Barnes v. City of Dothan, Alabama et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER: Nick McElveen's 21 Motion to Dismiss is hereby GRANTED and Barnes's 1 Complaint is DISMISSED without prejudice. The complaint may be re-filed upon satisfaction of Heck's favorable termination requireme nt. The plaintiff is further ORDERED TO SHOW CAUSE as to why the claims against the remaining defendants should not be dismissed as Heck-barred. Show Cause Response due by 2/10/2012. If no cause is shown by that date, the Court will dismiss Barnes's complaint without prejudice. Signed by Honorable Judge Mark E. Fuller on 1/31/2012. (Attachments: # 1 Civil Appeals Checklist)(dmn, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
CITY OF DOTHAN, et al.,
Case No. 1:11-cv-201-MEF
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
This cause comes before the Court on Defendant Nick McElveen’s Motion to
Dismiss (Doc. # 21). The underlying dispute has its genesis in Plaintiff Sanjanetta
Barnes’s arrest and conviction for disorderly conduct in 2008. This led to Barnes filing a
complaint against the City of Dothan, Police Chief Gregory Benton, Judge Rose Gordon,
Officer Dennis Sallas, City of Dothan employee Russell Hughes, Mayor Mike Schmitz,
and Officer Nick McElveen. The other defendants have already filed motions to dismiss
(see Docs. # 4, 8, 9, 10, 11), which this Court granted as to Judge Gordon and granted in
part and denied in part as to everyone else, except McElveen, because he did not join in
those motions (Doc. # 20). For the reasons discussed below, Barnes’s complaint is due to
be DISMISSED without prejudice as to McElveen. And because the basis for
McElveen’s dismissal likely applies to all of the defendants, Barnes is ORDERED to
show cause as to why the Court should not dismiss her complaint as to the other
II. JURISDICTION AND VENUE
The Court has subject-matter jurisdiction over this case under 28 U.S.C §§ 1331
(federal question), 1343 (civil rights), and 1367 (supplemental). The parties do not
contend that the Court lacks personal jurisdiction over them, nor do they dispute that
venue is proper under 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b).
III. LEGAL STANDARD
A motion to dismiss mainly tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint. Fed. R.
Civ. P. 12(b)(6). It does not delve into disputes over the proof of the facts alleged—such
a crucible is reserved for the summary judgment stage. With this in mind, the Court
accepts as true all well-pled factual allegations in the complaint, viewing them in the
light most favorable to the plaintiff. Pielage v. McConnell, 516 F.3d 1282, 1284 (11th
Cir. 2008); Am. United Life Ins. Co. v. Martinez, 480 F.3d 1043, 1057 (11th Cir. 2007).
The Court will grant a motion to dismiss “when, on the basis of a dispositive issue of
law, no construction of the factual allegations will support the cause of action.” Marshall
Cnty. Bd. of Ed. v. Marshall Cnty. Gas Dist., 992 F.2d 1171, 1174 (11th Cir. 1993).
A motion to dismiss also requires compliance with some minimal pleading
standards. Indeed, although a plaintiff’s complaint generally need only contain “a short
and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,” Fed. R.
Civ. P. 8(a)(2), the plaintiff must still allege “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is
plausible on its face.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 554, 570 (2007). And
“[a] claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the
court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct
alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1950 (2009). The plaintiff must provide
“more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause
of action will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 559. Nor does it suffice if the pleadings
merely leave “open the possibility that a plaintiff might later establish some set of
undisclosed facts to support recovery.” Id. at 561.
As this is a motion to dismiss, the following facts, which the Court accepts as true
at this stage of the proceedings, come from the allegations in Barnes’s complaint.
On the night of August 8, 2008, Barnes was walking home from work when she
was overcome with a bout of pain caused by ovarian cysts. She was sitting on the
sidewalk recovering from the pain when Hughes, a passerby and City of Dothan
employee, stopped to help her. He tried to load her into his car, but Barnes resisted,
fearing that she was in danger. After this encounter, Hughes called the police. Officer
Sallas responded to the call and interviewed Barnes after arriving on the scene. Barnes
explained that she could walk home on her own and refused medical attention.
