Hart v. Santee, City of et al
ORDER AND OPINION granting 10 Motion to Dismiss the Complaint. Signed by Honorable J Michelle Childs on 7/25/2017.(asni, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF SOUTH CAROLINA
Ann P. Hart, as administrator of the Estate )
of Guy William Hart,
City of Santee, Santee Police Department, )
SPD Chief of Police Dennis “Bing” Jones, )
and SPD Officer Shawn Hollingquest,
Civil Action No.: 5:16-cv-03338-JMC
ORDER AND OPINION
Plaintiff Ann P. Hart (“Plaintiff”), as administrator of the estate of Guy William Hart
(“Hart”), brought this action asserting claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Defendants
City of Santee (the “City”), 1 Santee Police Department (“SPD”), 2 SPD Chief of Police Dennis
“Bing” Jones (“Jones”), and SPD Officer Shawn Hollingquest (“Hollingquest”) 3 (collectively,
except for Hollingquest, “Defendants”) after Hart was struck and killed by a vehicle as he crossed
Defendants have explained that the party identified in the complaint as “City of Santee” should
instead be named as “Town of Santee.” (ECF No. 10 at 1; ECF No. 16 at 1.)
Defendants assert that SPD “is a department of the Town of Santee,” that it “is not a separate
legal entity capable of being sued,” as “[t]he Town of Santee is the proper juridical entity for an
action involving [SPD],”and thus that SPD “should be dismissed from this action.” (ECF No. 10
at 1 n.1; ECF No. 16 at 1 n.1.) Because the court concludes that the complaint should be dismissed
for other reasons, the court declines to decide in this order whether SPD should be dismissed from
this action for this reason offered by Defendants.
Defendants have explained that the party identified in the complaint by the surname
“Hollingquest” should instead be named as “Hallingquest.” (ECF No. 10-1 at 2.) Because this
party has not appeared in this matter and because this matter will be dismissed regardless, the court
sees no need to clarify this party’s surname and will use the surname as it appears in the complaint.
a highway in Santee, South Carolina. (See ECF No. 1.) Three Defendants 4 have filed a motion to
dismiss the complaint, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), for failure to state a claim for which
the court could grant relief. (ECF No. 10.) For the reasons that follow, the court GRANTS
Defendants’ motion to dismiss (ECF No. 10) and DISMISSES Plaintiff’s complaint (ECF No. 1).
I. RELEVANT FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
In her complaint, Plaintiff alleges that on November 16, 2013, Hart, while crossing a
highway in Santee, was struck by a vehicle driven by Otha Green Vincent, III (“Vincent”), and
sustained mortal injuries. (See ECF No. 1 at 1-3.) Plaintiff alleges on information and belief that,
at the time of the incident, Vincent was impaired by the use of alcohol, driving at an excessive
speed, and otherwise violating traffic laws. (Id. at 3.) Shortly after the collision occurred,
Hollingquest arrived on the scene, and Plaintiff alleges that Hollingquest could see that Hart had
sustained serious injuries and knew that he would likely die. (Id. at 4.) Hollingquest requested
emergency medical technicians, but Hart died while technicians attempted to stabilize him and
before he could be transported to a hospital. (Id.) Plaintiff alleges that neither Hollingquest nor
other SPD officers took any actions to determine Vincent’s capacity to safely operate his vehicle;
the incident report does not mention any attempt to inspect Vincent for any sign of intoxication or
to conduct field sobriety tests or blood-alcohol tests. (Id.) Plaintiff alleges that the on-scene
investigation lasted approximately one and a half hours; that Hollingquest’s report focuses on the
The motion is brought by counsel for the City, SPD, and Jones, who do not represent
Hollingquest, apparently because he is no longer employed by SPD. (See ECF No. 10; ECF No.
10-1 at 2.) Although Hollingquest has not joined the motion filed by his co-defendants, this order
will refer to the moving parties as “Defendants” for ease of understanding.
The motion also asserts that Hollingquest has not been served with process. (ECF No. 101 at 2.) It appears that Plaintiff’s service of process on Hollingquest might be deficient and that his
dismissal from the action on this basis might be warranted. (See ECF No. 5); Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(c),
(e), (m); S.C.R. Civ. P. (d)(1). However, because the court concludes that the complaint should be
dismissed, the court declines to pursue this line of inquiry any further in this order.
condition of the vehicle and not on the condition of Vincent, the driver; and that an available
specialized accident investigation team was not asked to assist in the investigation. (Id. at 5.)
