Sigmon v. Brown et al
ORDER: Defendants' 17 Motion to Dismiss is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. The Clerk is directed to terminate Defendants Speagle and Stout. Plaintiff's claim under § 1983 based on a failure-to-train theory and her claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress are dismissed. Plaintiff may proceed on her remaining claims, but may not recover punitive damages. Signed by District Judge Kenneth D. Bell on 6/4/2021. (tmg)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA
CIVIL ACTION NO. 5:20-CV-00179
DON BROWN, SHERIFF OF
CATAWBA COUNTY, in his official
capacity, MICHAEL LEE SPEAGLE,
in his Official Capacity as Deputy
Sheriff Catawba County, ADAM
TAYLOR STOUT, in his Official
Capacity as Deputy Sheriff Catawba
THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Motion to Dismiss filed by Defendants, (Doc. No.
17) (“Motion”), on January 25, 2021. Defendants seek dismissal on the grounds that the Court
lacks personal jurisdiction over Defendants Speagle and Stout and that Plaintiff’s Amended
Complaint has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The Court has carefully
considered the motion, the parties’ memoranda, and Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint. For the
reasons discussed below, the Court will GRANT IN PART and DENY IN PART the Motion to
Dismiss. The Court will dismiss without prejudice all of the claims against Defendants Speagle
and Stout in their official capacity as duplicative of the official capacity claims against Sheriff
Brown. Also, the Court will dismiss Plaintiff’s claim under § 1983 based on a failure to train and
her claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress. Plaintiff will be permitted to proceed on
her remaining claims, but will not be permitted to recover punitive damages.
For purposes of this motion, the Court accepts as true all well-pled facts and draws all
reasonable inferences in Plaintiff’s favor. Accordingly, the following version of the facts, much of
which is disputed or not accepted by Defendants in their Answer (Doc. No. 19), is drawn solely
from the Amended Complaint (Doc. No. 14).
On or about July 22, 2017, Mary Sigmon (“Plaintiff”), was at home, praying and speaking with
friends on the telephone when she heard a knock at her front door. (Doc. No. 14, ¶¶ 9, 10). When
she opened the front door, she was confronted by Defendants Deputy Michael Lee Speagle and
Deputy Adam Taylor Stout (“Deputies”) from the Catawba County Sheriff’s Department. Id. at ¶
11. The Deputies had received a call to check on Plaintiff and believed Plaintiff to be suicidal. Id.
at ¶¶ 12, 22. Plaintiff immediately informed the Deputies that she was fine. Id. at ¶ 12.
The Deputies then entered Plaintiff’s private residence without Plaintiff’s consent or invitation.
Id. Once inside the residence, the Deputies informed Plaintiff that she needed to accompany them
to the hospital. Id. Plaintiff refused. Id. She alleges that the Deputies told her that they would
handcuff her and force her to accompany them to the hospital if she did not go willingly. Id. After
this exchange, Plaintiff claims the Deputies watched her dress herself and use the restroom. Id.
She then began crying and begging the Deputies to leave her private residence. Id. at ¶ 14. Plaintiff
was then transported to the hospital. Id. at ¶ 13.1
Plaintiff originally filed this action in the North Carolina Superior Court for Catawba County
in July 2020 and Defendants removed the action to this Court on November 9, 2020. On January
It appears from the face of the Amended Complaint that Plaintiff alleges that the deputies
transported Plaintiff to the hospital against her will. However, in the briefing on the Motion to
Dismiss, both parties indicate that EMS, not the Deputies, transported her to the hospital. (Doc.
Nos. 18, at 8; 20, at 9).
11, 2021, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint alleging seven claims against the Sheriff of
Catawba County Don Brown and Deputies Speagle and Stout, only in their official capacities. She
titled her claims as follows: (1) “Invasion of Privacy by Intrusion into Seclusion Under Color of
Law”; (2) “Violation of Procedural Due Process”; (3) “Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress
Under C[o]lor of Law”; (4) “Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress Under Color of Law”; (5)
“Trespass Under Color of Law”; (6) “Civil Assault Under Color of Law”; and (7) “Deprivation of
Civil Rights, 42 U.S.C. § 1983.” Plaintiff seeks monetary relief for actual, special, and punitive
damages in excess of $25,000 for each count. Id. at ¶ 37.
