Tennessee State of et al v. Gibbons et al (JRG2)
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER: The Younger abstention doctrine applies and the Court will abstain from hearing plaintiffs claims at this time. Defendant Gibbonss motion to dismiss, [Doc. 7], is GRANTED and the plaintiffs claims are d ismissed without prejudice. Because the defendants claims are dismissed, the remaining pending motions in this matter, [Docs. 19, 26,43, 47, 76], are denied as moot. See Order for details. Signed by District Judge J Ronnie Greer on 2/10/2017. (JCK)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
EASTERN DISTRICT OF TENNESSEE
THOMAS PATTERSON, et al.,
BILL GIBBONS, et al.,
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
This matter is before the Court on motions to dismiss filed by two of the defendants in
this case. Defendant Bill Gibbons (“Gibbons”) filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, [Doc. 7].
The plaintiff filed a response, [Doc. 10], opposing the dismissal. Defendant Auto-Owners
Insurance Company (“Auto-Owners”) filed a motion to dismiss the complaint [Doc. 19]. The
plaintiff has responded, [Doc. 38], and Auto-Owners has replied. [Doc. 41]. Defendant AutoOwners filed a motion for summary judgment, [Doc. 43]. In response, the plaintiff filed a
motion to defer ruling on the motion for summary judgment, [Doc. 47], to which defendant
Auto-Owners responded. [Doc. 48]. The matters are ripe for review.
This suit was originally brought in the Middle District of Tennessee. However, the
District Court in the Middle District found that the plaintiff (“Patterson”) failed to sufficiently
allege venue and transferred the case to this district. According to the complaint, Patterson owns
a 1994 Ford truck. [Id. ¶ 46]. On July 15, 2015, defendant Marshall Hicks, a Bradley County
sheriff’s deputy asked the plaintiff for the keys to his truck. [Id. ¶ 50]. Patterson gave Hicks the
keys and Hicks informed Patterson that the truck was being seized for allegedly using the vehicle
in conjunction with the transport and sale of illegal narcotics. [Id. ¶¶ 51-52]. According to the
complaint, “it is alleged that on July 29, 2014, Plaintiff and another person drove to a house in
Plaintiff’s truck and while the other person was in the house the other person sold a pill in the
presence of a confidential informant for $20.00.” [Id. ¶ 47]. Hicks provided Patterson a Notice
of Seizure. [Id. ¶ 56]. On August 17, 2017, 32 days after the truck was seized, Hicks obtained a
forfeiture warrant after presenting an affidavit to a state judge. [Id. ¶ 58].
Patterson was notified on September 17, 2015, that the forfeiture warrant had been
issued. [Id. ¶ 61]. An administrative forfeiture hearing was “established” on November 13,
2015 and the hearing was set for December 14, 2015. [Id. ¶ 62]. On December 14, 2015,
Patterson appeared for the forfeiture hearing but the hearing was continued, allegedly over
Patterson’s objection. [Id. ¶ 67]. Patterson alleges that at the time the complaint was filed, no
new hearing date had been set. [Id. ¶ 67].
Patterson’s first claim is that the defendants “seized and are continuing to seize Plaintiff’s
vehicle without a warrant” in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Patterson
requests the return of his vehicle, attorney fees, and “an injunction prohibiting Tennessee law
enforcement officers from seizing non-contraband property from private property without a
warrant or where there is a ‘specifically established and well delineated exception’ to the warrant
[Id. ¶ 94-95].
Patterson’s second claim alleges that Tennessee’s criminal
forfeiture statute, Tennessee Code Annotated § 53-11-541(B)(4) is facially unconstitutional and
unconstitutional as applied. Patterson also alleges the defendants have violated the defendant’s
civil rights in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and § 1988. Patterson seeks a declaratory judgment
regarding the unconstitutionality of the forfeiture statute.
According to the plaintiff’s complaint, plaintiff Thomas Patterson (“Patterson”) brings
this action in his individual capacity, [Complaint ¶ 18], and on behalf of the “State of Tennessee
on Relationship of Thomas Patterson,” [Id. ¶ 14].
Patterson has brought suit against Bill
Gibbons, the Tennessee Commissioner of Safety and Homeland Security, in his individual
capacity. [Id. ¶ 25]. Patterson also sues “John and Jane Doe State Officers and Employees
Covered by Tennessee’s blanket security bond” as officers, directors, managers, and employees
of the State of Tennessee. [Id. ¶ 30]. “Defendant Fidelity and Deposit Company of Maryland is
sued as the surety for Defendants Gibbons and each John and Jane Doe covered by Tennessee’s
blanket surety bond.” [Id. ¶ 31]. Defendant Marshall Hicks is a Bradley County, Tennessee
sheriff’s deputy. [Id. ¶ 43]. Defendant Auto-Owners Insurance is sued “as the surety for
Marshall Hicks on his bond for the violations of the obligations of the bond.” [Id. ¶ 45].