Vincent was not charged with a crime. (Id. at 4.)
Plaintiff alleges that SPD had a duty under South Carolina law to investigate the collision
that killed Hart. (Id. at 5.) Plaintiff asserts that a South Carolina statutory provision “requires an
officer to administer” sobriety tests under certain circumstances. (Id.) The provision to which
Plaintiff points, in relevant part, states:
Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a person must submit to
either one or a combination of chemical tests of his breath, blood, or urine for
the purpose of determining the presence of alcohol, drugs, or a combination of
alcohol and drugs if there is probable cause to believe that the person violated
or is under arrest for a violation of Section 56-5-2945.
S.C. Code. Ann. § 56-5-2946(A) (2016). The provision to which § 56-5-2946(A) refers makes a
person guilty of a felony if, while driving a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol, he
violates the law or a duty imposed by the law, which proximately causes another person’s death.
S.C. Code Ann. § 56-5-2945. Plaintiff alleges that, if Hollingquest had properly ascertained
Vincent’s capacity to drive, he would have been required under § 56-5-2946(A) to administer one
of the sobriety tests mentioned in the statute. (Id. at 6.) Thus, Plaintiff alleges, SPD failed “to fulfill
its duty to properly investigate and preserve evidence.” (Id.) Plaintiff alleges that SPD’s failure to
adequately investigate the collision resulted in the loss of “virtually all of the critical evidence of
Vincent’s culpability.” (Id. at 5; see id. at 6.) Plaintiff further alleges that SPD’s failure to
investigate the collision reduces the likelihood that Vincent will be held criminally liable and
diminishes the likelihood of Plaintiff’s success in any civil action she brings against Vincent as
well as the value of any such action. (Id. at 7.)
Based on these allegations, Plaintiff asserts four claims in her complaint. First, Plaintiff
asserts a claim for respondeat superior liability against the City. (Id. at 8.) Plaintiff explains that
Jones’ and Hollingquest’s actions were performed in the course and scope of their employment
with the City and that the City, as an employer, is vicariously liable for the injuries she sustained.
Second, Plaintiff asserts a § 1983 claim for violation of her procedural Due Process rights
under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. (Id. at 8-9.) Plaintiff asserts
that she had a right to an adequate investigation of the collision, that she was deprived of this right
when SPD failed to provide a reasonably diligent investigation, and that the deprivation resulted
in elimination or impairment of her property interests, namely the reduced value of her potential
recovery from a civil action. (Id.) Plaintiff further asserts that this deprivation of her right occurred
without a pre-deprivation opportunity to challenge SPD’s decision to not adequately investigate,
that there are no post-deprivation remedies, and that Defendants deprived her of her property
interests under color of law. (Id.)
Third, Plaintiff asserts a § 1983 claim for infringement of her right of access to courts under
Article IV of, and the First and Fourteenth Amendments to, the United States Constitution. (Id. at
9-11.) Plaintiff again asserts that SPD had a duty to adequately investigate the collision that killed
Hart and that SPD failed to meet this duty. (Id.) She asserts that SPD’s failure to investigate was
done under color of law and with deliberate indifference to her rights, namely her right to bring a
civil action against Vincent, which was impaired by the lack of evidence resulting from the failure
to adequately investigate. (Id.) Plaintiff asserts that the impairment of these rights infringed on her
constitutional right of access to the courts. (Id.)
Fourth, Plaintiff asserts a § 1983 claim, pursuant to Monell v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs., 436
U.S. 658 (1978), against the City. (ECF No. 1 at 11.) Plaintiff alleges that SPD “has a policy of
failing to meaningfully investigate crashes” and “systematically misclassifies vehicular crimes as
‘accidents,’ creating a false appearance of declining crime rates while motorists like Vincent
escape consequences.” (Id. at 1.) Plaintiff asserts that the City, acting through SPD, Jones, and
Hollingquest, had policies or practices in effect that proximately resulted in constitutional
violations, namely the deprivation of her property interests in a civil action against Vincent without
due process and the infringement of her access to the courts. (Id. at 11.)
