Eastland Court of Appeals holds deputies entitled to qualified immunity after takedown broke suspects jaw as video did not show constitutional level violations

Peter Klassen v. Gaines County, Texas, and Gaines County Deputy Sheriffs Ken Ketron and Clint Low, 11-19-00266-CV (Tex.App.—Eastland July 15, 2021)

This is an excessive force/§1983 case where the Eastland Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s granting of the County’s and deputy’s dispositive motions.

Deputies responded to a disturbance involving possible aggressive actions by Klassen. Klassen was ordered to the ground and, while one of the deputies was attempting to put Klassen into the prone position, Klassen moved his hands and the deputy used his body weight to move Klassen into position. This caused Klassen to strike his chin on the ground, knocking out several teeth and breaking his jaw. Klassen sued.  The deputies filed a motion to dismiss t under the Tort Claims ACT (“TTCA”), which the trial court granted. They then filed a motion for summary judgment for the remaining federal and state claims. The trial court granted the motion as to the state claims, leaving the federal claims pending. Klassen then filed an amended petition which was almost exactly the same as the previous petition except that he, relevantly, attached as an exhibit an expert’s opinion that the force used was excessive. In response, appellees filed another motion to dismiss and a motion for summary judgment in the alternative, which the trial court granted. Klassen appealed the granting of the motion.

The Court of Appeals specifically noted that the trial court stated in its order that it examined the entire record when it dismissed Klassen’s claims, as such an analysis indicates that the trial court dismissed the claims under its motion for summary judgment as opposed to a motion to dismiss under the pleadings. When doing so, the standard for determining whether a trial court made an appropriate holding when it considered certain summary judgment evidence is a review for an abuse of discretion. In this case, the Court found no such abuse.

The Court found dismissal of the deputies was proper under the TTCA. Second, the Court found there was no excessive force after reviewing the video.   Third, the Court found that qualified immunity shielded the deputies as Klassen was unable to establish specific actions constituted a violation of clearly established law. The Court found Klassen had suffered no “constitutional injury” via the excessive force claim, so the county could not be held liable for any failure to train its deputies.

If you would like to read the memorandum opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Bailey and Justices Trotter and Williams. Opinion by Justice Williams.