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Goard v. Crown Auto, Inc.

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

June 2, 2017

Jacquelin Goard, Plaintiff,
Crown Auto, Inc., ET AL., Defendants.



         This 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).

         Because 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.

         I. Procedural History

         Plaintiff 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).

         The 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).

         II. Legal Standard

         Federal 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 (1986).

         In 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).

         III. Facts in the Record

         As 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.

         Matthew 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. at 3).

         After 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 8).

         Defendants-all 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).

         Officer 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).

         McKinley 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).

         Officer 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).

         Around 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 at 69-70).

         During 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).

         Officer 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[1] 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).

         Defendants 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).

         IV. Discussion

         A. ...

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