Judge dismisses excessive force suit against Houma City marshals

By Scott Holland | May 13, 2019

NEW ORLEANS — A federal judge has dismissed the Houma City Marshal’s Office from a lawsuit involving courthouse confrontations and allegations of excessive force.

In an opinion issued April 16, Senior Judge Ivan Lemelle explained the dispute is rooted in two separate incidents. Keith Ross said he was at Houma City Court on Oct. 2, 2017, when a deputy marshal and Marshal Orville Callahan, who believed Ross to be talking to another inmate after the marshal had told him not to, “threw him on the ground, beat him, cuffed him and arrested him for resisting an officer, disturbing the peace and simple assault, all without probable cause and for the sole purpose of covering up the assault that had just taken place,” Lemelle wrote.

Ross said he was transported to the Terrebonne Parish Criminal Justice Complex and denied medical attention, also accusing defendants of misrepresenting the circumstances of his arrest to other officers.

Another plaintiff alleged details of a June 19, 2018, confrontation in which different marshals “yelled at her to leave the courthouse and then attacked her by smashing her face into the wall, thereafter handcuffing her and charging her with disturbing the peace without probable cause and for the purpose of punishing her for reacting to their treatment of her,” Lemelle wrote.

The complaint includes allegations of excessive force and false arrest and imprisonment as well as Americans with Disability Act violations and state law claims for assault and battery, negligence, willful and wanton conduct and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

“Plaintiffs merely state they have a ‘mental disability,’ but provide no further facts or details regarding their disabilitiespl," Lemelle wrote. "Plaintiffs do not identify a single fact that shows their alleged mental impairment substantially limited a major life activity.” 

The inability to meet this standard, he added, undercuts claims they were discriminated against because of their disabilities and also allegations of failure to provide accommodations.

With regard to the excessive force and false arrest and imprisonment claims, the defendants noted both plaintiffs pleaded guilty or no contest to charges related to their respective altercations and, under the 2000 U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Heck v. Humphrey, are barred from seeking damages under those charges.

“To find that plaintiffs were arrested and charged without probable cause would necessarily invalidate their underlying convictions,” Lemelle wrote. “Plaintiffs’ excessive force claims are similarly barred by their guilty plea and no-contest plea because the facts that they allege in their complaint in support of their excessive force claim stem from the same conduct that led to their arrests and charges.”

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has held that Heck does not explicitly bar such claims, but exceptions are only permitted when the factual basis of the underlying conviction is distinct from an excessive force allegation.

Finding those claims barred, Lemelle explained, he didn’t need to consider the defendants’ arguments of municipal liability, official capacity claims and qualified immunity.

With the federal claim dismissed, Lemelle declined to exercise jurisdiction over the state law claims.

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