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Thomas v. City of Palm Coast

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Jacksonville Division

March 30, 2017

CITY OF PALM COAST, et al., Defendants.


          TIMOTHY J. CORRIGAN United States District Judge

         In this Section 1983 action, pro se Plaintiffs James and Linda Thomas allege that Defendants, the City of Palm Coast and its employees, violated their Fourth Amendment rights by coming on their property in connection with municipal enforcement efforts. Pending before the Court are cross motions for summary judgment (Docs. 103, 114) and Plaintiffs' Motion to Strike Defendants' Filed Affidavits (Doc. 116).


         On February 25, 2010, Plaintiffs locked two male dogs inside a vehicle in their driveway so the males would be separated from female dogs in heat that remained in the house. Around 12:30 p.m., a mail carrier called City of Palm Coast Animal Control Officer Shelly Adorante to report the dogs locked inside the vehicle. About twenty minutes later, Defendant Adorante arrived at the residence and saw two dogs inside the vehicle. Adorante knocked on the front door of the Thomases' home, but no one answered. From her position on the front porch, through the front living room window with open curtains, Adorante saw four additional dogs inside the home.

         Adorante called a telephone number listed on a truck parked in the driveway and left a message about the dogs. When Adorante called the number a second time, she spoke with Linda Thomas, who advised that they locked the dogs in the car because they did not want any unwanted puppies, and told Adorante that the Thomases would be home in an hour. Adorante then brought up the number of dogs inside the home, at which point Linda Thomas became angry and told Adorante that she was not allowed to look inside the windows or in her backyard. Adorante took photographs of the dogs inside the vehicle and the dogs inside the home, which also show a large boat in the backyard, and thereafter posted a notice on the Thomases' front door and left the property.

         At about 1:45 p.m., Adorante returned to the Thomases' home to follow up and saw that the dogs were still locked inside the vehicle and no one was home. Adorante then called fellow Animal Control Officer Eva Boivin and Animal Control/Code Enforcement Officer Mike Hadden to assist. When Hadden arrived, he parked his truck on the street in front of the house and was able to see a large catamaran in the back yard and another boat on the back of the adjacent empty lot. Hadden also observed two dogs inside the vehicle, and was advised that there were four other dogs inside the home and a third boat in the back yard behind the house. Adorante, Hadden, and Boivin walked around the right side of the house to determine if there were additional dogs in the back yard.

         Without entering the backyard, which was enclosed with a chain link fence, Adorante, Hadden, and Boivin were able to observe from the side yard that there were no additional dogs in the back yard, but observed the third boat, a large ski boat, directly behind the home (the same boat Adorante had seen through the front living room window). Hadden also saw three garbage cans and debris in front of the garage, which violated City code. Hadden wrote a warning notice for the Thomases to remove the boats from their property and put the garbage cans out of view. Because the dogs in the vehicle did not appear to be in distress, Adorante did not take action to have the dogs removed but posted a citation for animal cruelty on the Thomases' garage door. Adorante photographed the citation and left the residence at approximately 3:00 p.m. The Thomases had still not returned home. When the Thomases finally returned home shortly thereafter, no City employees were at the property.

         James Thomas moved two of the boats soon after February 25, 2010, but the boat that was located on the concrete slab directly behind the Thomases' home remained there until the end of April 2010. Neither Adorante nor Boivin ever returned to the Thomases' home for any reason. Hadden returned several times to determine if the boats had been removed and the garbage cans placed out of sight. When Hadden returned on March 2, 2010, the garbage cans were out of view and two of the three boats had been removed. The large ski boat directly behind the home was still present when Hadden made follow up visits on March 10, 25, and 30, and April 7, 2010. When Hadden returned again on April 21, 2010, the large ski boat had finally been removed. No other City employees accompanied Hadden on any of the follow up visits.

         On Hadden's five visits in March and April, he did not encroach on the Thomases' property, but instead walked onto an adjacent lot from which he could observe whether the boats remained. On the final April 21, 2010 visit, after walking onto the adjacent lot and determining the last boat was gone and the Thomases were therefore in compliance, Hadden walked onto the Thomases' property to post a notice of hearing on their garage door, at which time the Thomases returned home. A Flagler County Sheriff was also present at the Thomases' property. After James Thomas removed the notice of hearing from the garage and placed it onto the windshield of Hadden's vehicle, the Sheriff removed the notice and placed it onto the Thomases' mailbox. Hadden then left the property and did not return.

         The Thomases subsequently met with Nestor Abreu, Director of Community Development, to resolve the citations for the dogs and boats. Abreu advised them that the matter would be handled by the Code Enforcement Board. James Thomas did not speak with Jim Landon, Barbara Grossman, Debra Chaudoin, Michael Donovan, Adorante, Boivin, or any City employee, other than Hadden, while Hadden was at the Thomases' property. Linda Thomas met with Barbara Grossman, a Code Enforcement Manager, to discuss her issues with Animal Control, and Grossman told Linda Thomas to appeal.

         After receiving unfavorable rulings from a Hearing Officer and the Code Enforcement Board with respect to both the citation for the dogs and the citation for the boats and garbage cans, the Thomases appealed to state court, which reversed the findings in both cases. See Thomas v. City of Palm Coast, No. 2010 CA 001202 (Fla. Cir. Ct.); Thomas v. City of Palm Coast, No. 2010 CA 001339 (Fla. Cir. Ct.). The court determined that the facts presented at the hearing did not support the animal cruelty citation, and that the Thomases were not afforded due process during the administrative proceedings because they were not provided an opportunity to raise the constitutional challenges that they now assert. On remand, rather than hold another hearing, the City dismissed the citations.

