Sanders v. Wilson et al

Filing 33

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER that 16 Motion for Summary Judgment on all claims is GRANTED. A separate judgment will be issued. Signed by Honorable William Keith Watkins on 7/14/2010. (cb, )

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Sanders v. Wilson et al Doc. 33 IN THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES F O R THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA N O R T H E R N DIVISION T E R R I SANDERS, P la in tif f , v. C A R L WILSON, et al., D e f e n d a n ts. ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) C A S E NO. 2:09-CV-687-WKW [WO] M E M O R A N D U M OPINION AND ORDER P la in tif f Terri Sanders brings this action against Defendants Carl Wilson, Joel Duke, a n d Jim Byard (collectively, "Defendants"), alleging Fourth Amendment violations under 42 U .S .C . 1983 and state-law malicious prosecution. This cause is before the court on D e f e n d a n ts ' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. # 16), which has been fully briefed and is ready for disposition. Upon careful consideration of counsel's briefs, the relevant law, and th e record as a whole, the court finds that Defendants' motion is due to be granted. I. JURISDICTION AND VENUE S u b je c t matter jurisdiction is exercised pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 1331, 1343, 1367, 2 2 0 1 , and 2202. The parties do not contest personal jurisdiction or venue, and the court finds a d e q u a te allegations in support of both. II. STANDARD OF REVIEW " S u m m a ry judgment is appropriate `if the pleadings, depositions, answers to in te rro g a to rie s , and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a m a tte r of law.'" Greenberg v. BellSouth Telecomms., Inc., 498 F.3d 1258, 1263 (11th Cir. 2 0 0 7 ) (per curiam) (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)). The party moving for summary judgment " a lw a ys bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its m o tio n , and identifying those portions of [the record, including pleadings, discovery m a te ria ls and affidavits], which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of m a te ria l fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The movant may meet th is burden by presenting evidence indicating there is no dispute of material fact or by s h o w in g that the nonmoving party has failed to present evidence in support of some element o f its case on which it bears the ultimate burden of proof. Id. at 322-24. If the movant meets its evidentiary burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to establish, with evidence beyond the pleadings, that a genuine issue material to each of its c la i m s for relief exists. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)(2); Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 324; Clark v. C o a ts & Clark, Inc., 929 F.2d 604, 608 (11th Cir. 1991). What is material is determined by th e substantive law applicable to the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 2 4 8 (1986). "The mere existence of some factual dispute will not defeat summary judgment u n le s s that factual dispute is material to an issue affecting the outcome of the case." McCormick v. City of Fort Lauderdale, 333 F.3d 1234, 1243 (11th Cir. 2003) (per curiam) (in te rn a l quotation marks and citation omitted). 2 A genuine issue of material fact exists when the nonmoving party produces evidence th a t would allow a reasonable fact-finder to return a verdict in its favor. Greenberg, 498 F .3 d at 1263; Waddell v. Valley Forge Dental Assocs., 276 F.3d 1275, 1279 (11th Cir. 2001). However, if the evidence on which the nonmoving party relies "is merely colorable, or is not s ig n if ic a n tly probative, summary judgment may be granted." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50 (c ita tio n s omitted). "A mere `scintilla' of evidence supporting the [nonmovant's] position w ill not suffice; there must be enough of a showing that the [trier of fact] could reasonably f in d for that party," Walker v. Darby, 911 F.2d 1573, 1577 (11th Cir. 1990), and the n o n m o v in g party "must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts," Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1 9 8 6 ). Conclusory allegations based on subjective beliefs are likewise insufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact and do not suffice to oppose a motion for summary judgment. Holifield v. Reno, 115 F.3d 1555, 1564 n.6 (11th Cir. 1997) (per curiam). Hence, when a p la in tif f fails to set forth specific facts supported by appropriate evidence sufficient to e s ta b lis h the existence of an element essential to his case and on which the plaintiff will bear th e burden of proof at trial, summary judgment is due to be granted in favor of the moving p a rty. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 323. 3 III. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND T h is case arises out of the arrest and prosecution of Ms. Sanders for operating a b u s in e s s without a license, in violation of the Prattville Municipal Code, 11-16-5.1 (Doc. # 17, Ex. H.) Ms. Sanders claims that Mr. Wilson a code enforcement officer arrested h e r and instituted judicial proceedings against her without probable cause to do so, and that M r . Duke and Mayor Byard, as supervisors of Mr. Wilson, are vicariously liable for Mr. W ils o n 's actions. (See Compl. (Doc. # 1).) The facts, construed in the light most favorable to Ms. Sanders, are as follows. M s . Sanders, a member of the Central Alabama Avian Society, raises exotic birds at h e r home in Prattville, Alabama. (Sanders Dep. 16-17, 48 (Doc. # 21, Ex. 1).) At any given tim e from 2006 until March 2010, Ms. Sanders owned between twenty-two and thirty parrots o f various breeds, which were kept in an outbuilding and two rooms in her house. (Sanders D e p . 19-20.) Three to four of the birds were kept as pets, while the rest were kept for b re e d in g purposes. (Sanders Dep. 23-24.) In addition, Guy Martin, who lived with Ms. S a n d e rs , kept more than thirty small birds on the property during this period. (Sanders Dep. 8 0 - 8 1 .) Prattville Municipal Code 11-16-5 states as follows: "It shall be unlawful for any person to engage in or carry on any business . . . for which a license is required by this article without first having taken out such license as herein required." 1 4 Sometime in 2006, Ms. Sanders invited Rex Musgrove, the caretaker of the property a d ja c e n t to Ms. Sanders' home,2 onto her property to view her birds and the birdhouses she h a d recently erected. (Musgrove Test.3 53.) Mr. Musgrove testified that he saw three large b ird cages, approximately nine to twelve feet long and two to three feet wide, and that he was " ta k e n aback" by seeing "so much in the yard that had not been there the week before." (Musgrove Test. 53.) Mr. Musgrove further testified that Ms. Sanders told him that she was " in the bird business." (Musgrove Test. 54.) Shortly thereafter, Mr. Musgrove voiced his concern about the birds to the office of t h e Prattville Mayor, Jim Byard. (Musgrove Test. 55, 57.) Specifically, Mr. Musgrove " a s k e d the City to check . . . out" whether the birds and bird cages were "permissible under [ th e City's] zoning rule[s] and regulation[s]." (Musgrove Test. 55, 57.) Mr. Musgrove te s tif ie d that he did not file a complaint, just an inquiry. (Musgrove Test. 55 ("Well, I didn't f ile a complaint with the City, but I did ask the City would they check it out . . . .").) However, Mayor Byard testified in his deposition that Mr. Musgrove "made a complaint" a b o u t the bird waste. (Byard Dep. 7, 13 (Doc. # 21, Ex. 2).) Mayor Byard further testified th a t at some later time, either Mr. Musgrove or his daughter made a complaint about noise. (Byard Dep. 14.) The property was owned by Mr. Musgrove's sister. (Musgrove Test. 51 (Doc. # 17, Ex. B).) Mr. Musgrove testified that while his sister was living in Atlanta, "[he] was the one who checked on [the house] every day." (Musgrove Test. 51.) 3 2 This citation is to the testimony taken during Ms. Sanders' trial on appeal to the circuit court. 