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Black v. Woody

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

March 15, 2018

ROY LEE BLACK, Plaintiff,
SHERIFF C.T. WOODY, JR., et al., Defendants.


          Henry E. Hudson, United States District Judge.

         This is essentially an action filed against C.T. Woody, Jr., Sheriff of the City of Richmond ("Sheriff Woody"), and a number of his deputies, for failure to obey an order of the Richmond City Circuit Court ("Circuit Court"). Plaintiff Roy Lee Black ("Black") maintains that despite the unequivocal order of the Circuit Court, he was "unlawfully confined and falsely imprisoned, against his will, within the 'Justice Center' [from March 7, 2016] until April 1, 2016, without any sufficient legal excuse or legal justification [in] disregard [of] the Court's Order." (Am. Compl. ¶ 19, ECF No. 4.) Despite being statutorily ineligible to serve his sentence in the Home Electronic Incarceration Program ("HEI"), he maintains that he was falsely imprisoned and that his civil rights were violated by Sheriff Woody's refusal to place him in that program. This lawsuit seeking $2, 350, 000 in damages ensued.

         The case is presently before the Court on Sheriff Woody, Lt. Colonel Carol Dabney ("Lt. Colonel Dabney"), Deputy Abraham Bui ("Deputy Bui"), and Deputy Rashawn Gray's[1] ("Deputy Gray") (collectively, "Defendants") Motions to Dismiss asserting that the Amended Complaint fails to state an actionable claim and, alternatively, that the Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity on the constitutional claims. All parties have filed memoranda of law supporting their respective positions. This Court will dispense with oral argument because it would not aid in the decisional process at this stage. The operative facts are not in dispute-only the duties arising from the Circuit Court's order.

         This Court's review of a motion to dismiss filed under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) is both informed and constrained by the well-pleaded facts contained in the Amended Complaint. The immediate task at hand is to determine the sufficiency of the complaint, "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). In considering a motion to dismiss, the plaintiffs well-pleaded allegations are taken as true and the complaint must be viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. T.G. Slater & Son, Inc. v. Donald P. & Patricia A. Brennan LLC, 385 F.3d 836, 841 (4th Cir. 2004). Legal conclusions, however, enjoy no such deference by the reviewing court. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). To survive Rule 12(b)(6) scrutiny, a complaint need only contain "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." BellAtl Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). While a complaint need not assert "detailed factual allegations, " it must contain "more than labels and conclusions" or a "formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action." Id. at 555 (citations omitted).

         A complaint achieves facial plausibility when the facts contained therein support a reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. Id. at 556; see also Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. This analysis is context-specific and requires "the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Francis v. GiacomellU 588 F.3d 186, 193 (4th Cir. 2009). With respect to Black's state law claim of false imprisonment, this Court applies the substantive law of the Commonwealth of Virginia while applying the procedural law of the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in weighing the factual sufficiency of the pleadings.

         Net of legal conclusions, the Amended Complaint alleges that Black was convicted on December 17, 2015 in the Richmond City Circuit Court of unlawful wounding, a felony under Virginia law. See Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-51. On March 1, 2016, Black was sentenced to five years of incarceration with the Virginia Department of Corrections. The Circuit Court suspended four years of that sentence for a period of five years, subject to several conditions. Aside from a general good behavior requirement, the Circuit Court also ordered that "the active sentence shall be served on Home Electronic Incarceration Program, " that Black "undergo a substance abuse assessment [] and enter a treatment and/or educational program as directed by the Department of Corrections, " and that he be placed on supervised probation upon completion of his term of incarceration. (Am. Compl., Ex. F.) The Circuit Court's Order also directed that "[t]he defendant shall participate in the Sheriffs Work Release Program." (Id.) It further directed Black to "report to the Sheriffs Office in the John Marshall Courts Building on March 7, 2016, at 9:00 a.m. to be transported to the Richmond City Jail to begin serving his sentence." (Id.)

         In addition to the Circuit Court's Sentencing Order ("Sentencing Order"), the clerk of the court also conveyed an Inmate Information Transmittal Form ("Transmittal Form") to the Sheriffs Office which essentially tracked pertinent provisions of the Sentencing Order. Black highlights the bottom of the Transmittal Form wherein the word "NO" is circled adjacent to the language "Remanded to Custody of Sheriff."[2]

         Soon after reporting to the Justice Center as directed, Black informed Lt. Colonel Dabney and Deputy Gray, among others, that the Circuit Court had ordered him to serve his sentence on the HEI program rather than confinement in the city jail. According to the Amended Complaint, both Lt. Colonel Dabney and Deputy Gray agreed to "'look into it, ' but never got back to Plaintiff." (Am. Compl. ¶ 20.) Black contends that he reported what he believed to be his improper confinement to "numerous other deputies and employees of [Sheriff] Woody" including Deputy Bul. (Id. at ¶ 21.) Black was held in custody until April 1, 2016, "despite Plaintiffs protestations that he should not be incarcerated at the 'Justice Center, ' without investigation and without affording Plaintiff due process." (Id.) He closes with the assertion that no employee of the Sheriffs Office communicated "to the Richmond City Circuit Court or the presiding Judge their unwillingness or inability to comply with the Court's unambiguous Sentencing Order of March 1, 2016. Instead, Defendants, and their agents, employees, and servants, elected to just disregard it." (Id. ¶ 23.)

