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Cadmus v. Williamson

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Harrisonburg Division

March 10, 2016

RICHARD R. CADMUS, Jr., Plaintiff,
v.
ROBERT T. WILLIAMSON, et al. . Defendants

MEMORANDUM OPINION

MICHAEL F. URBANSKI, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

Pro se plaintiff Richard Cadmus brings this action alleging various federal and state law claims against Robert Williamson, Sheriff of Frederick County, Virginia, Deputy Doug Nicholson of the Frederick County Sheriffs Office, State Magistrate Aimee Cook, and other unnamed members of the Frederick County Sheriffs Office.[1] Cadmus filed his original complaint on June 9, 2015, naming Williamson, Nicholson, Cook, and twenty-five "John Does" as defendants in both their official and individual capacities.[2] Williamson and Nicholson filed motions to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) and Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, claiming that the Eleventh Amendment barred any suit against them in their official capacities and that Cadmus otherwise failed to state a plausible claim on any count. ECF Nos. 14, 25. Cook likewise filed a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1) and Rule 12(b)(6), arguing that judicial immunity barred any suit against her and that Cadmus failed to state a plausible claim. ECF No. 22. Cadmus subsequently filed a motion for leave to amend his complaint, and attached a proposed amended complaint for the court's review. ECF No. 29. Williamson and Nicholson objected to the motion to amend, claiming Cadmus' amended allegations were made in bad faith and were otherwise futile. ECF No. 41. This matter was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Joel C. Hoppe for report and recommendation, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B).

In a report and recommendation issued on February 1, 2016, the magistrate judge recommended granting defendants' motions to dismiss, and granting in part and denying in part Cadmus' motion for leave to amend. ECF No. 57, at 56-57. The magistrate judge found that multiple claims in Cadmus' original complaint were barred by either sovereign or judicial immunity, and that Cadmus generally failed to allege sufficient facts to state a plausible claim on any count. The magistrate judge then concluded that Cadmus' proposed amended complaint failed to correct the deficiencies in his original complaint. Nevertheless, the magistrate judge recommended that Cadmus be given leave to file yet another amended complaint alleging any claim not barred by the Eleventh Amendment or judicial immunity. The report gave notice that objections should be filed within fourteen days. Cadmus filed one set of objections on February 16, 2016, ECF Nos. 58, 59, and filed an amended set of objections on February 17, 2016. ECF Nos. 60, 61. Cadmus also filed a motion to stay this court's review of the report and recommendation pending a period of jurisdictional discovery. ECF Nos. 64, 65.

For the reasons set forth below, the court will ADOPT the report and recommendation to the extent consistent with this opinion (ECF No. 56), GRANT Williamson's motion to dismiss the original complaint (ECF No. 14), GRANT Nicholson's motion to dismiss the original complaint (ECF No. 25), GRANT Cook's motion to dismiss the original complaint (ECF No. 22), GRANT in part and DENY in part Cadmus' motion to amend (ECF No. 29), and DENY Cadmus' motion to stay pending discovery (ECF No. 64). Cadmus is granted leave to file an amended complaint within fourteen (14) days, subject to the limitations set out in this Memorandum Opinion and the accompanying Order.

I.

Rule 72(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permits a party to "serve and file specific, written objections" to a magistrate judge's proposed findings and recommendations within fourteen days of being served with a copy of the report. See also 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The Fourth Circuit has held that an objecting party must do so "with sufficient specificity so as reasonably to alert the district court of the true ground for the objection." United States v. Midgette, 478 F.3d 616, 622 (4th Cir. 2007), cert denied. 127 S.Ct. 3032 (2007).

To conclude otherwise would defeat the purpose of requiring objections. We would be permitting a party to appeal any issue that was before the magistrate judge, regardless of the nature and scope of objections made to the magistrate judge's report. Either the district court would then have to review every issue in the magistrate judge's proposed findings and recommendations or courts of appeals would be required to review issues that the district court never considered. In either case, judicial resources would be wasted and the district court's effectiveness based on help from magistrate judges would be undermined.

Id. The district court must determine de novo any portion of the magistrate judge's report and recommendation to which a proper objection has been made. "The district court may accept, reject, or modify the recommended disposition; receive further evidence; or return the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions." Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3); accord 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). "General objections that merely reiterate arguments presented to the magistrate judge lack the specificity required under Rule 72, and have the same effect as a failure to object, or as a waiver of such objection." Moon v. BWX Technologies. Inc.. 742 F.Supp.2d 827, 829 (W.D. Va. 2010) (citing Veney v. Astrue. 539 F.Supp.2d 841, 845 (W.D. Va. 2008)), affd, 498 F.App'x 268 (4th Cir. 2012); see also Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 154 (1985) ("[T]he statute does not require the judge to review an issue de novo if no objections are filed.").

