baudelio Castillo, the city, and other officers, following a series of events that led to Guerra’s termination and arrest on theft charges. The charges against Guerra were eventually dismissed on May 2, 2019, for lack of evidence, and Guerra filed a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming violations of his Fourth and First Amendment rights and citing malicious prosecution and false arrest against Castillo. The lawsuit also implicated the city under a Monell claim, citing Castillo and the City Manager as the required “policymakers.” The district court granted motions to dismiss filed by the city and other officers. One of Castillo’s motions to dismiss was denied while another was granted due to qualified immunity, with the court finding that Guerra’s claims did not overcome the immunity and other established legal precedents. Guerra appealed the district court’s dismissal orders. 

The court focused first on Guerra’s false arrest claim against Castillo under the backdrop of Castillo’s qualified immunity defense. Guerra alleged that Castillo had orchestrated a conspiracy to file false affidavits, manipulating the criminal justice system to unjustly target him in a series of incidents spanning 2018 and 2019. This accusation hinges on the violation of Guerra’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from false arrests. The court held that Castillo’s deliberate perpetuation of false affidavits and his cognizance of the lack of probable cause in Guerra’s arrest violated established legal principles and ruled against granting Castillo qualified immunity. Consequently, the court reversed the previous dismissal of Guerra’s claim against Castillo and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings. 

Guerra also argued that Castillo should be held accountable for malicious prosecution under § 1983; however, the district court dismissed this argument, emphasizing that the current jurisprudence in the Fifth Circuit did not recognize a constitutional right to be protected from malicious prosecution at the time of these incidents. The appellate court agreed and affirmed the district’s dismissal of Guerra’s malicious prosecution claims. Additionally, the court affirmed the dismissal of Guerra’s First Amendment claims against Castillo for lack of sufficient evidence. 

Finally, Guerra asserted a claim against the city under § 1983 based on the Monell standard. According to this standard, to establish municipal liability under § 1983, three elements must be established: (1) the existence of a policymaker, (2) an official policy, and (3) a constitutional rights violation directly influenced by said policy or custom. Guerra’s complaint names Castillo and the City Manager as policymakers, contending that the city granted unrestrained authority to Chief Castillo, resulting in consistent due process violations under the Fourth Amendment. The city charter, however, rests policy-making authority with the Board of Commissioners, not with the Police Chief or City Manager. Despite Guerra highlighting sections of the city charter that indicate a potential delegation of authority to other individuals, including the Police Chief, the court found that Guerra failed to convincingly demonstrate that Castillo or the City Manager had the level of policy-making authority required. 

Ultimately, the judgment reversed the district court’s dismissal of Guerra’s Fourth Amendment false arrest claim against Castillo, mandating further proceedings, while affirming all other aspects of the district court’s judgment. 

Civil Rights: Frank v. Parnell, No. 22-30408, 2023 WL 5814938 (5th Cir. Sept. 8, 2023). In October 2017, Armando Frank parked his tractor in a Walmart parking lot before being approached by Avoyelles sheriff’s deputies and, later, a Marksville police officer. The officers indicated Frank had an outstanding arrest warrant and was going to be taken to the police station. During the encounter Frank had complied with the officers’ requests, but when officers declined to show Frank the arrest warrant at the scene, he resisted. This led to Frank being tased multiple times, placed in a chokehold, and rendered unconscious. Paramedics were called and attempted lifesaving measures, but Frank was later pronounced dead as a result of his injuries.  

Frank’s family filed suit against the officers under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming the officers used excessive force. In turn, the officers claimed qualified immunity and moved for summary judgment. The district court granted the officers’ motion for summary judgment, and Frank’s family appealed.  

The Fifth Circuit, applying the Graham factors for determining whether the force was reasonable, concluded that: (1) Frank posed no immediate threat to the officers’ or public’s safety because he was unarmed, had no ability to evade arrest, and was disabled; (2) officers made no attempt to deescalate or use lesser force options before quickly resorting to a violent response; (3) the severity of the crimes associated with the outstanding warrant were not for violent crimes; and (4) there was a factual dispute about whether Frank was resisting arrest. The appellate court further determined that a jury could conclude the officers used excessive force and had reasonable warning that their conduct violated Frank’s clearly established Fourth Amendment rights. For those reasons, the court vacated the district court’s grant of summary judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings.  

Civil Rights: Walton v. City of Verona, No. 22-60231, 2023 WL 5946152 (5th Cir. Sept. 13, 2023).  This case stems from a drive-by shooting in which the shooter, Latavious Bettes, shot and killed Annie Walton after being suspected by the Verona Police Department for his involvement in prior shooting instances. Following her death, Walton’s family filed suit against the city of Verona and the police chief, claiming abuse of executive power and state-created danger under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, as well as additional claims under the Mississippi Tort Claims Act (MTCA). The city and police chief claimed sovereign and qualified immunity and moved for summary judgment. Initially, the district court granted the city’s and the police chief’s motion for summary judgment reasoning that: (1) the Fifth Circuit had never recognized a claim for state-created-danger; (2) the police chief’s actions did not “shock the conscience” in a manner to establish liability under a claim for abuse of executive power; and (3) there was no evidence the police chief acted with reckless disregard. However, after the Waltons filed a motion to reconsider, the district court granted the motion in part and denied the motion in part. The district court declined to revise its prior ruling as to the § 1983 claims, but as to the claims under the MTCA, it determined that the city was not entitled to sovereign immunity because a genuine dispute of material fact existed relating to whether the police chief acted with reckless disregard in handling the shootings. Thereafter, the city appealed the district court’s order on the MTCA claims, and the Waltons cross-appealed the order dismissing the federal claims. 

