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Mills v. Duke University

United States District Court, Middle District of North Carolina

December 15, 2014

WILLIAM S. MILLS, Ancillary Administrator of the Estate of Aaron Lorenzo Dorsey, Deceased, Plaintiff,
v.
DUKE UNIVERSITY, LARRY CARTER, and JEFFREY LIBERTO, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

JOI ELIZABETH PEAKE, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

This matter is before the Court on a Motion to Dismiss for failure to state a claim filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) [Doc. #17], by Defendants Duke University and Duke University Police Officers Larry Carter and Jeffrey Liberto. Plaintiff William S. Mills (“Plaintiff Mills” or “Plaintiff”) brings this case as the administrator of the estate of Aaron Lorenzo Dorsey (“Mr. Dorsey”), who was killed while on the premises of Duke University Hospital in Durham, North Carolina, on March 13, 2010. In the present Motion to Dismiss, Defendants contend that Plaintiff’s claims should be dismissed based on claim preclusion and/or issue preclusion, because all of Plaintiff’s claims are based on underlying facts and contentions that have already been considered and dismissed in a prior state court action. For the reasons set out below, the Court recommends that Defendants’ Motion be granted and that this action be dismissed.

I. FACTS, CLAIMS, AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff Mills alleges in his Complaint that Mr. Dorsey was just outside of the front north entrance of Duke University Hospital on March 13, 2010, at approximately 1:00 a.m. and was either attempting to obtain medical care or was “panhandling.” He was allegedly not armed. Plaintiff alleges that Duke University Police Officers Carter and Liberto approached Mr. Dorsey, “at which time the Defendant Officers started to assault and employ the use of unreasonable and excessive force against the unarmed and helpless Plaintiff’s Decedent.” (Compl. [Doc. #1] at 3.) Plaintiff further alleges that without provocation or justification, Defendant Carter and/or Defendant Liberto shot Mr. Dorsey in his head and fatally wounded him. Plaintiff claims that at the time, Mr. Dorsey did not present a threat of death or serious bodily injury to Defendant Carter or Defendant Liberto, or any other person.

Plaintiff asserts two claims for relief in his Complaint. Plaintiff’s First Claim is filed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and alleges that Defendants Carter and Liberto violated Mr. Dorsey’s Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights by using excessive force against him. Plaintiff also alleges in the First Claim that Defendants were deliberately indifferent to Mr. Dorsey’s serious medical needs in violation of his Fourteenth Amendment rights. Plaintiff seeks damages, costs, and attorney’s fees as relief.

Plaintiff’s Second Claim is asserted against Defendant Duke University under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Duke developed and maintained policies or customs exhibiting deliberate indifference to persons, which caused the violation of Mr. Dorsey’s constitutional rights. These policies or customs allegedly included inadequately investigating citizen complaints of police misconduct, and failing to adequately train and supervise its police officers. As in the First Claim, Plaintiff seeks damages, costs, and attorney’s fees as relief.

Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss is based upon the alleged preclusive effect of a judgment entered in a prior state court action filed by Plaintiff Mills. That state court action involved the same parties as this federal court action. Plaintiff Mills, as administrator for Mr. Dorsey’s estate, sued Defendants Duke University, Larry Carter, and Jeffrey Liberto for the wrongful death of Mr. Dorsey by negligence, assault and battery, and willful and wanton conduct. He sought damages, attorney’s fees, and costs as relief. The underlying facts are the same in the two actions. The state court granted Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment on all of Plaintiff Mills’ claims, and all of the claims were dismissed with prejudice. (State court Judgment [Doc. #18-3].) That determination was affirmed by the North Carolina Court of Appeals. In its opinion affirming summary judgment in favor of the Defendants, the North Carolina Court of Appeals described the facts in that case as follows:

Aaron Lorenzo Dorsey (“Mr. Dorsey”) was shot and killed by a Duke University Police officer at approximately 1:00 a.m. on 13 March 2010, just outside the main entrance to Duke University Hospital in Durham (“the hospital”). When the shooting occurred, Preston Locklear was being treated for a serious injury in the intensive care unit of the hospital. A number of members of Preston Locklear’s family (“the Locklear family”) were at the hospital that morning visiting him. The Locklear family members included: Charles Brayboy, Krecia Ann Brayboy, Alena Hull, Christine Locklear, Debbie Locklear, Justin Locklear, Shawn Locklear, Lenora Locklear, and Billie Jo Locklear.
In his deposition, Mondrez Pamplin (“Mr. Pamplin”), testified that he was a hospital security guard working in the front lobby of the hospital on the night shift between 12 and 13 March 2010. Shortly before 1:00 a.m. on 13 March 2010, a member of the Locklear family approached him to complain about a man panhandling near the entrance of the hospital. Mr. Pamplin went outside and saw Mr. Dorsey. He asked Mr. Dorsey if he was visiting someone in the hospital, and Mr. Dorsey replied that he was not. Mr. Pamplin then suggested to Mr. Dorsey that he leave Duke University property. Mr. Dorsey did not leave, so Mr. Pamplin contacted Duke University Police to report Mr. Dorsey as a suspicious person. Duke University Police officers Larry Carter (“Officer Carter”) and Jeffrey Liberto (“Officer Liberto”) (together, “the officers”) responded, arriving at the entrance of the hospital shortly after 1:00 a.m. Mr. Pamplin asked the officers to “check [Mr. Dorsey] out.”
The officers approached Mr. Dorsey and asked for identification. Mr. Dorsey turned away from the officers and started walking away. At this point, according to the officers’ testimony, Officer Liberto grabbed Mr. Dorsey and a struggle ensued. Officer Carter went to assist Officer Liberto, and Mr. Dorsey grabbed Officer Carter’s holstered weapon and attempted to remove it from Officer Carter’s holster. Officer Carter pressed down on Mr. Dorsey’s hand or hands, attempting to prevent Mr. Dorsey from obtaining the weapon. Officer Carter was yelling: “He’s got my gun. He’s getting my gun.” Officer Liberto let go of Mr. Dorsey and first began hitting Mr. Dorsey with his fists and then with his police baton. Officer Carter ended up struggling with Mr. Dorsey on the ground. Officer Liberto repeatedly asked if Mr. Dorsey had Officer Carter’s gun, and both officers commanded Mr. Dorsey to let go of the weapon.
Some members of the Locklear family testified by deposition that they saw Mr. Dorsey grab Officer Carter’s weapon and struggle with Officer Carter in an attempt to take that weapon. Other members of the Locklear family testified they could not see Mr. Dorsey's hands and, therefore, could not say if Mr. Dorsey was grabbing Officer Carter’s weapon. However, they did hear someone yelling things like: “He’s grabbed the gun[, ]” “[l]et go; let go; let go, ” and “let go of the gun.”

Mills v. Duke University, 759 S.E.2d 341, 342-43 ( N.C.App. 2014).[1] In their motion for summary judgment in state court, Defendants alleged that the officers: (1) were “legally justified in using reasonable force to protect the lives and safety of themselves and other innocent bystanders[, ]” (2) were “entitled to public official immunity[, ]” (3) “acted reasonably at all times and there [was] no negligence or other grounds for liability which can be imputed to Duke[, ]” (4) committed no acts justifying punitive damages, and (5) that “[Mr.] Dorsey's actions at the time of the incident ... were the sole proximate cause of his death and constitute contributory negligence[.]” Id. at 343.

In considering the issue of summary judgment on appeal, the North Carolina Court of Appeals concluded that “[v]iewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, Plaintiff provided no evidence tending to show that Mr. Dorsey did not attempt to gain control of Officer Carter’s weapon.” Id. at 348-49. The Court of Appeals found that Officers Carter and Liberto were responding to Mr. Dorsey’s unlawful and potentially deadly efforts to grab Officer Carter’s weapon, and that the acts of the officers were not corrupt or malicious or outside of their duties. Id. Defendants in the present case now move ...


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