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Johnson v. Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control

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

December 13, 2016



          Hon. Glen E. Conrad Chief United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Martese Johnson filed this action against the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, its Director, and three of its agents, alleging claims under both 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law. The case is presently before the court on defendants' motion to dismiss plaintiffs amended complaint. For the following reasons, the court will grant in part and deny in part the motion.


         The following summary of the facts, taken from the plaintiffs amended complaint, is accepted as true for purposes of the defendants' motion to dismiss. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007).

         The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control ("ABC") is an agency funded solely through its own revenues and tasked with controlling the distribution of alcoholic beverages and enforcing state laws pertaining to alcoholic beverages. Am. Compl. ¶ 11. ABC is run by a board that directs its operations, including promulgating its own regulations and appointing its employees. Id. Defendant Shawn Walker is the Director of ABC ("Director Walker"). Defendants Jared Miller, Thomas Custer, and John Cielakie (collectively, the "Agents") are special agents at ABC.

         At the time of the events giving rise to the complaint, plaintiff Martese Johnson ("Johnson") was a twenty-year-old University of Virginia ("UVA") student. In the early morning hours of March 18, 2015, Johnson and a friend went to Trinity Irish Pub ("Trinity"). Trinity is located in an area adjacent to UVA's campus, known as "the Corner." In Virginia, persons under the age of twenty-one are permitted to enters bars after presenting a valid form of identification. After waiting in a line that spanned approximately half the block, plaintiff presented his valid I.D. to the owner of Trinity, who then asked him to recite his zip code. Because plaintiff had recently moved, he did not recite the correct zip code and was denied entry into Trinity. Id. ¶ 20-21. Johnson did not appear intoxicated. Id. ¶ 22. After being denied entry, Johnson and the owner of Trinity spoke for a few minutes about the high school to which they had mutual ties. Id. ¶ 23.

         Agents Miller, Custer, and Cielakie were surveilling Trinity, and they witnessed the exchange between plaintiff and the owner of Trinity. Id. ¶ 24. They did not hear the exchange between plaintiff and the owner, which plaintiff describes as a "cordial" interaction. Id. at ¶ 23-25. The Agents did not know why Johnson was denied entry into the bar, did not see any signs of intoxication, and did not witness Johnson acting in a belligerent manner. Id. ¶ 25-27. However, as Johnson walked away from Trinity, Agent Miller approached him from behind and grabbed his arm. Id. at ¶ 28. Miller did not identify himself as a law enforcement agent, and due to the manner in which Miller approached him, Johnson did not realize that Miller was a law enforcement agent. Id. ¶ 31.

         Startled, plaintiff pulled his arm away and tried to keep walking. Id. ¶ 31. Agent Miller grabbed plaintiffs arm again and demanded to see what Miller called plaintiffs "fake" I.D. Id. ¶ 32. Miller then "aggressively attempt[ed] to twist Martese's arm behind his back." Id. Miller still had not identified himself as a law enforcement agent. Id. ¶ 32-33. At or around this point in time, plaintiff saw Miller's law enforcement badge. Id. ¶ 35. He then attempted to cooperate with Miller. He also attempted to free himself to reach his I.D. Id. ¶ 35.

         Agent Custer witnessed the interaction, approached the two men, and grabbed plaintiffs left arm. Id. ¶ 36. This prevented plaintiff from complying with Agent Miller's orders. Without provocation, Agents Miller and Custer "slammed" plaintiff to the ground, causing plaintiff to suffer a severe laceration to his forehead and scalp. Id. ¶ 40. Agent Custer then proceeded to "roughly and aggressively" place handcuffs around plaintiffs left wrist. Soon after, Agent Cielakie, who had observed the entire altercation, placed a second pair of handcuffs around plaintiffs right wrist and connected them to the handcuffs surrounding plaintiffs left wrist. Agent Cielakie also placed leg shackles around plaintiffs ankles. Id. ¶ 42, 46, 49. Plaintiff alleges that he was "not yelling, did not appear intoxicated, and was not aggressive towards the Agents" throughout the entire course of events. Id. ¶ 37. Plaintiff was not armed, and the agents did not suspect him to be. Id. at ¶ 38. After the incident, Agent Miller obtained a warrant for obstruction of justice and public intoxication. Both charges were subsequently dropped.

         The complaint alleges that, prior to this altercation, ABC had a history of aggressive, excessive, and unjustified behavior which was exemplified in an April 2013 incident where ABC agents, including Agent Cielakie, surrounded the car of UVA student Elizabeth Daly (the "Daly Incident"). The agents slammed on her windows with steel flashlights and punched her windshield based on the belief that a case of water in Daly's car was a case of beer. Daly was arrested and spent several hours in jail, but the charges against her were eventually dropped. Johnson contends that, because of the Daly Incident and other incidents not specified, Walker had specific knowledge of the policy, custom, or widespread use of unconstitutional seizures by ABC agents. Id. ¶ 62. Moreover, this problem was so widespread that other law enforcement agencies had reduced ABC's access to joint operations. Id. ¶ 63.

         Procedural History

         Johnson filed his original complaint on October 12, 2015, alleging violations of his rights under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, as applicable to the Commonwealth of Virginia through the Fourteenth Amendment. Johnson also asserts several violations of various state tort laws. On November 16, 2015, defendants filed their first motion to dismiss. On January 21, 2016, after a hearing, the court granted plaintiffs motion for leave to file an amended complaint. On February 1, 2016, plaintiff filed his first amended complaint, adding new factual allegations and new claims. Defendants filed a motion to strike the plaintiffs first amended complaint, which the court denied.

         The amended complaint asserts three causes of action arising under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and four state law claims. In Counts I through III, the plaintiff claims that Agents Miller, Custer, and Cielakie violated his rights to be free from unreasonable seizures and that defendants ABC and Director Walker failed to train and supervise the Agents. Counts IV, VI, and VII allege that defendants Miller, Custer, and Cielakie acted with gross negligence and assaulted and battered the plaintiff; Count V asserts a claim of negligent supervision and training against Director Walker. Defendants have moved to dismiss the amended complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). The motions have been fully briefed and are ripe for review.

         Standard of Review

         "The purpose of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion is to test the sufficiency of a complaint." Edwards v. City of Goldsboro. 178 F.3d 231, 243 (4th Cir. 1999). When deciding a motion to dismiss under this rule, the court must accept as true all well-pleaded allegations and draw all reasonable factual inferences in the plaintiffs favor. Erickson, 551 U.S. at 94; see also Vitol, S.A. v. Primerose Shipping Co., 708 F.3d 527, 539 (4th Cir. 2013). "While a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiffs obligation to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). To survive dismissal for failure to state a claim, "a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570).


         The instant complaint is filed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law. Although not a source of substantive rights itself, § 1983 provides "a method for vindicating federal rights elsewhere conferred." Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 144 n.3 (1979). To state a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege sufficient facts to establish two essential elements: (1) that a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States was violated, and (2) that the alleged violation was committed by a person acting under color of state law. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988). Defendants have moved to dismiss all seven claims asserted against them. The court will address each claim in turn.

         I. Claims Against Agents Miller, ...

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