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U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit Holds that Tuttle and Nicholas Families’ Claims Against Houston Police Officers May Proceed

Houston Police Department officers shot and killed Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas in a botched drug raid in 2019. Following their deaths, the Tuttle and Nicholas families’ (the “Families”) filed a lawsuit against the City of Houston, alleging that the officers used excessive force in executing the search warrant and that the search and seizure were unlawful. The Families asserted both direct claims and claims premised on failure to intervene against the individual officers. Importantly, the Families also asserted claims against Lieutenants Todd and Gonzales, who had a role in supervising the other officers, for excessive force and unlawful search-and-seizure based on direct liability and failure to supervise. The Families argued that they sufficiently stated a claim for supervisor liability against Todd. They then argued that the district court correctly concluded that Todd was not entitled to qualified immunity because the allegations against Todd for supervisor liability overcame qualified immunity.
The Fifth Circuit affirmed in part, reversed in part, and vacated in part. First, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of the individual officers’ motions to dismiss the Families’ claims for excessive-force and thus allowed those claims against the individual officers to proceed. The Fifth Circuit declined to address the motions to dismiss the search-and-seizure claims asserted against Sepolio, Salazar, Gallegos, Wood, Pardo, Medina, Reyna, Lovings, and Ashraft.
In addition, the Fifth Circuit held that the district court correctly allowed the Families’ failure-to-supervise claim under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 to proceed because the Families alleged multiple specific instances in which the officer fraudulently obtained a search warrant and in which violence occurred, and the officer’s supervisor knew about these infractions, but did nothing to correct them. Regarding Todd, the Fifth Circuit determined that the district court “lacked jurisdiction to enter any judgment respecting Lieutenant Todd.” Thus, the Fifth Circuit vacated the district court’s order. Regarding Gonzales, the Fifth Circuit dismissed the Families’ claims against Gonzales for excessive force and search-and-seizure claims based on direct liability. However, the Fifth Circuit concluded that the facts alleged support the inference that Gonzales failed to supervise Goines, and that a causal link exists between his failure to supervise and the actions that ultimately occurred. Thus, the Fifth Circuit held that the district court was correct in allowing the claims against Gonzales to proceed.
Finally, because federal qualified immunity does not apply to state-law claims, the Fifth Circuit declined to address whether the Families’ state-law wrongful death and survival claims against all defendants should be dismissed.
Read the full opinion here (Tuttle v. Sepolio, No. 22-20279, c/w No. 23-20013, 2023 U.S. App. LEXIS 12834 (5th Cir. 2023):