Defendants contend that Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint should be dismissed on multiple
grounds. First, Defendants argue that this Court lacks personal jurisdiction as to Defendants
Speagle and Stout due to improper service of process. Second, Defendants assert that Plaintiff has
failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.
A. Service of Process & Personal Jurisdiction
A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(5) challenges the sufficiency of service of process,
which is “fundamental to any procedural imposition on a named defendant.” Murphy Bros., Inc.
v. Michetti Pipe Stringing, Inc., 526 U.S. 344, 350 (1999). Absent waiver of service of process or
consent, a plaintiff's failure to effect proper service of process deprives the court of
personal jurisdiction over a defendant. See, e.g., Koehler v. Dodwell, 152 F.3d 304, 306 (4th Cir.
1998). A plaintiff has the burden to show that she effected service of process properly and that the
court has personal jurisdiction over all defendants. See Scott v. Md. State Dep't of Labor, 673
F. App'x 299, 304 (4th Cir. 2016) (per curiam). “The real purpose of service of process is to give
notice to the defendant, and mere technicalities should not stand in the way of consideration of a
case on its merits.” Id. at 304 (brackets, internal citations, and quotation marks omitted). “‘Actual
notice,’ however, is not the controlling standard.” Id. Although courts typically liberally construe
rules governing service of process when the defendant receives actual notice, the rules “‘are there
to be followed, and plain requirements may not be ignored.’” Id. (ellipses omitted)
(quoting Armco, Inc. v. Penrod-Stauffer Bldg. Sys., Inc., 733 F.2d 1087, 1089 (4th Cir. 1984)).
B. Failure to State a Claim
Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), a complaint must contain “a short and plain
statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2).
However, “Rule 8(a)(2) still requires a ‘showing,’ rather than a blanket assertion, of entitlement to
relief.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 n.3 (2007).
A motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for “failure to state a claim
upon which relief can be granted” tests whether the complaint is legally and factually sufficient.
See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6); Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); Bell Atlantic Corp., 550
U.S. at 570; Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals, 626 F.3d 187, 190 (4th Cir. 2010), aff'd sub
nom. Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland, 566 U.S. 30 (2012). In evaluating whether a claim
is stated, “[the] court accepts all well-pled facts as true and construes these facts in the light most
favorable to the plaintiff,” but does not consider “legal conclusions, elements of a cause of action,
. . . bare assertions devoid of further factual enhancement[,] . . . unwarranted inferences,
unreasonable conclusions, or arguments.” Nemet Chevrolet, Ltd. v. Consumeraffairs.com, Inc.,
591 F.3d 250, 255 (4th Cir. 2009). Construing the facts in this manner, a complaint must only
contain “sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its
face.” Id. (internal quotations omitted). Thus, a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) determines
only whether a claim is stated; “it does not resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a
claim, or the applicability of defenses.” Republican Party of North Carolina v. Martin, 980 F.2d
943, 952 (4th Cir. 1992).
A. Personal Jurisdiction and Service of Process
Defendants Speagle and Stout first move to dismiss Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint under
Rules 12(b)(2) and 12(b)(5) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Defendants argue Plaintiff
failed to serve them in compliance with Federal Rule 4(e) and North Carolina General Statute §
162-16, which Defendants Speagle and Stout assert is the exclusive means to effectuate service of
process upon a sheriff and his deputies under North Carolina law. Deputies Speagle and Stout also
argue they should be dismissed from the case as the claims against them in their official capacity
are duplicative of the claims against Sheriff Brown. (Doc. No. 18, at 6, 18).
To properly effect service of process, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(e) allows for service
of a summons and complaint on an individual by:
(1) following state law for serving a summons in an action brought in courts of
general jurisdiction in the state where the district court is located or where service
is made; or
(2) doing any of the following:
(A) delivering a copy of the summons and of the complaint to the individual
(B) leaving a copy of each at the individual’s dwelling or usual place of
abode with someone of suitable age and discretion who resides there; or
(C) delivering a copy of each to an agent authorized by appointment or by
law to receive service of process.
F.R.C.P. 4(e). North Carolina law, in turn, requires that where a party to be served is a sheriff,
service of summons must be effected by the county coroner, or, if the county has no coroner, by
the clerk of court or the clerk’s designee. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 162-16; see also Webb v. Price,708
S.E.2d 94, 95 (N.C. 2011); Goodwin v. Furr, 25 F. Supp. 2d 713, 718 (M.D.N.C. 1998).
