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Garner v. City of Ozark - 587 F. App’x 515 (11th Cir. 2014)

Rule:

Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(d) allows a district court to deny a summary judgment motion when a nonmovant shows by affidavit or declaration that, for specified reasons, it cannot present facts essential to justify its opposition. A Rule 56(d) motion must be supported by an affidavit which sets forth with particularity the facts the moving party expects to discover and how those facts would create a genuine issue of material fact precluding summary judgment. Whether to grant or deny a Rule 56(d) motion for discovery requires the court to balance the movant's demonstrated need for discovery against the burden such discovery will place on the opposing party. In qualified immunity cases, the Rule 56(d) balancing is done with a thumb on the side of the scale weighing against discovery. District courts should be especially careful in allowing a Rule 56(d) discovery before considering a qualified-immunity based summary judgment motion.

Facts:

Wynter Stokes, who was autistic, left his resident, wandered down the street, and entered the yard of a private residence. The owner of the residence called the police, and defendant Phil Dodson, a police officer for defendant City of Ozark (“City”) responded to the call. It was alleged that, without provocation or cause, Dodson repeatedly instructed his police canine to attack Stokes. As a result of these events, plaintiff Spring Garner, who was Stokes' parent, filed a lawsuit in federal district court against the City and Dodson, in his individual and official capacities, alleging numerous causes of action, including excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment and violations of the Americans with Disability Act (“ADA”). Defendants filed a motion to dismiss all claims except those of excessive force, assault, and battery against Dodson in his individual capacity. The district court granted the motion to dismiss on all the counts it considered with the exception of the ADA claim. However, the district court did not address the motion to dismiss regarding the assault or battery claims against the City. Defendants also filed a motion for summary judgment on all claims. In response, Garner filed an affidavit stating that she would need to present several expert witnesses in order to respond to the motion. The district court granted Garner discovery under Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(d) and denied the defendants' summary judgment motion. Defendants filed an interlocutory appeal.

Issue:

(1) Did the district court err by not considering the City's immunity-based motion to dismiss the state law assault and battery claims? (2) Did the district court abuse its discretion by granting Garner’s Rule56(d) motion for discovery?

Answer:

(1) Yes; (2) Yes.

Conclusion:

The court of appeals reversed the district court’s order on Garner’s Rule 56(d) discovery motion, vacated the district court's denial of defendants' summary judgment motion, and remanded the mater with instructions that the district court consider: (1) the City’s immunity-based motion to dismiss, and; (2) the merits of defendants' summary judgment motion. The court agreed with the City that the district court erred in failing to rule on the City’s motion to dismiss based on immunity under Ala. Code § 11-47-190, which provided immunity from a municipal employee’s intentional torts. In prior precedent, the court itself recognized this immunity under Alabama law, and the Supreme Court of Alabama held that under § 11-47-190, a municipality was immune from liability for the intentional torts of its agents. The court further ruled that the district court erred in granting Garner’s motion for additional discovery because she had not articulated what particular facts she expected to discover or explained how those facts would be relevant to the issue of immunity. An affidavit regarding expert opinions did not satisfy Rule 56(d), which provided a remedy when facts were unavailable to the nonmovant, the court ruled.

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