United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Lynchburg Division
K. MOON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
case, brought by Jacquelin Goard (“Plaintiff”),
concerns the repossession of her Honda Accord on June 17,
2015, by Midnight Express Auto Recovery, Inc., on behalf of
Defendant Crown Auto, Inc., to which officers from the
Lynchburg Police Department were called. Plaintiff seeks
summary judgment against Defendants Jonathan Howard, Joseph
McKinley, Edward Cook, and Ryan Ball
(“Defendants”) as to liability under 42 U.S.C.
§ 1983. (Dkt. 87-1 at 1). She argues that Defendants,
acting under color of state law, violated her Fourth and
Fourteenth Amendment rights to possession of property and due
process by facilitating an unlawful repossession of her
vehicle-effectively converting the private repossession into
state action. Plaintiff does not seek judgment as to damages
at this time. (Id.). Defendants responded with their
own motion for summary judgment, arguing that their actions
did not constitute state action in aid of a private
repossession. Alternatively, they assert they are shielded
from liability by qualified immunity. (Dkt. 101).
it is undisputed that Defendants Cook and Ball had no contact
with Plaintiff during the incident in question, and therefore
did not facilitate the repossession, summary judgment will be
granted in their favor. As for Defendant McKinley, his
involvement in the repossession rose to a level that may have
violated Plaintiff's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment
rights. A reasonable jury could find facts sufficient to
prove that his conduct constituted state action in
facilitation of a private repossession, but a reasonable jury
could also find that McKinley remained sufficiently neutral
and did not aid in the repossession. Accordingly, summary
judgment on the merits will not be granted in favor of
Plaintiff or Defendant McKinley. However, even construing the
facts in Plaintiff's favor, because the line between
permissible and impermissible police involvement in a
self-help repossession is not clearly defined and Defendant
McKinley's conduct did not constitute a clear violation,
the Court will grant summary judgment in favor of Defendant
McKinley on the grounds of qualified immunity. As for
Defendant Howard, there is a genuine factual dispute
regarding his conduct. Plaintiff alleges that he threatened
to arrest her if she did not surrender her vehicle for
repossession. If true, this would amount to a clear
constitutional violation-precluding qualified immunity.
Defendant Howard asserts, however, that he threatened arrest
only for disorderly conduct and Plaintiff was free to
continue objecting to the repossession. The Court cannot, at
this stage, resolve this factual dispute, and this question
is crucial to the determination of whether Defendant Howard
is liable. Accordingly, the Court will not grant summary
judgment for Plaintiff or Defendant Howard regarding §
1983 liability, and he is not entitled to qualified immunity
at this time.
filed her initial complaint in October 2015 against seven
defendants: Crown Auto, Inc. (the dealership that sought
repossession of her vehicle); Midnight Express Auto Recovery,
Inc. (the towing company that executed the repossession);
Officer Howard; Officer McKinley; and John Does 1-3 (who were
later identified at Defendants Cook and Ball). (Dkts. 2, 55).
Defendants McKinley, Howard, Ball, and Cook then moved the
Court to dismiss the Complaint, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6),
because (1) Plaintiff failed to state a plausible claim for
relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and (2) they were
entitled to qualified immunity. (Dkts. 27, 28, 55).
Court denied that motion, finding that Plaintiff's
allegations, taken as true, stated a plausible claim for
relief based on Defendants violations of her Fourth and
Fourteenth Amendment rights. Goard v. Crown Auto,
Inc., 170 F.Supp.3d 915 (W.D. Va. 2016). Furthermore,
the Court held that Defendants' alleged actions would
constitute a violation of “a clearly established right
of which a reasonable person would have known.”
Id. at 919-21 (quoting Occupy Columbia v.
Haley, 738 F.3d 107, 118 (4th Cir. 2013)). Plaintiff
then filed a motion for summary judgment, and Defendants
responded with their own motion for summary judgment. (Dkts.
87, 101). Defendants Crown Auto, Inc. and Midnight Express
Auto Recovery, Inc. were subsequently dismissed by
stipulation. (Dkts. 104, 110).
Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) provides that a court should
grant summary judgment “if the movant shows that there
is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant
is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” “As
to materiality . . . [o]nly disputes over facts that might
affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will
properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.”
Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248
order to preclude summary judgment, the dispute about a
material fact must be “‘genuine, ' that is,
if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a
verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id.; see
also JKC Holding Co. v. Washington Sports Ventures,
Inc., 264 F.3d 459, 465 (4th Cir. 2001). If, however,
the evidence of a genuine issue of material fact “is
merely colorable or is not significantly probative, summary
judgment may be granted.” Anderson, 477 U.S.
at 250. In considering a motion for summary judgment under
Rule 56, a court must view the record as a whole and draw all
reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the
nonmoving party. See, e.g., Celotex Corp. v.
Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-24 (1986); Shaw v.
Stroud, 13 F.3d 791, 798 (4th Cir. 1994).
Facts in the Record
stated at oral argument, the operative facts of this case are
largely undisputed-at least with respect to Defendants
McKinley, Ball, and Cook. Instead, the disagreement in this
case is mostly about the legal import of those facts. As
such, the Court will proceed with a brief recitation of the
operative, undisputed, material facts, followed by the few
disputed items in the record.
Snyder arrived at Plaintiff's residence in Lynchburg,
Virginia, on the evening of June 17, 2015, to attempt to
repossess her vehicle. (Dkt. 87-1 at 2; dkt. 102-1 at 20). As
Plaintiff arrived in her vehicle, Snyder pulled his tow truck
behind Plaintiff's vehicle. (Dkt. 87-1 at 2). Plaintiff
then had a conversation with Snyder-in the presence of her
mother-in which she objected to the possession and said it
was a mistake. (Id.). Snyder observed that Plaintiff
was upset about the attempted repossession. (Id.).
Snyder then called the automobile dealer in order to
“make sure it was still a valid repossession before
[he] went any farther.” (Id.). Plaintiff
persisted that the repossession was a mistake. (Id.
Snyder completed his call to the dealer, Plaintiff and her
mother were angry, and Plaintiff's mother remained in the
driver's side of the vehicle with the door open.
(Id. at 2). Snyder then called the police department
because Plaintiff and her mother “were getting hostile,
” and he did not “do anything else ‘til the
police department got there.” (Id. at 2-3).
Snyder did not hook up the vehicle to his tow truck before
Defendants arrived. (Id. at 4). Snyder wanted police
on the scene for his safety because he worried one of the
women would try to kick him on the side of the head while he
hooked up the vehicle. (Dkt. 102 at 8; dkt. 87-1 at 3).
Snyder said that Plaintiff and her mother were irate, shouted
racial slurs at him, cursed, and threatened him. (Dkt. 102 at
of whom are members of the Lynchburg Police Department, (Dkt.
87-1 at 5)-arrived in four separate police cars and found
Plaintiff was resisting the seizure of her vehicle.
(Id. at 3; dkt. 102 at 3-4). When Defendants arrived
on the scene, Plaintiff was objecting to the repossession.
(Dkt. 871-1 at 3). All four officers personally observed
Plaintiff “yelling, being loud, flailing her arms or
waving her hands in the air, cursing, and using racial slurs
towards Snyder.” (Dkt. 102 at 8).
McKinley was the first officer to arrive at the scene. He
went first to speak to Snyder, because he was the one who had
called the police. (Dkt. 102-1 at 33-34; dkt. 102-3 at 30).
He stated to Plaintiff, “I'll get your side of the
story in just a minute.” (Dkt. 102-1 at 34). Snyder
explained that he was trying to repossess the vehicle, but he
was concerned about his safety. (Dkt. 102-1 at 35). McKinley
then left Snyder to talk to Plaintiff. (Dkt. 102-3 at 54-55).
McKinley informed Plaintiff that he was going to “get
both sides of the story, ” but that he typically talks
first to the party who made the call. (Dkt. 102-1 at 36). He
stated, “We don't need to make a scene out here . .
. .” (Id.). McKinley then went back to Snyder
to continue their conversation. At this time, Snyder
attempted to show the repossession order to McKinley in order
to prove he had been requested to repossess the car. (Dkt.
87-1 at 3; dkt. 102 at 2). McKinley testified that he
“didn't really pay attention to the exact
paperwork.” (Dkt. 102-1 at 36).
then went back to Plaintiff and told her that Snyder believed
he had a right to tow the vehicle and that Snyder said he
would not leave until he takes the vehicle with him. (Dkt.
102-1 at 37-38). Plaintiff then explained why she felt the
repossession was a mistake and unlawful, and tried to show
him her paperwork. (Dkt. 102-1 at 37-38; dkt. 102-3 at 30).
