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Anderson v. Crews

United States District Court, N.D. Florida, Panama City Division

June 16, 2019

JENNIFER ANDERSON, as personal representative of the estate of MAGGIE GOURLEY, deceased, for the benefit of her survivors and estate, Plaintiff,
v.
KEVIN CREWS, in his official capacity as Sheriff of Washington County, Florida, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING SUMMARY JUDGMENT IN PART AND REMANDING THE REMAINING CLAIMS

          ROBERT L. HINKLE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This case arises from the decision of four deputy sheriffs not to enter a home without a warrant to prevent a suicide they were told had been threatened. The suicide occurred while the deputies waited outside. The plaintiff is the personal representative of the person who committed suicide. The defendants are the deputies in their individual capacities and the sheriff in his official capacity. The plaintiff asserts claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and under Florida law.

         The defendants have moved for summary judgment. All defendants are clearly entitled to summary judgment on the federal claims. The deputies are clearly entitled to summary judgment on the state claims. Whether the sheriff is entitled to summary judgment on the state claims is less clear; no Florida decision is squarely controlling. This order grants summary judgment on the claims whose resolution is clear and remands the state-law claims against the sheriff to state court. This order provides only a brief explanation; a comprehensive explanation would serve no purpose and might interfere with, rather than assist, the state court on remand.

         I

         On a summary-judgment motion, disputes in the evidence must be resolved, and all reasonable inferences from the evidence must be drawn, in favor of the nonmoving party. The moving party must show that, when the facts are so viewed, the moving party “is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). A summary-judgment motion cannot be used to resolve in the moving party's favor a “genuine dispute as to any material fact.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a).

         II

         Jennifer Anderson called 911 at 1:57 p.m. on May 25, 2016. She was in Bonifay. She said her adult daughter was about to commit suicide at her home near Chipley, a city about 10 miles from Bonifay. The 911 operator promptly dispatched deputies to the address and told Ms. Anderson he had done so. Ms. Anderson said she too was headed to the home.

         A deputy arrived at the home at 2:04 p.m. Three more deputies arrived separately over the next 10 minutes or so. The deputies knocked on the door but got no response. They looked into windows. At least one officer heard a thump at about 2:12 p.m., looked in through the unlocked front door, and saw a German shepherd dog but no person. Believing the dog may have caused the thump and that there was insufficient information to enter without a warrant, the officers did not enter. They did, however, summon an ambulance so that it would be available if needed.

         Ms. Anderson arrived at 2:22 p.m. She entered the home immediately, with the deputies right behind. They found Ms. Anderson's daughter, who had hung herself. Ms. Anderson brought this action in her capacity as the personal representative of her daughter's estate. She asserts the suicide occurred at 2:12 p.m., at the time of the thump.

         III

         A law enforcement officer's failure to protect an individual from harm ordinarily does not give rise to a claim under the United States Constitution and § 1983. See, e.g., DeShaney v. Winnebago Cty. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 489 U.S. 189 (1989). There are exceptions, but none apply here. This without more entitles all the defendants to summary judgment on the federal claim.

         An alternative basis for summary judgment for the deputies on the federal claim is qualified immunity. Qualified immunity applies to damages claims against public officers and protects “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341 (1986). See generally Carroll v. Carman, 574 U.S. 13 (2014); Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730 (2002); Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982). A public officer may be held individually liable only if the officer's conduct violated clearly established law. No. clearly established law indicated at the time-or indicates now-that officers have a duty to enter a home without a warrant in circumstances like these.

         An alternative basis for summary judgment for the sheriff on the federal claim is this: a sheriff, like a city, is liable under § 1983 for an employee's constitutional violation only if the violation was based on the sheriff's policy or custom or if the employee is one whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy. See, e.g., Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978). The deputies were not individuals whose edicts or acts could fairly be said to represent official policy. The sheriff had no policy for deputies not to prevent suicides or not to enter a home on facts like these. And the sheriff's department had never faced a situation quite like this; it cannot be said there was a custom of not entering homes to prevent suicides.

         In sum, the defendants are entitled to summary judgment on the federal ...


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