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Fields v. Richland County Sheriff's Department

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Columbia Division

August 30, 2017

Benjamin P. Fields, Plaintiff,
v.
Richland County Sheriff's Department, Richland School District Two, Leon Lott, Defendants.

          ORDER AND OPINION

          MARGARET B. SEYMOUR, SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Benjamin Fields (“Plaintiff”), brought the underlying action against Defendants Richland County Sheriff's Department (“RCSD”), Richland School District Two (“Richland Two”), and Sheriff Leon Lott (“Lott”) (“ together Defendants”). Plaintiff alleges against RCSD state law claims of defamation (First Cause of Action); negligence, gross negligence, recklessness, and willfulness (Second Cause of Action); and public policy discharge (Third Cause of Action). Plaintiff also asserts causes of action against Richland Two for defamation (Fourth Cause of Action); and negligence, gross negligence, recklessness, and willfulness (Fifth Cause of Action). Finally, Plaintiff alleges a cause of action for race discrimination in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against RCSD and Defendant Lott (Sixth Cause of Action). ECF No. 1-1. Plaintiff originally brought his claims before the Richland County, South Carolina, Court of Common Pleas. Id. On February 13, 2017, Defendants RCSD and Lott removed the suit to federal court on the basis of federal question jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1343 and 1441(a) and (b).

         Defendants Lott and RCSD filed a motion to dismiss on February 13, 2017. Richland Two filed a motion to dismiss on February 21, 2017. ECF Nos. 4, 7. Plaintiff filed a response in opposition on March 9, 2017 and March 10, 2017, respectively, to which Defendants filed replies on March 15, 2017 and March 16, 2017, respectively. ECF Nos. 13, 14, 15, 17. In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Rule 73.02, D.S.C., this matter was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Thomas E. Rogers, III for pretrial handling. This matter is before the court on the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation (“Report”) filed July 17, 2017. ECF No. 21.

         I. RELEVANT FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff is a former employee of RCSD where he was hired as a law enforcement officer in January 2004. ECF No. 1-1 ¶ 7. For approximately seven years, Plaintiff served as a School Resource Officer at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina. Id. Plaintiff claims that prior to the underlying incident, he maintained “an exemplary record with Defendant RCSD; he had not received any formal write-ups or reprimands and had been exonerated from all prior complaints if any.” ECF No. 1-1 ¶ 8. Plaintiff was also employed by Defendant Richland Two as a conditioning teacher and football coach, where he received compensation and retirement benefits. ECF No. 1-1 ¶ 11.

         On October 26, 2015, an Assistant Administrator with Spring Valley High School requested assistance from a School Resource Officer in response to a disruptive student. ECF No. 1-1 ¶ 12. At the time, Plaintiff was one of two resource officers at the school. ECF No. 1-1 ¶ 9. Plaintiff responded to the classroom to speak with the student and the teacher. ECF No. 1-1 ¶ 15. Plaintiff was told that the student kept pulling out her cell phone during class despite requests from the teacher to put the phone away. ECF No. 1-1 ¶ 13.

         Plaintiff notes that he recognized the student in question from previous issues of disruption and as he approached the student, he stated to her that “she knew him, ” “they could work this out, ” and “for her to come with him.” ECF No. 1-1 ¶¶ 16, 17, 18. The student refused to cooperate. Id. Next, “Plaintiff [] engaged in soft empty hand control in an attempt to remove the subject student from the desk so he could remove her from class.” ECF No. 1-1 ¶ 19. As he attempted to remove the student, “the student began to fight back, including striking Plaintiff in his face. Plaintiff then brought the student to front of the classroom and placed her under arrest.” ECF No. 1-1 ¶ 20.[1]

         Following the incident, Plaintiff met with the student in his office and completed required paperwork and incident reports pursuant to RCSD policy. ECF No. 1-1 ¶ 22. The student apologized, and said that she “was having a bad morning.” ECF No. 1-1 ¶ 23. Subsequently, the student's guardian arrived at school and took her home. It was Plaintiff's belief and understanding that the student would be expelled. ECF No. 1-1 ¶ 24.

         Plaintiff resumed his job duties and reported to football practice in the afternoon, after which he was asked to attend a meeting with the principal and Plaintiff's supervisor, Captain Jon Ewing. ECF No. 1-1 ¶¶ 25, 26, 27. During the meeting, Plaintiff was informed that Internal Affairs planned to conduct a brief investigation and that Plaintiff should return to the school the following day. Id.

         In response to the widespread sharing of a video of the incident taken by another student, Lott appeared on the evening news and stated that Plaintiff had been placed on suspension without pay pending an investigation. ECF No. 1-1 ¶ 29. Plaintiff had not been informed of the suspension. Id. Later, Plaintiff was contacted by Captain Ewing and instructed to report to headquarters in full uniform the following morning. ECF No. 1-1 ¶ 30. At a meeting the next day, Plaintiff was informed that he would be placed on desk duty during the investigation. Plaintiff instead chose to take personal leave. ECF No. 1-1 ¶ 31.

         On October 27, 2015, Captain Flowers, the Training Captain, prepared a memorandum concerning the incident involving Plaintiff the prior day. The memorandum provided, in pertinent part:

When S/Dep. Fields approached [the subject student], she demonstrated Verbal Non-Compliance by refusing to get up and saying she was not under arrest. According to Policy 601 Fields had the option of using verbal warning, OC, Taser or soft empty hand control. Fields responded with what appeared to be soft empty hand control in the form of an arm bar (attempting to pull her out of her desk). At that time, [subject student] started to pull away, push the desk backwards and even appeared to strike Fields in the neck area. This is, at the very least, Defensive Resistance, and possibly Active Aggression. According to policy, Fields had the option of using OC, Taser, soft empty hand control, hard empty hand control, or Canine. Fields responded with a takedown, which is hard empty hand control. Once down on the ground, Fields appeared to pull her away from the desk and throw her towards the front of the classroom.

ECF No. 1-1 ¶ 32.

         On October 28, 2015, Plaintiff was asked to meet with Defendant Lott to discuss the events that had transpired. ECF No. 1-1 ¶ 33. This meeting was the first time Plaintiff had the opportunity to speak with Defendant Lott as Lott had been out of the State the prior two days. ECF No. 1-1 ¶ 34. Defendant Lott told Plaintiff “[h]e was in a tough situation and that he believed he had no option but to terminate Plaintiff's ...


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