Defendants argue that § 162-16 is the “exclusive means to effectuate personal service of
process upon a sheriff and his deputies.” (Doc. No. 18, at 18). While Defendants are correct that
§ 162-16 is the exclusive means under North Carolina law to effectuate personal service upon a
sheriff and his deputies and that such service was not effectuated here, Rule 4(e) of the Federal
Rules also allows “an individual . . . [to be] served” by “delivering a copy of each [summons and
complaint] to an agent authorized by appointment or by law to receive service of process.” Fed. R.
Civ. P. 4(e). Here, the process server attempted to serve the summons and Amended Complaint on
Deputies Speagle and Stout while they were at work. (Doc. No. 20-1, ¶ 6). However, when the
process server called to ask if Speagle and Stout were in the office, he was informed that it was
the “official policy” of the Catawba County Sheriff’s Office that all summons and complaints on
deputies in their official capacity be left with Lieutenant Eric C. Page. Id. ¶ 7. The process server
then personally delivered the Summons and Amended Complaint to Lieutenant Eric C. Page. Id.
¶¶ 8-9).2 Accordingly, the Court finds that Plaintiff has proffered enough evidence of properly
effected service to survive Defendants’ initial jurisdictional challenge. See Grayson v. Anderson,
816 F.3d 262, 268 (4th Cir. 2016) (“[W]hen the court addresses the personal jurisdiction question
by reviewing only the parties' motion papers, affidavits attached to the motion, supporting legal
memoranda, and the allegations in the complaint, a plaintiff need only make a prima facie showing
of personal jurisdiction to survive the jurisdictional challenge.”).
Defendants dispute that Lieutenant Page was the authorized agent of Deputies Speagle and
Stout, but offer nothing other than a conclusory assertion. Notably, Defendants do not respond to
Plaintiff’s argument in their Reply, but merely argue that even if Deputies Speagle and Stout were
properly served, Plaintiff’s claims against them should still be dismissed on other grounds.
Nevertheless, Deputies Speagle and Stout should be dismissed from the case as Plaintiff’s
claims against them are duplicative of the claims against Sheriff Brown in his official capacity.
“[W]here the governmental entity may be held liable for damages resulting from its official policy,
a suit naming public officers in their official capacity is redundant.” Moore v. City of Creedmoor,
481 S.E.2d 14, 17 (N.C. 1997) (citing Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 166, 87 L. Ed. 2d 114,
121 (1985)). Deputies Speagle and Stout are sued only in their official capacities; therefore, the
claims against them are essentially suits against Sheriff Don Brown and the Catawba County
Sheriff’s Office, the governmental agency they represent. See Graham, 473 U.S. at 165-66. Thus,
the Court will dismiss the official capacity claims against Defendants Speagle and Stout, without
prejudice, as duplicative.
B. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Claim
The Court now turns to determine whether Plaintiff’s allegations are sufficient to state a § 1983
claim against the Sheriff’s department. For a plaintiff’s § 1983 claim to survive a 12(b)(6) motion
to dismiss for failure to state a claim, she must successfully plead two elements: (1) that the
defendants acted under color of state law and (2) that the plaintiff suffered a deprivation of a
constitutional or federal statutory right as a result of that action. Davis v. Durham Mental Health
Developmental Disabilities Substance Abuse Area Auth., 320 F. Supp. 2d 378, 403 (M.D.N.C.
2004). Defendants assert Plaintiff has insufficiently pled (1) that she suffered a deprivation of a
constitutional or statutory right, and (2) an official policy or custom caused any of her alleged
The Fourth Amendment guards the “right of people to be secure in their persons . . . against
unreasonable searches and seizure” and provides that “no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable
cause.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. Plaintiff alleges that she suffered a deprivation of her constitutional
rights when the Deputies entered her home without permission, remained in her home after
requesting they leave, and forced her to go to the hospital against her will.3 Defendants first argue
that there was no constitutional violation because “Plaintiff voluntarily opened the door,”
indicating “Plaintiff consented to the Sheriff’s Deputies’ presence on her property.” (Doc. No. 18,
at 8). However, the Amended Complaint clearly alleges that while Plaintiff did open the door, she
“immediately informed the Defendants, Deputy Sheriffs, that she was fine” and that the Deputies
“then proceeded to enter the Plaintiff’s private residence without the consent or invitation of the
Plaintiff.” (Doc. No. 14, ¶ 12).
