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Fulkerson v. Russell

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

December 5, 2017

GAIL S. RUSSELL, et. al., Defendants.



         THIS CAUSE is before the Court on Defendant Bradford County Sheriff's Department's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 16; Motion), filed on July 31, 2017. Plaintiff Andrew S. Fulkerson filed a response on August 9, 2017. See Plaintiff's Answer to Defendant Bradford County Sheriff's Department's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 22; Response).[1]Accordingly, this matter is ripe for review.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff Andrew S. Fulkerson (Fulkerson or Plaintiff) initiated this action on May 15, 2017, by filing a complaint in which he named as Defendants the Bradford County Sheriff's Department (BCSD), BCSD Officers Gail S. Russell (Russell) and Kevin D. Mueller (Mueller), and Gordon Smith (Smith), Sheriff Elect of Bradford County. See Complaint for Violation of Civil Rights (Doc. 1). On June 22, 2017, Fulkerson filed an amended complaint, which is the operative complaint before the Court. See Plaintiff's First Amended Complaint, (Doc. 15; Complaint).[2]

         In the Complaint, [3] Fulkerson sets forth a series of facts which he contends relate to his August 4, 2013 unlawful arrest by Officer Russell, id. at 4, ¶1, and mistreatment by Officers Russell and Mueller during and after the booking process, id. at 6-8, ¶¶5-8. Fulkerson also alleges that Officer Mueller arrested Joshua Kevin Pelham, Fulkerson's live-in partner, to retaliate against Fulkerson for complaints that Fulkerson lodged against Officer Mueller. Id. at 10, ¶13. Ultimately, the Bradford County Circuit Court entered a nolle prosequi on the criminal charge stemming from Fulkerson's August 4, 2013 arrest. Id. at 10-11, ¶14. Fulkerson alleges that his experience at the Bradford County Jail aggravated his pre-existing post-traumatic stress disorder, and that he has been unable to relieve his symptoms because of his financial constraints and his inability “to find a competent practitioner.” Id. at 9, ¶12.

         Based on his allegations, Fulkerson asserts a variety of federal and state law claims against Officers Russell and Mueller. See generally id. Specifically, Fulkerson asserts civil rights claims under 42 U.S.C. §1983 (Section 1983) for false arrest against Officer Mueller (or Russell[4]) (Count I) and Officer Russell for use of excessive force (Count II), a state law battery claim against Officer Russell (Count III), [5] a federal claim for violation of Fulkerson's protected right of petition purportedly brought pursuant to 18 U.S.C. §1512(d)(3) against Officer Russell (Count IV), a claim for conspiracy to violate Fulkerson's rights identified in Count IV against Officer Mueller (Count V), and a claim for violation of Fulkerson's First Amendment right to petition based on Officer Mueller's alleged tampering with, or influencing the timing of, a witness in a federal civil proceeding (Count VI). Id. at 11-21. Additionally, and of particular significance to the instant Motion, Fulkerson asserts one claim, Count VII, against Sheriff Smith, in his individual and official capacity, as well as the BCSD for failure to supervise Officers Russell and Mueller, and causing the alleged constitutional violations by virtue of “de facto departmental policy or custom.” Id. at 22.

         II. Standard of Review

         In ruling on a motion to dismiss, brought pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (Rule(s)), the Court must accept the factual allegations set forth in the complaint as true. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 508 n.1 (2002); see also Lotierzo v. Woman's World Med. Ctr., Inc., 278 F.3d 1180, 1182 (11th Cir. 2002). In addition, all reasonable inferences should be drawn in favor of the plaintiff. See Omar ex. rel. Cannon v. Lindsey, 334 F.3d 1246, 1247 (11th Cir. 2003) (per curiam). Nonetheless, the plaintiff must still meet some minimal pleading requirements. Jackson v. Bellsouth Telecomm., 372 F.3d 1250, 1262-63 (11th Cir. 2004) (citations omitted). Indeed, while “[s]pecific facts are not necessary[, ]” the complaint should “give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007) (per curiam) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). Further, the plaintiff must allege “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).