Observing Barnes, Sallas determined that, despite her protestations, she needed
medical assistance. He physically restrained her while waiting for an ambulance. When
the emergency workers arrived, Barnes signed a treatment waiver and the ambulance left
the scene. Sallas then let Barnes continue on her way.
Soon after Barnes started to leave, Officer McElveen arrived at the scene,
informed Barnes that she was being unruly, and placed her in his patrol car. He then
called another ambulance. This time, the paramedics forced Barnes to get in, and she was
taken to the mental ward of a local hospital.
Meanwhile, Officer McElveen filed a complaint alleging that Barnes had cursed at
him. This led to prosecutors bringing a disorderly conduct charge against Barnes.
See Ala. Code § 13A-11-7. Barnes pled not guilty in district court, and Judge Gordon set
her case for trial. The officers failed to appear for the first setting, so Judge Gordon reset
the trial to give them another chance to appear. In between the first and second trial
setting, Judge Gordon allowed the complaining officers to revise their complaint to add
that Barnes pushed Officer McElveen.
After several delays, Barnes’s case went to trial on January 14, 2010. And after
listening to the 911 call made by Hughes, Judge Gordon called Barnes and her attorney
into chambers and informed them that Barnes could either plead guilty or have the case
sent immediately to the circuit court. Barnes told Judge Gordon that she wanted a jury
trial in circuit court. Judge Gordon characterized this as a stipulation of guilt and
sentenced Barnes to 180 days in jail, ordered her to pay a $500 fine, and charged her
$176 in court costs. Barnes does not allege any facts about what happened in the circuit
court, nor does she state whether she appealed her conviction to the Alabama Court of
Criminal Appeals or the Alabama Supreme Court.
Against this background, Barnes alleged that the City of Dothan, the officers
involved with her arrest, and Judge Gordon conspired to violate her civil rights because
of her race. More specifically, Barnes’s complaint alleges, among other things, that
McElveen violated her civil rights by filing a false report and by entering into a
conspiracy to obstruct justice and violate her civil rights. She asserts these claims against
McElveen under the Declaratory Judgment Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2201-2; a variety of federal
civil rights statutes, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985(2), 1985(3); and under Alabama law.
Barnes brings most of her claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a statute providing a
remedy when a person acting under color of state law deprives a plaintiff of a right,
privilege, or immunity secured by the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.
See, e.g., 42 U.S.C. § 1983,1 Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 393–94 (1989) (“§ 1983
is not itself a source of substantive rights, but merely provides a method for vindicating
Section 1983 provides in relevant part:
Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation,
custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia,
subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or
other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any
rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws,
shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or
other proper proceeding for redress.
federal rights elsewhere conferred”) (internal quotes omitted); Cummings v. DeKalb
County, 24 F.3d 1349, 1355 (11th Cir. 1994). McElveen argues that Barnes’s failure to
allege that her state court conviction was overturned bars her claims. And to this end he
cites Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), claiming that it requires a § 1983 plaintiff
contesting a state court criminal conviction to allege a favorable termination of the
matter. Barnes—or, more accurately, Barnes’s counsel—failed to address this issue in the
one-page response brief submitted to the Court to contest McElveen’s motion to dismiss.
A. The applicability of the favorable termination rule
McElveen claims that Barnes cannot press a § 1983 claim because “any award in
the plaintiff’s favor would ‘necessarily impugn’ the validity of [her] conviction,” which
would violate established precedent. (Doc. # 21.) It is true enough the Supreme Court
held in Heck v. Humphrey that a plaintiff cannot use § 1983 as a vehicle to attack
collaterally her state court conviction and later imprisonment—at least not unless she had
the conviction “reversed . . . , expunged by executive order, declared invalid by a state
tribunal . . . , or called into question by a federal court’s issuance of a writ of habeas
corpus.” 512 U.S. 477, 486–87 (1994). But Heck, unlike this case, dealt with an
incarcerated prisoner with access to federal habeas corpus review. In Spencer v. Kemna,
523 U.S. 1 (1998), five Justices agreed—albeit in dicta—that Heck’s favorable
termination rule does not apply to unincarcerated plaintiffs who, like Barnes, never
realistically had recourse to federal habeas review. So the question becomes, does Heck’s
favorable termination rule have an exception for scenarios where plaintiffs, like Barnes,
never had the opportunity to use the federal habeas statute?
