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Campbell v. City of Jacksonville

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

March 23, 2018

DENEANE CAMPBELL, as Personal Representative of the Estate of K.A., Deceased, Plaintiff,
THE CITY OF JACKSONVILLE, et al., Defendants.



         THIS CAUSE is before the Court on the Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, filed by the City of Jacksonville, Mike Williams, individually and in his Official Capacity as Sheriff of the Consolidated City of Jacksonville and Duval County, and J.C. Nobles, (Doc. 5, Motion), on August 25, 2017. In the Motion, Defendants request that the Court dismiss plaintiff Deneane Campbell's Complaint, (Doc. 2, Complaint), which she filed in state court July 12, 2017.[1] Deneane Campbell, who files this action as the Personal Representative of the Estate of her deceased minor son, K.A., opposes the Motion. See Plaintiff's Response to Defendants' Motion to Dismiss and Incorporated Memorandum of Law (Doc. 11, Response), filed October 4, 2017. Accordingly, this matter is ripe for review.

         I. Standard of Review

         In ruling on a motion to dismiss, 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 Randall v. Scott, 610 F.3d 701, 705 (11th Cir. 2010). 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 that is plausible on its face.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. “A claim has facial plausibility when the pleaded factual content 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 “conclusory 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. 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).

         II. Background[2]

         This action arises out of an encounter between defendant Officer J.C. Nobles (“Nobles”) and K.A., in which Nobles shot K.A., resulting in his death.

         In the early afternoon of March 19, 2015, Nobles responded to a report of a stolen vehicle in Jacksonville, Florida. Complaint at ¶ 8. Nobles identified the stolen vehicle and waited for additional officers to arrive at the scene to set up a tactical plan. Id. While he was waiting, Nobles noticed two males approach the vehicle, enter it, and drive away. Id. at ¶ 9. One of these males was K.A., who was sixteen years old at the time. Id. at ¶ 4. Nobles followed the vehicle with his siren and lights activated. After a short pursuit, the vehicle crashed into bushes, and the two men in the car fled on foot. At the same time, Nobles “exited his patrol vehicle, and drew his weapon.” Id. at ¶ 10. He determined that K.A. had a weapon in his hands, fired two shots at K.A., and pursued him on foot. Id. K.A. then discarded the weapon he was carrying, fled a short distance, and crouched behind a vehicle. Id. at ¶ 11. Nobles continued his pursuit. As Nobles approached him, K.A. “stood and turned to flee at which time . . . Nobles [] fired two shots, striking . . . K.A. in the back of the head.” Id. K.A. died from his wounds. Id. at ¶ 12.

         At the time of these events, Nobles was “an officer acting within the course and scope of his employment by the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office and the City of Jacksonville.” Id. at ¶ 7. Likewise, Defendant Mike Williams (“Williams”) was “the duly elected Sheriff of Jacksonville, Duval County, Florida.” Id. at ¶ 6. In this position, Williams “was responsible for the supervision, training, instruction, control, discipline and conduct of the employees and agents of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office [(JSO)], an agency of the City of Jacksonville, ” id., including Nobles. As such, “Nobles acted in conformance with the policies of . . . [Sheriff] Williams.” Id. at ¶ 7.

         Deneane Campbell (“Campbell”), K.A.'s mother, and the Personal Representative of the Estate of K.A., brings this action against the City of Jacksonville (“City”), Williams, and Nobles. In Count I, she asserts a Florida state law claim of negligent wrongful death against the City of Jacksonville. Id. at 4-6. In support of this claim, she asserts that the City, by and through its “law enforcement officers, agents and employees, ” breached its duty of care in the “exercise of the use of deadly force in the pursuit” of fleeing suspects. Id. at ¶ 16. More particularly, she asserts that the City's negligence is evidenced by Nobles' failure to follow the City's Deadly Force and Firearms policies, id. at ¶ 16.a., coupled with the City's failure to train, supervise and discipline Nobles for his past alleged use of excessive and deadly force, id. at ¶ 16.e-h, and the City's failure to take appropriate corrective measures to prevent other unjustified shootings “in light of the documented history within the Jacksonville Sheriff's office of such” events. Id. at ¶ 16.i.

