ANALYSIS: The mother of a Georgia man who was fatally wounded in an officer-involved shooting in Oneida last year has filed a $50 million wrongful death lawsuit in federal court, alleging that her son's civil rights were violated.
Tammy Lewallen filed the lawsuit pro se — meaning she is representing herself, and did not hire an attorney to prepare the lawsuit on her behalf. The allegations were handwritten on a standard civil rights complaint form provided by the court.
At first glance, the lawsuit looks potentially costly for Scott County; Lewallen requests $50 million in damages. A closer examination of the lawsuit, however, seems to indicate that it might struggle to meet the muster that will be demanded by the court.
Such a lawsuit is not uncommon. In America's system of justice, anyone can file a civil complaint seeking monetary damages, even if they cannot afford to hire an attorney. There is no burden of proof required to file a lawsuit; that comes later. Lawsuits frequently target law enforcement agencies. Lewallen's complaint is the fourth lawsuit targeting the Scott County Sheriff's Department or its employees to be filed in federal court during the administration of current Scott County Sheriff Ronnie Phillips (2014-2018). Phillips' predecessor, the late Mike Cross, saw two such lawsuits filed during his administration (2010-2014). And Cross's predecessor, Anthony Lay, saw five lawsuits filed in federal court during his administration (2006-2010).
The nature of Lewallen's lawsuit, however, is uncommon. Pro se civil rights complaints are typically filed by incarcerated people who are alleging mistreatment. Typically, a lawsuit lodging allegations like Lewallen's are prepared by an attorney who is hired to represent the plaintiff. Of the 11 lawsuits filed against the Sheriff's Department or its employees in the last 12 years, only three have been pro se complaints handwritten on standard court forms.
Lewallen's complaint is also very unusual in the amount of damages requested. The $50 million sought by Lewallen is far greater than the damages typically sought in such lawsuits. For example, the last lawsuit involving the Scott County Sheriff's Department that actually went to trial — a 2004 civil rights violation lawsuit filed by the widow of slain deputy sheriff John John Yancey — saw the plaintiffs win their case, and they were awarded $5 million, or just one-tenth of the amount requested by Lewallen.
Finally, Lewallen's complaint is uncommon in the lack of detail it provides. The last two pro se lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court and involving the local sheriff's office were lengthy in the details provided by the plaintiffs. Lewallen's complaint, however, is relatively short: "On May 27, 2017, my son Ron Harlan Lewallen was killed by officers Tyler D. Johnson, Daniel Garrett & Dustin Laxton as they had pulled him over at a traffic stop. The officers shot multiple rounds into the car where my son was pulled over. The officers used excessive force, by firing multiple rounds of ammunition, killing my son's depriving of his life" (sic), the complaint reads. While the basis of Lewallen's complaint is excessive force because the officers fired multiple rounds into the vehicle, she does not offer proof as to why that use of force was excessive.
Based on the outcome of those two aforementioned pro se cases involving the local Sheriff's Department, the historical precedent does not seem favorable. Both of those cases were ultimately dismissed.
The first was filed by John Robbin Litton, against then-Sheriff Mike Cross, then-Deputy Steven Barclay and the Sheriff's Department in 2012. Litton alleged in the complaint that he was assaulted by another inmate at the Scott County Justice Center after corrections officers intentionally placed him in confinement with a hostile inmate. That lawsuit was dismissed by the U.S. District Court in Knoxville two months later because Litton failed to comply with court demands for proof.
The second was filed by a Corbin, Ky. man, Paul William Lewis, against interdiction officer Keith Hawkins and the Sheriff's Department in 2016. Lewis, who had been arrested by Hawkins on an outstanding warrant for probation violation in Kentucky, alleged that Hawkins had stopped the vehicle he was driving without probable cause. He requested that Hawkins be fired and that he be granted an unspecified amount in monetary damages. That case was dismissed by the U.S. District Court in Knoxville in March 2018 at the request of Hawkins' attorney. Lewis has appealed that decision.
The lawsuit filed by Lewallen names as defendants each of the three officers who were on the scene that May 2017 night, as well as the Scott County Sheriff's Department and Oneida Police Department.
The first thing that is likely to happen is attorneys for both the Sheriff's Department and Oneida Police Department will file motions that claims against the two agencies be dismissed. Federal courts have consistently held that law enforcement agencies are not entities that can be sued, with precedent set by a 1994 case in the Sixth District Court of Appeals. In Lewis's case, and in others, attorneys for the Sheriff's Department have successfully sought to have the case against the department itself dismissed.
It also seems likely that attorneys for the three law enforcement officers named individually in the lawsuit will seek summary judgment and a dismissal of the case. Whether that happens — and how quickly — remains to be seen, but at some point, the court will place a burden for proof on the plaintiff, Lewallen, who will have to provide facts to show that officers were not justified in using force against her son on that night in May 2017.