Wells v. Altrip et al
OPINION AND ORDER denying 13 Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim. Signed by Judge James P. Jones on 5/3/2017. (lml)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF VIRGINIA
MICHAEL SHANE WELLS,
BERK ARTRIP, ET AL.,
Case No. 1:16CV00041
OPINION AND ORDER
By: James P. Jones
United States District Judge
Michael A. Bragg, Bragg Law, Abingdon, Virginia, for Plaintiff; Jessica
Berdichevsky, Assistant Attorney General, Richmond, Virginia, for Defendants.
In this case brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the plaintiff alleges that
the defendants violated his rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments by
holding him against his will at a Virginia detention center after the expiration of
his term of incarceration. The defendants have moved to dismiss for lack of
subject-matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim upon which relief can be
granted. Because I find that subject-matter jurisdiction exists and the Complaint
states a viable claim, I will deny the Motion to Dismiss.
The Complaint alleges the following facts, which I must accept as true for
the purpose of deciding the pending motion.
On December 13, 2013, a Virginia circuit court judge found the plaintiff,
Michael Shane Wells, guilty of violating the conditions of his probation. The court
sentenced Wells “to confinement with the Virginia Department of Corrections for a
term of six years and six months with five years and six months suspended.”
Order, Dec. 16, 2013, Case Nos. F02-450 & F03-40 (Wise Cty. Cir. Ct.). 1 The
court further ordered that Wells “shall continue on probation as previously
ordered” and that “[a]s a condition of probation the defendant shall complete the
Detention Center and Diversion Center Programs.” Id.
Wells served his sentence of incarceration at the Southwest Virginia
Regional Jail in Duffield, Virginia, and was advised that he would be released on
August 15, 2014. While incarcerated, Wells learned that the Virginia Attorney
General had issued an opinion several years earlier finding that a Virginia court
cannot impose both an active sentence of incarceration and an alternative sentence
of detention or diversion. In a letter dated April 12, 2014, Wells notified the
Virginia Department of Corrections (“DOC”) of the Attorney General’s opinion
While the parties have not provided the court with a copy of the state court
judgment, it is partially quoted by the plaintiff in the Complaint and the court has
obtained a copy, of which it can take judicial notice. See Harris v. Wells Fargo Bank
N.A., No. 3:16-cv-174-JAG, 2017 WL 838687, at *2 (E.D. Va. Mar. 3, 2017) (holding
that in determining motion to dismiss, court may take judicial notice of state court
records if integral to the complaint and indisputably authentic). A copy of the state court
order is attached to this opinion.
and stated that he should not be required to participate in the detention or diversion
In August, 2014, Wells was transferred to the Southwest Virginia Regional
Jail in Abingdon, Virginia (“Abingdon jail”). He received paperwork showing an
updated release date of August 18, 2014, and was advised that the date had been
adjusted to provide for his transfer to the Appalachian Detention Center (“ADC”),
a facility operated by DOC, to begin the Detention Center Incarceration Program
(“DCIP”). Wells was given a document stating that he voluntarily agreed to be
transferred to ADC and was asked to sign the document, but he refused to sign it.
On August 18, 2014, an ADC officer forcibly removed Wells from the
Abingdon jail and transported him to ADC. When he arrived at ADC, Wells met
with defendant John Honaker, a corrections officer who played the role of a drill
sergeant in the DCIP. Wells told Honaker that he did not agree to being held at
ADC and that there was no legal basis for him to be held there. Honaker told
Wells that Wells was in ADC’s custody and he could not leave. Honaker also
advised Wells to cooperate to make things better for himself. While he was held at
ADC, Wells repeatedly complained to Honaker that he was being held there
illegally, and Honaker repeatedly responded that Wells was in the custody of ADC.
ADC was operated in the style of a boot camp. ADC was surrounded by a
fence, and Wells could not leave the premises at will. ADC imposed severe
physical activities on program participants.
Honaker imposed extra physical
activity, marching, and drills on Wells to punish him for complaining that he was
being held there illegally.
Defendant Berk Artrip was the Superintendant of ADC. Wells alleges that
as Superintendant, Artrip was responsible for ensuring that all ADC residents were
participating in the program freely and voluntarily.
On October 25, 2014, Wells was transferred to the Wise County Circuit
Court for a hearing. The next day, he was released from custody.
Wells contends that the actions of Honaker and Artrip deprived him of
liberty without due process and subjected him to cruel and unusual punishment.