         In Count II, Campbell asserts that Nobles is liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for depriving K.A. of his life without substantive due process of law under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Id. at ¶¶ 18-22. In Count III, she brings a § 1983 claim of municipal liability against the City and Williams, asserting that Williams “through his agents and employees, acting within their authority and under color of state law, instituted customs, practices, and/or policies . . . that directly deprived . . . K.A. of his life and liberty without due process of law . . . as a violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.” Id. at ¶ 24.[3] Within this claim, Campbell asserts that Williams failed to adequately discipline his officers in the use of deadly force; failed to adequately train his officers in regard to the effective use of force, especially in the context of pursuing fleeing and unarmed African-American male suspects; and ratified his officers' excessive force decisions and actions, thereby creating a custom, policy, and practice of the use of excessive force. Id. at ¶¶ 25, 27. Additionally, as part of Count III Campbell asserts that Nobles, in the context of his encounter with K.A., was a final policy maker for Williams, in that Nobles' “decisions were not immediately or effectively reviewable.” Id. at ¶ 26. Campbell seeks a jury trial, compensatory damages, punitive damages, and attorney's fees and costs.[4]

         III. Arguments of the Parties

         Defendants seek to dismiss all three counts in Campbell's Complaint. As to Campbell's Count I negligence claim, Defendants assert that the claim is barred by the state statute of limitations. Motion at 3-5. Defendants further assert that Count I should be dismissed because it constitutes a “shotgun pleading, ” in that it “presents multiple state claims interwoven in a haphazard fashion.” Id. at 5-6 (internal quotations and citations omitted). In parsing through the potential claims subsumed within Count I, Defendants contend that Nobles' failure to follow city policies is not sufficient to state a claim of negligence, id. at 6; there is no such claim under Florida law for the negligent use of excessive or deadly force, id. at 7-8; and that as a matter of law, Campbell cannot bring a claim of negligent training and supervision against the City. Id. at 8-11.

         In addressing Campbell's federal claims against Nobles and Williams for the unconstitutional deprivation of K.A.'s life, Defendants assert that both claims are barred by the relevant statute of limitations for § 1983 claims. Id. at 11-12. Additionally, Defendants contend that to the extent Campbell denominates Counts II and III as presenting substantive due process violations under the Fourteenth Amendment, those counts must be dismissed based on the facts alleged. Id. at 12. Defendants alternatively argue that Counts II and III are due to be dismissed because Campbell fails to sufficiently allege a constitutional violation as to either Nobles' actions or those of the City. Id. at 13-15, 18-21. Finally, Defendants assert that Nobles is entitled to qualified immunity. Id. at 15-18.

         In response, Campbell asserts that Count I is not barred by the state statute of limitations. Response at 3-4. She further counters that the Complaint is not a “shotgun pleading, ” id. at 4-5, and that the allegations in Count I are sufficient to state a claim under Florida law. Id. at 5-7. Similarly, as to Counts II and III, Campbell contends that neither claim is barred by the appropriate limitations period for § 1983 claims, and both are sufficiently pled under either the Fourteenth or Fourth Amendments. Id. at 7-9. Specifically addressing Count II against Nobles, Campbell proffers that Nobles should not be afforded qualified immunity as the Complaint sufficiently alleges a constitutional violation the contours of which were clearly established at the time of the events giving rise to the claim. Id. at 9-16. Finally, Campbell contends that as to Count III against the City and Williams, the Complaint sufficiently alleges the existence of unconstitutional city policies, customs and practices. Id. at 16.

         IV. Discussion

         a. Count I - Negligence Claim Against the City

         In Count I, Campbell asserts that the City “through its law enforcement officers, agents, and employees, ” failed to use reasonable care in any number of instances associated with the City's implementation of, and responses to, deadly force used by its officers. Complaint at ¶¶ 16-17. In the Motion, Defendants argue that the applicable limitations period for Campbell's negligence claims against the City has expired, and therefore the claim should be dismissed as untimely. Motion at 3-5.

         The statute of limitations for Campbell's negligence claim against the City for K.A.'s death is determined under Florida Statutes section § 768.28, which requires that a wrongful death claim brought “against the state or one of its agencies or subdivisions for damages” be brought within two years of the accrual of the action.[5] See Cone v. Orosa, No. 13-cv-24674-JLK, 2014 WL 1383028, *3 (S.D. Fla. April 8, 2014) (noting two year statute of limitations for wrongful death claims against a municipality). Under Florida law, a cause of action for wrongful death accrues on the date of the death. Fulton County Adm'r v. Sullivan, 753 So.2d 549, 552 (Fla. 1999). However, a party cannot bring a wrongful death claim against a municipality until the claimant first presents “the claim in writing to the appropriate agency” and the “agency denies the claim in writing.” Fla. Stat. Ann. § 768.28(6)(a). During the period between the claimant's presentation of the claim and the agency's denial of it, the limitations period is tolled. Id. at § 768.28(6)(d). Florida law further provides that “the failure of the . . . appropriate agency to make a final disposition of the claim within 90 days after it is filed shall be deemed a final denial of the claim.” Id. See also Skyles v. McCoy, No. 6:16-cv-1968-Orl-37TBS, 2017 WL 1322071, *2-3 (M.D. Fla. April 7, 2017) (statute of limitations is tolled for period of time taken by agency to deny claim, or ninety days if agency fails to make a final disposition of the claim); Cone, 2014 WL 1383028 at *3 (same). Therefore, Campbell had two years from the date of K.A.'s death to file her wrongful death action against the City. However, during the period in which she presented her claim to the City pursuant to Florida Statute section 768.28(6)(a), the limitations period paused, but would start again upon the City's written denial of her claim, or in the absence of a written denial, ninety days after her submitting notice to the City.

