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Hatfield v. Stubbs

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Harrison Division

October 27, 2014

DARRIN HATFIELD and DEBBIE HATFIELD, Plaintiffs,
v.
CHUCK STUBBS, individually and in his official capacity as Animal Control Officer of the City of Berryville; and CITY OF BERRYVILLE, Defendants.

OPINION AND ORDER

TIMOTHY L. BROOKS, District Judge.

Currently before the Court are a Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 5) and brief and exhibits in support (Doc. 6) filed by Defendants Chuck Stubbs and the City of Berryville on August 13, 2014. Plaintiffs Darrin and Debbie Hatfield ("the Hatfields") are represented by counsel but failed to respond to the Motion. More than two months have passed since a response was due. For the reasons explained herein, the Motion (Doc. 6) is GRANTED.

I. BACKGROUND

This case was originally filed in the Circuit Court of Carroll County, Arkansas. Defendants removed the case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331, due to the existence of a federal question as the Hatfields alleged violations of their constitutional rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The Hatfields contend that Stubbs, an Animal Control Officer for the City of Berryville, unlawfully shot, killed, and buried their two valuable, purebred German Shepherds named Egon and Fritz. The Amended Complaint explains that the dogs were implanted with microchips containing identifying information; however, it is undisputed that they were not wearing collars or external identifying tags during the events that are the subject of this lawsuit.

In the late evening of March 10 or early morning of March 11, 2013, Egon and Fritz escaped from their fenced back yard. At approximately 6:00 a.m. on March 11, the Hatfields called Stubbs with Animal Control and reported that their dogs were running at large. Then at approximately 7:30 to 8:00 a.m., an individual named Vaughn Farmer called Stubbs to report that two dogs were in his goat pen. Farmer also admitted to Stubbs that he had shot at the dogs and might have hit one or both of them. Although the Hatfields were not present to witness what occurred at Farmer's residence, they claim in the Amended Complaint that Fritz in particular "was not attacking or attempting to attack any animals or people...." (Doc. 3, p. 4). They further claim that "Stubbs made no effort to catch Fritz or obtain any assistance from other city officers to help catch Fritz" before using a.22 caliber rifle "to repeatedly shoot at Fritz from outside the fence pen." Id. As for the other dog, Egon, the Hatfields admit that "it is unclear whether Egon was killed by Farmer, or by Stubbs." Id.

After the dogs had been killed, the Hatfields allege-and Defendants do not deny-that Stubbs took the dogs' bodies to a pit that serves as a mass grave for dead animals at the Berryville Animal Control Shelter. For the next week or so, the Hatfields claim they contacted Stubbs repeatedly to inquire if he had located their missing dogs, but Stubbs failed to give them any information.

In the Motion for Summary Judgment now pending before the Court, Defendants argue that all claims, including three state-law causes of action and two federal causes of action, should be dismissed against Stubbs and his employer, the City of Berryville. The state-law claims include conversion of property, inverse condemnation, and outrage, due to the manner in which Stubbs allegedly killed and disposed of the bodies of Egon and Fritz. The federal claims are made pursuant to § 1983[1] for violations of the Hatfields' due process rights connected with the "taking" of their dogs by the City of Berryville, by and through Stubbs. The Hatfields further assert that the City of Berryville failed to properly train its Animal Control officers in handling, catching, and impounding dogs and established a custom or policy of selectively enforcing certain city ordinances regarding animal control in favor of other city ordinances.

While this case was pending in state court, the parties exchanged written discovery and took a number of depositions. Several excerpts of these depositions have been provided to the Court as exhibits to the Motion for Summary Judgment. In reviewing these materials, the Court must now decide whether to grant or deny summary judgment on all claims, considering the pleadings, evidence supporting the Motion, and the Hatfields' failure to provide any answering proof.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) provides that, "[t]he court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." The Court must review the facts in the light most favorable to the opposing party and give that party the benefit of any inferences that logically can be drawn from those facts. Canada v. Union Elec. Co., 135 F.3d 1211, 1212-13 (8th Cir. 1998).

In order for there to be a genuine issue of material fact, the non-moving party must produce evidence "such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Allison v. Flexway Trucking, Inc., 28 F.3d 64, 66 (8th Cir. 1994) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). In response, "[t]he nonmoving party must do more than rely on allegations or denials in the pleadings, and the court should grant summary judgment if any essential element of the prima facie case is not supported by specific facts sufficient to raise a genuine issue for trial." Register v. Honeywell Fed. Mfg. & Techs., LLC, 397 F.3d 1130, 1136 (8th Cir. 2005) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986)).

In the case of a plaintiff's failure to respond to a motion for summary judgment, the reviewing court must still address the merits of that motion and not rule automatically in the defendant's favor. Soliman v. Johanns, 412 F.3d 920, 922 (8th Cir. 2005), cert. denied, 549 U.S. 865 (2006); United States v. One Parcel of Real Prop., 27 F.3d 327, 329 n. 1 (8th Cir. 1994); Canada, 135 F.3d at 1213 ("When a motion would be dispositive of the merits of the cause if granted, courts should normally not treat a failure to respond to the motion as conclusive.").

III. DISCUSSION

A. Federal ...


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