On February 2, 2017, Defendants filed the instant motion to dismiss, pursuant to Rule
12(b)(6), arguing that all of the claims asserted in Plaintiffs complaint fail to state a claim for which
the court could grant relief. (ECF No. 10.) The gist of Defendants’ motion is that, with respect to
the three § 1983 claims, Plaintiff’s complaint fails to identify a cognizable duty that they owed to
her that they are alleged to have violated and that, with respect to the respondeat superior claim,
the City cannot be held vicariously liable under § 1983 for the actions of its employees via a theory
of respondeat superior. (See id.) After being fully briefed and argued (see ECF Nos. 10-1, 17, 18,
21), the motion is ready for disposition.
II. LEGAL STANDARD
A motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief
can be granted “challenges the legal sufficiency of a complaint.” Francis v. Giacomelli, 588 F.3d
186, 192 (4th Cir. 2009) (citations omitted); see also Republican Party of N.C. v. Martin, 980 F.2d
943, 952 (4th Cir. 1992) (“A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) . . . does not resolve contests
surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses.”). To be legally
sufficient a pleading 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).
“To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter,
accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S.
662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). This means that
a complainant’s factual allegations “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative
level, on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact).”
Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555–56 (citations omitted). When considering a motion to dismiss, the court
should accept as true all well-pleaded allegations and should view the complaint in a light most
favorable to the complainant. Ostrzenski v. Seigel, 177 F.3d 245, 251 (4th Cir. 1999); Mylan Labs.,
Inc. v. Matkari, 7 F.3d 1130, 1134 (4th Cir. 1993). Dismissal is appropriate if, even accepting wellpled allegations and viewing the complaint in the complainant’s favor, the complaint could not
state a legally cognizable claim for which the court could grant relief. See Edwards v. City of
Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 244 (4th Cir. 1999) (“[A] Rule 12(b)(6) motion should only be granted
if, after accepting all well-pleaded allegations in the plaintiff’s complaint as true and drawing all
reasonable factual inferences from those facts in the plaintiff’s favor, it appears certain that the
plaintiff cannot prove any set of facts in support of his claim entitling him to relief.”); c.f. Johnson
v. City of Shelby, ___ U.S. ___, 135 S. Ct. 346, 347 (2014) (per curiam) (explaining that Iqbal and
Twombly plausibility standards are not always at issue).
A. Section 1983 claims
As the complaint evinces (see ECF No. 1) and as Plaintiff conceded in her briefing (see
ECF No. 17 at 5-6) and at the hearing on the motion, her three claims aside from the respondeat
superior claim are brought pursuant to § 1983. “To state a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must
allege the violation of a right secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States, and must
show that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law.” West
v. Adkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988); see Crosby v. City of Gastonia, 635 F.3d 634, 639 (4th Cir.
2011) (“A federal civil rights claim based upon § 1983 has [these] two essential elements . . . .”).
If a complaint asserts a § 1983 claim that fails to allege a violation of a cognizable federal right, it
is subject to dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6). See Stack v. Greenville Cnty. Detention Ctr., No. 4:081756-HFF-TER, 2008 WL 2368086, at *4 (D.S.C. June 10, 2008).
Defendants argue that Plaintiff’s complaint does not identify a cognizable federal right and
that her § 1983 claims should be dismissed on this basis. The court agrees. The purported right
which Plaintiff’s complaint asserts is the right to an adequate investigation of the collision that
killed Hart. This purported right underlies each of the three § 1983 claims. With respect to the Due
Process claim, the complaint alleges that Plaintiff was deprived of her property interest in her
potential civil claims against Vincent specifically because Defendants failed in their duty to
conduct an adequate investigation of the collision. Likewise, with respect to the access-to-courts
claim, the complaint alleges that Plaintiff’s right to access the courts was infringed specifically
because Defendants failure to conduct an adequate investigation resulted in the loss of evidence.
The complaint’s Monell claim alleges that the City’s policy or practice of failing to adequately
investigate collisions like the one that killed Hart harmed her by depriving her of her property
interests without due process and by infringing her access to the courts. Thus, Plaintiff’s complaint
may only be maintained if it alleges a cognizable right to an adequate investigation that is protected
by the Constitution or federal law. Because, as discussed below, no such cognizable right exists,
the § 1983 claims must be dismissed.
Plaintiff’s complaint fails to allege a state-law right to an adequate investigation. In support
of her right to an adequate investigation, Plaintiff’s complaint points to § 56-5-2946(A), asserting
that the statute imposes a duty on officers to conduct sobriety tests in certain circumstances and
specifically asserting that it imposed a duty on Hollingquest to conduct a sobriety test on Vincent.
