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Patrick v. City of Petersburg

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

September 30, 2016

MARIETTA PATRICK, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF PETERSBURG, VIRGINIA, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          M. Hannan Lauck United States District Judge

         This matter comes before the Court on three motions: Defendant City of Petersburg, Virginia's ("Petersburg") Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff Marietta Patrick's Amended Complaint (the "Petersburg Motion to Dismiss"), (ECF No. 11); Defendant Deborah Broughton's Motion to Dismiss Patrick's Amended Complaint (the "Broughton Motion to Dismiss"), (ECF No. 12); and, Patrick's First Motion for Summary Judgment (the "Patrick Motion for Summary Judgment"), (ECF No. 21). The motions to dismiss have been filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).[1] The Motion for Summary Judgment has been filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56.[2]

         Patrick does not oppose the Petersburg Motion to Dismiss. (ECFNo. 17.) Patrick has responded to the Broughton Motion to Dismiss, (ECF No. 19), and Broughton has replied, (ECF No. 20). Broughton has responded to the Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 26.) Patrick has not replied, and the time to do so has expired. The Court dispenses with oral argument because the materials before it adequately present the facts and legal contentions, and argument would not aid the decisional process. The Court exercises jurisdiction pursuant to 28U.S.C. §1331.[3]

         For the reasons that follow, the Court will: (1) grant the Petersburg Motion to Dismiss; (2) grant the Broughton Motion to Dismiss; and, (3) deny as moot the Patrick Motion for Summary Judgment.

         I. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) Standard[4]

         "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) (citing 5 A Charles A. Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1356 (1990)). In considering a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, a plaintiffs well-pleaded allegations are taken as true and the complaint is viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Mylan Labs., Inc. v. Matkari, 7 F.3d 1130, 1134 (4th Cir. 1993); see also Martin, 980F.2dat952.

         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.'" BellAtl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (omission in original) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). Plaintiffs cannot satisfy this standard with complaints containing only "labels and conclusions" or a "formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action." Id. (citations omitted); see also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009). Instead, a plaintiff must assert facts that rise above speculation and conceivability to those stating a claim that is "plausible on its face." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). Therefore, in order for a claim or complaint to survive dismissal for failure to state a claim, the plaintiff must "allege facts sufficient to state all the elements of [his or] her claim." Bass v. E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co., 324 F.3d 761, 765 (4th Cir. 2003) (citations omitted).

         II. Procedural and Factual Background

         A. Procedural Background

         Warden Deborah Broughton, in her official capacity as the Animal Control Officer for the Petersburg; Deborah Broughton, in her individual capacity; and, Petersburg (collectively, the "Defendants"), removed this case from the City of Petersburg General District Court. (ECF No. 1.) In the City of Petersburg General District Court, Patrick filed a Warrant in Debt, alleging on a standard state court form that the Defendants owe her $25, 000 for "trespass" and a "[violation of civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983." (ECF No. 1-1.) After the Defendants filed a Motion for a More Definite Statement, (ECF No. 3), this Court ordered Patrick to file an amended complaint, (ECF No. 6).

         Patrick brings her Amended Complaint against the Defendants, alleging a violation of the Fourth Amendment[5] to the United States Constitution.[6] (ECF No. 7.) Patrick seeks $25, 000 in compensatory damages[7] and $100, 000 in punitive damages. Petersburg moved to dismiss the constitutional claim against it on the basis that Patrick fails to allege that Petersburg had a policy or custom of inadequate training. (ECF No. 14.) Patrick does not oppose the Petersburg Motion to Dismiss. (ECF No. 17.)

         Broughton has moved to dismiss the claims against her in both her individual and official capacities on the basis that Patrick fails to allege a constitutional violation. (ECF No. 13.) Broughton additionally contends that Patrick failed to plausibly plead punitive damages. Finally, Broughton argues that she is entitled to sovereign immunity in her official capacity and qualified immunity in her individual capacity. Patrick has responded to the Broughton Motion to Dismiss, (ECF No. 19), and Broughton has replied, (ECF No. 20).

         With the motions to dismiss still pending, Patrick filed the Patrick Motion for Summary Judgment on Broughton's "claim of 'qualified immunity' leaving only to be determined the amount of [Patrick's] damages under her filed [Amended] Complaint." (Mot. Summ. J. 1, ECF No. 21.) Broughton has responded. (ECF No. 26.) Patrick has not replied, and the time to do so has expired.

         B. Summary of Allegations in the Complaint[8]

         Patrick owns real property at 2029 Colston Street in Petersburg, Virginia, where she resides with several dogs. On or about February 25, 2014, Broughton came to Patrick's residence to investigate an injured dog in the backyard. Broughton then sought a search warrant for the property, alleging dogfighting and cruelty to animals under Virginia Code §§ 3.2-6571[9] and 3.2-6570, [10] respectively. Broughton provided an affidavit that stated the following:

On February 215, 2014[J Petersburg Animal Control was dispatched to 2029 Colston Street for two dog fighting [sic]. Upon arrival at 1759 hours, I met with officers at the scene at the residence to the left of 2029 and went into the backyard where we could see over the privacy fence and see a canine lying on the ground not moving, barely breathing, covered in blood; this dog has expired at the emergency veterinarian center. There were approximately 7 or 8 dogs in the back yard with the before mentioned canine. Another canine that is red and white in color had blood all over its head, neck and chest. I then entered into the back yard and retrieved the injured canine. I observed injuries on that canine that are consistent with dog fighting.

