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Waddle v. Claughton

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

June 26, 2018

CHRISTEN WADDLE, Plaintiff,
v.
AUNDREA CLAUGHTON, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JACKSON L. KISER, SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant Todd Moser's (“Moser”) Motion to Dismiss [ECF No. 12] and Defendant Aundrea Claughton's (“Claughton”) Motion to Dismiss [ECF No. 14]. Clerk's default has already been entered against Defendants Nicholas Jones and Dre Tucker. [ECF No. 24.] The matter was fully briefed by the parties, and I heard oral arguments on the motions on June 12, 2018. After considering the allegations in the Complaint and the arguments of the parties, this matter is now ripe for disposition. For the reasons stated herein, Moser's Motion to Dismiss will be granted with respect to Counts 5 and 8, and Claughton's Motion to Dismiss will be denied.

         I. STATEMENT OF FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND[1]

         On December 20, 2017, while Plaintiff Christen Waddle (“Plaintiff”) was driving down the road in Halifax County, Virginia, she encountered an emaciated dog running loose in the middle of the road. The dog was “lethargic and shaking. Its ribs were visible and it had obvious facial scratches.” (Compl. ¶ 10.) She called Animal Control, but no one answered.

         While inspecting the dog, she noticed a tracking collar with Defendant Nicholas Jones's name and phone number. Plaintiff called him, but no one answered.

         While she was on the phone, the dog moved to the driver's side door and, with “labored effort, ” pawed its way into the floorboard. Being of a compassionate mind, she moved the dog to the passenger side. Her intent, according to the Complaint, was to take the dog to Animal Control.

         Plaintiff located Jones's Facebook page and left him a message. She told him she found his dog and that, if he wanted him back, the dog would be at Animal Control. She described the dog's condition to Jones as “pathetic.” Plaintiff began driving the dog to Animal Control but needed to stop for gas. While she was pumping, she saw a pickup truck with dog kennels and two dogs in the back “race by the gas station.” As the truck came on the lot, Plaintiff began to fear for her safety and called 911. The truck stopped next to her car and five men exited the truck and surrounded her car.

         The five men, including Defendants Tucker and Jones, began calling her vulgar names and threatening to break her windows if she did not immediately turn over the dog. The dispatcher told her to get in her car, but Plaintiff feared that if she unlocked her car to get in, the men would simply open the door and take the dog. She confirmed to the dispatcher that the dog belonged to “them, ” but that the dog was starved. Plaintiff asked the dispatcher to have Animal Control come to the scene.

         As a Halifax County Sheriff's deputy drove up (apparently unrelated to Plaintiff's 911 call), the pickup truck and three of the men promptly left before engaging with a deputy.

         Defendant Claughton, an assistant animal control officer in Halifax County, arrived on the scene. Claughton picked up the dog and told Plaintiff and Jones, “I'm taking this dog with me; he is starved and underweight.” At Animal Control, “A. Conner” inspected the dog. Jones, the dog's owner, [2] was given a “cruelty warning” and directed to take the dog to a vet within 24 hours. Conner released the dog to Jones less than an hour after Plaintiff first encountered the animal.

         Plaintiff spoke with Claughton at 12:59 p.m. that same day and expressed her dismay that the dog was returned to Jones. She told him she would not “let this go, ” and that she would be reporting him to the “highest possible authority” for his “dereliction of duty.”

         At 2:00 p.m., Claughton had Jones and Tucker come to Animal Control “for the purpose of cooking up bogus criminal charges against” Plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 36.) Jones and Tucker prepared handwritten, unsworn statements at 3:37 p.m. Plaintiff alleges that “[b]oth Jones and Tucker's statements, as procured by Claughton, were false in that they failed to properly describe what had happened at the gas station.” (Id. ¶ 37.) “Their statements intentionally left out the crucial fact which [Plaintiff] had made clear-as confirmed on the 911 tape . . . -that she was taking the dog to Animal Control because of its obvious physical distress.” (Id.) Plaintiff alleges “Claughton knew of [Plaintiff's] humane intent . . ., but he nevertheless orchestrated the crafting of Jones's and Tucker's written statements to make it appear that [Plaintiff's] intent was to permanently convert the dog to her ownership.” (Id.)

         After securing the statements, Claughton sought arrest warrants from the magistrate, which were issued at 4:23 p.m. that day. Plaintiff was charged with felony larceny for the “taking” of the tracking collar and misdemeanor larceny for the “taking” of the dog. According to Plaintiff, “Claughton did so with full knowledge that [Plaintiff] had not taken the dog with the intent of acquiring permanent ownership, as required by law for a larceny charge, but instead was only seeking to secure the protection of Animal Control over the dog's well-being . . . .” (Id. ¶ 38.) Plaintiff alleges there was no probable cause to initiate larceny charges against her, and that Claughton knew he could only secure arrest warrants by omitting vital facts.

         The next day, on December 21, Claughton accompanied Jones and Tucker to the vet. Given the dog's abject condition, it was euthanized.

         Defendant Todd Moser, Claughton's supervisor, did nothing to see that the now-pending criminal proceeding, “based on the improperly issued warrants, was dismissed.” (Id. ¶ 42.) Plaintiff does not allege when or how Moser became aware of the situation with her, Claughton, Jones, and the dog.

         Plaintiff was served with the warrants on December 26, and was instructed to appear for arraignment on January 3. She was released on a $1, 500 unsecured bond.

         During news coverage of the incident, Moser stated that he stood behind Claughton's decision to seek warrants against Plaintiff and would not “second guess” his officers. Moser did not inform the press that the dog was put down. When asked why he did not disclose that information in prior reporting on the incident, Moser responded: “[I]t was not something I felt you needed to know.” As a result of the “persecution” against her by Claughton, which had been ratified by Moser, Plaintiff felt “chilled” in her First Amendment right to speak out. The actions of Claughton and Moser “caused [Plaintiff] to withhold further public criticism of [Claughton's] actions now that the reality of criminal prosecution, and the threat of criminal conviction and imprisonment, was real.” (Id. ¶ 49.)

         On January 3, 2018, Plaintiff appeared pro se at her arraignment. At that time, Commonwealth Attorney Tracy Quackenbush Martin dismissed the charges against Plaintiff. In a public statement after the arraignment, Martin said “the evidence did not indicate criminal intent as required by law.” (Id. ¶ 52.) Martin did not explain, however, “why Moser and Claughton had not approached her to ...


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