October 2012 - Closet Case
by Richard W. Millar, Jr.
According to the Internet, my original source for incontestably accurate information, the phrase “closet case” is used to describe a gay person who does not want to make a public disclosure of his sexual orientation. In my day, however, which I concede preceded the Internet, “closet case” was used in fraternity parlance to describe an active who was, shall we say, kept away from the house during rush for fear that his presence would drive away even the most remotely targeted rushee. They were often, but not always, legacies, taken in by a sense of obligation rather than fraternal bond.
But I write about neither of these two categories. I write instead about the hapless person, most usually a man, discovered barely dressed in the wife’s closet when the husband comes home unexpectedly early. Cartoon variances of this theme appear regularly in the New Yorker and other magazines. Indeed, there is a wonderfully elaborate video circling through the Internet which, and I can only partially describe it, shows a young man being chased through a forest by commandos with spurting assault rifles. After running, tumbling, and ducking, he seeks refuge in a high tree, only to find it toppled by a commando’s chain saw. The man and the tree somehow crash into a river, but he holds on in surging waters and ultimately finds himself on a conveyor belt in a furniture factory where he is encased in a rapidly mechanically assembled closet. The punch line is that the entire story is an elaborately constructed explanation which the man gives to a husband who has just discovered the man in his wife’s closet.
I always assumed that it was a wonderfully hilarious fictional conceit that rarely, if ever, happened. I find that I was wrong; it actually does happen.
As always, a case in point.
In this case, the victim, if that is how you classify the person found in the closet, became a plaintiff. The only difference from the usual cartoon version was that he was found by the girl’s mother, one Dorethea Collier, who “was a corrections officer at the Eagle Academy, which is a ‘boot-camp facility for minors’ run by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s office.” Butler v. Sheriff of Palm Beach County, 685 F.3d 1261 (11th Cir. 2012). Mrs. Collier’s regalia included a full uniform with gun belt and pistol.
The underlying facts are phrased so well in the court of appeal’s opinion that I could not possibly improve upon them:
It all started with a phone call. Nineteen-year-old Uzuri Collier called Larry Butler, who was of a similar age, and invited him to her house. Butler responded to the invitation the way most young men over the age of consent would have—he went. Once Butler was at Uzuri’s house, he and she consented to watch television for a while. Then they consented to do what young couples alone in a house have been consenting to do since the memory of man (and woman) runneth not to the contrary. The record does not disclose how long these two young people had known each other in the dictionary sense, but that afternoon in Uzuri’s bedroom they also knew each other in the biblical sense. While doing so, and while clothed in the manner that is customary in such matters, which is to say not at all, they heard someone coming into the house.
Id. at 1263.
The record does not tell us how the timing worked out as unfortunately as it did. It may be that the two young people simply lost track of time, which would be understandable given the circumstances. Or it may be that Uzuri’s mother, Dorethea Collier, left work early that day. However it happened, Collier came close to catching the couple coupling. So close that when they heard her, Butler had only enough time to dash into the bedroom closet wearing nothing but a look of surprise.
I am not sure if I had been caught naked in a closet by my girlfriend’s mother that I would have wanted to publicize it further by suing her mother, but then again, I am not Larry Butler. Mr. Butler felt that Mrs. Collier mistreated him by handcuffing him in his naked state and forcing him down on his knees, telling him in essence that she would shoot him if he ignored her commands. Id. at 1269. Compressing the story somewhat, Mom Collier kept Mr. Butler so pinioned until her husband came home who “also assaulted” young Mr. Butler. Id. at 1264. Finally he was allowed to get dressed and leave, although Mrs. Collier allegedly kept the gun pointed at him as he was dressing while she “warned him about the consequences of filing charges or even thinking about reporting the incident,” purportedly stating that if he did so, she “would submit a report to discredit him and would engage in some ‘creative writing’ if necessary to justify filing charges against him for trespassing . . . .” Id.
Mr. Butler sued Mrs. Collier in Florida state court not only individually but also in her capacity as a corrections officer with the sheriff’s office, claiming that she used excessive and disproportionate force upon him. Id. The defendants removed the case to federal court based on federal question jurisdiction and then moved to dismiss. Id. The district court ultimately did dismiss on the grounds that Mrs. Collier was acting as a private individual and not as a law enforcement officer. Id. The district court also declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Mr. Butler’s state claims and remanded them to state court. Id. at 1265. He appealed the district court’s dismissal and again lost. Id. The Court of Appeal at the outset observed that as Jim Croce warned, there were just certain things you do not do. Id. at 1262.
In one of his ballads, Jim Croce warned that there are four things that you just don’t do: ‘You don’t tug on Superman’s cape/You don’t spit into the wind/You don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger/And you don’t mess around with Jim.’ He could have added a fifth warning to that list: ‘And you don’t let a pistol-packing mother catch you naked in her daughter’s closet.’
Id. at 1262–63.
That was one of the most interesting introductions to a case I have seen in a Court of Appeal opinion, particularly a Federal Court of Appeals, and it melded nicely with the conclusion:
The amended complaint and Butler’s briefs leave no doubt that he feels mistreated, and with what appears to be some justification. If the allegations are true, Collier’s treatment of Butler was badder than old King Kong and meaner than a junkyard dog. She might have even of acted like the meanest hunk of woman anybody had ever seen. Still, the fact that the mistreatment was mean does not mean that the mistreatment was under color of law.
Id. at 1269.
Mr. Butler’s lawsuit gives the phrase “closet case” a whole new meaning.
Richard W. Millar, Jr. is a member of the firm of Millar, Hodges & Bemis in Newport Beach. He can be reached at email@example.com.