The defendants have moved to dismiss the Complaint based on lack of subjectmatter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim. The motion has been fully briefed
and is ripe for decision.2 For the reasons that follow, I will deny the Motion to
The defendants first move for dismissal on the ground that that this court
lacks subject matter jurisdiction. Pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1), a defendant may
challenge federal subject matter jurisdiction in two ways. See Kerns v. United
I will dispense with oral argument because the facts and legal contentions are
adequately presented in the materials before the court and argument would not
significantly aid the decisional process.
States, 585 F.3d 187, 192 (4th Cir. 2009). First, a defendant may attack the face of
the complaint and contend “that a complaint simply fails to allege facts upon which
subject matter jurisdiction can be based.” Adams v. Bain, 697 F.2d 1213, 1219
(4th Cir. 1982). In evaluating a facial challenge to subject-matter jurisdiction, “the
plaintiff, in effect, is afforded the same procedural protection as he would receive
under a Rule 12(b)(6) consideration.” Id. Second, a defendant may attack subjectmatter jurisdiction as a matter of fact and argue “that the jurisdictional allegations
of the complaint [are] not true.”
Under those circumstances, a plaintiff
receives less procedural protection, and “the district court is to regard the
pleadings’ allegations as mere evidence on the issue, and may consider evidence
outside the pleadings without converting the proceeding to one for summary
judgment.” Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac R.R. v. United States, 945 F.2d
765, 768 (4th Cir. 1991).
In this case, the defendants assert a facial challenge based on the RookerFeldman doctrine. See D.C. Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462 (1983);
Rooker v. Fid. Tr. Co., 263 U.S. 413 (1923). Under this doctrine, a “party losing in
state court is barred from seeking what in substance would be appellate review of
the state judgment in a United States district court, based on the losing party’s
claim that the state judgment itself violates the loser’s federal rights.” Johnson v.
De Grandy, 512 U.S. 997, 1005-06 (1994). In this context, “[t]he controlling
question . . . is whether a party seeks the federal district court to review a state
court decision and thus pass upon the merits of that state court decision.” Jordahl
v. Democratic Party of Va., 122 F.3d 192, 202 (4th Cir. 1997). This doctrine
ensures that state court decisions are first reviewed within the state appellate courts
and then by the United States Supreme Court. Am. Reliable Ins. Co. v. Stillwell,
336 F.3d 311, 316 (4th Cir. 2003).
As articulated by the Supreme Court, the Rooker-Feldman doctrine applies
to a relatively narrow set of circumstances. The doctrine is limited to “cases
brought by state-court losers complaining of injuries caused by state-court
judgments rendered before the district court proceedings commenced and inviting
district court review and rejection of those judgments.” Exxon Mobil Corp. v.
Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 284 (2005).
The defendants contend that Wells is seeking review of the Wise County
Circuit Court’s sentencing order, which is barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine.
Wells asserts that he is not asking this court to review the sentencing order.
Rather, he says he aims to hold the defendants liable for detaining him at ADC
against his will after he had served his sentence of incarceration. Wells argues that
the circuit court did not sentence him to the DCIP but merely made completion of
the program a condition of his probation. As explained below, Wells argues that
the applicable Virginia law prevented the defendants from holding anyone at ADC
without their consent.
I agree with Wells.
The validity or propriety of the circuit court’s
sentencing order is not at issue in this case. Wells’s claim turns on whether the
defendants violated his constitutional rights by holding him involuntarily without
legal authority. His claim is not barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, and I will
deny the Motion to Dismiss as to its claim of lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.
The defendants next move for dismissal of the Complaint for failure to state
a viable claim. Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides for
dismissal of actions that fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.
“The purpose of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion is to test the sufficiency of a complaint.”
Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 243 (4th Cir. 1999). In order to
survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), 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)). “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.”
678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).
In deciding whether a complaint will survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to
dismiss, the court considers the complaint and any documents attached or
incorporated by reference into the complaint. Zak v. Chelsea Therapeutics Int’l,
Ltd., 780 F.3d 597, 606 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. v.
Kolon Indus., Inc., 637 F.3d 435, 448 (4th Cir. 2011)). In ruling, the court must
regard as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint, Erickson v.
Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007), and must view those facts in the light most
favorable to the plaintiff. Christopher v. Harbury, 536 U.S. 403, 406 (2002).
The defendants argue that the Complaint fails to state a viable claim because
Honaker and Artrip were simply following the state court’s order and orders given
to them by DOC. They contend that the facts alleged do not amount to any
violation of Wells’s constitutional rights.