Officer McKinley then stated that it was a civil issue and
that “there's really nothing I can do about the
situation.” (Dkt. 87-1 at 4; dkt. 102 at 6; dkt. 102-1
at 38). McKinley told Plaintiff that “really the only
reason I'm here at this point is to -- is to make sure
nobody gets hurt ‘cause the - for whatever reason, the
tow truck driver felt threatened.” (Dkt. 102-1 at 39).
McKinley spoke to Plaintiff and stated that he “did not
know what the mix-up could be, ” but “if the tow
driver was wrong there was legal action she could
take.” (Dkt. 87-1 at 3-4; dkt. 102 at 4-5). McKinley
also informed Plaintiff that “there was really nothing
that I could do to keep him [Snyder] from repossessing the
vehicle and there was nothing I could do to keep her from
sitting in the vehicle because, you know, it's her
vehicle and it's on private property.” (Dkt. 102-1
at 39). Officer McKinley stated either to Plaintiff or her
mother that it might be in Plaintiff's “interest to
go ahead and comply with [Snyder] . . . . Then she could work
it all out with the court.” (Dkt 87-1 at 3-4; dkt. 102
at 6). Plaintiff was unable to recall the details of her
conversation with McKinley, but she described him as being
“calm” and “mellow” throughout the
encounter. (Dkt. 102-3 at 55).
that time, Officer Howard arrived on the scene. (Dkt. 102-1
at 39). He had received a “give-assistance call,
” but did not know the precise details of the call:
“I do remember something about a tow truck driver and a
disorderly, threats going on . . . .” (Dkt. 102-2 at
45). He was “pretty sure that the tow truck driver
[was] the one that called.” (Id. at 61). When
he arrived he observed Plaintiff talking to McKinley; she was
“cursing” and “yelling.”
(Id. at 64). Officer Howard then went to talk to
Snyder, who informed him that he was there to repossess
Plaintiff's car, but she was irate and shouting racial
slurs. (Id. at 67). Snyder stated that he had an
order of repossession, but Howard did not ask to see it.
(Id. at 69). Howard then went over to speak to
Plaintiff in an effort to calm her down. (Id. at
70-72). Officer Howard relayed Snyder's message that if
she did not turn over the keys, the tow would cost $200 extra
for rekeying. (Dkt. 87-1 at 4; dkt. 102 at 4). Plaintiff
eventually relented and gave her keys to Snyder. (Dkt. 102-1
the encounter, Officer Howard repeatedly told Plaintiff that
“he did not want to arrest her and gave her multiple
warnings about her conduct.” (Dkt. 102 at 9).
Nevertheless, he did threaten to arrest Plaintiff on three
separate occasions prior to Snyder requesting Plaintiff's
key. (Dkt. 87-1 at 4; dkt. 102 at 7). The precise content of
this threat is a key point of contention. One the one hand,
Officer Howard asserts that his threats of arrest were for
disorderly conduct; if she did not “calm down, ”
he was “taking her to jail.” (Dkt. 102-2 at 100).
On the other hand, Plaintiff has testified repeatedly that
Officer Howard said “I was going to go to jail if I
didn't give them my car.” (Dkt. 102-3 at 41, 48,
55, 57-58). Likewise, she described Officer Howard as
“more hyped up” than McKinley and “ready to
do something.” (Id. at 40).
Howard consulted Lieutenant Cook regarding the situation, and
Officer Ball was present to assist the other officers. (Dkt.
87-1 at 4). Lieutenant Cook and Officer Ball had no direct
contact with Plaintiff. (Dkt. 102 at 9). None of the officers
assisted Snyder with hooking the car to his truck, removed
Plaintiff from her car, made any physical contact with
Plaintiff, drew their weapons, raised their voices, or
reached for their handcuffs. (Id.). Defendants did
not tell Snyder that he was required to stop the repossession
because of Plaintiff's objection. (Dkt. 87-1 at 5).
had been trained to handle civil disputes by (1)
“referring them to the civil court to speak with the
court clerk to point them in the right direction, ” (2)
“direct[ing] all parties to handle it through a lawyer
and the court, ” and (3) “tell[ing] the people
that they needed to sort it out through a lawyer within the
appropriate court system.” (Dkt. 87-1 at 4-5).