5 After speaking with Mr. Musgrove, Mayor Byard contacted Mr. Duke, the Prattville C ity Planner in the Planning and Development Department.4 (Byard Dep. 11-12; Duke Test. 9 4 (Doc. # 17, Ex. E).) The complaint was then brought to the attention of Mr. Wilson, who w a s tasked with investigating the complaint. (Duke Test. 94; Byard Dep. 12.) Mr. Wilson testified that he inspected the property and saw "all sorts of very large tro p ic a l birds in different cages." (Wilson Test. 64 (Doc. # 17, Ex. D).) Concerned with " u n s a n ita ry conditions," Mr. Wilson sent a letter to Ms. Sanders informing her of the c o m p l a in t regarding "excessive noise and odors," and notifying her that she "must take w h a te v e r steps necessary to alleviate the specified nuisance within ten days" or face criminal c h a rg e s . (May 11, 2006 Letter from Wilson to Sanders (Doc. # 17, Ex. J).) Upon receiving the letter, Ms. Sanders promptly contacted Mr. Wilson and explained th a t she would build enclosures to alleviate the concerns. (Sanders Dep. 47-49; Wilson Test. 6 5 -6 6 .) Mr. Wilson told her that "that was permissible." (Wilson Test. 66.) Ms. Sanders th e n sought and received a permit for building extensions in which to house the birds. (Sanders Dep. 56.) Around this time, Mr. Musgrove informed Mr. Wilson that Ms. Sanders had told him th a t she was selling birds. (Wilson Test. 65.) Mr. Wilson testified that he told Mr. Musgrove th a t absent corroborating evidence demonstrating that Ms. Sanders was operating a business The Planning and Development Department manages development and enforces codes and ordinances. (Duke Test. 89 (Doc. # 17, Ex. E).) 4 6 without a license, no action could be taken. (Wilson Test. 65-66; Aug. 18, 2006 Warrant (D o c . # 21, Ex. 3).) During the conversation with Ms. Sanders regarding the nuisance c o m p la in t, Mr. Wilson informed Ms. Sanders that the City "had received information that s h e was possibly operating a business." (Wilson Test. 66.) According to Mr. Wilson, Ms. S a n d e rs replied that she was not operating a business and that she simply raised the birds as a hobby. (Wilson Test. 66.) Nonetheless, Mr. Wilson warned Ms. Sanders that she could n o t operate a business without a license. (Wilson Test. 66-67.) Mr. Wilson then contacted Petsville, a pet store located in Prattville, and requested th a t someone from the store inform Mr. Wilson if anyone approached the store about buying b ird s .5 (Aug. 18, 2006 Warrant; Wilson Test. 67-68.) In early July 2006, Mr. Wilson re c e iv e d information that Ms. Sanders had sold one bird to Petsville. (Wilson Test. 67-68.) Mr. Wilson then went to Petsville and obtained a copy of the check documenting the sale f ro m Ms. Sanders to Petsville for $650.00. (Wilson Test. 68; July 5, 2006 Check from P e ts v ille to Sanders (Doc. # 17, Ex. G).) Mr. Wilson testified that upon receiving this in f o rm a tio n , he conducted an internet search and learned that Ms. Sanders was listed as a b re e d e r of parrots in Prattville. (Wilson Test. 72-74.) On August 18, 2006, Mr. Wilson signed an affidavit for a warrant against Ms. Sanders f o r violation of "City Ordinance 6-5" (operating a business without a license). (Wilson Test. It is not clear from the report whether Mr. Wilson contacted Petsville before or after talking to Ms. Sanders. It is clear, however, that he contacted Petsville after talking to Mr. Musgrove. 5 7 75; Aug. 18, 2006 Warrant.) Mr. Wilson testified that he took out the warrant against Ms. S a n d e rs "because M[s.] Sanders had repeatedly stated to [Mr. Wilson] that she was not o p e ra tin g a business[,] whereas the evidence coupled with the amount of birds that she had o n her property[,] along with the sales and the advertising for sale of animals[,] indicated a v io la tio n of City Ordinance 6-5." (Wilson Test. 75.) Ms. Sanders' conviction in municipal court was overturned on appeal in the Circuit C o u rt of Elmore County, and all charges against her were dismissed. (Sanders Dep. 114-16; D o c . # 17, Ex. N; Compl. 