Patton et al v. Blythe et al

Filing 20

Memorandum Opinion and Order granting 15 Amended Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' Claims; denies as moot Plaintiffs' 18 Motion for Leave to File Sur-Reply in Opposition to Defendants' Motion to Dismiss. The court directs Plaintiffs to file an amended pleading and address the deficiencies that it identified herein by 4/3/2017. (Ordered by Judge Sam A Lindsay on 3/20/2017) (ykp)

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IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT NORTHERN DISTRICT OF TEXAS DALLAS DIVISION WARREN RAY PATTON and TERRI PATTON, Plaintiffs, v. CRANDALL POLICE OFFICERS KODY BLYTHE and WILIAM DONOVAN SISSON, III, Defendants. § § § § § § § § § § § § Civil Action No. 3:16-CV-1316-L MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER Before the court are Defendants’ Amended Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs’ Claims (Doc. 13), filed July 29, 2016; and Plaintiffs’ Motion for Leave to File Sur-Reply in Opposition to Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 18), filed September 29, 2016. After careful consideration of the motion, response, reply, pleadings, and applicable law, the court grants Defendants’ Amended Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs’ Claims; denies as moot Plaintiffs’ Motion for Leave to File Sur-Reply in Opposition to Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss; and orders Plaintiffs to amend their complaint to address its deficiencies. I. Factual and Procedural Background Plaintiffs Warren Ray Patton (“Mr. Patton”) and Terri Patton (“Mrs. Patton”) (collectively, “Plaintiffs”) filed this action against Crandall Police Officers Kody Blythe (“Officer Blythe”) and William Donovan Sisson, III (“Officer Sisson”) (collectively, “Defendants”) on May 12, 2016. Plaintiffs bring this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and contend that their rights guaranteed under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution were violated. Memorandum Opinion and Order - Page 1 From what the court can ascertain, Mr. Patton contends that Defendants Blythe and Sisson caused him to be arrested without probable cause, and that his home and outlying buildings were illegally searched by Officer Sisson and other members of the Crandall Police Department. Given the paucity of the allegations set forth in Plaintiffs’ Original Complaint (“Complaint”), the court is not certain of the factual basis for their suit against Defendants. II. Legal Standard A. Rule 12(b)(6) - Failure to State a Claim To defeat a motion to dismiss filed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a plaintiff must plead “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007); Reliable Consultants, Inc. v. Earle, 517 F.3d 738, 742 (5th Cir. 2008); Guidry v. American Pub. Life Ins. Co., 512 F.3d 177, 180 (5th Cir. 2007). A claim meets the plausibility test “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. The plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement,’ but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal citations omitted). While a complaint need not contain detailed factual allegations, it must set forth “more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citation omitted). The “[f]actual allegations of [a complaint] 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).” Id. (quotation marks, citations, and footnote omitted). When the allegations of the pleading do not allow the court to infer more than the mere possibility of wrongdoing, they fall short of showing that the pleader is entitled to relief. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. Memorandum Opinion and Order - Page 2 In reviewing a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court must accept all well-pleaded facts in the complaint as true and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Sonnier v. State Farm Mutual Auto. Ins. Co., 509 F.3d 673, 675 (5th Cir. 2007); Martin K. Eby Constr. Co. v. Dallas Area Rapid Transit, 369 F.3d 464, 467 (5th Cir. 2004); Baker v. Putnal, 75 F.3d 190, 196 (5th Cir. 1996). In ruling on such a motion, the court cannot look beyond the pleadings. Id.; Spivey v. Robertson, 197 F.3d 772, 774 (5th Cir. 1999). The pleadings include the complaint and any documents attached to it. Collins v. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, 224 F.3d 496, 498-99 (5th Cir. 2000). Likewise, “‘[d]ocuments that a defendant attaches to a motion to dismiss are considered part of the pleadings if they are referred to in the plaintiff’s complaint and are central to [the plaintiff’s] claims.’” Id. (quoting Venture Assocs. Corp. v. Zenith Data Sys. Corp., 987 F.2d 429, 431 (7th Cir. 1993)). In this regard, a document that is part of the record but not referred to in a plaintiff’s complaint and not attached to a motion to dismiss may not be considered by the court in ruling on a 12(b)(6) motion. Gines v. D.R. Horton, Inc., 699 F.3d 812, 820 & n.9 (5th Cir. 2012) (citation omitted). Further, it is well-established and ‘“clearly proper in deciding a 12(b)(6) motion [that a court may] take judicial notice of matters of public record.”’ Funk v. Stryker Corp., 631 F.3d 777, 783 (5th Cir. 2011) (quoting Norris v. Hearst Trust, 500 F.3d 454, 461 n.9 (5th Cir. 2007) (citing Cinel v. Connick, 15 F.3d 1338, 1343 n.6 (5th Cir. 1994)). The ultimate question in a Rule 12(b)(6) motion is whether the complaint states a valid claim when it is viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Great Plains Trust Co. v. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, 313 F.3d 305, 312 (5th Cir. 2002). While well-pleaded facts of a complaint are to be accepted as true, legal conclusions are not “entitled to the assumption of truth.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (citation omitted). Further, a court is not to strain to find inferences favorable to the plaintiff and is not to accept conclusory allegations, unwarranted deductions, or Memorandum Opinion and Order - Page 3 legal conclusions. R2 Invs. LDC v. Phillips, 401 F.3d 638, 642 (5th Cir. 2005) (citations omitted). The court does not evaluate the plaintiff’s likelihood of success; instead, it only determines whether the plaintiff has pleaded a legally cognizable claim. United States ex rel. Riley v. St. Luke’s Episcopal Hosp., 355 F.3d 370, 376 (5th Cir. 2004). Stated another way, when a court deals with a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, its task is to test the sufficiency of the allegations contained in the pleadings to determine whether they are adequate enough to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Mann v. Adams Realty Co., 556 F.2d 288, 293 (5th Cir. 1977); Doe v. Hillsboro Indep. Sch. Dist., 81 F.3d 1395, 1401 (5th Cir. 1996), rev’d on other grounds, 113 F.3d 1412 (5th Cir. 1997) (en banc). Accordingly, denial of a 12(b)(6) motion has no bearing on whether a plaintiff ultimately establishes the necessary proof to prevail on a claim that withstands a 12(b)(6) challenge. Adams, 556 F.2d at 293. B. Qualified Immunity Government officials who perform discretionary functions are entitled to the defense of qualified immunity, which shields them from suit as well as liability for civil damages, if their conduct does not violate “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). A defendant official must affirmatively plead the defense of qualified immunity. Gomez v. Toledo, 446 U.S. 635, 640 (1980). Defendants have asserted this defense in their motion to dismiss. In deciding a dispositive motion that raises the defense of qualified immunity, the Supreme Court initially set forth a mandatory two-part inquiry for determining whether a government official was entitled to qualified immunity. Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001). Under Saucier, a court must determine first whether the facts alleged or shown are sufficient to make out a violation of a constitutional or federal statutory right. If the record sets forth or establishes no Memorandum Opinion and Order - Page 4 violation, no further inquiry is necessary. On the other hand, if the plaintiff sufficiently pleads or establishes that a violation could be made out, the court must determine whether the right at issue was clearly established at the time of the government official’s alleged misconduct. Id. The Court relaxed this mandatory sequence in Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223 (2009), and stated, “[W]hile the sequence set forth [in Saucier] is often appropriate, it should no longer be regarded as mandatory,” and judges “should be permitted to exercise their sound discretion in deciding which of the two prongs of the qualified immunity analysis should be addressed first in light of the circumstances in the particular case at hand.” Id. at 236. The second prong of the test “is better understood as two separate inquiries: whether the allegedly violated constitutional right[] [was] clearly established at the time of the incident; and if so, whether the conduct of the defendant[] [official] was objectively unreasonable in light of then clearly established law.” Tarver v. City of Edna, 410 F.3d 745, 750 (5th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted); see also Evans v. Ball, 168 F.3d 856, 860 (5th Cir. 