Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals
Turner v. Williams
11th Circuit Court of Appeals
4/7/23, Judge Tjoflat
Topics: 1983 (First Amendment), Amendment of Pleadings
Turner was a deputy sheriff who retired from Nassau County’s sheriff’s office in 2008 and then accepted a similar position at the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (“JSO”).
When the sheriff of Nassau County announced his intention to retire, Turner began feeling out the possibility of running to succeed him. In 2017, Turner was working undercover and training another cop in undercover work. They planned to buy a small amount of cocaine from a known drug dealer. The sale seems to have been a setup by the drug dealer, as right after the dealer left cocaine in the car, another man approached from around a corner and pointed a handgun at Turner’s head. Turner pretended to see someone over the gunman’s shoulder, and when the gunman turned to look, Turner drew his own weapon and shot the gunman multiple times, killing him.
All three cops started sweeping the area for other potential gunmen, and the young trainee was recording on his iPhone. He urged the other two men to “get all the beer” out of the car, which they did. The court noted that beer was ordinarily kept in undercover cars as a prop.
When Turner was asked by responding officers if he had been drinking, he said no, but stated that there was beer in the car. The other two cops denied drinking but also said nothing about beer in the car or that they had removed beer from the car.
The sheriff of the JSO arrested the three-man team for tampering with evidence. Shortly after this, Turner was visited by a retired firefighter who told Turner that he was close friends with Sheriff Williams and essentially explained that the arrest was concocted to derail Turner’s candidacy for sheriff of Nassau County, as Sheriff Williams favored another candidate, Henderson, whom Williams thought would lose to Turner in an election.
The assistant state attorney announced he was dropping the charges against Turner, and Turner returned to work from administrative leave, but was told he was essentially being confined to a desk job for that point on. In response, Turner resigned.
Turner sued Sheriff Williams in his official and personal capacity, filing the civil suit in state court. Williams removed the case to the Middle District of Florida. Turner amended his complaint twice after the removal.
After dismissal of the Complaint for “shotgun pleading,” the Amended Complaint alleged (1) a 1983 First Amendment claim against Sheriff Williams in his official capacity alleging retaliation for engaging in speech against Sheriff Williams; (2) an identical claim against Sheriff Williams in his personal capacity; (3) a similar claim against the sheriff of Nassau County; (4) a Florida common-law civil conspiracy claim against both sheriffs as individuals for allegedly violating Turner’s First Amendment rights; (5) a Florida common-law false imprisonment/arrest claim against Sheriff Williams in his official capacity; and (6) the same claim against Williams in his individual capacity.
Both sheriffs again moved to dismiss, arguing that the complaint failed to satisfy the requirements of Twombly and Iqbal, again being replete with conclusory allegations that also failed to give the defendants fair notice of the claims and grounds upon which the claims rest as required by Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a).
At that point, Turner dismissed all claims against the Nassau County sheriff, leaving only the claims against Williams.
The district court dismissed the complaint with prejudice, and Turner appealed.
On appeal, Judge Tjoflat reminds us that while factual allegations in a complaint must be taken as true at the motion-to-dismiss stage, the same is not true of legal conclusions alleged in the complaint. The facts, after stripping away all legal conclusions, must make a claim for relief plausible, not merely possible. Labels, conclusions, and recitals of elements supported by conclusory statements are insufficient.
Judge Tjoflat held that the complaint was riddled with conclusory statements. He stated that where a district court faces an amended complaint containing multiple claims for relief based on conclusory and ambiguous allegations, the court has two options. After disregarding legal conclusions and conclusory statements of fact, it can dismiss the amended complaint with an explanation of why it is deficient and grant the plaintiff leave to amend, or it can convene a conference of counsel, explain why the amended complaint is deficient, determine whether the pleader can cure the amended complaint’s deficiencies, and, if he can, have the pleader replead the amended complaint accordingly and without delay.
He then observed that when a complaint makes it to the appellate record and, “without additional work, is practically unreviewable,” the appellate court also has two options. It can remand the case to the district court for further proceedings” or the judges can “reframe the pleading ourselves, using the non-conclusory factual allegations and applying the law to the well-pled facts to determine if the pleader has stated a claim for relief.” Here, they opted for the latter course.
The court was displeased that the facts, which covered 2008 to 2017, jumped around in time instead of portraying linear events. The facts incorporated into the claim did not identify how they related to the legal claims. “Much like a puzzle, for each count, the Complaint dumps pieces on the ground in the form of nine years of facts. Then it props up a picture of the completed puzzle in the form of” asserted causes of action and recitals of elements. It leaves the defendants and district court the task of putting those puzzle pieces together. The ambiguity would make it difficult for a defendant to intelligently respond.
Boiling down the complaint, the allegations were that Sheriff Williams retaliated against Turner for announcing a plan to run for Nassau County sheriff by having him arrested and condemning him to a lifetime of teleserve desk duties.
To state a claim for First Amendment retaliation under § 1983, a plaintiff generally must plead
(1) that the plaintiff engaged in constitutionally protected speech, (2) that the “defendant’s retaliatory conduct adversely affected the protected speech,” (3) and that the retaliatory action caused the adverse effect on plaintiff’s speech. First Amendment retaliation claims are a valid cause of action because “[t]he Amendment protects not only the affirmative right to speak, but also the right to be free from retaliation by a public official for the exercise of that right.”
Announcing his intent to run was constitutionally protected speech. A threat of arrest or reassignment would adversely affect the protected speech.
The arrest was conducted by a “large cast of characters,” not just Williams. Relevantly, a JSO detective with the Integrity/Special Investigations Unit submitted the affidavit supporting the arrest of all three of the undercover officer team. A different officer with the JSO then served that warrant and arrested Turner. An assistant state attorney approved the arrest warrant. And, most importantly a judge signed the warrant, indicating that probable cause existed to arrest Turner. Williams neither personally arrested Turner nor applied for the arrest warrant. Vicarious liability does not apply to 1983 suits. To show a First Amendment retaliation, the plaintiff must show a causal connection between the retaliation and the injury. The Complaint must allege facts that show that if Williams had no animus against Turner, he would not have been arrested. The independent actions of the assistant state attorney and the judge broke any causal chain.
Also, the probable cause for the arrest defeats the claim. Proving a lack of probable cause was necessary for the “but-for” causation element. The evidence showed that the two other cops removed the beer from the car “with at least the tacit approval” of Turner. While proving intent at a criminal trial might have been difficult, “probable cause” is a lower bar. At oral argument, Turner’s counsel admitted that the allegation in the Complaint that cops are permitted to use beer as props was false. There was a substantial chance that Turner participated in the evidence tampering. Thus, there was probable cause. Turner’s good arguments that he was not guilty of evidence tampering does not negate the finding of probable cause, a much lower bar.
The court briefly analyzed rare exceptions that avoid dismissal even when a plaintiff fails to allege that the arrest was without probable cause, but the exceptions did not apply in this case.
In regard to the assignment to teleserve, the Complaint failed to allege that such a reassignment “was an aberration.” In fact, it implied that such a reassignment was “fairly standard discipline.” This falls into the crack merely possible claims and plausible claims, falling short of the plausibility standard.
For the official capacity claims, the Complaint fails to allege some policy of retaliation.
Also, the other two police were arrested and had to perform community service, whereas charges against Turner were dropped. While the Complaint alleged that the other two were arrested solely to deflect suspicion about arresting Turner, that statement was conclusory.
In regard to the Florida conspiracy claim, there has to be an underlying tort, and here, no underlying tort has been found.