(Am. Compl. ¶ 15.) Broughton swore in the affidavit that she had personal knowledge of the facts set forth and that she had been Chief Animal Control Officer with the Petersburg Bureau of Police since 2012.

         The Amended Complaint alleges that Broughton "had absolutely no experience in investigating and [obtaining] search warrants in 'dog fighting' cases" and that "[h]er training consisted of nothing more than approximately [five] hours of classroom time." (Id. ¶ 18.) As a result, Patrick asserts, Broughton "knew... that there was no evidence of any 'dog fighting operation.'" (Id. ¶ 18.) The Amended Complaint further alleges that the Attorney General's Office for the Commonwealth of Virginia provided to Broughton a video that featured a dogfighting operation on Washington Street, which Broughton had been told was not the 2029 Colston Street residence. Broughton did not provide this information to the magistrate, who then issued the search warrant.

         On February 25, 2014, members of the Petersburg Bureau of Police conducted a search of Patrick's house while Broughton waited outside. Broughton permitted Amy Taylor, [11] a member of the Virginia Animal Fighting Task Force, to independently search the house. Taylor concluded that there was no evidence of abuse or neglect of the dogs in the house or the yard. During the search, Taylor informed Animal Control Officer Kelly Garcia that "this was not the location that Broughton told me about" and "this was supposed to be Washington Street from the video." (Id. ¶ 23.) Broughton then seized all of Patrick's dogs, claiming they were not properly cared for. Members of the search team seized Patrick's tax returns and personal financial records that were not listed on the search warrant.[12] Petersburg returned the seized dogs to Patrick after she paid $1, 200 and incurred $1, 500 in legal fees.

         III. Analysis

         This case presents an atypical procedural posture. Patrick filed the Patrick Motion for Summary Judgment before the Court issued its decisions on the motions to dismiss. Stated differently, Patrick has asked the Court to enter judgment in her favor[13] before determining whether she states a claim upon which relief can be granted. Common sense advises that the Court should address the motions to dismiss first.

         A. Patrick Concedes Her Claims Against the Petersburg

         The Court first assesses the Petersburg Motion to Dismiss. In her response, Patrick concedes her claims against Petersburg. She provides: "[Patrick] does not contest the City of Petersburg's Motion to Dismiss [because she] must in any case prove [her] case against... Broughton and that if successful in that action, the source of compensation or possible compensation would be the same." (Pl's Resp. to Petersburg's Mot. Dismiss 1 (emphasis added).) Expressing a strategic desire to balance the costs of litigating some claims over others, [14] Patrick notes that she "does not oppose the dismissal case [sic] against the City of Petersburg." (Id. at 2.)

         In doing so, Patrick expresses more than a simple intention not to respond to the legal arguments set forth by Petersburg. Some courts have ruled that a plaintiffs failure to respond to the opposition's argument for dismissal constitutes an abandonment of the challenged claim.[15]The Court need not make such a finding here. Patrick expressly conveys that she does not "contest" the Petersburg Motion to Dismiss or "oppose the dismissal [of the] case" against Petersburg. (Id. at 1-2.) Her strategic decision to conserve fees by pursuing one claim over another extends beyond merely neglecting to respond to Petersburg's arguments. The Court will grant the Petersburg Motion to Dismiss and dismiss all claims against Petersburg.

         B. Patrick Does Not State a Claim Upon Which Relief Can Be Granted Against Broughton

         The Court next evaluates the Broughton Motion to Dismiss. The Court will grant the Broughton Motion to Dismiss.[16] Patrick brings her Fourth Amendment claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which provides a private right of action for a violation of constitutional rights by persons acting under color of state law.[17] To plausibly allege a constitutional violation pursuant to § 1983, the Complaint must establish that: (1) Broughton engaged in conduct that deprived Patrick of a federal constitutional right; (2) Broughton was acting under color of state law; and, (3) Broughton's acts proximately caused Patrick's damages. See Daniczek v. Spencer, 156 F.Supp.3d 739, 747 (E.D. Va. 2016) (citing Amato v. City of Richmond, 875 F.Supp. 1124, 1132-33 (E.D. Va. 1994), affd, 78 F.3d 578 (4th Cir. 1996)).

