City Not Liable When One Officer Attacked Another

Written on 01/05/2024

Iain Watt is a police officer in the City of New Orleans, Louisiana. One day, his supervising officer, Sergeant Jamie Roach, instructed him to drive her to Harrah’s Casino in order to perform her payroll duties. Very shortly thereaf­ter, another sergeant named Hoffacker requested Watt’s assistance in clearing trash out of the station. Watt explained to Hoffacker that he was assigned to Roach and needed to drive her off-site. Hoffacker complained loudly to Watt, who left with Roach.

When they arrived at Harrah’s Casi­no, Hoffacker called Watt, asking where he was. Watt told Hoffacker, who drove to Harrah’s and approached the vehicle in which Watt and Roach were sitting. Hoffacker asked Watt to step out of the vehicle, removed his radio and gun from his person, and threw them inside. When Watt exited the car, Hoffacker shoved him, then punched him in the face. Watt fell onto the pavement and briefly lost consciousness. Hoffacker was arrested; Watt was treated at the hospital.

Watt sued the City under the Monell doctrine, which holds a municipality responsible for its officers’ constitutional violations under certain circumstances. In this case, Watt argued that the City was “deliberately indifferent” to Hof­facker’s misconduct, because it failed to properly train or supervise him. The only evidence of the City’s deliberate indifference cited in Watts’ complaint was the fact that Hoffacker had earlier been placed on administrative desk duty, where he was not permitted to carry a weapon or drive a police vehicle. The City successfully moved to dismiss the case, and Watt appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Fifth Circuit agreed with the lower court, stating, “The facts set forth in Watt’s complaint do not state a plau­sible Monell claim, only a speculative one. He provides no specific examples of past similar conduct by Hoffacker. The fact that Hoffacker was assigned to administrative desk duty and prohibited from driving a police vehicle or carrying a weapon demonstrates that the City was not deliberately indifferent to whatever infraction Hoffacker previously commit­ted, but instead took disciplinary action and reprimanded him.”

The Court also determined that even if Watt had properly pleaded deliberate indifference, his claim would still fail, because Hoffacker was not “acting under color of law” during the attack. The Court determined that “Hoffacker was acting pursuant to his own private aim of retribution against Watt for de­clining to assist him on the day of the incident. Hoffacker was not acting as a law enforcement officer – he even threw his gun and radio into the police vehicle before attacking Watt.” Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of Watts’ claim.

Watt v. New Orleans City, 2023 WL 6807033 (5th Cir. 2023).