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Willis v. Blevins

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia

July 30, 2013

PETER WILLIS, Plaintiff,
v.
KENNETH BLEVINS, JR., et al., Defendants

Page 691

For Peter Willis, Plaintiff: Shannon Leigh Dillon, LEAD ATTORNEY, Shannon Dillon & Associates, Richmond, VA.

For Kenneth Blevins, Jr., Kenneth Blevins, Sr., Town of Colonial Beach, The, Defendants: Jennifer Lee Parrish, LEAD ATTORNEY, Medford Jennings Brown, IV, Parrish Houck & Snead PLC, Fredericksburg, VA.

For Edward O'Shea, III, Jonathan Franklin, Defendants: Alexander Francuzenko, LEAD ATTORNEY, Cook Craig & Francuzenko PLLC, Fairfax, VA.

For Todd Groendal, Carey Groendal, Defendants: Kenneth Francis Hardt, LEAD ATTORNEY, Sinnott, Nuckols & Logan PC, Midlothian, VA.

OPINION

Page 692

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Henry E. Hudson, United States District Judge.

(Granting in Part and Denying in Part Defendants' Motion to Dismiss)

This is a civil rights action against a number of law enforcement and public officials based in Westmoreland County and the Town of Colonial Beach. It is presently before the Court on Defendants Edward O'Shea III (" O'Shea" ) and Jonathan Franklin's (" Franklin" ) Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 10), filed on June 3, 2013. For the reasons set forth herein, Defendants' Motion to Dismiss will be granted in part and denied in part. [1]

I. BACKGROUND

The claims against O'Shea and Franklin stem from Plaintiff Peter Willis's (" Willis" ) arrest on March 15, 2011, for attempted first-degree murder, aggravated malicious wounding, and abduction. (Compl. ¶ ¶ 59-60, ECF No. 27.) Willis was incarcerated for 349 days in the Northern Neck Regional Jail before a jury acquitted him on May 8, 2012. ( Id. at ¶ ¶ 89, 90.) Willis's arrest and charges were based on statements made by Defendant Carey Groendal (" Carey" ) that Willis had attempted to murder her on March 8, 2011. ( Id. at ¶ 57.)

Defendant Kenneth Blevins, Jr. (" Lt. Blevins" ), a lieutenant with the Colonial Beach Police Department, investigated Carey's allegations, and O'Shea, an Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney for Westmoreland County, reviewed the evidence and prepared the case for trial. Willis claims that O'Shea engaged in numerous acts of misconduct throughout the proceedings. He asserts that O'Shea and Lt. Blevins conspired to: (1) provide Carey with access to Willis's voluntary, recorded interview about the events that occurred on March 8, 2011; (2) orchestrate a sham interview with Carey and her estranged husband, Defendant Todd William Groendal (" Todd" ), on March 30, 2011, to solicit fabricated statements; (3) re-characterize Carey's admittedly self-inflicted injuries as ligature marks; (4) fabricate photographs of the master bathroom in the townhome where the alleged events took place; and (5) use the fabricated evidence to mislead the Court during the pretrial hearings and at trial. ( Id. at ¶ ¶ 118.A.-F.)

As a result of the events discussed above, Willis filed suit in this Court on May 2, 2013. The Complaint asserts one cause of action against O'Shea--that O'Shea conspired with Lt. Blevins to fabricate evidence against him, in violation of 42 U.S.C. 1985(2). O'Shea moves this Court to dismiss the claim against him pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

" A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) tests the sufficiency of a complaint; importantly, it does not resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses." Republican Party of N.C. v. Martin , 980 F.2d 943, 952 (4th Cir. 1992) (citation omitted). The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure " require[] only 'a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,' in order to 'give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'" Bell A. Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson , 355 U.S. 41, 47, 78 S.Ct. 99, 2 L.Ed.2d 80 (1957)). A complaint

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need not assert " detailed factual allegations," but must contain " more than labels and conclusions" or a " formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action." Twombly , 550 U.S. at 555 (citations omitted). Thus, the " [f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level," id. (citation omitted), to one that is " plausible on its face," id. at 570, rather than merely " conceivable." Id. In considering such a motion, a plaintiff's well-pleaded allegations are taken as true, and the complaint is viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. T.G. Slater & Son v. Donald P. & Patricia A. Brennan LLC , 385 F.3d 836, 841 (4th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). Legal conclusions enjoy no such deference. Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009).

III. ANALYSIS

O'Shea offers three arguments in support of dismissal. First, he claims that he enjoys absolute immunity under Imbler v. Pachtman , 424 U.S. 409, 430, 96 S.Ct. 984, 47 L.Ed.2d 128 (1976), for all of the alleged misconduct. Second, O'Shea asserts that Willis has failed to allege sufficient facts to state a claim for conspiracy. Third, he argues that qualified immunity affords protection for any misconduct not shielded by absolute immunity. Willis contends that neither absolute immunity nor qualified immunity shields the purported misconduct and that he has alleged facts sufficient to state a claim for conspiracy to fabricate evidence. As will be discussed in detail below, it would appear that at least one of the alleged acts of misconduct may fall outside the zone of prosecutorial action protected by absolute immunity. When considered in the light most favorable to Willis, the allegations, though lacking in many respects, are sufficient in part to state a claim and to partially defeat O'Shea's assertions of absolute and qualified immunity at this stage of the proceedings.

A. Absolute Immunity

The absolute immunity enjoyed by prosecutors subject to actions under 42 U.S.C. § § 1983 and 1985 derives from the common-law immunity afforded to judges and extended to prosecutors acting in a quasi-judicial capacity. See Imbler , 424 U.S. at 420; see also Kalina v. Fletcher , 522 U.S. 118, 132, 118 S.Ct. 502, 139 L.Ed.2d 471 (1997) (Scalia, J., concurring). In developing the contours of absolute immunity for § 1983 and § 1985 actions, the Court has weighed the same public policy considerations underlying the common-law rule of prosecutorial immunity. The two principal concerns were (1) " that harassment by unfounded litigation would cause a deflection of the prosecutor's energies from his public duties" and (2) " that he would shade his decisions instead of exercising the independence of judgment required by his public trust." Imbler , 424 U.S. at 423; see Kalina , 522 U.S. at 125 (emphasizing that " the interest in enabling [the prosecutor] to exercise independent judgment when 'deciding which suits to bring and in conducting them in court'" is the bedrock policy justification for the grant of absolute immunity) (citation omitted). The Court concluded that absolute immunity for the prosecutor's performance of functions " intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process" represented the best means for preventing these undesirable outcomes. Imbler , 424 U.S. at 430.

The Court fully appreciated that the extension of absolute immunity to prosecutors for § 1983 and § 1985 violations would yield significant injustices for some defendants, stating that absolute immunity " leave[s] the genuinely wronged defendant

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without civil redress against a prosecutor whose malicious or dishonest action deprives him of liberty." Imbler , 424 U.S. at 427. However, the Court reasoned, " the alternative of qualifying a prosecutor's immunity would disserve the broader public interest." Id. A grant of only qualified immunity " would prevent the vigorous and fearless performance of the prosecutor's duty that is essential to the proper functioning of the criminal justice system." Id. at 127-28. Stressing the difficulty of balancing the competing ...


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