Jordan et al v. Bell et al
OPINION, MEMORANDUM AND ORDER (See Full Order) IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the Motion to Dismiss is GRANTED as to Wesley Bell and Christopher Graville only [Doc. No. 9 ]. A separate order of partial dismissal will be entered. Signed by District Judge Henry Edward Autrey on 9/15/2022. (HMA)
Case: 4:21-cv-01242-HEA Doc. #: 25 Filed: 09/15/22 Page: 1 of 12 PageID #: 283
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF MISSOURI
NAJAE JORDAN, et al.,
WESLEY BELL, et al.,
Case No. 4:21CV1242 HEA
OPINION, MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
This matter is before the Court on Defendants Wesley Bell and Christopher
Graville’s Motion to Dismiss [Doc. No. 9]. Plaintiffs oppose the motion. For the
reasons set forth below, the Motion will be granted.
Background and Facts
On August 11, 2021, Plaintiffs Najae Jordan and Deja Holland filed this
civil rights action in the Circuit Court of St. Louis County, Missouri, against
Defendants Bell, Graville, the Village of Riverview, the City of Bellefontaine
Neighbors, and Police Officers Jason Groves, Jeffrey Lakebrink and Michael
Pedroli. Defendants Bell and Graville, sued in their individual capacities, were
named in three of the eight counts of Plaintiffs’ Petition: Count IV (42 U.S.C. §
1985 Conspiracy to Interfere with Plaintiffs’ Civil Rights); Count VII (Abuse of
Process); and Count VIII (Malicious Prosecution).
Case: 4:21-cv-01242-HEA Doc. #: 25 Filed: 09/15/22 Page: 2 of 12 PageID #: 284
Defendants subsequently removed this action,1 and Defendants Bell and
Graville filed a motion to dismiss the claims against them as alleged in Counts IV,
VII, and VIII pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), which
Plaintiffs’ Petition alleges, in pertinent part:2
On August 11, 2016, Plaintiffs Jordan and Holland were walking near their
shared apartment located in the Village of Riverview. They had recently gotten off
the bus after working their shift at Wal-Mart in Chesterfield. As they were walking
on Diamond Drive, Plaintiffs, who are both black females, were detained by
Defendants Lakebrink and Groves. Groves demanded identification from Plaintiffs,
at which point Jordan began filming the interaction on her smartphone and then,
upon being physically threatened by Groves, began backing away. Lakebrink
pursued Jordan on foot, while Groves verbally threatened her with mace if she did
not stop walking away. After hearing this threat, Jordan ran to her apartment,
located at 9903 Diamond Drive. Groves and Lakebrink, along with Holland who
had been placed in police custody, walked over to Plaintiffs’ apartment building.
Around this time Defendant Pedroli arrived on the scene to assist.
The Court has original jurisdiction as to Count IV and supplemental jurisdiction as to Counts
VII and VIII. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1367(a).
For purposes of this Order only, the allegations in the Complaint are taken as true. McShane
Constr. Co., LLC v. Gotham Ins. Co., 867 F.3d 923, 927 (8th Cir. 2017). This in no way relieves
the parties of the necessary proof thereof in any later proceedings.
Case: 4:21-cv-01242-HEA Doc. #: 25 Filed: 09/15/22 Page: 3 of 12 PageID #: 285
Groves, Lakebrink and Pedroli stood outside of Plaintiffs’ apartment
building and ordered Jordan to exit the locked apartment building and be placed
under arrest. Once Jordan opened the apartment door, Lakebrink and Pedroli
reached into the building, seized her, violently dragging her outside, slammed her
onto the sidewalk, and applied the weight of their bodies via their knees to her
back and neck. After handcuffing her, they lifted her by her arms. Holland moved
forward to assist Jordan, and Pedroli and Groves forcefully shoved Holland to the
ground causing her to temporarily lose consciousness.
Plaintiffs were subsequently arrested and transported to the Riverview Police
Station to be booked and processed. During the booking process, Groves
threatened Jordan if she failed to cooperate and conducted a full physical search of
her, even though she requested a female officer.