         Here, K.A. died on Sunday, March 19, 2015, and as such without tolling the two-year limitations period would end on Monday, March 20, 2017.[6] On January 23, 2017, Campbell presented her notice of claim to the City pursuant to Florida Statutes section 768.28(6)(a), Complaint at ¶ 2, which temporarily stopped the running of the limitations period. The City, however, did not provide Campbell with a written denial of her claim. As a result, the limitations period began to run again on April 24, 2017, ninety days after Campbell presented her claim to the City. Therefore, the limitations period on K.A.'s wrongful death claim expired on June 19, 2017.

         In asserting that her negligence claim against the City is not untimely, Campbell misreads section 768.28(6)(d) and overlooks case law interpreting that provision.Campbell reads the language which states that the “statute of limitations for . . . wrongful death actions is tolled for the period of time taken by the . . . appropriate agency to deny the claim, ” Fla. Stat. Ann. § 768.28(6)(d), to suggest that unless and until the City affirmatively denies the claim, the limitations period remains tolled. Response at 3-4. She argues that the language “to deny the claim, ” indicates that there must be some action by the agency before the limitations period resumes. Id. at 4. Additionally, she contends that to the extent section 768.28 sought to deviate from common law sovereign immunity standards by imposing liability on state and municipal entities, such statutes must be construed strictly. Id. As such, she asserts that

[t]he legislature in amending section 768.28, as it relates to claims for wrongful death, could easily have stated that the limitations period was tolled until the agency denied the claim or the expiration of 90 days without any action. Instead, a strict reading of the statute indicates that the limitations period is tolled until such time as the agency affirmatively denies the claim. This places the onus on the agency, if it wishes to end the tolling period, to deny the claim. The expiration of the 90 day period without such a denial permits the plaintiff to file suit but does not end the tolling.
Based on a strict construction of the statute, plaintiff's claim was timely filed.

Id. (emphasis in original). However, in making this argument, Campbell overlooks the statute's explicit language providing that “the failure of the . . . appropriate agency to make a final disposition of a claim within 90 days after it is filed shall be deemed a final denial of the claim.” Fla. Stat. Ann. § 768.28(6)(d). This language is followed by the language which directs that “[t]he statute of limitations for . . . wrongful death actions is tolled for the period of time taken by the . . . appropriate agency to deny the claim.” Id. (emphasis added). Taken together, these two sentences dictate that the limitations period is tolled for the period of time that the agency takes to deny the claim, and if the agency takes no such action within ninety days, the claim will be deemed denied. Case law supports this interpretation. See Thomas v. City of Jacksonville, No. 3:13-cv-737-J-32MCR, 2017 WL 3316478, *8 (M.D. Fla. Aug. 3, 2017) (agency's failure to dispose of a claim within ninety days is deemed a final denial of the claim); Skyles, 2017 WL 1322071 at *2-3 (statute of limitations is tolled for period of time taken by agency to deny claim, or ninety days if agency fails to make a final disposition of the claim); Cone, 2014 WL 1383028 at *3 (same).

         In short, K.A.'s wrongful death claim accrued on March 19, 2015, and the limitations period began to run. It was tolled beginning on January 23, 2017, for ninety days, at which point the City's failure to respond to Campbell resulted in a denial of her claim. The limitations period then resumed on April 24, 2017, and expired on June 19, 2017.Campbell filed her legal action against the City on July 12, 2017. See Complaint at 1.Therefore, the Florida wrongful death claim is due to be dismissed with prejudice as barred by the statute of limitations.[7]

         b. Counts II and III - § 1983 Claims Against Nobles and the City

         i. Denomination of § 1983 Claims

         As to both Counts II and III, Defendants assert the claims in these counts are due to be dismissed because Campbell has incorrectly labeled them as implicating K.A.'s substantive due process rights. Motion at 12-13. While the Court agrees that Campbell improperly denominated Counts II and III, her erroneous naming of these claims does not warrant dismissal.