However, on its face, § 56-5-2946(A) imposes a duty only on individuals who have been arrested
for violating § 56-5-2945 or for whom there is probable cause to believe they have violated § 565-2945 to comply with a law enforcement officer’s administration of a sobriety test. See S.C. Code
Ann. § 56-5-2946(A). By its terms, the statute imposes no duty on law enforcement officers to
conduct sobriety tests, nor does it impose a more general duty on officers to conduct an adequate
investigation of vehicular collisions of any sort. Thus, as Defendants correctly point out, the very
statute on which Plaintiff relies to establish the right which she claims was violated, imposes no
duty on any Defendant and thus confers no right upon Plaintiff that is enforceable against
Defendants. Furthermore, Plaintiff points to no other authority for the proposition that, under South
Carolina law, law enforcement officers have a duty to adequately investigate vehicular collisions
for the purpose of preserving evidence for potential civil litigants, and the court has unearthed no
such authority. Under South Carolina law, there is no right to an adequate investigation like the
one asserted by Plaintiff. 5
The parties advance some arguments about South Carolina’s public duty rule, which, with some
exceptions, presumes that a statute that creates or defines the duty of a public official is not to be
construed to create a duty owed by the public official to any individual member of the general
public or to create a right of action for an individual who is injured by the public official’s failure
to perform the duty. See generally Edwards v. Lexington Cnty. Sheriff’s Dep’t, 688 S.E.2d 125,
128-29 (S.C. 2010); Arthurs ex rel. Estate of Munn v. Aiken Cnty., 551 S.E.2d 579, 582-84 (S.C.
2001); Parker v. Brown, 10 S.E.2d 625 (S.C. 1940). Because the court concludes that § 56-52946(A) does not define or create a duty for law enforcement officers, there is no need to determine
whether the public duty rule, or exceptions thereto, apply to the statute.
Even if Plaintiff could point to a state-law right to an adequate investigation, violation of
that right, alone, could not support a cognizable § 1983 claim. As the Supreme Court has explained,
“section  is not itself a source of substantive rights, but a method for vindicating federal
rights elsewhere conferred by those parts of the United States Constitution and federal statutes that
it describes.” Baker v. McCollan, 433 U.S. 137, 144 n.3 (1979) (emphasis added). As a result, it is
well-settled that “violations of state law are not cognizable under § 1983,” Love v. Pepersack, 47
F.3d 120, 124 n.5 (4th Cir. 1995), such that “[c]onduct violating state law without violating federal
law will not give rise to a § 1983 claim.” Snider Int’l Corp. v. Town of Forest Heights, 739 F.3d
140, 145 (4th Cir. 2014) (citing United States v. Van Metre, 150 F.3d 339, 347 (4th Cir. 1998));
see also Gantt v. Whitaker, 57 F. App’x 141, 146 (4th Cir. 2003) (citing White ex rel. White v.
Chambliss, 112 F.3d 731, 738 (4th Cir. 1997)). Accordingly, to the extent Plaintiff’s complaint
alleges a violation of a state law duty to conduct an adequate investigation, the court concludes
such a duty, alone, provides no basis for any of Plaintiff’s § 1983 claims.
Aside from asserting that Defendants violated her right to an adequate investigation of the
collision, Plaintiff’s complaint also asserts that Defendants violated her constitutional due process
rights. 6 In the court’s view, the complaint’s allegation of a due process violation is dependent on
its allegation that Defendants violated Plaintiff’s right under state law to an adequate investigation,
which the court has already determined is non-existent. Further, to the extent Plaintiff asserts that
she has a right to an adequate investigation protected by the Constitution’s Due Process Clauses,
As an initial matter, to whatever extent Plaintiff’s § 1983 claims are premised on the right to have
Vincent investigated or prosecuted on criminal charges, it is well-settled that civil litigants have
no cognizable right to enforce the prosecution of another. See Lopez v. Richardson, 914 F.2d 486,
494 (4th Cir. 1990) (citing Linda R.S. v. Richard D., 410 U.S. 614, 619 (1973)); see also Harris v.