         Plaintiffs' “Third Amended Complaint”[1] (TAC), the operative complaint, was filed on March 1, 2016. (Doc. 84.) The parties have now completed discovery and filed cross motions for summary judgment.


         Summary judgment is proper “when the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Josendis v. Wall to Wall Residence Repairs, Inc., 662 F.3d 1292, 1314 (11th Cir. 2011); Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a), (c). The inquiry is “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986). The movant bears the burden of showing the absence of dispute as to material facts, and upon such a showing the burden shifts to the non-moving party to establish that a genuine dispute exists. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986). The evidence must be viewed in favor of the non-moving party, and all inferences drawn in his favor. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255.


         A. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 - Unreasonable Search

         1. Defendant City of Palm Coast

         The TAC contains three Section 1983 claims against the City: Count One (alleges unreasonable searches and violations of the right to be secure in their home); Count Ten (violation of Plaintiffs' right to substantive due process)[2]; and Count Twelve (failure to train, supervise, and discipline employees). Count One alleges, in largely conclusory fashion, that the City violated Plaintiffs' rights by and through its customs, policies, and practices, and the City's failure to take disciplinary or corrective action after the alleged events underlying this action. (Doc. 84 ¶¶ 144-49.) Count Twelve alleges, again in conclusory fashion, that the City fails to train, supervise, and discipline its employees, and that such failure resulted in violations of Plaintiffs' constitutional rights. (Doc. 84 ¶¶ 203-07.)

         A municipality generally cannot be held vicariously liable under Section 1983 for constitutional violations committed by its employees. Hoefling v. City of Miami, 811 F.3d 1271, 1279 (11th Cir. 2016). However, a municipality may be liable if a plaintiff can show the municipality has an unconstitutional policy, custom, or practice, or fails to train its employees; but, only a “long-standing and widespread practice” is sufficient and plaintiffs cannot rely solely on their own alleged violations to prove the existence of a widespread practice. Brown v. City of Fort Lauderdale, 923 F.2d 1474, 1480, 1481 (11th Cir. 1991); Craig v. Floyd Cnty., Ga., 643 F.3d 1306, 1310-11 (11th Cir. 2011). Here, there is no evidence of a City policy, custom, or practice that was authorized or condoned by a City policymaker, and merely relying on their own unsupported allegations is insufficient for Plaintiffs to overcome summary judgment.

         To prevail on a Section 1983 failure to train claim, Plaintiffs must show a history or pattern of constitutional violations by untrained City employees. Connick v. Thompson, 563 U.S. 51, 62 (2011). Plaintiffs must establish that the City knew of a specific training need and deliberately chose not to take action. Gold v. City of Miami, 151 F.3d 1346, 1350 (11th Cir. 1998). Even if Plaintiffs could show deliberate inaction, they must still show that the alleged failure to train in a relevant respect amounts to deliberate indifference to their rights. City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 388-89 (1989). To demonstrate the requisite deliberate indifference, Plaintiffs must show that the City had actual notice of an unconstitutional practice, or constructive notice as established by a history of prior widespread abuse. Id. Without such notice, the City cannot be held liable for failure to train and supervise as a matter of law. Gold, 151 F.3d at 1351.

         While it appears that the City did not offer Fourth Amendment training per se, Plaintiffs have not shown a history of unconstitutional actions by City Animal Control or Code Enforcement or evidence that the City knew of a specific need for training and deliberately chose not to provide it, and that the City was deliberately indifferent to Fourth Amendment rights. Accordingly, the City is not liable for failure to train its employees under Section 1983.

         2. Individual Defendants

         a. Landon, Abreu, Chaudoin, and Donovan

         In Counts Two (Landon), Three (Abreu), Five (Chaudoin), and Six (Donovan), Plaintiffs allege that Defendants, in their individual capacities, violated Plaintiffs' Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights based on their “conduct and/or failure to act.” Plaintiffs allege that Landon, by virtue of his position as City Manager, failed to take any corrective or disciplinary action against any of his subordinates regarding the alleged events underlying this action. (Doc. 84 ¶¶ 150-53.) Plaintiffs allege that Abreu, as Director of Community Development, violated their constitutional rights through his conduct and/or failure to act, which deprived Plaintiffs of their rights under the Fourth Amendment. (Doc. 84 ¶¶ 154-58.) Plaintiffs include similar allegations in Count Five against Chaudoin and Count Six against Donovan by virtue of their roles as Code Enforcement Supervisors. (Doc. 84 ¶¶ 163-66, 167-70.)

         Supervisory liability under Section 1983 must be based on more than respondeat superior. Braddy v. Fla. Dep't of Labor and Emp't Sec., 133 F.3d 797, 801-02 (11th Cir. 1998). To be liable, a supervisor must either personally participate in the alleged constitutional violation or the plaintiff must show that there is a causal connection between the supervisor's actions and the alleged constitutional deprivation. Matthews v. Crosby, 480 F.3d 1265, 1270 (11th Cir. 2007). To show the requisite “causal connection, ” a plaintiff can establish that: (1) a history of widespread abuse puts the supervisor on notice of the need to correct the alleged deprivation; (2) the supervisor's custom or policy results in deliberate indifference to constitutional rights; or (3) facts support an inference that the supervisor directed the subordinates to act unlawfully, or knew they would do so and failed to stop them. Id.

         The undisputed facts show that none of these individual Defendants personally participated in the alleged unconstitutional search of Plaintiffs' property, and there is simply no evidence of a “history of widespread abuse” to put them on notice of a need to correct the alleged deprivation. Nor is there evidence of a custom or policy of deliberate indifference, or that any of these Defendants directed anyone to act unlawfully or knew they would do so but failed to stop them.

         b. All named ...

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