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Wells v. Altrip

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

May 3, 2017

BERK ARTRIP, ET AL., Defendants.

          Michael A. Bragg, Bragg Law, Abingdon, Virginia, for Plaintiff

          Jessica Berdichevsky, Assistant Attorney General, Richmond, Virginia, for Defendants.


          James P. Jones United States District Judge

         In this case brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the plaintiff alleges that the defendants violated his rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments by holding him against his will at a Virginia detention center after the expiration of his term of incarceration. The defendants have moved to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Because I find that subject-matter jurisdiction exists and the Complaint states a viable claim, I will deny the Motion to Dismiss.


         The Complaint alleges the following facts, which I must accept as true for the purpose of deciding the pending motion.

         On December 13, 2013, a Virginia circuit court judge found the plaintiff, Michael Shane Wells, guilty of violating the conditions of his probation. The court sentenced Wells “to confinement with the Virginia Department of Corrections for a term of six years and six months with five years and six months suspended.” Order, Dec. 16, 2013, Case Nos. F02-450 & F03-40 (Wise Cty. Cir. Ct.).[1] The court further ordered that Wells “shall continue on probation as previously ordered” and that “[a]s a condition of probation the defendant shall complete the Detention Center and Diversion Center Programs.” Id.

         Wells served his sentence of incarceration at the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail in Duffield, Virginia, and was advised that he would be released on August 15, 2014. While incarcerated, Wells learned that the Virginia Attorney General had issued an opinion several years earlier finding that a Virginia court cannot impose both an active sentence of incarceration and an alternative sentence of detention or diversion. In a letter dated April 12, 2014, Wells notified the Virginia Department of Corrections (“DOC”) of the Attorney General's opinion and stated that he should not be required to participate in the detention or diversion programs.

         In August, 2014, Wells was transferred to the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail in Abingdon, Virginia (“Abingdon jail”). He received paperwork showing an updated release date of August 18, 2014, and was advised that the date had been adjusted to provide for his transfer to the Appalachian Detention Center (“ADC”), a facility operated by DOC, to begin the Detention Center Incarceration Program (“DCIP”). Wells was given a document stating that he voluntarily agreed to be transferred to ADC and was asked to sign the document, but he refused to sign it.

         On August 18, 2014, an ADC officer forcibly removed Wells from the Abingdon jail and transported him to ADC. When he arrived at ADC, Wells met with defendant John Honaker, a corrections officer who played the role of a drill sergeant in the DCIP. Wells told Honaker that he did not agree to being held at ADC and that there was no legal basis for him to be held there. Honaker told Wells that Wells was in ADC's custody and he could not leave. Honaker also advised Wells to cooperate to make things better for himself. While he was held at ADC, Wells repeatedly complained to Honaker that he was being held there illegally, and Honaker repeatedly responded that Wells was in the custody of ADC.

         ADC was operated in the style of a boot camp. ADC was surrounded by a fence, and Wells could not leave the premises at will. ADC imposed severe physical activities on program participants. Honaker imposed extra physical activity, marching, and drills on Wells to punish him for complaining that he was being held there illegally.

         Defendant Berk Artrip was the Superintendant of ADC. Wells alleges that as Superintendant, Artrip was responsible for ensuring that all ADC residents were participating in the program freely and voluntarily.

         On October 25, 2014, Wells was transferred to the Wise County Circuit Court for a hearing. The next day, he was released from custody.

         Wells contends that the actions of Honaker and Artrip deprived him of liberty without due process and subjected him to cruel and unusual punishment. The defendants have moved to dismiss the Complaint based on lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim. The motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for decision.[2] For the reasons that follow, I will deny the Motion to Dismiss.


         The defendants first move for dismissal on the ground that that this court lacks subject matter jurisdiction. Pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1), a defendant may challenge federal subject matter jurisdiction in two ways. See Kerns v. United States, 585 F.3d 187, 192 (4th Cir. 2009). First, a defendant may attack the face of the complaint and contend “that a complaint simply fails to allege facts upon which subject matter jurisdiction can be based.” Adams v. Bain, 697 F.2d 1213, 1219 (4th Cir. 1982). In evaluating a facial challenge to subject-matter jurisdiction, “the plaintiff, in effect, is afforded the same procedural protection as he would receive under a Rule 12(b)(6) consideration.” Id. Second, a defendant may attack subject-matter jurisdiction as a matter of fact and argue “that the jurisdictional allegations of the complaint [are] not true.” Id. Under those circumstances, a plaintiff receives less procedural protection, and “the district court is to regard the pleadings' allegations as mere evidence on the issue, and may consider evidence outside the pleadings without converting the proceeding to one for summary judgment.” Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac R.R. v. United States, 945 F.2d 765, 768 (4th Cir. 1991).

         In this case, the defendants assert a facial challenge based on the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. See D.C. Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983); Rooker v. Fid. Tr. Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923). Under this doctrine, a “party losing in state court is barred from seeking what in substance would be appellate review of the state judgment in a United States district court, based on the losing party's claim that the state judgment itself violates the loser's federal rights.” Johnson v. De Grandy, 512 U.S. 997, 1005-06 (1994). In this context, “[t]he controlling question . . . is whether a party seeks the federal district court to review a state court decision and thus pass upon the merits of that state court decision.” Jordahl v. Democratic Party of Va., 122 F.3d 192, 202 (4th Cir. 1997). This doctrine ensures that state court decisions are first reviewed within the state appellate courts and then by the United States Supreme Court. Am. Reliable Ins. Co. v. Stillwell, 336 F.3d 311, 316 (4th Cir. 2003).

         As articulated by the Supreme Court, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine applies to a relatively narrow set of circumstances. The doctrine is limited to “cases brought by state-court losers complaining of injuries caused by state-court judgments rendered before the district court proceedings commenced and inviting district court review and rejection of those judgments.” Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 284 (2005).

         The defendants contend that Wells is seeking review of the Wise County Circuit Court's sentencing order, which is barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. Wells asserts that he is not asking this court to review the sentencing order. Rather, he says he aims to hold the defendants liable for detaining him at ADC against his will after he had served his sentence of incarceration. Wells argues that the circuit court did not sentence him to the DCIP but merely made completion of the program a condition of his probation. ...

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