Salley, 339 F. App’x 281, 283 (4th Cir. 2009). Thus, to the extent Plaintiff premises her § 1983
claims on a constitutional right to have Vincent prosecuted, she has failed to state a cognizable
right that has been violated. See Sattler v. Johnson, 857 F.2d 224, 226-27 (4th Cir. 1988).
the court must disagree. As a general matter, a victim of a crime “does not have a constitutional
right to have the police investigate his case at all, still less to do so to his level of satisfaction.”
Rossi v. City of Chi., 790 F.3d 729, 735 (7th Cir. 2015) (citing DeShaney v. Winnebago Cnty. Dep’t
of Soc. Servs., 489 U.S. 189, 196 (1989)); see Smith v. McCarthy, 349 F. App’x 851, 859 (4th Cir.
2009) (citing Sattler, 857 F.2d at 227). Thus, a § 1983 claim by the victim of a crime premised on
the failure of police to conduct an investigation necessary to provide evidence in support of the
victim’s civil action against the perpetrator does not allege the violation of a right protected by the
Due Process Clauses of the Constitution. Here, Plaintiff’s § 1983 claims are premised on SPD’s
failure to adequately investigate the collision in a manner necessary to preserve and marshal the
evidence needed in her anticipated civil action against Vincent and, therefore, fail to allege the
violation of a right protected by the Due Process Clauses.
Even assuming such a right was protected by the Due Process clauses, Plaintiff’s complaint
fails to allege the intent necessary to maintain her § 1983 claims. In the context of a criminal
defendant asserting that his due process rights were violated when the police investigating the
underlying crime failed to disclose potentially exculpatory evidence, the failure to disclose such
evidence does not amount to a due process violation when the police have not acted in bad faith,
meaning that they have not intentionally withheld the evidence for the purpose of depriving the
plaintiff of the use of the evidence during his criminal trial. See Jean v. Collins, 221 F.3d 656, 65863 (4th Cir. 2000) (en banc) (per curiam) (Wilkinson, C.J., concurring in the judgment). 7 Assuming
that this type of analysis could be applied in the context of a victim asserting her due process rights
Judge (then Chief Judge) Wilkinson wrote for six circuit judges to concur in the affirmance of
the underlying district court decision in Jean, but an equal number of circuit judges dissented.
“[A]n affirmance by an equally divided court is not entitled to precedential weight.” Ark. Writers
Project, Inc. v. Radland, 481 U.S. 221, 234 n.7 (1987). Nevertheless, the court finds Judge
Wilkinson’s opinion persuasive.
were violated in a § 1983 action (and, in the court’s view, it cannot be so applied), the court
believes that the plaintiff-victim must, at a minimum, allege that the police who failed to disclose
(or, here, failed to preserve) evidence necessary to an anticipated civil action against the perpetrator
acted in bad faith, meaning that they acted with the purpose of depriving the plaintiff of the use of
the evidence in pursuing her civil claims. See Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 328 (1986)
(“[T]he Due Process Clause is simply not implicated by a negligent act of an official causing
unintended loss of or injury to life, liberty, or property.”); id. at 665 (“Historically, this guarantee
of due process has been applied to deliberate decisions of government officials to deprive a person
of life, liberty, or property.”).
Here, Plaintiff has failed to allege that Defendants acted with the requisite intent, a bad
faith choice to deprive Plaintiff of the evidence needed to pursue her civil claims. At most, Plaintiff
alleges that Defendants acted with deliberate indifference, knowing that evidence of the collision
would be impossible to obtain if it was not recovered during the on-scene investigation
immediately following the incident. Deliberate indifference, like that pled by Plaintiff, simply does
not rise to the level of bad faith required for even a potential § 1983 claim founded on a due process
violation. See deliberate indifference, Black’s Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014) (defining
“deliberate indifference” as “[c]onscious disregard of the harm that one’s actions could do to the
interests or rights of another”).
Plaintiff’s complaint also asserts that Defendants violated her constitutional rights to access
to the courts. Again, in the court’s view, the complaint’s allegation of an access-to-courts violation
is dependent on its allegation that Defendants violated Plaintiff’s state-law right to an adequate
investigation of the collision, a purported right the court has already rejected for purposes of §
1983. To the extent Plaintiff asserts that the constitutional provisions protecting her rights to access
to the courts also protect her rights to an adequate investigation, the court must again disagree.
As aptly explained by Judge Seymour,
It is well established that citizens have a right of access to the courts.