34-35; Defs.' Summ. J. Br. 10 (Doc. # 17).) Ms. Sanders now a s s e rts claims under the Fourth Amendment for false arrest and malicious prosecution and u n d e r Alabama law for malicious prosecution. She seeks redress for the time and money s p e n t on her defense and the damage done to her reputation. (Sanders Resp. Br. 16 (Doc. # 2 1 ) .) I V . DISCUSSION T h e viability of Ms. Sanders' case hinges on probable cause. Ms. Sanders contends th a t Mr. Wilson, acting under color of state law, arrested Ms. Sanders and instituted judicial p ro c e e d in g s against her without probable cause. Defendants, on the other hand, contend that p ro b a b le cause did exist for Mr. Wilson's actions, and that there is no genuine issue of m a te ria l fact to the contrary. For the following reasons, the court finds Defendants' a rg u m e n ts persuasive. 8 The Fourth Amendment which applies to the states through the Fourteenth A m e n d m e n t protects "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, a n d effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." U.S. Const. amend. IV. False a rre s t6 and malicious prosecution present viable Fourth Amendment claims properly brought u n d e r 1983. See Kjellsen v. Mills, 517 F.3d 1232, 1237 (11th Cir. 2008); Madiwale v. S a v a ik o , 117 F.3d 1321, 1324 (11th Cir. 1997). A 1983 claim for false arrest lies where one is detained pursuant to an arrest made " w i th o u t probable cause to believe a crime has been committed." Madiwale, 117 F.3d at 1 3 2 4 ; Ortega v. Christian, 85 F.3d 1521, 1526 (11th Cir. 1996). Similarly, to bring suit u n d e r 1983 for malicious prosecution, a plaintiff must show, among other things, that the c rim in a l prosecution was made "with malice and without probable cause." Wood v. Kesler, 3 2 3 F.3d 872, 882 (11th Cir. 2003). As noted by the Eleventh Circuit in Wood, a claim for m a lic io u s prosecution under Alabama law requires the same showing. Id. Thus, the e x is te n c e of probable cause would be an absolute bar to Ms. Sanders' 1983 claims (Counts I, II, and IV), as well as to her claim for state-law malicious prosecution (Count III). See O r te g a , 85 F.3d at 1526. "`Probable cause exists where the facts and circumstances within the collective k n o w le d g e of the law enforcement officials, of which they had reasonably trustworthy In Count I of the Complaint, Ms. Sanders claims "False Arrest, False Imprisonment." (Compl. 8.) However, because there are no allegations that Ms. Sanders was imprisoned, the court interprets this claim as one for false arrest only. 6 9 information, are sufficient to cause a person of reasonable caution to believe that an offense h a s been or is being committed.'" United States v. Jimenez, 780 F.2d 975, 978 (11th Cir. 1 9 8 6 ) (quoting United States v. Blasco, 702 F.2d 1315, 1324 (11th Cir. 1983)). Although p ro b a b le cause requires more than "mere suspicion," Mallory v. United States, 354 U.S. 449, 4 5 4 (1957), it "does not require the same type of specific evidence of each element of the o f f e n s e as would be needed to support a conviction," Adams. v. Williams, 407 U.S. 143, 149 (1 9 7 2 ). Defendants maintain that Mr. Wilson as a code enforcement officer acting under c o lo r of state law had probable cause to believe that Ms. Sanders was operating a business w ith o u t a license. Pursuant to Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, D e f e n d a n ts , as the moving parties, have the initial burden of demonstrating an "absence of g e n u in e issue of material fact" related to this essential element of Ms. Sanders' claims. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 323. As discussed below, Defendants have presented sufficient e v id e n c e to meet their burden. M r. Wilson after receiving a complaint/inquiry from Mr. Musgrove related to sanitation concerns personally viewed Ms. Sanders' property and witnessed the number and typ e of birds located thereon. In the context of making these complaints/inquiries, Mr. M u s g ro v e told Mr. Wilson that Ms. Sanders had told him that she was in the "bird business." Mr. Wilson, upon receiving this information and in an attempt to corroborate Mr. 10 Musgrove's statements, contacted local pet stores for any information regarding sales of b ird s . Shortly thereafter, one such pet store contacted Mr. Wilson with information that it h a d recently purchased a bird from Ms. Sanders. After receiving this information from the p e t store, Mr. Wilson conducted an internet search and discovered a website listing Ms. S a n d e rs as a parrot "breeder." T h is evidence is more than sufficient to show that Mr. Wilson had probable cause to b e lie v e that Ms. Sanders was operating a business from her home. A reasonable code e n f o rc e m e n t officer would believe, based on the above information, that such a violation had o c c u rre d or was occurring. See Jimenez, 780 F.2d at 978. T h e burden then shifts to Ms. Sanders to establish, with evidence beyond the p le a d in g s, that a genuine issue of fact exists as to the probable cause element of her claims. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)(2); Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 324; Clark, 929 F.2d at 608. Rather than p re s e n t evidence showing an absence of probable cause, Ms. Sanders spends the majority of h e r brief arguing that the law is "clearly established," and repeatedly makes the legal c o n c lu s io n that probable cause did not exist. She fails, however, to refute the evidence of th e number of birds, the complaints by Mr. Musgrove, the sale to the pet store, and the fact th a t Ms. Sanders was listed online as a parrot breeder.7 Ms. Sanders disputes Mr. Musgrove's statement that Ms. Sanders admitted she was in the "bird business." However, Ms. Sanders does not dispute that Mr. Musgrove conveyed that information to Mr. Wilson. 7 11 The evidence upon which Ms. Sanders relies relates solely to Defendants' motives s h e maintains that Defendants arrested her and prosecuted a criminal suit against her not b e c a u s e they believed she had committed the offense charged, but because Mr. Musgrove, " f o r some reason," wanted the birds gone. According to Ms. Sanders, Mr. Musgrove was a f rie n d and political supporter of the mayor, thus motivating the mayor's office to appease Mr. M u s g ro v e 's wishes.8 (Sanders Resp. Br. 3.) However, any evidence of Defendants' ulterior m o tiv e s is irrelevant to the probable cause analysis. See Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 8 0 6 , 813 (1996) ("Subjective intentions play no role in ordinary, probable-cause Fourth A m e n d m e n t analysis."). Simply put, Ms. Sanders has failed to carry her burden in d e m o n s tra tin g that a genuine issue of material fact exists that Mr. Wilson acted without p ro b a b le cause. Furthermore, because there is no genuine issue of material fact that Mr. W ils o n violated Ms. Sanders' constitutional rights, Mr. Duke and Mayor Byard cannot be h e ld liable on the theory of respondeat superior. See City of Los Angeles v. Heller, 475 U.S. 7 9 6 , 799 (1986) (noting that when supervisors are "sued only because they were thought le g a lly responsible for [their subordinate's] actions," than "it is inconceivable" that the s u p e rv is o rs could be liable to the plaintiff when the subordinate "inflicted no constitutional in ju ry on [the plaintiff]"). To support this assertion, Ms. Sanders argues the following: that Mr. Musgrove was not a "proper person" to bring the complaint to the mayor's office, as he did not technically live at the residence adjacent to Ms. Sanders' home; that Mr. Wilson was not the proper person to enforce/regulate business licenses, as his duties related solely to investigating nuisance complaints; and, finally, that Mr. Musgrove, as someone Mayor Byard had known his "entire life," was a friend and political supporter of Mayor Byard. 8 12 V. CONCLUSION F o r the foregoing reasons, Defendants' motion for summary judgment on all claims (D o c . # 16) is GRANTED. A separate judgment will be issued. DONE this 14th day of July, 2010. /s/ W. Keith Watkins UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE 13

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