The issue is a close question. The Heck rule, on the one hand, seeks to keep
plaintiffs from using § 1983 as an end around 28 U.S.C. § 2254’s more exacting
procedural requirements. This suggests that the unavailability of habeas review creates an
equitable exception to Heck that would allow a plaintiff to access federal court by way of
§ 1983. On the other hand, the Heck majority worried about the federalism concerns
implicated by allowing plaintiffs to undermine state court criminal convictions with civil
tort suits. With these worries in mind, the Court stated, “One element that must be
alleged and proved in a malicious prosecution action is termination of the prior criminal
proceeding in favor of the accused.”2 Heck, 512 U.S. 484. Despite this explicit statement,
a number of circuit courts have recognized an equitable exception to Heck, allowing a §
1983 suit to proceed in the face of an unaltered state court conviction. See, e.g., Huang v.
Johnson, 251 F.3d 65, 75 (2d Cir. 2001); Wilson v. Johnson, 535 F.3d 262, 267 (4th Cir.
2008); Powers v. Hamilton Cnty. Public Defenders Comm’n, 501 F.3d 592, 601 (6th Cir.
2007); Carr v. O’Leary, 167 F.3d 1124, 1127 (7th Cir. 1999); Nonnette v. Small, 316
F.3d 872, 876–77 (9th Cir. 2002); Cohen v. Longshore, 621 F.3d 1311, 1315 (10th Cir.
2010). But a number of circuit courts have reached the opposite result, declining to
recognize an equitable exception to Heck. See, e.g., Figueroa v. Rivera, 147 F.3d 77,
The Heck Court did not, however, impose an exhaustion requirement on § 1983 actions. Heck,
512 U.S. at 483, 489; see also Edwards v. Balisok, 520 U.S. 641, 649 (1997).
79–81 (1st Cir. 1998); Gilles v. Davis, 427 F.3d 197, 209–10 (3d Cir. 2005); Entzi v.
Redmann, 485 F.3d 998, 1003–1004 (8th Cir. 2007).
The Heck Court’s rather clear statement requiring a favorable termination of the
plaintiff’s conviction seems to put Barnes’s claims to bed. But the High Court’s
statement amounts to non-binding dicta since Heck dealt with a prisoner-plaintiff who
had access to federal court through the habeas statute. See, e.g., Main Drug, Inc. v. Aetna
U.S. Healthcare, Inc., 475 F.3d 1228, 1230 (11th Cir. 2007) (Carnes, J.) (“Obedience to
a Supreme Court decision is one thing, extrapolating from its implications a holding on
an issue that was not before that Court . . . is another thing.”). Heck can thus be read as
inapplicable to § 1983 claims brought by non-prisoners. See Heck, 512 U.S. at 500
(Souter, J., concurring) (stating “sensible way to read” majority opinion is that it only
applies to “prison inmates seeking § 1983 damages . . .”); Muhammad v. Close, 540 U.S.
749, 752 n.2 (2004) (per curiam) (noting that question remains open).
The Eleventh Circuit has nibbled on the edges of this issue but has yet to confront
it directly. For example, in Morrow v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, the court of appeals
found Heck inapplicable “where Plaintiff is not in custody and where Plaintiff’s
action—even if decided in his favor—no way implies the invalidity of his conviction.”