Further, objections that only repeat arguments raised before the magistrate judge are considered general objections to the entirety of the report and recommendation. See Veney. 539 F.Supp.2d at 845. As the court noted in Veney:

Allowing a litigant to obtain de novo review of her entire case by merely reformatting an earlier brief as an objection "mak[es] the initial reference to the magistrate useless. The functions of the district court are effectively duplicated as both the magistrate and the district court perform identical tasks. This duplication of time and effort wastes judicial resources rather than saving them, and runs contrary to the purposes of the Magistrates Act. Howard [v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs.]. 932 F.2d [505], 509 [(6th Cir. 1991)].

539 F.Supp.2d at 846. A plaintiff who reiterates his previously-raised arguments will not be given "the second bite at the apple [ ]he seeks." Id. Instead, his re-filed briefwill.be treated as a general objection, which has the same effect as a failure to object. Id

II.

A motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) challenges a court's subject matter jurisdiction. Absent subject matter jurisdiction, a court must dismiss the action. Evans v. B.F. Perkins Co.. a Div. of Standex Int'l Corp.. 166 F.3d 642, 653 (4th Cir. 1999). "Although subject matter jurisdiction and sovereign immunity do not coincide perfectly, there is a recent trend among the district courts within the Fourth Circuit to consider sovereign immunity under Rule 12(b)(1)." Trantham v. Henry County Sheriffs Office. No. 4:10-CV-00058, 2011 WL 863498, at *3 (W.D. Va. Mar. 10, 2011) (collecting cases), afPd. 435 F.App'x 230 (4th Cir. 2011); see also Hendy v. Bello. 555 F.App'x 224, 227 (4th Cir. 2014) (affirming use of Rule 12(b)(1) to dismiss claims on sovereign immunity grounds). When a defendant raises substantive challenges to a court's jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1), the court need not accept the complaint's allegations as true and may consider facts outside the complaint to determine if it can properly exercise subject matter jurisdiction. Kerns v. United States. 585 F.3d 187, 192 (4th Cir. 2009). At all times, "[t]he plaintiff has the burden of proving that subject matter jurisdiction exists." Evans. 166 F.2d at 647.

In contrast, to survive a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a complaint need only contain sufficient factual matter which, if accepted as true, "state[s] a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Ashcroft v. Igbal. 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Ad. Corp. v. Twombly. 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A complaint is "facially plausible" when the facts alleged "allow[ ] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. This "standard is not akin to a 'probability requirement, ' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id. When ruling on a motion to dismiss, the court must "accept the well-pled allegations of the complaint as true" and "construe the facts and reasonable inferences derived therefrom in the light most favorable to. the plaintiff." Ibarra v. United States. 120 F.3d 472, 474 (4th Cir. 1997).

While the court must accept as true all well-pled factual allegations, the same is not true for legal conclusions. "Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Iqbal. 556 U.S. at 678; see also Wag More Dogs. LLC v. Cozart. 680 F.3d 359, 365 (4th Cir. 2012) ("Although we are constrained to take the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, we need not accept legal conclusions couched as facts or unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusions, or arguments.") (internal quotation marks omitted). To be sure, a plaintiff proceeding pro se is held to "less stringent standards" than counseled plaintiffs, and the court must construe his claims liberally. Erickson v. Pardus. 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). However, the court need not ignore a clear failure to allege facts that set forth a r cognizable claim. Weller v. Dep't of Soc. Services for City of Baltimore. 901 F.2d 387, 391 (4th Cir. 1990). Nor is a district required to recognize "obscure or extravagant claims defying the most concerted efforts to unravel them." Beaudett v. City of Hampton. 775 F.2d 1274, 1277 (4th Cir. 1985), cert, denied. 475 U.S. 1088 (1986).

III.

In his objections to the report and recommendation, Cadmus raises over fifteen objections to the findings of the magistrate judge.[3] These objections are evenly divided between objections to the recommendation to dismiss Cadmus' original complaint and the recommendation to grant in part and deny in part Cadmus' motion to amend. In some instances, Cadmus repeats arguments he raised previously or fails to identity any specific error in the conclusions of the magistrate judge. Those objections that reiterate prior arguments or fail to identify specific errors in the report and recommendation are properly construed as general objections, and do not warrant de novo review. See Veney. 539 F.Supp.2d at 844-46. Nevertheless, the court is able to identify several specific objections that entitle Cook to de novo review. Each objection-whether general or specific-is addressed below.