         A “plaintiff's obligation to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (internal quotations omitted); see also Jackson, 372 F.3d at 1262 (explaining that “[c]onclusory allegations, unwarranted deductions of facts or legal conclusions masquerading as facts will not prevent dismissal”) (internal citation and quotations omitted). Indeed, “the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions, ” which simply “are not entitled to [an] assumption of truth.” See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 680-81. Thus, in ruling on a motion to dismiss, the Court must determine whether the complaint contains “sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Id. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570).

         III. Discussion

         In the Motion, BCSD argues that Fulkerson's claim against BCSD fails because BCSD is not a legal entity capable of being sued.[6] See Motion at 1-2. In response, Fulkerson argues that BCSD's case law suggesting that BCSD lacks the capacity to be sued is inapplicable. See Motion at 3-4. He also contends that the Motion should be denied on procedural grounds because BCSD improperly seeks dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) and the Motion is impermissibly vague in violation of Rule 8(d)(1). See Response at 1-3. The Court will begin its analysis by considering whether BCSD has the capacity to be sued.

         The Eleventh Circuit recognizes that “police departments are not usually considered legal entities subject to suit.” Dean v. Barber, 951 F.2d 1210, 1214 (11th Cir. 1992). Nevertheless, the Barber Court instructed that “‘capacity to sue or be sued shall be determined by the law of the state in which the district court is held.'” Id. (quoting Rule 17(b)). In Florida, “‘where a police department is an integral part of the city government as the vehicle through which the city government fulfills its policing functions, it is not an entity subject to suit.'” See Fla. City Police Dep't v. Corcoran, 661 So.2d 409, 410 (Fla. 3d DCA 1995) (quoting Eddy v. City of Miami, 715 F.Supp. 1553, 1556 (S.D. Fla. 1989)).

         Notably, “Florida courts have consistently found that City Police Departments are not entities capable of suit.” Blandin v. Cnty. Of Charlotte, No. 2:07-cv-691-FtM-29DNF, 2009 WL 2634419, at *4 (M.D. Fla. Aug. 24, 2009); see also Faulkner v. Monroe Cnty. Sheriff's Dep't, 523 F. App'x 696, 700-01 (11th Cir. 2013) (“Florida law has not established Sheriff's offices as separate legal entities with the capacity to be sued.”)[7]; Williams v. Miami-Dade Police Dep't, 297 F. App'x 941, 945 (11th Cir. 2008) (“Under Florida law, police departments are not legal entities amenable to suit.”); Smith v. Gadsden Cnty. Sheriffs Office, No. 4:11-cv-573-RH/CAS, 2012 WL 2428261, at *1 (N.D. Fla. May 29, 2012) (“The Sheriff's Office is not an entity that may be sued under Florida law.”), adopted sub nom, Smith v. Young, 2012 WL 2428222 (N.D. Fla. Jun. 27, 2012); Griffin v. Hillsborough Cnty. Sheriff, No. 8:09-cv-1440-T-23TGW, 2009 WL 4547054, at *2 (M.D. Fla. Nov. 30, 2009) (“Under Florida law, a police department lacks a separate legal identity apart from the city and is not an entity subject to suit.”); Everett v. Marianna Police Dep't, No. 5:07-cv-284/RS/MD, 2008 WL 222713, at *2 (N.D. Fla. Jan. 25, 2008) (“[T]he Florida courts have found that the city police department is not a legal entity and has no legal existence separate and apart from the city.”); Mann v. Hillsborough Cnty. Sheriff's Office, 946 F.Supp. 962, 970-71 (M.D. Fla. 1996). Indeed:

[u]nder Florida law, there are constitutionally created political subdivisions called “counties” and separately created constitutional officers including a sheriff. Fla. Const. art. VIII, §§ 1(a) and (d). However, no provision is made constitutionally or statutorily for a “Sheriff's Office” as a separate legal entity, as an agency of the county, or as a corporate entity, nor is a Sheriff's Office or Department given authority to be sued in such a ...

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