610 F.3d 1271, 1272 (11th Cir. 2010) (Edmonson, J.) (emphasis added). Yet Morrow did
not explicitly adopt the equitable exception recognized by other circuit courts,3 nor did it
Judge Anderson concurred specially in Morrow to make clear that he supported the opinion to
the extent that it adopted an equitable exception to Heck for “plaintiffs that are no longer in custody and
deal with a plaintiff whose claim would impugn the invalidity of his conviction. In
Harden v. Pataki, the court of appeals similarly found that Heck did not bar the
plaintiff’s claim. 320 F.3d 1289, 1296 (11th Cir. 2003). But the Harden court did so
because the claim did not call into question the plaintiff’s state court conviction. Id. And
although the court relied on an equitable exception to Heck to supplement its holding, id.
at 1298, this discussion was not necessary to the decision, which makes it non-binding
dicta. Denno v. Sch. Bd. of Volusia City, 218 F.3d 1267, 1283 (11th Cir.2000) (“Dictum
may be defined as a statement not necessary to the decision and having no binding
effect.”); see also Abusaid v. Hillsborough Cnty. Bd. of Cnty. Comm’rs, 405 F.3d 1298,
1315 n.9 (11th Cir. 2005) (noting that question of impossibility exception to Heck
remains open question in Eleventh Circuit).
Since neither the Supreme Court nor the Eleventh Circuit has answered the
question directly, the Court turns to unpublished Eleventh Circuit opinions and district
courts within the circuit for guidance. In a case directly on point, the United States
District Court for the Southern District of Florida held that Heck barred the plaintiff’s §
1983 claims even though she had no opportunity to file a federal habeas corpus petition.
Domotor v. Wennet, 630 F. Supp. 2d 1368 (S.D. Fla. 2009). In a short, unpublished per
curiam opinion, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed, stating, “As the district court properly
explained . . . , so long as the [state law convictions] remain undisturbed, [Heck] bars
who, despite due diligence, could not have obtained habeas corpus relief.” 610 F.3d at 1274 (Anderson,
appellant’s claims.” Domotor v. Wennet, 356 F. App’x 316, 316 (11th Cir. 2009). An
Eleventh Circuit panel has reached the same result in two other unpublished opinions.
Christy v. Sheriff of Palm Beach Cnty., 288 F. App’x 658, 666 (11th Cir. 2008); Vickers
v. Donahue, 137 F. App’x 285, 289 (11th Cir. 2005).
After reviewing the applicable precedent, the Court holds that Heck’s favorable
termination rule applies to Barnes’s claims. The Heck opinion makes clear that
. . . to recover damages for allegedly unconstitutional
conviction or imprisonment . . . , a § 1983 plaintiff must
prove that the conviction or sentence has been reversed on
direct appeal, expunged by executive order, declared invalid
by a state tribunal authorized to make such determination, or
called into question by a federal court’s issuance of a writ of
habeas corpus, 28 U.S.C. § 2254. A claim for damages
bearing that relationship to a conviction that has not been so
invalidated is not cognizable under § 1983.
512 U.S. at 486–87. Although reading the above quote as extending only to prisoners is a
sensible way to read the opinion, it is not the best way to read it for three reasons.
First, the ways in which a plaintiff can receive a favorable termination include the
possibility of a habeas reversal. But this only implies that habeas review is sufficient to
overturn a conviction; it does not mean that the availability of a federal forum is
necessary to do so. In fact, the plaintiff has a number of other ways to seek reversal by
the state, which, if successful, would allow the § 1983 claim to proceed. Cf. Baker v. City
of Hollywood, No. 08-cv-60294, 2008 WL 2474665, at *7 (S.D. Fla. June 17, 2008)
(“even though a habeas corpus action is currently unavailable to Plaintiff here, [she] was
not without an avenue to seek relief from [her] conviction.”). Second, “civil tort actions
are not appropriate vehicles for challenging the validity of outstanding criminal
judgments.” Heck, 512 at 486. And because they are not, it makes sense to steer
challenges to state court convictions into the channels already set up for this purpose,
such as a direct appeal or state collateral review. Third, principles of federalism and
comity require the federal courts to refrain from taking over the States’ police powers
and undermining their judicial processes. Allowing plaintiffs to attack state court
convictions with federal civil suits implies a distrust of state courts—it impugns their
character, competency, and commitment to the rule of law—without warrant to do so.
In sum, a thorough review of the applicable case law, combined with the reasons
discussed above, persuades this Court that Heck’s favorable termination rule applies to §
1983 claims brought by a plaintiff who never had access to federal habeas review. The
Court, moreover, holds that Heck also applies to the § 1985 claims. Therefore, Heck
governs the claims now before the Court.
