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Trump Tight, LLC v. Bell

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

May 18, 2016

TRUMP TIGHT, LLC, Plaintiff,



         Trump Tight, LLC ("Trump"), [1] opened a restaurant and lounge in Sussex County, Virginia, and, until its closing, butted heads with Sheriff Raymond R. Bell. During Trump's short-lived tenure in Sussex County, Sheriff Bell-through his deputies, including Lieutenant Vincent B. Givens-allegedly forced Trump to hire and pay off-duty uniformed deputies as security, decreased the maximum occupancy limit, refused to let Trump open to underage patrons, and, ultimately, shut Trump's facility down. Trump sued Bell and Givens, alleging multiple constitutional claims and one state law claim. The defendants now move to dismiss the case for failure to state a claim. Because qualified immunity protects Bell and Givens, the Court grants the defendants' motions to dismiss the constitutional claims. Without these federal claims, the Court declines to exercise jurisdiction over the remaining state law claim, dismissing this claim without prejudice.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Trump opened to the public in October 2013, after obtaining the proper licenses from the Commonwealth and entering into a lease. Every weekend or holiday night that Trump opened its doors, uniformed deputies from the Sussex County Sheriffs Office appeared to provide "security services outside and at the door of the facility."[2] (Am. Compl. ¶ 23.) The deputies saw plenty of action while providing these services, making multiple arrests for various criminal violations. (See Am. Compl. Ex. H.)

         On the nights that the deputies provided security, Trump had no control over the number or identities of the deputies present. Givens served as the point person on most nights, though he indicated that he worked at the direction of Bell. At the end of the night, Givens or his proxy would demand and collect cash payment from Trump for the deputies' services, refusing to accept a check or to provide any sort of documentation. The original cost of services was $25 per hour per deputy, but-as notified by letter from Bell on Sheriffs Office letterhead- increased to $35 per hour per deputy in January 2014.[3] In total, Trump paid the deputies $31, 550 in cash.

         On January 25, 2014, Givens, at Bell's direction, informed Trump of a reduction in the facility capacity from 624-the maximum occupancy approved by the Virginia Department of Health-to 400. The deputies on scene enforced this reduction by preventing patrons from entering. Trump's management met with Bell and Givens to discuss its concerns, but understood Bell's comments in the meeting as "a veiled threat that [Bell] could have Trump closed if [it] did not cooperate with Givens and him." (Am. Compl. ¶ 36.)

         On July 12, 2014, Trump planned to open to patrons eighteen years old or older-as opposed to patrons twenty-one or older, as it had been operating. Trump received clearance from the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control ("ABC") to open to these younger patrons. When Trump informed the Sheriff, however, Bell said "that he would not allow Trump to be open to those under the age of twenty-one, " and refused to meet with Trump to discuss it. (Am. Compl. ¶ 41.) Despite Bell's statement, Trump opened to patrons eighteen years old or older. The deputies initially refused to allow eighteen- to twenty-year-old patrons into the facility, eventually refusing admission to those twenty-one or older as well.

         Trump's management called Bell to protest. Between expletives, Bell yelled at the management and threatened to shut Trump's facility down. Bell said he would instruct Trump's landlord to cancel its lease and would work with an ABC employee to take Trump's ABC license. After the call, Bell came to Trump's facility and, with the assistance of Givens and the other deputies, entered the facility and directed all patrons to leave. Further, Bell made Trump not only refund the cover charge to patrons, but also pay the deputies who shut down the facility. Finally, Bell told Trump's management: "[I'm] going to revoke your [ABC] license as of Monday[ a]nd I've called [your landlord] . . . [y]our contract has not been extended." (Am. Compl. ¶ 9.) Bell ended the evening by saying "I want you out-I want you out-no, I want you out of here this week. Out of my county. Because you know what? You have this thug mentality." (Am. Compl. ¶ 49.) After this evening, "[h]aving reasonable fear of Bell's threats of arrest, Trump's management closed the business and surrendered Trump's ABC license." (Am. Compl. ¶ 68.) The landlord leased the premises to Empire Restaurant and Lounge, which pays off-duty deputies to provide security services.

         II. DISCUSSION[4]

         Trump brings one state law claim and five constitutional claims against Bell and Givens pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983: three under the Due Process Clause, one under the Fourth Amendment, and one under the Equal Protection Clause. The defendants move to dismiss on grounds of qualified immunity.

         Qualified immunity protects government officials from liability under § 1983 arising from the performance of discretionary actions within the scope of their authority.[5] Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). It applies so long as "their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Id. Qualified immunity protects "all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law." Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341 (1986). As the Fourth Circuit has said, qualified immunity exists so that "[o]fficials are not liable for bad guesses in gray areas; they are liable for transgressing bright lines." Maciariello v. Sumner, 973 F.2d 295, 298 (4th Cir. 1992). In other words, qualified immunity "gives ample room for mistaken judgments." Malley, 475 U.S. at 343.