1999); Hare v. City of Corinth, 135 F.3d 320, 326 (5th Cir. 1998); Eugene v. Alief Indep. Sch. Dist., 65 F.3d 1299, 1305 (5th Cir. 1995), cert. denied, 517 U.S. 1191 (1996). Ordinarily, one who pleads an affirmative defense must establish his entitlement to such defense. In the context of qualified immunity, however, this burden varies from the norm. In this circuit, the rule is as follows: Where . . . [a] defendant pleads qualified immunity and shows he is a governmental official whose position involves the exercise of discretion, the plaintiff then has the burden to rebut this defense by establishing that the official’s allegedly wrongful conduct violated clearly established law. We do not require that an official demonstrate that he did not violate clearly established federal rights; our precedent places that burden upon plaintiffs. Pierce v. Smith, 117 F.3d 866, 871-72 (5th Cir. 1997) (internal quotations and citations omitted); see also Brown v. Callahan, 623 F.3d 249, 253 (5th Cir. 2010). Memorandum Opinion and Order - Page 5 A right is “clearly established” only when its contours are sufficiently clear that a reasonable public official would have realized or understood that his conduct violated the right in issue, not merely that the conduct was otherwise improper. See Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640 (1987); Foster v. City of Lake Jackson, 28 F.3d 425, 429 (5th Cir. 1994). Thus, the right must not only be clearly established in an abstract sense but in a more particularized sense so that it is apparent to the official that his actions [what he is doing] are unlawful in light of pre-existing law. Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. at 640; Stefanoff v. Hays County, 154 F.3d 523, 525 (5th Cir. 1998); and Pierce v. Smith, 117 F.3d at 871. In Anderson, 483 U.S. at 641, the Court refined the qualified immunity standard and held that the relevant question is whether a reasonable officer or public official could have believed that his conduct was lawful in light of clearly established law and the information possessed by him. If public officials or officers of “reasonable competence could disagree [on whether the conduct is legal], immunity should be recognized.” Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341 (1986); Gibson v. Rich, 44 F.3d 274, 277 (5th Cir. 1995) (citing Babb v. Dorman, 33 F.3d 472, 477 (5th Cir. 1994)). Qualified immunity is designed to protect from civil liability “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. at 341. Conversely, an official’s conduct is not protected by qualified immunity if, in light of clearly established pre-existing law, it was apparent the conduct, when undertaken, would be a violation of the right at issue. Foster, 28 F.3d at 429. To preclude qualified immunity, it is not necessary for a plaintiff to establish that “the [specific] action in question has previously been held unlawful.” Anderson, 483 U.S. at 640. For an official, however, to surrender qualified immunity, “pre-existing law must dictate, that is, truly compel (not just suggest or allow or raise a question about), the conclusion for every likesituated, reasonable government agent that what the defendant is doing violates federal law in the Memorandum Opinion and Order - Page 6 circumstances.” Pierce v. Smith, 117 F.3d at 882 (emphasis in original and citation omitted); and Stefanoff v. Hays County, 154 F.3d at 525. Stated differently, while the law does not require a case directly on point, “existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate.” Ashcroft v. Al-Kidd, 131 S. Ct. 2074, 2083 (2011) (citations omitted). In analyzing qualified immunity claims, the Supreme Court has “repeatedly told courts . . . to not define clearly established law at a high level of generality.” Mullenix v. Luna, 136 S. Ct. 305, 308 (2015) (citation omitted). Pursuant to Mullenix, courts must consider “whether the violative nature of particular conduct is clearly established” and must undertake this inquiry “in light of the specific context of the case, not as a broad general proposition.” Id. (citations and internal quotations marks omitted). To defeat or overcome an official’s qualified immunity defense, a plaintiff’s complaint must allege specific facts that, if proved, would show that the official’s conduct violated clearly established constitutional or statutory rights. In cases involving claims of qualified immunity, often it is appropriate to require a plaintiff to file a detailed reply to address the plea of qualified immunity. Schultea v. Wood, 47 F.3d 1427, 1433 (5th Cir. 1995) (en banc). “[T]he reply must be tailored to the assertion of