Louisiana Record

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

1st Circuit delivers mixed ruling in women's case alleging false arrest

By Sandra Lane | May 2, 2018

| Shutterstock

BATON ROUGE — The Louisiana 1st Circuit Court of Appeal delivered a mixed ruling April 13 in a suit filed by two women who say they were unjustly arrested. 

The suit was filed Dec. 16, 2014, by Rita and Sommer Brown against the Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Jerry J. Larpenter and an unnamed insurance company seeking damages for false arrest.

The appeals court upheld the trial court's dismissal of the lawsuit, which claimed false arrest. Dismissal of claims against Larpenter was also upheld.

The Browns were arrested for allegedly failing to appear at a judgment debtor hearing Nov. 22, 2013, concerning a debt owed to R.V. Cazavoux LLC, according to background information in the ruling. Both women said they were falsely arrested because they were never served with notice of the hearing. 

Yet at the trial on Oct. 19, 2016, a process server testified that he personally served both women Nov. 4, 2013, at their residences, the ruling said. Nevertheless, both women claimed they did not know to appear in court on that date and also were unaware of warrants issued for their arrest.

Although the two woman were represented by counsel at the earlier hearings, they filed their own lawsuits Dec. 16, 2014, seeking damages for what they deemed to be a false arrest. The separate lawsuits were consolidated in the trial court on April 9, 2015. On May 5, 2015, the sheriff’s office was dismissed from the litigation pursuant to a consent judgment. In addition, the Browns' appeals were dismissed by the trial court for nonpayment of appeal costs. 

The matter proceeded to a bench trial against Larpenter on Oct. 19, 2016, and the trial court ultimately ruled in favor of Larpenter, dismissing all claims made by Rita and Sommer in a judgment signed on Nov. 7, 2016. As a result of the trial court’s action, Rita and Sommer Brown filed a pro se claim with the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal.

At an April 21, 2017, hearing Larpenter, along with the court clerk, were present but neither of the Browns appeared nor was their counsel present.  As a result, the trial court dismissed all appeals related to the judgment rendered Nov. 7, 2016. 

The appellate record contains a note that counsel for Rita and Sommer Brown was notified of the judgment on May 3, 2017, but was never actually served with a copy of the judgment dismissing the appeals

In delivering the appeal court’s ruling, Judge Toni M. Higginbotham wrote, “This case involves credibility determinations on the part of the trial court made after the parties presented conflicting evidence on the central issue of service of process. An appellate court must not reverse a trial court's credibility determinations unless there is manifest error.”

“Reasonable evaluations of credibility and reasonable inferences of fact should not be disturbed upon review where conflict exists in the testimony," she added.

Higginbotham also wrote that the court’s thorough review of the record did not reveal a manifest error on the part of the trial court. 

“Therefore, we affirm the trial court's dismissal of Rita and Sommer's lawsuit in the November 7, 2016, judgment on the merits," she wrote.

Higginbotham concluded with the court's findings, including denying a motion to dismiss and maintaining the appeals; affirming the Nov. 7, 2016, judgment in favor of Larpenter; and vacating the trial court's dismissal of the April 21, 2017, judgment. The court also ordered the costs of the appeals to be distributed equally between the plaintiffs and the defendant.

Judges Guy Holdridge and Allison H. Penzato concurred. 

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Louisiana 1st Circuit Court of Appeal