Holland was booked, processed, and released by Lakebrink. After her
release, Groves coerced Holland into his patrol vehicle against her will and took
her back to Plaintiffs’ apartment complex. Once they arrived, Groves searched
Plaintiffs’ apartment without a warrant or consent to recover Jordan’s smartphone,
which he did not find.
Plaintiffs were charged by Defendant Bell, who was a municipal prosecutor
employed by Defendant Riverview at that time, with various municipal ordinance
violations, including Resisting Arrest, Failure to Comply, and Assault in the Third
Case: 4:21-cv-01242-HEA Doc. #: 25 Filed: 09/15/22 Page: 4 of 12 PageID #: 286
Degree on a Law Enforcement Officer. On August 16, 2016, Attorney Thomas
SanFilippo entered his appearance on behalf of Plaintiffs and made his first request
for discovery. SanFilippo also sent multiple spoliation/preservation letters via U.S.
certified mail to Riverview and Bell outlining their duty to preserve all relevant
evidence pertaining to the detention, assault, arrest, and charging of Plaintiffs.
On March 20, 2017, SanFilippo conducted a deposition of Groves, which
Bell attended on behalf of Riverview. Groves made several racially charged
statements during his deposition, including his testimony that Plaintiffs had been
“neanderthalling around” in the area of what he referred to as “Thug University.”
Groves also revealed, under oath, during his deposition that the area where he
conducted the physical search of Jordan was recorded on video.
During the discovery process of the criminal proceedings, SanFilippo
requested Bell to provide a copy of all videos of Plaintiffs captured by cameras
while they were in custody. However, after Bell had represented that no such video
evidence existed in his written answers to said discovery requests, Groves
confirmed in his deposition that video recordings existed at one time.
Plaintiffs are of the information and belief that, in spite of Bell’s known
legal duties to preserve any and all video evidence and his statements to SanFilippo
regarding the importance of any and all video evidence, said Riverview police
Case: 4:21-cv-01242-HEA Doc. #: 25 Filed: 09/15/22 Page: 5 of 12 PageID #: 287
station video evidence had already been destroyed, allowed to spoil, and/or
otherwise had failed to be preserved by Bell and Riverview.
In addition to allowing the spoliation of relevant evidence, throughout the
criminal litigation, Bell inexplicably and repeatedly refused to comply with the
rules of discovery as outlined in the Missouri Supreme Court Rules governing
criminal matters. During the prosecution of Plaintiffs, several motions to compel
and/or for sanctions were filed against Riverview, then represented by Bell, due to
their lack of compliance with the rules of discovery.
On November 29, 2017, Bell forwarded SanFilippo a proposed Deferral
Agreement to defer the prosecution of Plaintiffs. The Deferral Agreement offered
to dismiss the ordinance violation charges against Plaintiffs, on the condition that
Plaintiffs admit guilt to the charges pending against them and sign a document
waiving their right to pursue any civil action against Defendants.
On January 31, 2018, SanFilippo proposed a counteroffer, which mirrored
Bell’s proposed Deferral Agreement but declined and omitted all nefarious or
unethical conditions, such as the Plaintiffs’ waiver of all civil liability against
Defendants for misconduct.
On February 12, 2018, Bell explicitly rejected this counteroffer and
continued to pursue his prosecution of Plaintiffs. The counteroffer was rejected by
Bell again even after SanFilippo had tendered a follow-up letter outlining the
Case: 4:21-cv-01242-HEA Doc. #: 25 Filed: 09/15/22 Page: 6 of 12 PageID #: 288
relevant caselaw and obvious ethical concerns pertaining to the prosecution of the
case against Plaintiffs and the Deferral Agreement itself.
On January 23, 2021, a column written by Tony Messenger was published in
the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, wherein the practice of dismissing criminal charges in
exchange for liability waivers is discussed at length. In the column, Messenger
quotes Bell stating that he has “always disapproved” of conditioning the dismissal
of criminal charges upon the waiving of civil liability, and that the practice “seems
inherently wrong and unethical.”
Throughout the prosecution of Plaintiffs in this matter, Defendant Graville
participated in the prosecution of the case. Graville made multiple appearances in
court and was included on email exchanges between SanFilippo and Bell where the
posture and potential disposition of the criminal case was discussed.