         Black's Amended Complaint casts a wide net encompassing an expansive range of Sheriffs Office personnel to whom he protested what he considered to be his unlawful confinement. Although Black initiated no legal action to clarify the conditions of his confinement, [3] his claims are premised on the notion that his verbal complaints triggered a duty on the part of correctional personnel to do so. In his view, their failure to intervene on his behalf implicated a liberty interest in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. A careful review of due process jurisprudence in the Fourth Circuit and Commonwealth of Virginia fails to unearth any such duty. In fact, the Fourth Circuit has specifically held that "inmates have no constitutional entitlement or due process interest in access to a grievance procedure." Booker v. S.C. Dep't of Corr., 855 F.3d 533, 541 (4th Cir. 2017) (citing Adams v. Rice, 40 F.3d 72, 75 (4th Cir. 1994)). See also Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 145 (1979) (due process does not require an independent investigation of every claim of innocence).

         No reasonable construction of the Sentencing Order supports the contention that Sheriff Woody had the authority to release Black from custody. To the contrary, the Sentencing Order specifically remanded Black into the Sheriffs custody for one year. It directed Black to report to the Sheriffs Office on March 7, 2016 to be transported to the Richmond City Jail to begin serving his sentence. It also authorized him to participate in the Sheriffs Work Release Program. (Am. Compl., Ex. F.)

         Even if Black statutorily qualified for the HEI program, which he did not under Va. Code Ann. § 53.1-131.2, he would still be in the constructive custody of the Sheriff who would have no lawful authority to release him even if the Sheriff believed he was improperly confined. Moreover, nothing in the Circuit Court's Order directed Sheriff Woody to place Black in the HEI program forthwith, even assuming eligibility.

         Black's alleged due process violation bypasses the operative language of § 53.1-131.2. While the sentencing court retains authority under that section to remove a person from the HEI program, placement of a detainee into the program clearly lies exclusively within the sheriffs discretion under that statute. Furthermore, it is important to note that because Black was convicted of unlawful wounding, a felony under Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-51, as a matter of law he was ineligible to serve his sentence in the HEI program. Although the Sentencing Order admittedly creates some ambiguity, when viewed in the context of § 53.1-131.2, the directive that Black serve his sentence under the HEI program appears to be hortatory-in other words, directing Black's participation in the program if deemed eligible by the Richmond City Sheriffs Office.[4]

         Black's second claim in his Amended Complaint is equally unsupported by precedent or sound logic. He alleges that all named Defendants "restrain[ed] Plaintiffs physical liberty between March 7, 2016 and April 1, 2016 without any sufficient legal excuse or adequate legal justification by both physical restraint and the threat of such restraint, by both fear and force." (Am. Compl. ¶ 33.) He seeks $2, 350, 000 in compensatory and punitive damages from Defendants for keeping him "incarcerated without any sufficient legal excuse or adequate legal justification." (Id. at ¶ 35.) The authority Black provides to support his contention that Sheriff Woody, or his deputies, had a legal obligation to address Black's concerns with the Circuit Court, or perhaps release him from custody, is scant and unilluminating. Black fails to offer any factual basis to support his claim of atypical and significant hardship which would give rise to due process protection. Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472, 484 (1995); see also Meachum v. Fano, 427 U.S. 215, 224 (1976).

         Black's claim of false imprisonment is moored to the law of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The theory underlying his revisionist claim appears to be that because the Sentencing Order contained a provision directing Sheriff Woody to carry out the imposition of sentence in a manner prohibited by Virginia law, the sentence imposed was void ab initio. A careful reading of the authorities cited by Black does not support his argument. In Burr ell v. Commonwealth, the Supreme Court of Virginia "adopted the rule that a sentence imposed in violation of a prescribed statutory range of punishment is void ab initio. 283 Va. 474, 480 (2012). The sentence imposed in the immediate case was squarely within the statutory range of punishment prescribed by Virginia law. The only facet at issue was the method of service of the sentence, which is the province of the Sheriff or the Virginia Department of Corrections. As the Virginia Court of Appeals emphasized in Pilson v. Commonwealth, "[a]s an independent constitutional officer, the sheriffs authority under [ยง 53.1-131.2(c)] does not depend upon prior authorization from the sentencing order. Whatever ...

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