B. Applying the favorable termination rule to Barnes’s claims
Having decided that Heck’s favorable termination rule applies to Barnes’s case,
the Court must analyze Barnes’s various allegations, asking whether each impugns her
state court conviction. If an allegation calls her conviction into question, it is Heckbarred; if it does not, the claim survives McElveen’s motion to dismiss.
Barnes’s first cause of action seeks declaratory relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2201-2.
She asks the Court to declare that the defendants conspired to violate her civil rights,
namely by agreeing to have her “wrongfully convicted and sentenced to 180 days in jail”
and “wrongfully forced to pay a bond for a crime that she had been adjudicated guilty
without a trial.” (Doc. # 1-1 at ¶ 19.) Such a declaration would necessarily impugn her
criminal conviction in state court, because this Court would be declaring that the state
court wrongfully convicted her. Accordingly, her declaratory judgment claim is Heckbarred.
Her next few causes of action—all brought under § 1983—similarly undermine
her state court conviction. First, she claims that McElveen submitted a false complaint to
municipal court because he “did not have sufficient facts that would lead to the
conviction of Ms. Barnes on a disorderly conduct charge.” (Doc. # 1-1 at ¶ 25.) Second,
Barnes alleges that the City of Dothan’s failure to supervise its officers led to McElveen
lying and submitting a false complaint, which “caused Ms. Barnes to subsequently be
wrongfully convicted and incarcerated.” (Id. at ¶ 28.) Third, she asserts violations of
equal protection and procedural due process because “Officer McElveen did not have
sufficient facts that would lead to the conviction of Ms. Barnes on a disorderly conduct
charge.” (Id. at ¶ 33.) Because each of these allegations center on Barnes’s conviction
and assail the basis for it, allowing her claims to proceed would necessarily impugn her
conviction. Her § 1983 claims therefore run afoul of Heck’s favorable termination rule.
See, e.g., Domotor, 630 F. Supp. 2d at 1379–80 (holding Heck bars claims almost
identical to Barnes’s); Baker, 2008 WL 2474665 (finding § 1983 claim based on “false
Barnes’s final two federal causes of action allege a conspiracy between the
defendants to obstruct justice, 42 U.S.C. § 1985(2), and interfere with her civil rights, 42
U.S.C. § 1985(3). She contends the object of the conspiracy was “to convict Ms. Barnes
of disorderly conduct without sufficient evidence or a proper trial.” (Doc. # 1-1 at ¶¶ 41,
44.) Like her § 1983 claims and request for a declaratory judgment, these allegations
would call into question her state court conviction, which, in turn, would violate Heck.
C. Barnes’s state law claims
Barnes also brings two state law claims—one fraud-based, the other sounding in
negligence. A district court “may decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over a
claim” after the court has “dismissed all claims over which it has original jurisdiction.”
28 U.S.C. § 1367(c)(3). However, a federal court should generally dismiss pendent state
law claims upon eliminating the federal claims. See United Mine Workers v. Gibbs, 383
U.S. 715, 726 (1966). Because Barnes’s federal claims—the only claims over which the
Court has original jurisdiction—are due to be dismissed, the Court declines to exercise
supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims. So the state law claims are due to be
dismissed as well. See Raney v. Allstate Ins. Co., 370 F.3d 1086, 1088–89 (11th Cir.
2004) (“encourag[ing] district courts to dismiss any remaining state claims when . . . the
federal claims have been dismissed prior to trial.”).
For the reasons discussed above, Nick McElveen’s Motion to Dismiss (Doc. # 21)
is hereby GRANTED and Barnes’s Complaint (Doc. # 1-1) is DISMISSED without
prejudice. The complaint may be re-filed upon satisfaction of Heck’s favorable
termination requirement. The plaintiff is further ORDERED to show cause on or before
February 10, 2012, as to why the claims against the remaining defendants should not be
dismissed as Heck-barred. If no cause is shown by that date, the Court will dismiss
Barnes’s complaint without prejudice. Plaintiff’s counsel is admonished that a response
that fails to address the pertinent facts and law will lead to a summary dismissal.
Done this the 31 day of January, 2012.
/s/ Mark E. Fuller
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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