Defendants next argue that the “emergency-as-exigency” exception applies to the Deputies’
entry, resulting in no Fourth Amendment violation. The “emergency-as-exigency” exception
permits what would otherwise be an illegal entry when there is the need to protect life or avoid
serious injury. United States v. Taylor, 624 F.3d 626, 631 (4th Cir. 2010). Indeed, Defendants
assert in their Answer to the Amended Complaint that the Deputies responded to a welfare check
requested by Plaintiff’s daughter due to a suicidal Facebook post Plaintiff made saying that she
was going to kill herself and telling everyone goodbye. (Doc. No. 19, ¶ 10). Defendants also state
that they knocked on the doors and windows of Plaintiff’s home for several minutes before she
voluntarily answered the front door. Id. While Defendants may succeed on this defense later in the
case if these allegations are proven to be true, on a motion to dismiss the Court must accept as true
all well-pled facts in the Amended Complaint and make all reasonable inferences in Plaintiff’s
favor. According to the Amended Complaint, Plaintiff “immediately informed” the Deputies “that
In one place in the Amended Complaint, Plaintiff alleges her rights under the Twenty-Third
Amendment were violated. (Doc. No. 14, ¶ 24). She wisely abandons this claim in her briefing, as
the Twenty-Third Amendment allows the District of Columbia to be considered a State with
respect to presidential elections and is irrelevant to the case at hand.
she was fine” after they informed her that they had received a call to check on her. (Doc. No. 14,
¶ 12). Nevertheless, the Deputies proceeded to enter Plaintiff’s home without consent or a warrant.
She also claims she began “crying and begging the Defendant, Deputy Sheriffs, to leave her private
residence,” but they refused to do so. Id. ¶ 14. And, finally, she claims that she was eventually
coerced into being taken to the hospital against her will. Id. ¶ 13(e). Taking these allegations as
true, the Court cannot determine that the “emergency-as-exigency” exception applies and dismiss
Plaintiff’s § 1983 claims on such ground. See Martin, 980 F.2d at 952 (noting that a motion to
dismiss under 12(b)(6) should not resolve the applicability of defenses).
As for the second element of her § 1983 claim, Plaintiff alleges the Deputies acted in
accordance with an official policy of the Sheriff’s office. “[A] local government may not be sued
under § 1983 for an injury inflicted solely by its employees or agents.” Id. at 694. “[I]t is when
execution of a government's policy or custom, whether made by its lawmakers or by those whose
edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy, inflicts the injury that the government
as an entity is responsible under § 1983.” Id. There are four ways in which a municipality may be
held liable for one of their policies or customs:
(1) through an express policy, such as a written ordinance or regulation; (2) through
the decisions of a person with final policymaking authority; (3) through an
omission, such as a failure to properly train officers, that "manifest[s] deliberate
indifference to the rights of citizens"; or (4) through a practice that is so "persistent
and widespread" as to constitute a "custom or usage with the force of law."
Lytle v. Doyle, 326 F.3d 463, 471 (4th Cir. 2003) (quoting Carter v. Morris, 164 F.3d 215, 217
(4th Cir. 1999). Plaintiff alleges that Sheriff Brown failed to properly train his deputies and that
the actions of the Deputies taken at Plaintiff’s home are so “persistent and widespread” as to
constitute a “custom or usage with the force of law.”
As for Plaintiff’s allegation that Sheriff Brown failed to properly train his deputies, the Court
agrees with Defendants that such allegation is unsupported and nothing more than a threadbare
recital of an element of a § 1983 claim. Plaintiff has not identified what training was allegedly
insufficient, much less why such training was insufficient and how it caused Plaintiff’s alleged
constitutional deprivation. Allowing Plaintiff to move forward with this allegation would permit
her to continue with a claim having made only a blanket assertion without any factual
enhancement. Indeed, if simply stating that any alleged misconduct by a public officer is the result
of a failure to train is sufficient to support a claim under §1983 then there is effectively no pleading
requirement beyond simply reciting the elements of the cause of action, which is plainly
insufficient. Accordingly, the Court will dismiss Plaintiff’s failure-to-train portion of her § 1983
claim and will do so without prejudice.
