Coulter v. Estate of Edward W. Grannis Jr. et al
ORDER granting 61 Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim and denying as moot 70 Motion to Compel. Signed by US District Judge Terrence W. Boyle on 5/19/2017. (Stouch, L.)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA
DARRYL EUGENE COULTER, SR.,
THE ESTATE OF EDWARD W.
GRANNIS, JR., in his individual and
official capacity; MARGARET (BUNTIE)
RUSS, in her individual and official
capacity; CUMBERLAND COUNTY
SHERIFF EARL R. BUTLER, in his
individual and official capacity; ENNIS
WRIGHT, in his individual and official
capacity; MICHAEL B. EAST, Assistant
Special Deputy in Charge, in his individual
and official capacity; ROBIN
PENDERGRAFT, in her individual and
official capacity; and NORTH CAROLINA
STATE BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION;
This cause comes before the Court on a motion to dismiss filed by defendants Estate of
Edward W. Grannis and Margaret (Buntie) Russ. Plaintiff has failed to file a response to the
motion, and, the time for doing so having expired, the motion is ripe for ruling. For the reasons
discussed below, the motion to dismiss is granted.
Plaintiff, a former sergeant with the Spring Lake Police Department, filed this action in
Cumberland County Superior Court seeking legal and equitable relief under the North Carolina
Constitution, the law and common law of the State of North Carolina, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, 42
U.S.C. § 1985, and the United States Constitution from the wrongful acts and omissions of
defendants in causing baseless but serious criminal charges to be brought against plaintiff.
Plaintiff alleges that as a result of these baseless charges he was stripped of his badge, arrested,
and imprisoned in Central Prison for a period of approximately ten months, without cause or
justification. All charges against plaintiff were eventually dismissed.
Plaintiff named the following persons as defendants: the Estate of Edward Grannis,
former District Attorney; Margaret Russ, an Assistant District Attorney; Cumberland County
Sheriff Earl Butler; Chief Deputy of the Cumberland County Sheriffs Office Ennis Wright;
Michael B. East, Assistant Special Agent in Charge with the North Carolina State Bureau of
Investig'ation (SBI); Robin Pendergraft, Director of the SBI; and the SBI. 1 Plaintiffs complaint
discusses two instances in 2008 in which he alleges that while on duty he responded to
complaints by citizens concerning alleged criminal activity promptly and according to Spring
Lake Police Department procedure, and that such incidents were turned against him by
defendants and used to create charges for which he would never be brought to trial. Plaintiff was
indicted in Cumberland County on May 4, 2009, for felonious breaking and entering/second
degree kidnapping, felonious obstruction of justice/simple assault, assault with a deadly weapon,
assault by pointing a gun, false imprisonment, and willful failure to discharge duties; these
charges allegedly arose from the two incidents which plaintiff has identified in his complaint.
Plaintiff alleges that defendants Grannis, Russ, Butler, Wright, East, Pendergraft, and the Si3I, in
fact arrested plaintiff in retaliation for his refusal to assist defendant Grannis and his network in .
building criminal cases against a list of state, county, and local African American officials and
business owners. The criminal charges against plaintiff were ultimately dismissed by an
1 Plaintiff also
named the Spring Lake Police Department as a defendant. This defendant was
dismissed voluntarily by plaintiff. [DE 40].
Assistant District Attorney on April 15, 2013, nearly four years after plaintiffs indictment,
without meaningful explanation.
Defendants removed plaintiffs action to this Court on May 19, 2016, pursuant to its
federal question jurisdiction. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331; 1441. Motions to dismiss were filed by two
groups of defendants - the district attorney defendants and the SBI defendants, while the
remaining defendants answered the complaint. After a hearing on the motions to dismiss, the
Court sua sponte allowed plaintiff an opportunity to file an amended complaint to provide
additional factual support for his claims and further allowed plaintiff and opportunity to perfect
service on the district attorney defendants. [DE 50].
Plaintiff filed his amended complaint, and the district attorney defendants again moved to
dismiss. Plaintiff did not file a response to the motion to dismiss. Since this motion has become
ripe for adjudication, plaintiff filed a motion for voluntary dismissal of the SBI and Sheriffs
Office defendants, which was allowed. [DE 73].
The district attorney defendants have moved to dismiss plaintiffs claims against them for
lack of subject matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be
granted. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1);(6). Grannis and Russ have raised the defenses of Eleventh .
