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Evans v. Kirk

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Southern Division, Pikeville

December 7, 2017

JOHN KIRK, et al., Defendants.



         This matter is before the Court on the motion to dismiss (DE 6) filed by defendant Martin County, Kentucky. For the following reasons, the motion will be GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

         I. Background

         Plaintiffs Joe and Linda Evans own a pawn shop located on Main Street in Inez, Kentucky. They allege that Martin County Deputy Sheriff Paul Witten initiated a criminal action against them and then arrested them, knowing there was no probable cause to believe they had committed any crime. They further allege that Martin County Sheriff John Kirk and Deputy Witten obtained a search warrant for their pawn shop knowing that information in the supporting affidavit was false and misleading.

         The Evanses assert a claim under 18 U.S.C. § 1983 that Sheriff Kirk and Deputy Witten violated their Fourth Amendment rights. They also assert that Sheriff Kirk and Deputy Witten violated the Kentucky Civil Rights Act, KRS 344.010 et seq.

         The Evanses also assert these claims against Martin County, Kentucky and the Martin County Sheriff's Office (together, “the County”). As for the constitutional claim against the County, the Evanses assert that it is liable for failing to train and supervise the sheriff and deputy and that it is vicariously liable for the acts of the sheriff and deputy.

         The County moves to dismiss the claims, arguing that the Evanses have failed to state any claim against it under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).

         II. Analysis

         Counties can be liable under § 1983 only for certain actions and inactions. A county can be liable for “a custom, policy, or practice” that “was the ‘moving force' behind the violation of the plaintiff's constitutional rights.” Heyerman v. County of Calhoun, 680 F.3d 642, 648 (6th Cir. 2012). The “official or officials responsible for establishing final policy with respect to the subject matter in question” must make a “deliberate choice to follow a course of action.” Id. (quoting Pembaur v. City of Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 483-84 (1986)).

         The only county policy that the Evanses allege in their complaint is an alleged failure to train the Sheriff's Department personnel. (DE 1-1, Complaint ¶ 11.) Likewise, in their response, the Evanses make clear that the county policy at issue is the County's alleged “systematic policy of failure to properly train its law enforcement personnel.” (DE 11, Response at 3.)

         A county may be liable for “failure to train its employees or to institute a policy to avoid the alleged harm where the need to act ‘is so obvious, and the inadequacy so likely to result in the violation of constitutional rights, that the policymakers of the [municipality] can reasonably be said to have been deliberately indifferent to the need.'” Id. (quoting City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 390 (1989)). “The occasional negligent administration of an otherwise sound policy is not sufficient to impose municipal liability.” Id.

         Plaintiffs can establish the county's “need to act” in two ways. First, “the plaintiff can present evidence showing that the municipality possessed actual knowledge indicating a deficiency with the existing policy or training (or lack thereof), such as where there have been recurring constitutional violations.” Id. Second, the plaintiff can show that “the need to act should have been ‘plainly obvious to the [municipality's] policymakers, who, nevertheless, are ‘deliberately indifferent' to the need.'” Id. at 648-49 (quoting Canton, 489 U.S. at 390 n. 10). “This arises ‘in a narrow range of circumstances' where ‘a violation of federal rights may be a highly predictable consequence of [the municipality's failure to act].'” Id. at 649 (quoting Bd. of Cnty. Comm'rs of Bryan Cnty. v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 409 (1997)). For example, “the need to train officers in the constitutional limitations on the use of deadly force can be said to be ‘so obvious, ' that failure to do so could properly be characterized as ‘deliberate indifference' to constitutional rights.” Canton, 489 U.S. at 390 n.10 (citation omitted).

         The Evanses do not allege that there have been recurring constitutional violations by Sheriff Department personnel or that the County possessed actual knowledge of some deficiency in its training of the Sheriff's Department. Neverthless, the Evanses do allege that the County “failed to have in place a training program for deputies such as Witten.” (DE 1-1, Complaint, ¶ 10.) This can fairly be read to allege that the County did not have any training program in place for its deputies at all. If the County deputies regularly effect arrests and obtain search warrants, then the need to train them in the Fourth Amendment could be viewed as so obvious that the failure to do so would be seen as a deliberate indifference to citizens' Fourth Amendment rights. Accordingly, the Court will not dismiss the failure-to-train claim at this point in this proceeding.

         As to a failure-to-supervise claim, this is a “rare” claim. “Most agree that it exists and some allege they have seen it, but few actual specimens have been proved.” Amerson v. Waterford Twp., 562 F. App'x 484, 491 (6th Cir. 2014) (quoting Mize v. Tedford, 375 F.Appx. 497, 500 (6th Cir. 2010)). To sustain this claim, the plaintiff “must show that the city acted with ‘deliberate indifference' to the risk of the constitutional violation and that its deliberate ...

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