A. Defendants' Motions to Dismiss the Original Complaint

As the magistrate judge notes, Cadmus' original complaint "sets forth a long, somewhat meandering series of allegations" against various named and unnamed defendants. ECF No. 56, at 2.[4] Cadmus alleges seven counts brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985, and 1988, the Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and the common law of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Count 1 alleges false arrest and malicious prosecution against defendants Nicholson and Cook. ECF No. 2, at ¶¶ 76-79. Count 2 alleges unreasonable search and seizure against Nicholson and two unnamed deputies. Id. at ¶¶ 80-82. Count 3 alleges a conspiracy to violate Cadmus' civil rights against unspecified defendants. Id. at ¶¶ 83-85. Count 4 alleges supervisory liability against Williamson and other unnamed defendants. Id. At ¶¶ 86-89. Count 5 alleges equal protection violations against unspecified defendants. Id. at ¶¶ 90-91. Count 6 alleges intentional infliction of emotional distress against unspecified defendants. Id. at ¶¶ 92-94. Count 7 alleges a state law malicious prosecution claim against Nicholson and Cook. Id. at ¶ 95- 100.¶¶Cadmus also requests injunctive relief "to correct government procedure" but fails to note what specific relief he seeks. Id. at ¶ 101. Willmson, Nicholson, Cook, and the "John Doe" defendants are all sued in both their individual and official capacities. Id. at 1.

1. Claims Against Williamson and Nicholson in their Official Capacities

The magistrate judge recommended dismissal pursuant to the Eleventh Amendment of any claim alleged against Williamson and Nicholson in their official capacities as sheriff and deputy sheriff. Cadmus objects, at least with respect to Williamson, and argues that Williamson previously consented to suit in his official capacity in Baber v. County of Frederick. Va.. No. 5.-12-CV-037, 2013 WL 3788615 (W.D. Va. July 19, 2013). He also argues that any claim against Williamson in his official capacity should be construed as an action against Frederick County and the Frederick County Board of Supervisors. Cadmus claims there is a "causal link" between the policies followed by the Frederick County Sheriffs Office, the Frederick County Board of Supervisors, and Frederick County. As such, Cadmus believes the Eleventh Amendment is inapplicable to any claim against Williamson in his official capacity because those claims are best construed as municipal liability claims. The court disagrees.

The Eleventh Amendment protects a state, its agents, and other "state instrumentalities" from suit for monetary damages in federal court, absent evidence that Congress validly abrogated such immunity, that the state consented to suit, or that the plaintiff seeks only injunctive relief. Bland v. Roberts. 730 F.3d 368, 389 (4th Cir. 2013); see also Clay v. Campbell County Sheriffs Office. No. 6:12-CV-00062, 2013 WL 3245153, at *4 (W.D. Va. June 26, 2013) (describing the three exceptions to Eleventh Amendment immunity). This immunity extends to state officials or "arms of the State" when a judgment against those officials would be paid from the state's treasury. Bland. 730 F.3d at 390. A sheriff is a constitutional officer in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and is thus an "arm of the State" for purposes of the Eleventh Amendment. See Va. Const. Art. VII § 4; Va. Code. Ann. § 15.2-1609; Bland. 730 F.2d at 390. Moreover, "[i]t is well settled that 'a suit against a state official in his or her official capacity is not a suit against the official but rather a suit against the official's office.'" Francis v. Woody. No. 3:09-CV-325, 2009 WL 1442015, at *3-4 (E.D. Va. May 22, 2009) (citing Williams-El v. Dunning. 816 F.Supp. 418, 420 (E.D. Va. 1993)). Therefore, a suit against a Virginia sheriff and his deputies in their official capacities is actually a suit against the Commonwealth and is barred by the Eleventh Amendment to the extent that the suit seeks retrospective, monetary damages paid from the Virginia treasury. See, e.g.. Bell v. City of Roanoke Sheriffs Office. No. 7-.09-CV-00214, 2009 WL 5083459, at *2 (W.D. Va. Dec. 23, 2009); Estate of Harvey v. Roanoke City Sheriffs Office. No. 7:06-CV-00603, 2007 WL 602091, at *3 (W.D. Va. Feb. 23, 2007); Harris v. Hayter. 970 F.Supp. 500, 502 (W.D. Va. 1997); Keathley v. Vitale. 866 F.Supp. 272, 276 (E.D. Va. 1994).

In this case, the magistrate judge correcdy found that Sheriff Williamson is a constitutional officer, that Deputy Nicholson is his agent, and that any damages awarded against them in their official capacities would be paid by a trust funded through the state treasury. ECF No. 56, at 10-11. As there is no evidence of any abrogation or waiver of immunity under the laws applicable to this case, the Eleventh Amendment bars claims against Williamson and Nicholson in their official capacities as employees of the Frederick County Sheriffs Office. See Bland. 730 F.3d at 391 ("[T]o the extent that the claims seek monetary relief against the [s]heriff in his official capacity, the district court correctly ruled that the [s]heriff is entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity."). Claims against these defendants in their official capacities must therefore be dismissed with prejudice.