See Christopher v. Harbury, 536 U.S. 403, 415 n.12 (2002). There are two
types of lawsuits for denial of access that emerge from the case law. In the first
type of lawsuit, a prisoner plaintiff endeavors to demonstrate denial of access
by establishing that the failure to provide access to law materials and books,
mail, notary services, and so forth deprived him of meaningful access to the
courts. In the other type of lawsuit, a plaintiff, not necessarily a prisoner, may
state a claim by establishing that a public official’s actions in covering-up
evidence hindered the plaintiff’s effort to vindicate a legal right. See, e.g.,
Christopher v. Harbury, 536 U.S. 403 (2002); Swekel v. River Rouge, 119 F.3d
1259, 1262 (6th Cir. 1997); Foster v. Lake Jackson, 28 F.3d 425, 429 (5th Cir.
1994); Bell v. Milwaukee, 746 F.2d 1205 (7th Cir. 1984).
Barnes v. Seigler, No. 5:11-0156-MBS, 2012 WL 4478966, at *4 (D.S.C. Sept. 27, 2012) (citations
omitted). In a case of the latter type, such as the instant case, there is a “crucial distinction” between
complaints alleging that a cover-up by officials prevented the would-be plaintiff from discovering
the identity of the defendant or the facts necessary to file a civil suit against the defendant and
complaints alleging that the officials’ cover-up activity made it more difficult for the plaintiff to
successfully litigate the civil action. Swekel, 119 F.3d at 1263. An allegation that the cover-up
activity made successful litigation more difficult, as by interfering with potential sources of
evidence, is not enough; to state a claim of unconstitutional denial of access to the courts of this
type, the complaint must allege that the cover-up activity prevented the plaintiff from filing the
civil suit at issue. See Rossi, 790 F.3d at 736-37 (“[Plaintiff] was not denied judicial access because
he knew all of the relevant facts of his case and was free to pursue legal redress at all times.”);
Thompson, 33 F.3d at 852-53 (upholding dismissal of denial-of-access-to-courts claim where
plaintiff “had firsthand knowledge of all the facts and circumstances surrounding” the underlying
incident, knew of facts that “were sufficient to enable him to promptly file the . . . lawsuit,” and
“was not prohibited from seeking effective and meaningful redress in court”); Foster, 28 F.3d at
430 (“[T]he right of access is ‘a facilitative right designed to ensure that a citizen has the
opportunity to exercise his or her legal rights to present a cognizable claim to the appropriate court
and, if that claim is meritorious, to have the court make a determination to that effect and order the
appropriate relief.’” (ellipsis omitted) (quoting Crowder v. Sinyard, 884 F.2d 804, 814 (5th Cir.
1989))); Spencer v. Town of Chapel Hill, 290 F. Supp. 2d 655, 663 (M.D.N.C. 2003) (“[T]he right
of access to the courts is violated only when the defendant’s actions inhibit the plaintiff from filing
a case or obtaining legal redress, not merely when the defendant’s actions interfere with potential
sources of evidence.”); Barnes, 2012 WL 4478966, at *5 (“The distinction to observe is that unlike
in [other cases], where the facts surrounding the underlying incident had been concealed, the
plaintiff . . . knew the identity of the defendants and, based on her first-hand knowledge, had all
the facts necessary to commence a lawsuit.”).
Here, Plaintiff’s complaint does not allege that Defendant’s actions prevented her from
identifying the driver of the vehicle that struck Hart, from ascertaining the facts necessary to bring
a civil action against the driver, or from filing the civil action in a court of competent jurisdiction.
In fact, her complaint demonstrates that she knew Vincent’s identity, that she was aware of all the
facts necessary to bring an action against Vincent, and that she was able to do so notwithstanding
Defendants’ allegedly inadequate investigation of the collision. Because Plaintiff’s complaint does
not allege that Defendants’ conduct prevented her from filing a civil action against Vincent, she
has failed to allege that a cognizable right of access to the courts has been violated.
