A Blount County deputy facing an excessive force lawsuit is asking a federal appeals court to reverse a judge’s decision to allow the case to proceed to trial, claiming the judge was in error and the entire case should be thrown out.

Henry “Hank” Vaughn, who was taken off patrol duties more than a decade ago and reassigned as a property and evidence technician, stands accused in a $6.25 million lawsuit in Knoxville’s U.S. District Court of improperly holding a 67-year-old Maryville resident at gunpoint and assaulting him before his arrest three years ago.

Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Pamela Reeves said the case could proceed to trial, minus two claims being sought for assault and wrongful seizure.

Denied immunity

Vaughn’s attorneys filed an appeal to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on April 13, and in recent court filings state Reeves should have dismissed the case outright. They contend Vaughn, as a law enforcement officer, should have been granted “qualified immunity” from the litigation.

Reeves disagreed.

The case deals with the arrest of Larry Hodge, who had advanced muscular dementia and was arrested in a hit-and-run crash involving minor damage on June 10, 2015.

Hodge died several months after the incident. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of his widow, Judy Hodge.

Her complaint states Vaughn was driving an unmarked pickup truck when he pulled her husband over, pointed a gun at him and jerked him from the vehicle. Larry Hodge reportedly sustained a head injury when he struck the ground. The complaint also contends the injuries contributed to his death.

Reeves dismissed the wrongful seizure and assault claims attached to Vaughn pointing a gun at Hodge, but said the remaining counts, which include battery and excessive force for removing Hodge from the vehicle, will proceed.

The lawsuit also seeks damages for alleged intentional infliction of emotional distress and loss of consortium, which Reeves said could proceed as well.

The judge found enough disagreement over the facts for a jury to decide the claims.

Decision ‘improper’

Vaughn’s appeal brief, on the other hand, contends the judge’s findings were off base.

“The District Court has issued legal findings that Officer Vaughn violated a constitutional right and ‘clearly established’ constitutional right of Mr. Hodge,” the brief states. “In doing so, the District Court has issued an improper decision regarding what is deemed ‘objectively reasonable’ in a ‘tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving situation.’”

The brief continues, “Moreover, the District Court has gone against the strict mandates laid out by the U.S. Supreme Court on what constitutes a violation of a ‘clearly established’ constitutional right.”

The appeal also targets case law Reeves used to inform her decision, stating it was too dissimilar to the situation at hand.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has recently reiterated and warned courts that public officials should not be denied qualified immunity unless the ‘particularized facts of the case’ and ‘existing precedent’ place it ‘beyond debate’ that the public official violated a constitutional right,” the brief states. “Contrary to this admonition, the District Court has used cases that are not sufficiently similar to the case at bar ... to deny Officer Vaughn qualified immunity.”

On July 9, Judy Hodge’s attorney requested additional time to file an opposing brief, which is due July 31.

County a defendant

The Blount County government is also a defendant, though Reeves dismissed one claim against the county alleging liability for failing to train and supervise its officers in the proper use of force and for failing to investigate allegations of excessive force.

One claim against the county alleging liability for assault and battery remains pending.

The lawsuit also previously targeted Blount County Sheriff James Lee Berrong and the following Sheriff’s Office employees: Detective Doug Davis, Lt. Doug Moore, Capt. Jeff Clark, Deputy Chief Ron Talbott and former Deputy Chief James Long.

Claims against each were dismissed in September.

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Crime and courts reporter for The Daily Times.

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(1) comment

sabrinahuffstetler

Thanks for covering my Daddys story. We have pictures of my Daddy post assault. TV ran them...TDT hasn't. Just curious as to why?

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