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Willis v. Blevins

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia

August 16, 2013

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

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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

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MEMORANDUM OPINION

Henry E. Hudson, United States District Judge.

(Denying in Part and Granting 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 a Motion to Dismiss by Defendants Kenneth Blevins, Jr., Kenneth Blevins, Sr., and the Town of Colonial Beach (together the " Defendants" ) (ECF No. 15). For the reasons set forth herein, the Motion will be denied in part and granted in part.

I. BACKGROUND

The claims against the Defendants stem from Plaintiff Peter Willis's (" Willis" ) arrest on March 15, 2011, for attempted first-degree murder, aggravated malicious wounding, and abduction of Carey Groendal (" Carey" ) on March 8, 2011. (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.) The arrest and charges were largely based on Carey's statements about the events of March 8, 2011. ( Id. at ¶ 57.)

Kenneth Blevins, Jr. (" Lt. Blevins" ), a lieutenant with the Town of Colonial Beach Police Department, investigated Carey's allegations, and Edward O'Shea (" O'Shea" ), an Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney for Westmoreland County, reviewed the evidence and prepared the case

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for trial. Throughout the proceedings, Lt. Blevins's father, Kenneth Blevins, Sr. (" Chief Blevins" ), served as the Chief of Police. Willis contends that Lt. Blevins, as well as others, engaged in numerous acts of misconduct during the investigation and subsequent prosecution--for example, failing to conduct a full investigation, obtaining an arrest warrant without probable cause, fabricating evidence, and testifying untruthfully. ( Id. at ¶ ¶ 91-123.) Willis further alleges that Lt. Blevins's misconduct directly resulted from Chief Blevins's failure to train, supervise, and control him. ( Id. at ¶ ¶ 144-154.) Finally, he also attributes the claimed violations of his rights to the Town of Colonial Beach (" Colonial Beach" ) for its alleged custom, policy, and/or practice of failing to train, supervise, and control its police officers. ( Id. at ¶ ¶ 155-165.)

The above allegations form the basis of the suit filed in this Court on May 2, 2013. Willis's Complaint asserts four 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims against Lt. Blevins for: (1) false arrest; (2) malicious prosecution; (3) fabrication of evidence; and (4) conspiracy to fabricate evidence. [1] Willis alleges that Chief Blevins failed to train, supervise, and control Lt. Blevins, in violation of § 1983. Finally, he claims that Colonial Beach is liable under § 1983 for its policy, custom, and/or practice of failing to train, supervise, and control members of the Colonial Beach Police Department. The Defendants move this Court to dismiss these claims 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 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

The Motion to Dismiss focuses on six claims against three defendants. The Court notes at the outset that many of the allegations in the Complaint are conclusory

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or lacking in detail. Despite these limitations, the Motion will be denied with respect to the claims against Lt. Blevins. However, the Complaint, which governs the Court's analysis, is inadequate to plead actionable claims against Chief Blevins and Colonial Beach, and the claims against them will be dismissed. The Court will address each claim individually.

A. False Arrest

The First Cause of Action asserts a § 1983 claim for false arrest against Lt. Blevins. Willis alleges that " [a]cting under color of law, Lt. Blevins knowingly and deliberately arrested [him] without probable cause." (Compl. ¶ 93.) According to Willis, Lt. Blevins " sought warrants against [him] for Attempted First-Degree Murder, Aggravated Malicious Wounding, and Abduction based on Carey's March 14, 2011 written statement that did not contain facts -- real or fabricated -- that would support the issuance of such warrants." ( Id .) Willis further states that Lt. Blevins " knew that the theory of the crime implicating Willis was not supported by the evidence and was not plausible." ( Id. ) Apparently relying on these allegedly fraudulently obtained warrants, officers of the Fredericksburg Police Department arrested Willis on March 15, 2011, and he remained in custody until posting bond in February 2012. ( Id. at ¶ ¶ 60-89.)

Lt. Blevins contends that he had probable cause to seek the arrest warrants. In the alternative, he argues that even if he lacked probable cause, his actions were objectively reasonable. In either case, he concludes that he is entitled to qualified immunity.

" Government officials performing discretionary functions are entitled to qualified immunity from liability for civil damages to the extent that 'their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'" Washington v. Wilmore, 407 F.3d 274, 281 (4th Cir. 2005) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982)). " To escape dismissal of a complaint on qualified immunity grounds, a plaintiff must (1) allege a violation of a right (2) that is clearly established at the time of the violation." Evans v. Chalmers, 703 F.3d 636, 646 (4th Cir. 2012) (citation omitted). The determination of whether a right is clearly established hinges on " whether it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted." Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 202, 121 S.Ct. 2151, 150 L.Ed.2d 272 (2001) (citation omitted). So long as qualified immunity does not turn on disputed facts, " whether the officer's actions were reasonable is a question of pure law." Henry v. Purnell, 652 F.3d 524, 531 (4th Cir. 2011) ( en banc ). " [A] defendant can raise the qualified-immunity defense at both the motion to dismiss and summary judgment stage." Tobey v. Jones, 706 F.3d 379, 393-94 (4th Cir. 2013) (citing Behrens v. Pelletier, 516 U.S. 299, 116 S.Ct. 834, 133 L.Ed.2d 773 (1996)). As is the case here, however, qualified immunity is peculiarly well-suited for resolution at the summary judgment stage. See Willingham v. Crooke, 412 F.3d 553, 558-59 (4th Cir. 2005); Torchinsky v. Siwinski, 942 F.2d 257, 261 (4th Cir. 1991) (citation omitted).