         The analysis of a qualified immunity claim entails two steps. In the first step, a court must decide "whether a constitutional right would have been violated on the facts alleged." Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 200 (2001); Bailey v. Kennedy, 349 F.3d 731, 739 (4th Cir. 2003). This includes an analysis, based on the evidence, of the specific right allegedly violated, and a conclusion that such a right exists in the particular circumstances of the case. Wilson v. Layne, 526 U.S. 603, 609 (1999). In the second step, a court must determine whether, at the time of the violation, the right was clearly established such that a reasonable officer in the defendant's position would know that his actions would violate that right. Simmons v. Poe, 47 F.3d 1370, 1385 (4th Cir. 1995). A court has flexibility in the order in which it must perform this analysis. Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009) ("[J]udges of the district courts and the courts of appeals should be permitted to exercise their sound discretion in deciding which of the two prongs of the qualified immunity analysis should be addressed first in light of the circumstances in the particular case at hand.").

         In analyzing the second step, "the right allegedly violated must be defined at the appropriate level of specificity before a court can determine if it was clearly established." Layne, 526 U.S. at 615 (quoting Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 641 (1987)). Defining the right requires "a high level of particularity." Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 251 (4th Cir. 1999) (citing Anderson, 483 U.S. at 639; Taylor v. Waters, 81 F.3d 429, 433 (4th Cir. 1996)); see, e.g., Layne, 526 U.S. at 615 ("In this case, the appropriate question is the objective inquiry whether a reasonable officer could have believed that bringing members of the media into a home during the execution of an arrest warrant was lawful, in light of clearly established law and the information the officers possessed."). Indeed, the Supreme Court has "repeatedly told courts ... not to define clearly established law at a high level of generality." Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 131 S.Ct. 2074, 2084 (2011); see also Id. (providing the example that "[t]he general proposition . . . that an unreasonable search or seizure violates the Fourth Amendment is of little help in determining whether the violative nature of particular conduct is clearly established").

         Once defined, a court then determines whether the right "was clearly established at the time of the claimed violation" by looking at "the decisions of the Supreme Court, [the Fourth Circuit] and the highest court of the state in which the case arose." Wilson v. Kittoe, 337 F.3d 392, 402-03 (4th Cir. 2003) (internal alteration and citations omitted) (citing Edwards, 178 F.3d at 251); see also Jean v. Collins, 155 F.3d 701, 709 (4th Cir. 1998), cert, granted, vacated on other grounds, 526 U.S. 1142 (1999) ("[I]f a right is recognized in some other circuit, but not in this one, an official will ordinarily retain the immunity defense."). While the second step in a qualified immunity analysis "do[es] not require a case directly on point, . . . existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate." al-Kidd, 131 S.Ct. at 2083; see also Wilson v. Layne, 141 F.3d 111, 114 (4th Cir. 1998) affd, 526 U.S. 603 (1999) ("[A]lthough the exact conduct at issue need not have been held to be unlawful in order for the law governing an officer's actions to be clearly established, the existing authority must be such that the unlawfulness of the conduct is manifest."). In other words, at the time of the officer's actions, "[t]he contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right." Anderson, 483 U.S. at 640.

         For each of Trump's constitutional claims, the Court will determine first whether the facts in the complaint allege a violation of constitutional right, then will look to whether that right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation.

         A. Due Process Clause

         Trump alleges three separate due process violations, specifically: (1) for forcing Trump to hire and pay off-duty uniformed deputies as security; (2) for decreasing the maximum occupancy limit of Trump's facility; and (3) for shutting down Trump's facility on July 12, 2014. The Fourteenth Amendment mandates that "[n]o State shall . . . deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." U.S. Const, amend. XIV, § 1. The Due Process Clause contains both a procedural and substantive component, "guarantee[ing] more than fair process ... to cover a substantive sphere as well, barring certain government actions regardless of the fairness of the procedures used to implement them." Cnty. of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 840 (1998) (quoting Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702, 719 (1997); Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 331 (1986)) (internal quotations omitted). Trump alleges both procedural and substantive due process violations by the defendants in each of its three separate claims. The Court will evaluate these three claims as one, and will look at both procedural and substantive due process in turn.

         1. Procedural Due Process

         Procedural due process focuses on the procedures involved when a State effectuates a deprivation of protected interests. Carey v.Piphus, 435 U.S. 247, 259 (1978) ("Procedural due process rules are meant to protect persons not from the deprivation, but from the mistaken or unjustified deprivation of life, liberty, or property."). In order to succeed on a procedural due process claim, a plaintiff must show (1) the existence of a protected interest, (2) the deprivation of that interest by a state actor, and (3) the occurrence of that deprivation without due process of law. See ...

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