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
Dismissal pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) eliminates a pleading or
portion thereof that fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed. R. Civ. P.
12(b)(6). Moreover, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires the complaint to contain a
“short plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed. R. Civ. P.
8(a)(2). A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) requires the Court to construe the allegations
in the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and accept all the complaint’s factual
allegations as true. Meador v. Cabinet for Human Res., 902 F.2d 474, 475 (6th Cir. 1990). The
Court may not grant a motion to dismiss based upon a disbelief of a complaint’s factual
allegations. Lawler v. Marshall, 898 F.2d 1196, 1199 (6th Cir. 1990). The Court must liberally
construe the complaint in favor of the party opposing the motion. Miller v. Currie, 50 F.3d 373,
377 (6th Cir. 1995). However, the plaintiff must allege facts that, if accepted as true, are
sufficient “to raise a right to relief above the speculative level,” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly,
550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007), and to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Id. at 570;
see also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678-79 (2009). “A claim has facial plausibility when
the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the
defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft, 556 U.S. at 678. Moreover, this Court
need not “‘accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.’” Twombly, 550
U.S. at 555 (quoting Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986)); see also Ashcroft, 556 U.S. at
678. Lastly, this Court may consider documents central to the plaintiff’s claims to which the
complaint refers and incorporates as exhibits. Amini v. Oberlin College, 259 F.3d 493, 502 (6th
A motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) for lack of jurisdiction may be either an
attack on the face of the complaint or on the factual basis of jurisdiction. Golden v. Gorno Bros.,
Inc., 410 F.3d 879, 881 (6th Cir. 2005). A factual attack challenges the existence of jurisdiction,
apart from the pleadings. RMI Titanium Co. v. Westinghouse Elec. Corp., 78 F.3d 1125, 1334
(citing Mortensen v. First Federal Savings and Loan Ass’n, 549 F.2d 884, 890 (3d Cir. 1977)).
When a factual issue exists in a Rule 12(b)(1) motion, the district court is “free to weigh the
evidence and satisfy itself as the existence of its power to hear the case.” Id. (citing Mortensen,
549 F.2d at 890-91). The court is “empowered to resolve factual disputes” arising out of a Rule
12(b)(1) challenge to subject matter jurisdiction. Id. (citing Rogers v. Stratton Industries, Inc.,
798 F.2d 913, 915 (6th Cir. 1986)).
a. Bill Gibbons and State of Tennessee’s Motion to Dismiss
The State of Tennessee through the Attorney General, filed the motion on behalf of
Gibbons to dismiss the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a
claim for which relief may be granted. Gibbons argues the complaint should be dismissed
pursuant to Younger abstention, because the plaintiff lacks standing to initiate a quo warranto
suit without authorization, and finally because the plaintiff has failed to allege that Gibbons was
personally involved in the alleged § 1983 conduct.
Gibbons submits that the plaintiff’s claims should be dismissed pursuant to the Younger
abstention doctrine because, at the time the complaint was filed, the plaintiff was litigating the
state court administrative forfeiture proceeding at the heart of the issues in this case. In response,
the plaintiff argues that he does not seek to enjoin the state court administrative forfeiture
proceeding nor does he currently have any state court proceeding alleging a constitutional
violation under § 1983 or a constitutional challenge to the forfeiture statute.
A federal district court may be prohibited from interfering with pending state court
judicial proceedings under the Younger abstention doctrine. Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37
(1971). Younger abstention may be invoked where "(1) the underlying proceedings constitute an
ongoing state judicial proceeding; (2) the proceedings implicate important state interests; and (3)
there is an adequate opportunity to raise constitutional challenges in the course of the underlying
proceeding." Danner v. Bd. of Prof'l. Resp., 327 F. App'x 577, 578 (6th Cir. 2009).
While the plaintiff discussed many cases in his brief, he failed to distinguish or even
address the Sixth Circuit case most similar to the facts of this matter. In Loch v. Watkins, Loch
brought claims under § 1983 and state conversion grounds seeking damages, a declaratory
judgment, and injunctive relief stemming from the seizure of Loch’s vehicle pursuant to the
Michigan criminal forfeiture statute. Loch v. Watkins, 337 F.3d 574, 576 (2003). Loch’s § 1983
claims alleged that Michigan’s seizure of the vehicle violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s due
process clause, failure to train on forfeiture procedure resulted in an unlawful seizure and due
process violation, forfeiture amounted to a taking without just compensation, and abuse of
process. Id. at 577.
