Eleventh Circuit Relies on Jim Croce in Dismissing Section 1983 Claim

Judge invokes Jim Croce

Court of Appeals used this guy’s tunes to find humor in alleged gun assault.

One rule of thumb regarding amusing judicial opinions is that the higher up the judicial hierarchy one climbs, the fewer such opinions one encounters. But here we have the distinguished U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, per Judge Ed Carnes, having fun with a case that probably wasn’t amusing from the plaintiff’s point of view, assuming the allegations of his complaint are true.

As alleged: A mother, a state corrections officer, came home in uniform to find her daughter and plaintiff engaging in intimate relations. The complaint alleges she pulled her gun on the naked plaintiff, threatened to shoot him, forced him to his knees, handcuffed him, tried to have him arrested, and further assaulted and threatened him. He was ultimately released unharmed physically.

The young man sued the mother and the county sheriff, her employer, in a Section 1983 action. The claim against the sheriff was based on the allegation the mother acted under color of state law (in an official capacity) when she allegedly assaulted the plaintiff.

The Eleventh Circuit rejected that claim, endorsing the district court’s position that the mother was no more than “an angry parent who happened to be in uniform, have handcuffs, and a firearm, which she used for the private ends of assaulting and scaring a young man she caught in bed with her daughter.”

Judge Carnes had a great time with the opinion, starting and ending with references to Jim Croce songs. Okay, this is just a wild guess, but I’m thinking Judge Carnes has never been forced naked to his knees, handcuffed, at gunpoint, by someone threatening to shoot him. Here are some excerpts (I substituted “plaintiff, “defendant,” and “defendant’s daughter” for the actors’ names):

In one of his ballads, Jim Croce warned that there are four things that you just don’t do: “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape/ You don’t spit into the wind/ You don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger/ And you don’t mess around with Jim.” He could have added a fifth warning to that list: “And you don’t let a pistol-packing mother catch you naked in her daughter’s closet.”

It all started with a phone call. Nineteen-year-old defendant’s daughter called plaintiff, who was of a similar age, and invited him to her house.  Plaintiff responded to the invitation the way most young men over the age of consent would have—he went. …

Then they consented to do what young couples alone in a house have been consenting to do since the memory of man (and woman) runneth not to the contrary. The record does not disclose how long these two young people had known each other in the dictionary sense, but that afternoon in … the bedroom they also knew each other in the biblical sense.

That’s when the mother came home. Discovering plaintiff with her daughter, she allegedly pulled her firearm on him. She apparently asserted that she believed the plaintiff was attacking her daughter.

She told plaintiff that if he moved or did not follow her commands, she would shoot him.

Plaintiff tried to explain that her daughter had invited him to the house, but defendant insisted that he must have broken in. She had the still-naked plaintiff turn around, she handcuffed him, and she made him get down on his knees. After staying there “for a prolonged period,”  plaintiff pleaded with defendant that he could not maintain that position any longer. Defendant responded by telling him to bend over or she would shoot him. She “made numerous threats against plaintiff, telling him that she would ‘kill him’ if he did not obey her commands.”

The amended complaint and plaintiff’s briefs leave no doubt that he feels mistreated, and with what appears to be some justification. If the allegations are true, defendant’s treatment of plaintiff was badder than old King Kong and meaner than a junkyard dog. She might even have acted like the meanest hunk of woman anybody had ever seen. Still, the fact that the mistreatment was mean does not mean that the mistreatment was under color of law.

Glad at least someone involved in the case had fun, Judge.

–Butler v. Sheriff of Palm Beach County, Case No. 11-13933 (11th Cir., July 6, 2012). Thanks to Paul Scott.

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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