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Warner v. Doucette

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

July 30, 2019

RUTH ANN WARNER, As guardian of Jonathan James Brewster Warner, an incapacitated adult, Plaintiff,
v.
MICHAEL R. DOUCETTE, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Elizabeth K. Dillon, United States District Judge.

         In this case, plaintiff Ruth Ann Warner, as guardian of Jonathan James Brewster Warner, alleges that defendant Michael Doucette, violated Mr. Warner's civil rights. Doucette was the Commonwealth's Attorney for the City of Lynchburg at the time of the events alleged in the complaint; he has since retired. Warner alleges that, after Mr. Warner was involved in an altercation at the emergency psychiatric unit of Lynchburg General Hospital and was shot by a hospital security guard, Doucette issued a press release/report and held a press conference explaining his decision not to bring charges against the shooting officer or against Mr. Warner. Warner contends that, both in the press release and during the course of the conference, Doucette divulged Mr. Warner's “sensitive, private medical history” without his consent and “without any justification.” (Compl. ¶ 1, Dkt. No. 2.)

         The complaint contains two counts, both of which Warner asserts against Doucette in his individual capacity. (Pl.'s Opp'n Resp. Mot. to Dismiss 10, Dkt. No. 15 (Opp'n).) Count One asserts a claim for “invasion of privacy” pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, referencing both the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Count Two asserts a state-law claim for “invasion of privacy” premised on Virginia Code § 32.1-127.1:03, which Warner contends creates a right to privacy in the content of health records and which she contends Doucette violated. Count Two alleges that Doucette acted “willfully or with gross negligence in redisclosing” Mr. Warner's health records, although the complaint alleges no facts to support that contention.

         Pending before the court is Doucette's motion to dismiss. (Dkt. No. 8.) After Warner failed to timely respond to that motion, the court issued a show-cause order, directing that Warner explain her failure. (Dkt. No. 13.) She then filed her response to the show-cause order, to which Doucette responded. (Dkt. Nos. 14, 16.)

         Warner's explanation for filing the response late is that counsel's automatic calendaring software was not working properly because of an inadvertent failure to update a password on his computer. While the court questions whether this excuse establishes excusable neglect, it is unnecessary to resolve that issue.[1] Instead, the court simply notes that, even if the court considers the late-filed response to the motion to dismiss (Dkt. No. 15), plaintiff's complaint is nonetheless subject to dismissal for the reasons discussed herein. Accordingly, the court will grant the motion to dismiss, dismissing Count One with prejudice and Count Two without prejudice, and will dismiss as moot the order to show cause. The court also will deny Doucette's request for attorney and expert fees in this matter.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         The facts alleged in the complaint are simple and straightforward. Warner was shot by a security guard at Lynchburg General Hospital after he had come to the hospital for psychiatric treatment. The shooting and the entire altercation that preceded it were captured on video, although there is no corresponding audio. Doucette investigated the shooting, working in conjunction with the Lynchburg Police Department. During the course of that investigation, Doucette obtained Warner's health records.

         On June 1, 2016, [2] “Doucette conducted a press conference and issued a press release to discuss the results of his investigation and to explain his decision not to charge anyone criminally.” (Compl. ¶ 11.) During the conference and in the text of the press release, Doucette “revealed and redisclosed sensitive content from Warner's health records, discussing with specificity information taken from Warner's medical records, including Warner's psychiatric conditions, history, treatment, and medication.” (Id. ¶ 12.). The complaint itself does not provide additional details about exactly what was revealed.

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Standard of Review

         To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, a plaintiff's allegations must “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). This standard “requires the plaintiff to articulate facts, when accepted as true, that ‘show' that the plaintiff has stated a claim entitling him to relief, i.e., the ‘plausibility of entitlement to relief.'” Francis v. Giacomelli, 588 F.3d 186, 193 (4th Cir. 2009) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). The plausibility standard requires more than “a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         In determining whether the plaintiff has met this plausibility standard, the court must accept as true all well-pleaded facts in the complaint and any documents incorporated into or attached to it. Sec'y of State for Defence v. Trimble Navigation Ltd., 484 F.3d 700, 705 (4th Cir. 2007). Further, it must “draw[] all reasonable factual inferences from those facts in the plaintiff's favor, ” Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 244 (4th Cir. 1999), but it “need not accept legal conclusions couched as facts or ‘unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusions, or arguments, '” Wag More Dogs, LLC v. Cozart, 680 F.3d 359, 365 (4th Cir. 2012) (quoting Giarratano v. Johnson, 521 F.3d 298, 302 (4th Cir. 2008)).

         Because the court concludes that its consideration of Doucette's sovereign immunity should be analyzed under Rule 12(b)(1), see infra Section II-D, it also briefly touches upon those standards. Specifically, in deciding a Rule 12(b)(1) motion, “the district court is to regard the pleadings as mere evidence on the issue, and may consider evidence outside the pleadings without converting the proceeding to one for summary judgment.” Evans v. B.F. Perkins Co., 166 F.3d 642, 647 (4th Cir. 1999) (quoting Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac R.R. Co. v. United States, 945 F.2d 765, 768 (4th Cir. 1991)). It must, however, “view[] the alleged facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, similar to an evaluation pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6).” Lovern v. Edwards, 190 F.3d 648, 654 (4th Cir. 1999). Dismissal under Rule 12(b)(1) is proper “only if the material jurisdictional facts are not in dispute and the moving party is entitled to prevail as a matter of law.” Evans, 166 F.3d at 647 (quoting Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac R.R, 945 F.2d at 768).

         B. Consideration of Extrinsic Documents

         The parties disagree about whether the court can consider documents that Doucette attached to his motion to dismiss. Typically, when a defendant moves to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a court is “limited to considering the sufficiency of allegations set forth in the complaint and the ‘documents attached or incorporated into the complaint.'” Zak v. Chelsea Therapeutics Int'l, Ltd., 780 F.3d 597, 606 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. v. Kolon Indus., Inc., 637 F.3d 435, 448 (4th Cir. 2011)). It may, however, consider a document attached to a motion to dismiss when the document is “‘integral to and explicitly relied on in the complaint, '” and when the document's authenticity is unchallenged. Zak, 780 F.3d at 606 (quoting Am. Chiropractic Ass'n v. Trigon Healthcare, Inc., 367 F.3d 212, 234 (4th Cir. 2004)).

         In this case, the “press release, ” which is actually an eleven-page report titled “Commonwealth's Attorney's Report on the Shooting of Jonathan Warner, ” (Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss Ex. 8, Dkt. No. 9-8 (Report)), is certainly integral to the complaint, as is the hour-long press conference, the video of which is available at https://wset.com/news/local/lynchburg-commonwealths-attorney-to-announce-hospital-shooting-findings-today (last visited July 26, 2019) (Press Conf.). The report and the press conference form the basis for Warner's claims, and she does not challenge their authenticity. Indeed, Warner appears to agree that the court can consider those documents: her response notes that any lack of detail in the complaint is remedied by defendant's incorporating the written press release/report, which contains the specific statements made. (Opp'n 8.) Thus, the court ...


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