The district court abstained from hearing Loch’s claims pursuant to the
Younger abstention doctrine. Id. The Sixth Circuit affirmed. Id. at 579. The Sixth Circuit held
that the proceedings before the state court were ongoing, that “Michigan’s interest in its
forfeiture laws is directly correlated with its interest in the enforcement of criminal laws,” and
“there was no impediment to Loch raising the constitutional issues of this case” in the state
forfeiture proceeding. Id. Abstention was appropriate where the state litigation was pending and
the claims were dismissed without prejudice. Id. However, Loch was “free to raise any and all
of these claims in federal court when the state proceedings [are] fully completed.” Id.
When determining if state court proceedings are pending, the Court looks to “see if the
state court proceeding was pending at the time the federal complaint was filed.” Loch, 377 F.3d
at 578 (citing Zalman v. Armstrong, 802 F.2d 199, 204 (6th Cir. 1986)).
A state court
proceeding “remains pending” until state appellate remedies have been exhausted. Id. (citing
Huffman v. Pursue, Ltd., 420 U.S. 592, 609 (1975)). It is clear from the record that the plaintiff
is involved in state court administrative forfeiture proceedings at the time the complaint was
filed. The plaintiff admits that he is pursuing his administrative remedies by attaching various
filings before the state administrative body and stating that he was seeking a hearing date on the
issue at the time the case was initiated and at the time of the pending motions. Additionally, the
Court required the plaintiff to submit a status report on whether the state court proceedings were
ongoing. As of February 3, 2017, the plaintiff’s attorney indicates that the administrative
procedure has not concluded. [Doc. 82]. The plaintiff argues that the ongoing state court
proceedings do not raise claims for § 1983 violations and thus, the proceedings have no bearing
on this matter. While the plaintiff’s claim is not requesting the court to directly enjoin the state
court administrative procedure, he requests that this Court order the return of his seized vehicle
upon a finding in his favor. This requested relief is certainly a direct interference with the
administrative forfeiture proceeding which determines whether the state properly seized the
vehicle. Additionally, the plaintiff’s alleged constitutional violations are directly related to the
seizure that is the basis of the plaintiff’s state forfeiture administrative proceeding. Plaintiff
requests a declaratory judgment that the state cannot continue to seize his vehicle and for the
Court to determine that the seizure was unconstitutional, all matters that may be at issue in the
contested forfeiture proceeding. Upon this record, the state administrative proceedings have not
concluded nor have all appellate remedies been exhausted.
The second consideration is whether the proceedings involve important state interests.
The Sixth Circuit in Loch found persuasive the Eighth Circuit’s holding that “forfeiture
proceedings are quasi-criminal in nature and of such a character as to warrant application of the
Younger doctrine.” Id. (citing Postscript Enterprises, Inc. v. Peach, 878 F.2d 1114, 1116 (8th
Cir. 1989)). The Court finds no reason that this case is any different from the Michigan
forfeiture proceedings in Loch where the Sixth Circuit found that the state’s interest in forfeiture
laws is “directly correlated” with its interest in enforcing criminal laws. See id.
Finally, at issue here is whether the plaintiff can assert and have an adequate opportunity
to raise his constitutional claims in the state administrative proceedings. State administrative
forfeiture proceedings must be conducted in accordance with Tennessee’s Uniform
Administrative Procedures Act, §§ 4-5-101, et seq. The provisions of that statute provide that a
person aggrieved by a final agency decision in a contested case is “entitled to judicial review.”
Id. at § 4-5-322(a)(1). Judicial review proceedings are instituted by filing a petition for review in
the chancery court of Davidson County. Id. at 4-5-322(b)(1)(a). Importantly, the chancery court
may “reverse or modify” the administrative decision if it is (1) in violation of constitutional or
statutory provisions; (2) in excess of statutory authority of the agency; (3) made upon unlawful
procedure; (4) arbitrary or capricious or characterized by abuse of discretion or clearly
unwarranted exercise of discretion; or (5) unsupported by evidence that is both substantial and
material in light of the record.
Id. at § 4-5-322(h).
“The statute of review expressly
contemplates that a petitioner will be afforded an opportunity to raise constitutional issues” or
statutory arguments as plaintiff claims in this matter. See Watts v. Burkhart, 854 F.2d 839, 847–
48 (6th Cir. 1988) (finding that abstention was proper where Tennessee’s Uniform
Administrative Procedures Act provides an opportunity for a litigant to present constitutional
claims upon judicial review).
For the reasons stated above, the Younger abstention doctrine applies and the Court will
abstain from hearing plaintiffs’ claims at this time. Defendant Gibbons’s motion to dismiss,
[Doc. 7], is GRANTED and the plaintiffs’ claims are dismissed without prejudice. Because the
defendant’s claims are dismissed, the remaining pending motions in this matter, [Docs. 19, 26,
43, 47, 76], are denied as moot.
s/J. RONNIE GREER
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?