Plaintiffs are of the information and belief that Graville ordered the
prosecution to continue despite the lack of evidence of criminal conduct by
Plaintiffs, the racial animus towards Plaintiffs displayed by Groves, and the
unlawful detention, arrest, and assault of Plaintiffs. Plaintiffs are of the information
and belief that Graville conspired or directed Bell to present the Deferral
Case: 4:21-cv-01242-HEA Doc. #: 25 Filed: 09/15/22 Page: 7 of 12 PageID #: 289
As City Attorney for Riverview, Graville’s responsibility was to shield
Riverview and its agents from civil liability, in contrast to the responsibility of a
prosecutor which is to serve the interests of justice.
A criminal prosecution instituted and maintained solely for the purpose of
preventing a civil action against a governmental entity and its servants violates the
ethical rules governing prosecuting attorneys. The prosecution of municipal
ordinance violations was outside the scope of Graville’s employment as City
Attorney for Riverview. Over the course of the prosecution of Plaintiffs, many of
the initial charges were voluntarily dismissed by the prosecuting attorney for
Between December 11, 2019 and December 13, 2019, trial by jury was
conducted in the cases of Riverview v. Najae D. Jordan, Case Number 16SLMU00855, and Riverview v. Deja Holland, Case Number 16SL-MU00859, on
charges of Resisting Arrest and Assault of a Law Enforcement Officer. During
sworn testimony at the jury trial, and at depositions and a motions hearing, neither
Groves or Lakebrink could articulate any reasonable suspicion that Plaintiffs were
engaged in criminal activity at the time of Plaintiffs’ initial detention, although
both have suggested various potential offenses ranging from burglary to narcotics
trafficking or prostitution. When pressed for specific factual bases for their
Case: 4:21-cv-01242-HEA Doc. #: 25 Filed: 09/15/22 Page: 8 of 12 PageID #: 290
suspicions, Groves and Lakebrink could not provide any specific factual support
other than that Diamond Drive was allegedly a “high crime area.”
In both cases, the jury returned verdicts of “Not Guilty” on all counts.
Plaintiffs seek damages in the amount of $25,000 and attorneys’ fees and
Standard of Review
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) requires that a pleading contain “a short
and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.
R .Civ. P. 8(a)(2). If a pleading fails to state a claim upon which relief can be
granted, an opposing party may move to dismiss it. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6).
The purpose of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim is to
test the legal sufficiency of a complaint to eliminate those actions “which are
fatally flawed in their legal premises and deigned to fail, thereby sparing the
litigants the burden of unnecessary pretrial and trial activity.” Young v. City of St.
Charles, 244 F.3d 623, 627 (8th Cir. 2001). This court “accepts as true the
complaint's factual allegations and grants all reasonable inferences to the nonmoving party.” Park Irmat Drug Corp. v. Express Scripts Holding Co., 911 F.3d
505, 512 (8th Cir. 2018) (citations omitted). A claim is facially plausible when “the
plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable
inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Bell Atl. Corp. v.
Case: 4:21-cv-01242-HEA Doc. #: 25 Filed: 09/15/22 Page: 9 of 12 PageID #: 291
Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007), quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678
(2009). “Where an official’s challenged actions are protected by absolute
immunity, dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) is appropriate.” Sample v. City of
Woodbury, 836 F.3d 913, 916 (8th Cir. 2016) (citation omitted).
Defendants Bell and Graville assert that they are entitled to absolute
prosecutorial immunity against Plaintiffs’ claims of conspiracy (Count IV), abuse
of process (Count VII) and malicious prosecution (Count VIII).
“[A]bsolute immunity defeats a suit at the outset, so long as the official’s
actions were within the scope of the immunity.” Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409,
419 (1976)). It “protects prosecutors against claims arising from their initiation of a
prosecution and presenting a criminal case ‘insofar as that conduct is intimately
associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process.’” Sample, 836 F.3d at
916 (quoting Burns v. Reed, 500 U.S. 478, 486 (1991)). In determining whether a
prosecutor's particular actions are entitled to absolute immunity, the courts apply a
“functional approach,” which looks to ‘the nature of the function performed, not
the identity of the actor who performed it.’” Buckley v. Fitzsimmons, 509 U.S. 259,
269 (1993) (quoting Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 229 (1987)). Thus,
“[p]rosecutors enjoy absolute immunity in their review of and decisions to charge a
violation of the law.” Sample, 836 F.3d at 916 (citing Imbler, 424 U.S. at 420-27).