The Court does, however, find that Plaintiff has sufficiently pled a claim under § 1983 based
on her allegation that the Deputies’ practice at Plaintiff’s home (i.e., entering her home without
permission, watching her, and forcing her to be transported to the hospital against her will after a
welfare call) is a practice that is so “persistent and widespread” as to constitute a “custom or usage
with the force of law.” Plaintiff states twice in her Amended Complaint that “[u]pon information
and belief, the actions of Defendant, Deputy Sheriffs, which occurred with the Plaintiff are
practiced upon ‘every suicidal subject encountered while on duty.’” (Doc. No. 14, ¶¶ 49, 94). This
allegation differs from Plaintiff’s allegation regarding failure-to-train in two ways. First, unlike
Plaintiff’s failure-to-train allegation, the Court can draw a reasonable inference from the facts
alleged in the Amended Complaint that the Deputies’ actions are a “persistent and widespread”
practice in the Catawba County Sheriff’s Office. For instance, it is not unreasonable to infer that
deputies receiving a call indicating a person is suicidal are required to enter the person’s home
and/or transport him or her to the hospital. Second, Plaintiff has little to no way of knowing how
the Sheriff’s Office handles suicide or welfare checks on a regular basis without proceeding to
discovery, especially given the confidential and sensitive nature of the subject matter. At this stage,
all Plaintiff has is her “information and belief” and the reasonable inferences the Court can draw.
Shortly into the discovery period, Plaintiff may well realize that she has been misinformed and her
belief as to a persistent and widespread policy is incorrect, which would presumably end this
matter.4 Nevertheless, given the unique facts of this case and the available inferences that can be
drawn at this earliest stage of the case, the Court finds that Plaintiff has sufficiently pled a § 1983
claim to survive Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss.
C. State Tort Claims
Defendants move to dismiss all of Plaintiff’s state tort claims for failure to state a claim under
12(b)(6). The Court declines to dismiss Plaintiff’s claims for invasion of privacy, intentional
infliction of emotional distress, trespass, and civil assault. It will, however, dismiss Plaintiff’s
claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress.
To state a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress, a plaintiff must allege that (1)
the defendant negligently engaged in conduct, (2) it was reasonably foreseeable that such conduct
would cause the plaintiff severe emotional distress, and (3) the conduct did in fact cause the
plaintiff severe emotional distress. See, e.g., Bailey v. Long, 90 S.E. 809 (1916); Green v.
Telegraph Co., 49 S.E. 165 (1904). In the Amended Complaint, Plaintiff has only alleged that the
The Court’s holding in this matter is strictly limited to the particular facts and circumstances
alleged here. The Court need not and does not decide whether pleading simply upon one’s
“information and belief” is enough to survive a motion to dismiss with respect to any other
allegation of a widespread government policy or practice in the context of a claim under § 1983.
Defendants engaged in intentional conduct; therefore, her claim for negligent infliction of
emotional distress will be dismissed without prejudice.
D. Punitive Damages
Lastly, Defendants move to dismiss Plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages, citing to a number
of cases holding that punitive damages are not recoverable from Sheriffs and Sheriff Deputies in
their official capacities. (Doc. No. 18, at 16) (“See Houpe v. City of Statesville, 128 N.C. App. 334,
497 S.E.2d 82, 93 (1998) (holding that a claim against a police chief in his official capacity is
essentially a claim against the city, and as such, a plaintiff may not seek punitive damages from
the police chief in his official capacity for violations of state law); see also Blair v. Cnty. of
Davidson, No. 1;05CV00011, 2006 WL 1367420, at *13 (M.D.N.C. May 10, 2006) (dismissing
punitive damages against Sheriff and Sheriff Deputies in their official capacities); Brewington v.
Bedsole, No. 91-120-CIV-3-H, 1993 WL 819885, at *30 (E.D.N.C. May 14, 1993) (dismissing
punitive damages claims against a Sheriff in his official capacity).”). Plaintiff does not respond to
this argument in her opposition brief. Accordingly, the Court will grant Defendants motion to
dismiss Plaintiff’s claim for punitive damages.
IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss, (Doc. No. 17), is
GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. The Clerk is directed to terminate Defendants
Speagle and Stout. Plaintiff’s claim under § 1983 based on a failure-to-train theory and her claim
for negligent infliction of emotional distress are dismissed. Plaintiff may proceed on her remaining
claims, but may not recover punitive damages.
Signed: June 4, 2021
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