         Patrick points to the search of her house in the absence of probable cause as the violation of her Fourth Amendment right to be free from search and seizure.[18] With respect to Broughton's involvement, Patrick acknowledges that Broughton did not partake in the physical search of the property. Indeed, the Amended Complaint alleges that Broughton remained outside the house as other individuals conducted the search. Nonetheless, Patrick contends that Broughton caused the allegedly unconstitutional search and seizure by submitting a deficient and misleading affidavit to the magistrate.[19] Broughton argues that the neutral magistrate's[20] issuance of a warrant affords Broughton a "shield of immunity." (Deborah Broughton's Br. Supp. Mot. Dismiss ("Broughton Br. Supp.") 8.) Even assuming the well-pleaded facts of the Amended Complaint to be true, Broughton's position prevails. For the reasons stated below, the doctrine of qualified immunity bars Patrick's Fourth Amendment claim against Broughton in her individual capacity.

         1. Qualified Immunity Standard

         "The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials 'from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'" Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). This protection "applies regardless of whether the government official's error is 'a mistake of law, a mistake of fact, or a mistake based on questions of law and fact.'" Id. (citation omitted).

         "Qualified immunity gives government officials breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments, and protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law." Messerschmidt v. Millender, 132 S.Ct. 1235, 1244 (2012) (citations and internal quotations omitted). This allowance for reasonable mistakes balances "two important interests- the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably." Pearson, 555 U.S. at 231. '"[W]hether an official protected by qualified immunity may be held personally liable for an allegedly unlawful official action generally turns on the "objective legal reasonableness" of the action, assessed in light of the legal rules that were "clearly established" at the time it was taken.'" Messerschmidt, 132 S.Ct. at 1245 (alteration in original) (quoting Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 639 (1987)).

         2. Qualified Immunity Bars Patrick's Claim Against Broughton In Her Personal Capacity

         Applying qualified immunity principles to Fourth Amendment cases involving a search or seizure pursuant to a warrant, the Supreme Court of the United States has explained that "the fact that a neutral magistrate has issued a warrant is the clearest indication that the officers acted in an objectively reasonable manner or, as we have sometimes put it, in 'objective good faith.'" Messerschmidt, 132 S.Ct. at 1245 (emphasis added) (citing United States v. Leon, 468 U.S. 897, 922-923 (1984)). The United States Court of Appeals for "[t]he Fourth Circuit... has held that '[w]hen a police officer protects a suspect's rights by obtaining a warrant from a neutral magistrate, the officer should, in turn, receive some protection from suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.'" Godbey v. Simmons, No. I:llcv704, 2014 WL 345648, at *6 (E.D. Va. Jan. 30, 2014) (quoting Torchinsky v. Siwinski, 942 F.2d 257, 262 (4th Cir. 1991)), aff'd, 577 F.App'x 239 (4th Cir. 2014). "That is so because a 'magistrate's determination of probable cause provides additional support for the claim that [the officer] acted with objective reasonableness.'" Id. (quoting Torchinsky, 942 F.2d at 262); see also Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 346 n.9 (1986) ("[W]here a magistrate acts mistakenly in issuing a warrant but within the range of professional competence of a magistrate, the officer who requested the warrant cannot be held liable.").

         "[T]he fact that a neutral magistrate has issued a warrant authorizing the allegedly unconstitutional search or seizure, " however, "does not end the inquiry into objective reasonableness." Messerschmidt, 132 S.Ct. at 1245. An exception exists "when 'it is obvious that no reasonably competent officer would have concluded that a warrant should issue.'" Id. (quoting Malley, 475 U.S. at 341); see also Daniczek, 156 F.Supp.3d at 749 ("The fact that a magistrate erroneously issues a warrant based on a constitutionally deficient affidavit does not protect the affiant where a reasonably well-trained affiant would have recognized that the affidavit did not demonstrate probable cause.").[21] Nonetheless, "the threshold for establishing this exception is a high one, and it should be." Messerschmidt, 132 S.Ct. at 1245. "'In the ordinary case, ... [i]t is the magistrate's responsibility to determine whether the officer's allegations establish probable cause and, if so, to issue a warrant comporting in form with the requirements of the Fourth Amendment.'" Id. (quoting Leon, 468 U.S. at 921).

         Guided by these principles, the Court need not determine whether Broughton's affidavit actually established probable cause[22] to search Patrick's residence for evidence relating to dogfighting or dog abuse. [23] Messerschmidt, 132 S.Ct. at 1249 ("Whether any of these facts, standing alone or taken together, actually establish probable cause is a question we need not decide."); see also Torchinsky, 942 F.2d at 261 ("The standard for probable cause ... is more stringent than is the requirement for qualified immunity."). Rather, the Court must determine whether no reasonable officer could have reached the conclusion that a warrant should have issued. Id. ("[W]e have recognized an exception allowing suit when 'it is obvious that no reasonably competent officer would have concluded that a warrant should issue.'" (quoting Malley, 475 U.S. at 341)). In order to make this determination, the Court will look to the criminal statutes that underlined the bases for Broughton's affidavit, Broughton's affidavit itself, and the facts known to Broughton at the time she pursued the warrant.

         a. Criminal Statutes Referenced In the ...


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