qualified immunity and fairly engage its allegations. A defendant has an incentive to plead his defense with some particularity because it has the practical effect of requiring particularity in the reply.” Id. A plaintiff generally must be given the opportunity to reply with greater specificity in such cases before the court rules on a defendant’s dispositive motion. Todd v. Hawk, 72 F.3d 443, 446 (5th Cir. 1996). A reply, however, is only required when the claims in the complaint are not supported “with sufficient precision and factual specificity to raise a genuine issue as to the illegality of [a] defendant’s conduct at the time of the alleged acts.” Schultea, 47 F.3d at 1434. If “the pleadings Memorandum Opinion and Order - Page 7 on their face show an unreasonable violation of a clearly established constitutional right,” the assertion of a qualified immunity defense is insufficient to sustain a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. Shipp v. McMahon, 234 F.3d 907, 912 (5th Cir. 2000), overruled in part on other grounds by McClendon v. City of Columbia, 305 F.3d 314 (5th Cir. 2002) (en banc). III. Discussion Upon review of the Complaint, the court determines that it is too conclusory, essentially for the reasons stated by Defendants, for the court to reasonably infer that Defendants are liable for the conduct alleged by Plaintiffs. Therefore, the Complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. Moreover, Defendants have asserted the defense of qualified immunity. Given the conclusory and general nature of the Complaint, as well as the lack of specificity regarding the conduct of Defendants, Plaintiffs have failed to set forth allegations that are sufficient to defeat or overcome Defendants’ qualified immunity defense. Plaintiffs have not alleged sufficient facts to show that the arrest of Mr. Patton and the search of Plaintiffs’ property were objectively unreasonable. Defendants contend that all discovery should be stayed because Plaintiffs have not pleaded facts to overcome their qualified immunity defense. The court agrees. “One of the most salient benefits of qualified immunity is protection from pretrial discovery, which is costly, timeconsuming, and intrusive.” Backe v. LeBlanc, 691 F.3d 645, 648 (5th Cir. 2012) (citation omitted). “Unless the plaintiff’s allegations state a claim of violation of clearly established law, a defendant pleading qualified immunity is entitled to dismissal before the commencement of discovery.” Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526 (1985) (citation omitted). In other words, discovery cannot proceed “until the district court first finds that the plaintiff’s pleadings which, if true, would overcome the defense of qualified immunity.” Wicks v. Mississippi State Emp’t Servs., 41 F.3d Memorandum Opinion and Order - Page 8 991, 994 (5th Cir. 1995) (footnote and citations omitted). As the court has concluded that the Complaint has not set forth allegations to overcome Defendants’ qualified immunity defense, discovery is premature, should not take place, and is hereby stayed until further order of the court. IV. Conclusion For the reasons herein stated, the court grants Defendants’ Amended Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs’ Claims; however, the court will allow Plaintiffs the opportunity to replead their claims with the requisite specificity in accordance with the standard herein set forth. With respect to Plaintiffs’ Motion for Leave to File Sur-Reply in Opposition to Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss, requiring Plaintiffs to file an amended pleading allows them the opportunity to state the necessary allegations to plead a claim in accordance with the standard the court has set forth. Accordingly, no surreply is necessary, and the court denies as moot Plaintiffs’ Motion for Leave to File SurReply in Opposition to Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss. The court directs Plaintiffs to file an amended pleading and address the deficiencies that it identified herein by April 3, 2017. Failure to plead in accordance with the standards herein set forth may result in dismissal for failure to prosecute or comply with a court order pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, or dismissal with prejudice pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. Defendants may file a second motion to dismiss if they have adequate grounds that the pleadings are deficient. It is so ordered this 20th day March, 2017. _________________________________ Sam A. Lindsay United States District Judge Memorandum Opinion and Order - Page 9

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