Neither party disputes that an arrest without probable cause violates the Fourth Amendment. Rather, they disagree as to whether there was probable cause for the arrest or at least sufficient indicia of probable cause to render Lt. Blevins's belief in its existence objectively reasonable. " To address [Willis's] § 1983 claim, [the Court] need not formally resolve . . . whether [he was] arrested without probable cause."

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Torchinsky, 942 F.2d at 260. The Court " need only determine whether [Lt. Blevins] . . . acted with the objective reasonableness necessary to entitle him to qualified immunity." Id (citation omitted).

At the Rule 12(b)(6) stage, the Court must construe the allegations in the plaintiff's favor, giving him the benefit of all reasonable inferences. T.G. Slater, 385 F.3d at 841 (citation omitted). On the limited facts presented in his Complaint, [2] Willis has minimally, but sufficiently, alleged that Lt. Blevins lacked probable cause or alternatively presented false testimony in seeking the warrants. Furthermore, the sparse record lacks sufficient details to ascertain whether Lt. Blevins's actions were objectively reasonable. Because the Court is bound to construe the allegations in Willis's favor, it must deny qualified immunity, at least at this stage.

Lt. Blevins begins his argument with a recitation of the protection afforded to officers acting under a facially valid warrant. See, e.g., Porterfield v. Lott, 156 F.3d 563, 568 (4th Cir. 1998) (holding officers " could not have committed a tort of false arrest in violation of the Fourth Amendment because they were acting pursuant to a facially valid arrest warrant" ). He acknowledges that " the valid warrant 'shield' may not always apply to an officer who also provides the information on which the magistrate's determination of probable cause is based." (Mem. Sup. Mot. Dismiss 5). However, as Lt. Blevins correctly argues, qualified immunity is available under Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341, 106 S.Ct. 1092, 89 L.Ed.2d 271 (1986), when a reasonable officer could have concluded that the warrant should issue. Lt. Blevins contends that when applied to the facts at hand, this legal framework requires that the claim be barred by qualified immunity.

While Lt. Blevins may ultimately be entitled to the protection of qualified immunity, the current record before the Court--limited to the allegations in the Complaint--lacks sufficient detail to determine whether probable cause existed or whether it was reasonable to believe that probable cause existed. Paragraphs 56 through 59 of the Complaint provide the factual allegations supporting the false arrest claim. Willis asserts that on March 14, 2011, Lt. Blevins interviewed Carey, prepared a police report, and collected a written statement about the events of March 8, 2011. (Compl. ¶ 56.) However, his Complaint fails to specify what was revealed during the interview or recorded in Lt. Blevins's report. Willis adds that Carey's statement contained " an inherently incredible series of incidents that did not occur" and " did not describe any truthful or fabricated events . . . that would amount to probable cause to arrest and charge [him] with Attempted First-Degree Murder or Aggravated Malicious Wounding." ( Id. at ¶ 57.) The Complaint further asserts that before seeking the warrants for Willis's arrest, Lt. Blevins " collected no physical or medical evidence supporting" Carey's accusations, " conducted no examination" of the alleged crime scene, and " interviewed no secondary witnesses." ( Id. at ¶ 58.) Lastly, Willis alleges that on March 11, 2011, two of Carey's children gave statements to Lt. Blevins contradicting her account of the events, ( Id. at ¶ 59), though he offers no further details concerning the content of their statements.

Lt. Blevins begins his argument by highlighting some significant deficiencies in the Complaint. For instance, Willis

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fails to allege " that the arrest was made without a validly issued warrant." (Mem. Sup. Mot. Dismiss 6.) As well, the Complaint contains only a general allegation that Lt. Blevins used Carey's " false allegations as well as [his] own material omissions, misrepresentations, and fabrications to unlawfully obtain arrest warrants without probable cause . . . ." (Compl. ¶ 3.) And, Willis asserts no supporting facts to show that Lt. Blevins lacked probable cause.

Due to the barebones nature of the Complaint, the Court cannot reach the same conclusion as Lt. Blevins. As noted above, the Court must accept Willis's well-pleaded allegations as true and view the Complaint in the light most favorable to him. T.G. Slater, 385 F.3d at 841. Here, Willis has alleged that Carey's statements failed to establish probable cause for the arrest. Lt Blevins argues that he had probable cause or at a reasonable belief that probable cause existed, asserting that " it is clear from the Complaint that, truthful or untruthful, Carey . . . gave [him] a written statement indicating [Willis] committed offenses against her." (Mem. Sup. Mot. Dismiss 7.) But Willis has ...


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