In his objections, Cadmus cites Baber v. County of Frederick as evidence that the Eleventh Amendment does not apply in this case. ECF No. 61, at 1-3. In Baber. various public employees brought suit against Frederick County and Sheriff Williamson in his official capacity under the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et. seq.. and the Virginia Gap Pay Act, Va. Code § 9.1-700 et. seq.. alleging that they were not fully compensated for overtime hours. Baber. 2013 WL 3788615, at *1. After mediation, the parties in Baber agreed to resolve the dispute pursuant to a proposed setdement agreement, which this court approved on July 19, 2013. Id. However, it is not clear what role the Eleventh Amendment played in Baber. No defendant sought dismissal on such grounds, and this court could find no mention of immunity in any pleading filed in that case. Even assuming arguendo that the Eleventh Amendment applied, there is no evidence that the settlement agreement in Baber precludes Williamson from claiming Eleventh Amendment immunity in this suit. Thus, Baber does not affect the well-established rule that suits for monetary damages against a Virginia sheriff or his deputies in their official capacity are suits against the Commonwealth, and are thus barred by the Eleventh Amendment.

Nor did the magistrate judge err when he refused to to construe Cadmus' suit against Williamson as a claim for municipal liability. To be sure, the Eleventh Amendment does not bar suits against local government entities or municipal officials sued in their official capacity. Gray v. Laws. 51 F.3d 426, 431 (4th Cir. 1995). Yet, as stated above, Virginia sheriffs are constitutional officers, not municipal officers. They "serve separate and distinct from the municipal or local government in which [they] may operate." Brown v. Mitchell. 308 F.Supp.2d 682, 698 (E.D. Va. 2004) (citing Va. Const, art. VII, § 4); see also Keathley. 866 F.Supp. at 276 ("[A] sheriff is a constitutional officer who serves independent of municipal government.") (internal quotation marks omitted); Olivo v. Mapp. 838 F.Supp. 259, 261 (E.D. Va. 1993) ("[A] sheriff serves independendy of both municipal and state governments."). While at least one court has suggested that Virginia sheriffs and municipalities could be jointly liable for certain harms, that decision rested on facts not present in this case. See, e.g.. Brown. 308 F.Supp.2d at 699 (noting that a sheriff and municipality might both be liable for injuries received in local jails, insofar as Virginia law requires that municipalities build and maintain local jails) (citing Va. Code Ann. § 15.2-1638). But see Scott v. City of Virginia Beach. No. 2:10-CV-625, 2011 WL 11004246, at *4 n.l (E.D. Va. Sept. 29, 2011) (finding that a municipality cannot be liable for the actions of a Virginia sheriff and deputy sheriffs in their operation of a local jail).

Cadmus disagrees with this long-standing precedent in the Fourth Circuit, and claims instead that the Frederick County Board of Supervisors exercises control over the Frederick County Sheriffs Office and directs policymaking for the sheriff and his deputies. In support, Cadmus first cites decisions from other circuits holding that sheriffs are not "arms of the State" for purposes of the Eleventh Amendment. See ECF No. 61, at 2 n.3. However, the magistrate judge correctly discounted these persuasive cases, insofar as they rest on the law of other states. See, e.g.. Boyd v. Nichols. 616 F.Supp.2d 1331, 1343 (M.D. Ga. 2009) (citing Georgia law to suggest that Georgia sheriffs are, in certain cases, not state agents under the Eleventh Amendment). Second, Cadmus cites two decisions from federal courts in Virginia to argue that the magistrate judge should have applied a multi-factor test to determine if Williamson is a state actor under the Eleventh Amendment. In these cases, Blankenship v. Warren County. Va.. 918 F.Supp. 970 (W.D. Va. 1996), and McCoy v. Chesapeake Correctional Center. 788 F.Supp. 890 (E.D. Va. 1992), the court discussed eight factors that determine whether a particular entity is immune to suit under the Eleventh Amendment, including:

(1) [W]hether and to what extent any judgment will be payable from the state treasury; (2) the extent of funding provided to the institution by the state; (3) the extent of the state's control in appointing the governing body of the institution; (4) the degree of the institution's autonomy over its operations; (5) whether the institution is separately incorporated; (6) whether it has the power to sue and be sued and to enter into contracts; (7) whether its property is immune from state taxation; and (8) whether the institution's function is governmental or proprietary.

Blankenship. 918 F.Supp. at 974; McCoy. 788 F.Supp. at 892.[5] However, the magistrate judge was not required to explicidy discuss these eight factors in his report and recommendation. Many courts, both in this district and in the Fourth Circuit, conclude that Virginia sheriffs are state actors-and not municipal officials-without specifically citing the factors discussed in Blankenship and McCoy. See, e.g.. Bland. 730 F.3d at 390; Smith ...


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