         Campbell titles Count II as “Deprivation of Life Without Substantive Due Process by Defendant Nobles.” Complaint at 6. Likewise, she titles Count III as a claim of “Municipal Liability for Deprivation of Life Without Substantive Due Process.” Id. at 7. Within each of these counts Campbell includes allegations consistent with claims based on a substantive due process violation. See id. at ¶ 19 (Nobles' action “shockingly offends a universal sense of justice and conscience”); ¶ 24 (municipal policy, practices, and customs violated rights in a way that “shocks the conscience”). See also County of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 847 (1998) (articulating the shocks the conscience standard of review for substantive due process claims); Cockrell v. Sparks, 510 F.3d 1307, 1311 (11th Cir. 2007 (applying shocks the conscience standard of review for substantive due process claims). However, within each count, Campbell also asserts that Nobles' and the City's actions are subject to liability “under 42 U.S.C. section 1983, as a violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.” Complaint at ¶¶ 19, 24.

         The Supreme Court has unequivocally instructed that “all claims that law enforcement officers have used excessive force - deadly or not - in the course of an arrest, investigatory stop, or other ‘seizure' of a free citizen should be analyzed under the Fourth Amendment and its ‘reasonableness' standard, rather than under a ‘substantive due process' approach.” Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 395 (1989) (emphasis in original). Likewise, a “substantive due process analysis is inappropriate if a plaintiff's claim is covered by the Fourth Amendment.” Hardy v. Town of Hayneville, 50 F.Supp.2d 1176, 1186 (M.D. Ala. 1999) (citing County of Sacramento, 523 U.S. at 843). See also Griffin v. Runyon, No. 5:04-CV-348 (DF), 2006 WL 1344818, *6 (M.D. Ga. May 16, 2006) (excessive force claim is properly analyzed under the Fourth Amendment). Moreover, the Court observes the well-established principle that the Federal Rules “do not countenance dismissal of a complaint for [an] imperfect statement of the legal theory supporting the claim asserted.” See Johnson v. City of Shelby, Miss., 135 S.Ct. 346, 346 (2014); see also Eiber Radiology, Inc. v. Toshiba Am. Med. Sys., Inc., 673 Fed.Appx. 925, 927 (11th Cir. 2016). Indeed, “[a] complaint need not specify in detail the precise theory giving rise to recovery. All that is required is that the defendant be on notice as to the claim being asserted against him and the grounds on which it rests.” Sams v. United Food & Comm. Workers Int'l Union, AFL-CIO, CLC, 866 F.2d 1380, 1384 (11th Cir. 1989); see also Dussouy v. Gulf Coast Inv. Corp., 660 F.2d 594, 604 (5th Cir. 1981) (“The form of the complaint is not significant if it alleges facts upon which relief can be granted, even if it fails to categorize correctly the legal theory giving rise to the claim.”). See also Keene v. Prine, 477 Fed.Appx. 575, 584 (11th Cir. 2012);[8] Evans v. McClain of Ga., Inc., 131 F.3d 957, 964 n.2 (11th Cir. 1997); Southern Pan Servs. Co. v. S.B. Ballard Const. Co., No. 3:07-cv-592-J-33TEM, 2008 WL 3200236, *4 (M.D. Fla. Aug. 6, 2008).

         The facts alleged in Campbell's Complaint, however unartfully titled, focus on Nobles' alleged use of excessive and deadly force, and of the City's purported customs, policies, and practices instituting, supporting, and permitting the same. See Complaint, ¶¶ 11-12, 16. Similarly, subsumed in both Counts II and III, Campbell asserts that Nobles and the City violated K.A.'s Fourth Amendment rights. Id. at ¶¶ 19, 24. Notably, Defendants had no difficulty identifying that the factual basis of Campbell's claims are grounded in the Fourth Amendment and responding accordingly. See Motion at 14-15. Therefore, to the extent Defendants seek dismissal of Counts II and III on the basis of how Campbell named those counts in the Complaint, that request is due to be denied. The Court seeks to avoid turning pleading into “a game of skill in which one misstep by counsel may be decisive to the outcome.” Siedle v. Nat'l Ass'n of Sec. Dealers, 248 F.Supp.2d 1140, 1143 (M.D. Fla. 2002) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 48 (1957), abrogated on other grounds by Bell Atlantic Corp., 550 U.S. 544, 562-63 (2007)). Accordingly, the Court will proceed to review the Defendants' substantive challenges to the sufficiency of Counts II and III of the Complaint.

         ii. Statute ...

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