In sum, the putative rights that Plaintiff asserts Defendants violated are not cognizable
federal rights that can be enforced in a § 1983 action. Plaintiff has failed to point to a state-law
right to adequate investigation, and such a state-law right, by itself, would not be enforceable under
§ 1983. To the extent Plaintiff’s due process claim is not dependent on the state-law right she
asserts, the Due Process Clauses do not protect a victim’s rights to adequate police investigation
and, even if they did, Plaintiff’s complaint fails to allege the bad faith intent that would be required
for such a claim. Similarly, to the extent Plaintiff’s right-of-access claim is not dependent on the
state-law right she asserts, the constitutional provisions giving rise to such claims do not protect a
civil litigant’s rights to adequate police investigation when the litigant, as Plaintiff here, has not
alleged that she was prevented from filing the underlying civil action. Because Plaintiff has failed
to allege a cognizable right was violated, the three § 1983 claims in her complaint should be
dismissed for failure to state a claim for which the court could grant relief.
B. Respondeat superior claim
Plaintiff asserts that the City is vicariously liable, under the theory of respondeat superior,
for the conduct of Jones and Hollingquest as described in the allegations in the complaint. (ECF
No. 1.) Defendants argue that respondeat superior liability is inapplicable when the underlying
claim against the employee or agent is brought under § 1983 and that therefore Plaintiff’s claim
asserting respondeat superior liability against the City should be dismissed. (ECF No. 10-1 at 1011.) In response, Plaintiff argues that the rule preventing respondeat superior liability in § 1983
actions applies only to municipalities and that therefore, although it cannot maintain a claim for
respondeat superior liability against the City, it can maintain such a claim against Jones. (ECF
No. 17 at 6.) In reply, Defendant re-asserts that respondeat superior liability is inapplicable to §
1983 claims and further argues that the claim should be dismissed because there is no underlying
cause of action for which Plaintiff can assert liability against the City. (ECF No. 18 at 1-2.)
Defendants’ arguments are well-taken. First, respondeat superior is a doctrine that makes
a principal or employer vicariously liable for the acts of his agent or employee under certain
circumstances; it is not an independent cause of action but, instead, is only a means to impute
liability for a separate cause of action. See Pulte Home Corp. v. S & ME, Inc., No. 0:13-1746CMC, 2013 WL 4875077, at *2 (D.S.C. Sept. 11, 2013); Joy v. Countrywide Fin. Corp., No. 5:10cv-218-FL, 2011 WL 741597, at *1 n.1 (E.D.N.C. Feb. 23, 2011); De Phillips v. United States,
No. 8:09-cv-00905, 2009 WL 4505882, at *1 (D. Md. Nov. 24, 2009); Buchanan v. Fairfield
Resorts, Inc., No. 1:04cv725, 2005 WL 3157580, at *3 (M.D.N.C. Nov. 25, 2005). Here,
respondeat superior is only a means of imposing liability on an employer, the City, for the actions
of its employees, SPD officers. The City is already alleged to be liable under the three other causes
of action in the complaint; thus, it appears that the complaint alleges no separate cause of action
for which the City is liable under respondeat superior and for which it is not already alleged to be
liable. Moreover, even if the other claims in the complaint—the three § 1983 claims—constituted
separate causes of action for which the City could be found vicariously liable under respondeat
superior, the court has already determined that they should be dismissed, leaving the claim for
respondeat superior liability with no underlying viable cause of action. Because there appears no
separate cause of action for which the City may be held liable under respondeat superior, the claim
should be dismissed for failure to state a claim for which the court could grant relief.
Second, the Supreme Court has held that respondeat superior liability is inapplicable not
only in § 1983 actions proceeding against municipalities under Monell but also in § 1983 actions
against supervising government officials. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 676 (2009)
(“Government officials may not be held liable for the unconstitutional conduct of their
subordinates under a theory of respondeat superior. Because vicarious liability is inapplicable to
. . . § 1983 suits, a plaintiff must plead that each Government-official defendant, through the
official’s own individual actions, has violated the Constitution.” (internal citations omitted)).
Moreover, even if respondeat superior liability could be asserted against Jones, Plaintiff’s
complaint has only asserted such a claim against the City and not against Jones. (See ECF No. 1
at 8 (specifying that claim for respondeat superior liability is “against the City only”).) Because
the City cannot be found vicariously liable under respondeat superior for the § 1983 claims alleged
in Plaintiff’s complaint, the claim for respondeat superior liability should be dismissed for failure
to state a claim for which the court could grant relief.
For the foregoing reasons, Defendants’ Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss the complaint
(ECF No. 10) is GRANTED, and Plaintiff’s complaint (ECF No. 1) is DISMISSED.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
United States District Court Judge
July 25, 2017
Columbia, South Carolina
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