Case: 4:21-cv-01242-HEA Doc. #: 25 Filed: 09/15/22 Page: 10 of 12 PageID #: 292
“However, purely administrative or investigative actions that do not relate
to the initiation of a prosecution do not qualify for absolute immunity.” Winslow v.
Smith, 696 F.3d 716, 739 (8th Cir. 2012) (quoting Schenk v. Chavis, 461 F.3d
1043, 1046 (8th Cir. 2006)). For instance, “[w]hen a prosecutor performs the
investigative functions normally performed by a detective or police officer,” he is
not entitled to absolute immunity. Buckley, 509 U.S. at 273. There is a distinction
between a police officer’s initial collection of evidence and a prosecutor’s
“professional evaluation of the evidence assembled by the police and appropriate
preparation for its presentation at trial . . .” Id. The latter function is entitled to
absolute immunity. Id.
Plaintiffs do not contest that a prosecutor is afforded immunity when acting
within his prosecutorial function. Rather, Plaintiffs argue both Bell and Graville
were acting outside the proper prosecutorial function. As to Bell, Plaintiffs
maintain that he was not acting as a prosecutor while reviewing and preparing the
case, extending offers and not preserving police department video footage because
he was attempting to protect himself, the police officers and Riverview from civil
liability. Bell argues he was acting within his prosecutorial function and is entitled
to absolute immunity for the acts he performed in his prosecutorial role. The Court
Case: 4:21-cv-01242-HEA Doc. #: 25 Filed: 09/15/22 Page: 11 of 12 PageID #: 293
Prosecutors, like Bell, are entitled to immunity for the decision to bring
charges “whether [they have] probable cause or not[.]” Saterdalen v. Spencer, 725
F.3d 838, 843 (quoting Buckley, 509 U.S. at 274, “The reason that we grant
[absolute immunity] for the latter function (malicious prosecution) is that we have
found a common-law tradition of immunity for a prosecutor's decision to bring an
indictment, whether he has probable cause or not.”). Bell’s negotiation of plea
offers are clearly an essential part of the prosecutorial function. Plaintiffs’ claims
of improper motive in Bell’s performance of prosecutorial functions will also not
defeat immunity. Sample, 836 F.3d, at 916. “Because the immunity depends upon
the functional nature of the prosecutor’s activities, allegations of improper motive
in the performance of prosecutorial functions will not defeat its protection.” Id.
Absolute immunity “is not defeated by allegations of malice, vindictiveness, or
self-interest.” Reasonover v. St. Louis Cty., 447 F.3d 569, 580 (8th Cir. 2006). It
applies even if the prosecutor’s steps to initiate a prosecution are patently
improper.” Sample, 836 F.3d at 916 (citing Saterdalen, 725 F.3d at 842).
As to Graville, Plaintiffs argue because he was not appointed as the
prosecutor for the Village of Riverview and was acting in his own self-interest, he
cannot be afforded absolute immunity. This argument is not availing. In their
complaint, Plaintiffs allege that Graville, who was the City Attorney employed by
Riverview, participated in the prosecution of the case. For instance, Graville made
Case: 4:21-cv-01242-HEA Doc. #: 25 Filed: 09/15/22 Page: 12 of 12 PageID #: 294
multiple appearances in court and was included on email exchanges between
SanFilippo and Bell regarding offers. Graville’s actions stated by Plaintiff relate to
the functions of a prosecution. Regarding Graville’s motive and/or self-interest,
these allegations do not defeat absolute immunity. Reasonover, 447 F.3d at 580.
Therefore, Graville is also entitled to absolute immunity for the acts he performed
in this case, which were conducted in his prosecutorial role.
Based upon the foregoing analysis, the Motion to Dismiss by Defendant Bell
and Defendant Graville is well taken.
IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the Motion to Dismiss is GRANTED as
to Wesley Bell and Christopher Graville only [Doc. No. 9]. A separate order of
partial dismissal will be entered.
Dated this 15th day of September, 2022.
HENRY EDWARD AUTREY
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?