The Fifth Circuit first addressed the issue of jurisdiction to hear the interlocutory appeals by the city and the Waltons. As the court explained, courts of appeals are limited to reviewing final decisions by the district court only. However, under the collateral-order doctrine, the court may review the denial of claims of qualified immunity but not interlocutory orders granting qualified immunity. In this case, the district court held that because the Waltons did not show the police chief violated a constitutional right, he was entitled to qualified immunity and the city was, therefore, entitled to sovereign immunity as to the federal claims. Reaching this conclusion, the court dismissed the Waltons’ cross-appeal and proceeded to review the city’s appeal. In doing so, the court reversed the district court’s order and rendered summary judgment in the city’s favor. The appellate court held that the city was entitled to sovereign immunity under the MTCA because, under a theory of negligence, the Waltons failed to show the police chief owed a special duty to protect the victims from the shooter outside of the general duty to protect the public as a whole or that the police chief had a duty to control the shooter’s actions.  

Civil Rights: Robinson v. Midland Cnty., Tex., 80 F.4th 704 (5th Cir. 2023). While incarcerated at Midland County Jail, Savion Hall was treated by nurses employed by the jail’s medical services contractor, Soluta, for asthma. In June 2019, Hall began to experience serious breathing issues and requested medical assistance. The guard on duty, Daniel Stickel, was new to his position but sought advice from other guards and an on-duty nurse, all of whom confirmed protocol which involved Hall receiving breathing treatments every four hours. Hall was sent back to his cell. After another guard arrived to relieve Stickel, Hall was sent to the hospital. He died several days later as a result.   

During a Texas Rangers criminal investigation into Hall’s medical care, it was determined that nurses employed by Soluta had consistently left Hall to administer his own medication, failed to record Hall’s oxygen-saturation levels, and in some cases, even fabricated his vital signs and medical checks relating to his oxygen and breathing levels.

Hall’s family filed suit against the county and Stickel for deliberate indifference to medical needs under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In turn, the county and Stickel filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings. The district court subsequently dismissed the suits for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 12(b)(6). Hall’s family appealed.  

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the lower court concluding that: (1) Hall’s family failed to establish that the county had any actual knowledge of a pattern or policy to deprive Hall of adequate medical care and thus could not be held liable based on the actions of the Soluta nurses; and (2) Stickel’s actions did not rise to the level of deliberate indifference where Stickel ensured Hall had access to his inhaler, confirmed Hall’s prescribed course of medical treatment for his asthma, and informed his superiors and medical staff about Hall’s situation. 

Procurement: United States ex rel. Miniex v. Houston Hous. Auth., No. 21-20435, 2023 WL 6174416 (5th Cir. Sept. 22, 2023).  Karen Miniex, former Vice President, General Counsel, and Director of Procurement for the Houston Housing Authority (HHA) filed a qui tam suit under the False Claims Act against the city of Houston, HHA, and later, through an amended complaint, five of its property management companies for procurement violations related to the hiring and management of contractors and services under 31 U.S.C. § 3729(a)(1)(A), (a)(1)(B), and (a)(1)(G). She alleged the city of Houston was vicariously liable for the fraudulent conduct of HHA. Before the suit was commenced, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) completed its audit of HHA concluding that HHA failed to conduct federal requirements with regard to obtaining cost estimates prior to procuring contractors and services.  

HHA, the city, and the property management companies filed motions to dismiss the case, and the district court granted their motions based on: (1) the government action bar under 31 U.S.C. § 3730(e)(3), (2) Miniex’s failure to plead fraud with particularity under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 9(b); and (3) her failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6). Thereafter, Miniex moved for reconsideration and for leave to amend her complaint for a fourth time. After the court denied both motions, Miniex appealed.  

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the claims against the city and property management companies but reversed the dismissal of the claims against HHA. With respect to the claims against HHA, the court reasoned that: (1) the HUD audit was not a civil action suit or an administrative civil money penalty proceeding to which the government action bar would apply; (2) because Miniex sufficiently outlined the identity of the person who made false representations and the time, place, and contents of the misrepresentations, she satisfied Rule 9(b); and (3) she also alleged sufficient facts to survive a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss where she claimed HHA submitted false claims to HUD, certified future compliance with procurement regulations, violated those regulations, and provided the HUD audit indicating HHA did not comply with cost-estimate regulations to which HUD sought repayment.   

As for Miniex’s claims against the city, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the lower court holding that Miniex failed to establish that the city was vicariously liable under an agency theory where the pleadings did not show HHA was acting with actual or apparent authority. 

The appellate court further upheld the lower court’s denial of Miniex’s motion to amend, finding no abuse of discretion where she had already amended her complaint three times.