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Ragland v. Hinchey

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

July 27, 2016

JERRY DON RAGLAND PLAINTIFF
v.
JOHNNY HINCHEY, individually and in his capacity as County Judge for Searcy County, Arkansas; and SEARCY COUNTY, ARKANSAS DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          TIMOTHY L. BROOKS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Now pending before the Court are a Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 13) and Brief in Support (Doc. 14) filed by Johnny Hinchey in his official capacity only, and by Searcy County, Arkansas (collectively, “County Defendants”). Plaintiff Jerry Don Ragland filed a Response in Opposition (Doc. 17) and a Brief in Support (Doc. 18), and County Defendants filed a Reply (Doc. 20). Both sides also submitted deposition testimony and other evidence in support of their positions on summary judgment. Now that the Motion for Summary Judgment is ripe for decision, the Court finds it should be GRANTED for the reasons explained below.

         I. BACKGROUND

         According to the Complaint and the depositions submitted in this case, on or about the morning of Thursday, July 24, 2014, Mr. Ragland was drinking coffee and talking politics at the Harps grocery store deli in Marshall, Arkansas, along with others, including Sonny Wood, Charmaine Seaton, Eugene Raybee, and J.C. Beavers. (Doc. 15-2, p. 10). During that conversation, Mr. Ragland speculated aloud that Mr. Hinchey, who was Searcy County Judge at the time, might have taken bribes in exchange for awarding contracts to complete government work. Id. (“I said if they wanted to slip him back some money, there wouldn’t be no way nobody could know; nobody would know if they got a contract and he slipped him back money.”).

         Mr. Hinchey admits that “more than one individual” told him about Mr. Ragland’s comments in the Harps deli. (Doc. 15-1, p. 45). Mr. Hinchey testified it was his understanding that Mr. Ragland had told the group at Harps “he had proof that I stole some money from the county.” Id. at p. 44. Two days later, on the morning of Saturday, July 26, 2014, Mr. Ragland was working in a field owned by Elton Smith, erecting a fence on Mr. Smith’s property. (Doc. 15-2, p. 11). The field was “not very far from Johnny’s house, ” maybe three or four miles away. Id. at p. 12. As to the question of whether anyone would have known where Mr. Ragland was working that particular morning, he testified: “everyone knows me and if they’re talking, they know where I’m working at . . . .” Id. at p. 30.

         Mr. Hinchey testified that he merely “happened upon” Mr. Ragland’s truck parked alongside the Smith property. (Doc. 15-1, p. 44). Mr. Hinchey parked his own truck near Mr. Ragland’s and walked about 50 feet into the field where Mr. Ragland was working. Id. at p. 47. The men then began talking, and the talking turned to arguing. Id. at p. 44. According to Mr. Hinchey, Mr. Ragland swung his hammer at him, and then in self-defense, Mr. Hinchey “slapped the piss out of him.” Id. at p. 47. Mr. Hinchey was under the impression that Mr. Ragland was not injured by the slap and recalls that Mr. Ragland “went back to building the fence before I even left.” Id. at p. 48.

         Mr. Ragland’s recollection of the incident is vastly different. According to Mr. Ragland, Mr. Hinchey’s truck was not visible to him from the spot where he was working on the fence, so he was surprised to find Mr. Hinchey suddenly approaching. (Doc. 15-2, pp. 18-19). Mr. Ragland recalls Mr. Hinchey walking toward him “really screaming loud” and saying, “have you been talking about me down at Harps.” Id. at p. 12. Mr. Ragland denies that he swung a hammer at Mr. Hinchey. Id. at p. 19. Instead, the last thing Mr. Ragland remembers is Mr. Hinchey screaming at him, and then losing consciousness. Id. at p. 12. Mr. Ragland woke up to find Mr. Hinchey walking away from him, back to his own truck. Id. at pp. 12-13. Mr. Ragland’s head was spinning, and he had a sharp pain in his side. Id. at p. 13. He believes he was tased. Id. His side hurt for two or three days, and he urinated blood. Id. at p. 14. He had a bump on the back of his head from where he assumes he fell or was kicked by Mr. Hinchey. Id. at p. 17. He also had a bruise on his side. Id. at p. 26.

         The two men agree that one or two days after this altercation, Mr. Ragland went to the courthouse to talk with Mr. Hinchey. They shook hands and apologized to one another. Id. at p. 27; Doc. 15-1, p. 50. Mr. Ragland felt that “part of this was my fault for opening my mouth.” (Doc. 15-2, p. 27). Mr. Hinchey does not deny striking Mr. Ragland.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         "The 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." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The Court must view the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and give the non-moving party the benefit of any logical inferences that can be drawn from the facts. Canada v. Union Elec. Co., 135 F.3d 1211, 1212-13 (8th Cir. 1997). The moving party bears the burden of proving the absence of any material factual disputes. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986); Nat'l Bank of Commerce of El Dorado, Ark. v. Dow Chem. Co., 165 F.3d 602 (8th Cir. 1999). If the moving party meets this burden, then the non-moving party must "come forward with ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)). These facts must be "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)). "The 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)).

         III. DISCUSSION

         County Defendants argue they should be granted summary judgment because Mr. Ragland cannot establish facts sufficient to show that Mr. Hinchey struck him under color of state law, or that an unconstitutional County policy or custom was the moving force behind any alleged violation of his First Amendment rights. In the lawsuit, Mr. Ragland has sued not only Searcy County, but also Mr. Hinchey in both his official and personal capacities. A suit against a public official in his official capacity is the equivalent of a suit against the county itself. See Liebe v. Norton, 157 F.3d 574, 578 (8th Cir. 1998) (citing Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21, 25 (1991)). Since the Motion for Summary Judgment does not seek relief on behalf of Mr. Hinchey in his personal capacity, this Opinion will focus only on whether summary judgment is proper as to Searcy County and Mr. Hinchey in his official capacity.[1]

         Title 42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides in relevant part:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the ...

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