Amendment immunity, absolute immunity, and qualified immunity. Federal Rule of Civil
Procedure 12(b)(1) authorizes dismissal of a claim for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. When
subject matter jurisdiction is challenged, the plaintiff has the burden of proving jurisdiction to
survive the motion. Evans v. B.F. Perkins Co., 166 F.3d 642, 647-50 (4th Cir. 1999). The
movant' s motion to dismiss should be granted if the material jurisdictional facts are not in
dispute and the movant is entitled to prevail as a matter of law. Richmond, Fredericksburg &
Potomac R.R. Co. v. United States, 945 F.2d 765, 768 (4th Cir. 1991). A Rule 12(b)(6) motion
tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint. Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 283 (1986). When
acting on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), "the court should accept as true all wellpleaded allegations and should view the complaint in a light most favorable to the plaintiff."
Mylan Labs., Inc. v. Matkari, 7 F.3d 1130, 1134 (4th Cir.1993). A complaint must allege enough
facts to state a claim for relief that is facially plausible. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S.
544, 570 (2007). Facial plausibility means that the facts pled "allow the court to draw the
reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged," and mere recitals of
the elements of a cause of action supported by conclusory statements do not suffice. Ashcroft v.
Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).
The specific allegations in plaintiffs amended complaint relating to defendants Grannis
and Russ are that they were present when plaintiff entered the office of the Chief of Spring Lake
Police after being summoned there on the day of his arrest, that Grannis and others offered
plaintiff one last opportunity to cooperate which plaintiff refused, that Grannis and Russ were
present when plaintiff was brought before the court for his first appearance, and that all
defendants conspired together to arrest plaintiff because plaintiff refused to assist Grannis and
his network of counterparts in seeking to build criminal cases against a list of state, county, and
local African American officials and business owners. Amd. Cmp.
ifif 26, 39, 55, 111, 112.
Grannis and Russ have been named in their individual and official capacities. State
officials sued in their official capacity for damages are protected by Eleventh Amendment
immunity. Ballenger v. Owens, 352 F.3d 842, 845 (4th Cir. 2003). Claims against North
Carolina district attorneys in their official capacities are plainly claims against state officials and
are barred by the Eleventh Amendment. See Nivens v. Gilchrist, 444 F.3d 237, 249 (4th Cir.
2006). As to plaintiff's claims against Grannis and Russ in their individual capacities, absolute
prosecutorial immunity protects district attorney defendants from liability for those activities
which are traditionally associated with prosecution of a case. Id. "[I]n initiating a prosecution
and in presenting the State's case, the prosecutor is immune from a civil suit for damages under
[§] 1983." Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 431 (1976); see also State ex rel. Jacobs v.
Sherard, 36 N.C. App. 60, 65 (1978). Conspiracy to present false testimony is further a charge
for which a district attorney would be entitled to absolute immunity. Carter v. Burch, 34 F.3d
257, 263 (4th Cir. 1994). Thus, Grannis and Russ are absolutely immune from plaintiff's claims
relating to the actual prosecution of his case. Although absolute immunity does not extend to
activities outside the scope of traditional prosecutorial functions, such as administrative and
investigatory actions, Buckley v. Fitzsimmons, 509 U.S. 259, 273 (1993), plaintiff's allegations
of activities which could be considered to fall outside the tradition prosecutorial function fail to
state a plausible claim. Although given an opportunity to amend his complaint, plaintiff's bare
assertions of a conspiracy simply fail to nudge his claims related to Grannis and Russ over the
line from the conceivable to plausible. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570.
To this end, Grannis and Russ would further be entitled to qualified immunity. See
Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 807 (1982). There is a two-step procedure for determining
whether qualified immunity applies which "asks first whether a constitutional violation occurred
and second whether the right violated was clearly established." Melgar v. Greene, 593 F.3d 348,
353 (4th Cir. 2010). Plaintiff's assertions do not sufficiently allege that a constitutional violation
occurred, and qualified immunity therefore applies. See Eastern Shore Mkts. v. JD. Assocs.
Ltd, 213 FJd 175, 180 (4th Cir. 2000) (a court need not accept as true a plaintiff's "unwarranted
inferences, unreasonable conclusions, or arguments.").
For the foregoing reasons, the motion to dismiss [DE 61] is GRANTED and defendants
Estate of Grannis and Russ are DISMISSED. As the remaining defendants have been dismissed
by plaintiff, the motion to compel [DE 70] is DENIED AS MOOT and the clerk is DIRECTED
to close this case.
SO ORDERED, this
1-!f_ day of May, 2017.
TERRENCE W. BOYLE
UNITED STATES DISTRICJUDGE
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