Spicer Partner Thomas Hickey Successfully Defends County and Sheriff in United States District Court

Sep 12, 2023 | Featured, News

In a recent court opinion, Spicer Rudstrom partner Thomas Hickey (Chattanooga office) successfully briefed a case wherein the United States District Court granted summary judgment to a local county and Sheriff that were alleged to have violated the civil rights of an inmate in their custody.  The lawsuit claimed that the county and the sheriff (in both his individual and official capacities), failed to provide updated training or increased supervision of personnel who, according to the plaintiff, “were obviously inadequately trained in their response to medical crises.”  The claims were brought under 42 USC § 1983.  The plaintiff also made a claim against the sheriff individually under 42 USC § 1985 alleging that the sheriff conspired with unknown deputies (listed as John Does 1 through 10) to deflect attention away from the department or the other defendants in deprivation of the plaintiff’s rights.

Hickey successfully argued in his brief that the 1983 claim failed on all counts. The 1983 claim against the Sheriff was dismissed first.  Hickey pointed out that a 1983 claim against the sheriff in his official capacity is nothing more than a claim for damages against the local governmental entity.  The Court agreed and dismissed this claim.  The individual capacity claims against the Sheriff were next addressed. Hickey argued that in an individual capacity claim against a Sheriff, the plaintiff must show (1) that the supervisory official at least implicitly authorized or approved or knowingly acquiesced in the unconstitutional conduct of the defending subordinate and (2) that the supervisor Sheriff cannot be held liable simply because he or she was charged with overseeing the subordinate.  The facts established that the sheriff did not participate, authorize, approve, or otherwise acquiesce in the arrest or subsequent treatment of the plaintiff.  He was not even aware of the circumstances regarding the detention until the plaintiff was released.  Without personal involvement in the underlying unconstitutional act, supervisors cannot be held liable in their individual capacities under § 1983.

The 1983 claim against the local county was also dismissed.  A 1983 claim may be brought against the local county, but the theory of liability must be something more than simple respondeat superior.  The plaintiff must be able to show the deprivation of a constitutional right and the municipal entity was responsible for that deprivation.  There must be a municipal policy or custom that led to the constitutional violation. To succeed in this case, the plaintiff must show the training was inadequate for the task performed, the inadequacy was a result of the municipality’s overt indifference, and the inadequacy was closely related to or caused the injury.  While plaintiff was unable to show any violation of a constitutional right which could be attributable to the local county in this case, the plaintiff also lacked proof that the local government policy failed to train the employees who were charged with carrying out the policy.  The County did have written policies and procedures in place and all officers were up to date on the certifications in those policies. Without any evidence of inadequate training for the provision of medical care or a medical crisis, the case could not survive against the County.

Finally, the plaintiff attempted a 42 USC § 1985 claim against the sheriff which amounts to a conspiracy claim with the Sheriff conspiring with deputies to deprive directly or indirectly a person of equal protection of the laws and acted furtherance of the conspiracy which causes injury to a person or property.  There was no argument presented in opposition to this section of the motion for summary judgment and the court ordered the plaintiff had abandoned it.  The reason there was no argument in opposition was because the facts simply did not exist for a 1985 claim to sustain.

While the court dismissed the Sheriff and the County defendants represented by Hickey, the case did remain open for a few more weeks to allow the plaintiff to show cause why the defendants John Does 1 through 10 which were also listed as defendants should not also be dismissed.  The plaintiff never did as mandated, and the court dismissed the case in its entirety.

Hickey demonstrated excellent knowledge of the requirements for the defense of 1983 claims against local governments and against local government officials in their individual and official capacities.  The dismissal of the case was a solid victory for this local county. Spicer attorneys possess the knowledge and experience to assist your local governments and their officials in defense of these 1983 claims.  Please let us know if we can help.