The defendants also assert that Wells’s claim is barred by qualified
immunity. A § 1983 claim requires proof of the following three elements: “(1) the
deprivation of a right secured by the Constitution or a federal statute; (2) by a
person; (3) acting under color of state law.” Jenkins v. Medford, 119 F.3d 1156,
1159-60 (4th Cir. 1997). While state officials sued in their official capacities are
not “persons” under § 1983, Will v. Mich. Dep’t of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71
(1989), state officials sued in their individual capacities are “persons” within the
meaning of the statute and are not absolutely immune from suit, Hafer v. Melo, 502
U.S. 21, 31 (1991). A government official sued in his individual capacity under
§ 1983 may, however, be entitled to qualified immunity. Id. at 25 (“[O]fficials
sued in their personal capacities . . . may assert personal immunity defenses such as
objectively reasonable reliance on existing law.”)
Qualified immunity “shields government officials from liability for civil
damages, provided that their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory
or constitutional rights within the knowledge of a reasonable person.” Meyers v.
Balt. Cty., 713 F.3d 723, 731 (4th Cir. 2013). Qualified immunity is immunity
from suit rather than merely immunity from liability; therefore, the question of
qualified immunity should be decided before trial. Id. A defendant asserting
qualified immunity has the burden of proving the defense. Id.
A court deciding the applicability of qualified immunity must determine
“whether a constitutional violation occurred” and “whether the right violated was
clearly established.” Tobey v. Jones, 706 F.3d 379, 385 (4th Cir. 2013). A right
can be clearly established even if there does “not exist a case on all fours with the
facts at hand,” as long as pre-existing law makes the right apparent. Hunter v.
Town of Mocksville, 789 F.3d 389, 401 (4th Cir. 2015).
Where a plaintiff
“(1) allege[s] a violation of a right (2) that is clearly established at the time of the
violation,” a motion to dismiss on qualified immunity grounds must be denied.
Evans v. Chalmers, 703 F.3d 636, 646 (4th Cir. 2012).
Virginia’s DCIP provides “a highly structured, short-term period of
incarceration for individuals committed to the [DOC] under the provisions of [Va.
Code Ann.] § 19.2-316.2.” Va. Code Ann. § 53.1-67.8. 3 A defendant “who
otherwise would have been sentenced to incarceration for a nonviolent felony” or
“who has been previously incarcerated for a nonviolent felony” may be eligible for
the DCIP if he meets certain criteria. Va. Code Ann. § 19.2-316.2. The statute
makes clear that “[a] sentence to the [DCIP] shall not be imposed as an addition to
an active sentence to a state correctional facility.” Id.
The statute provides that when a court decides to sentence a defendant to the
DCIP “following a finding that the defendant has violated the terms and conditions
of his probation previously ordered, [the court] shall place the defendant on
probation pursuant to this section.” Id. “Such probation shall be conditioned upon
the defendant’s entry into and successful completion of the [DCIP].”
Importantly, the statute states that “[u]pon the defendant’s . . . voluntary
The DOC describes the DCIP as
[a] 5-7 month residential program emphasizing military drill,
military discipline, strict hygiene, and limited privileges. Detainees
perform physical labor in organized public works projects/community
service projects and at some prison complexes. Detainees participate in
random urinalysis, medical and psychological counseling, Breaking
Barriers, transitional services, substance abuse treatment, Life Skills,
GED/ABE classes and are evaluated for therapeutic treatment groups.
Va. Dep’t of Corr., Detention Centers, Program Overview, https://vadoc.virginia.gov/
community/programs/detention.shtm (last visited on May 1, 2017).
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withdrawal from the program . . . the court shall cause the defendant to show cause
why his probation and suspension of sentence should not be revoked.” Id.
Detaining a prisoner in excess of the time required by his sentence violates
the prisoner’s procedural due process rights. See Kondrosky v. Pierce, No. 956695, 1996 WL 228803, at *2 (4th Cir. Apr. 29, 1996) (unpublished) (citing Baker
v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 144 (1979)). Incarceration after the termination of a
prisoner’s sentence may also violate the Eighth Amendment. Golson v. Dep’t of
Corr., Nos. 90-7344, 90-7345, 1990 WL 141470, at *1 (4th Cir. Oct. 2, 1990)
(unpublished); see also Haywood v. Younger, 769 F.2d 1350, 1354 (9th Cir. 1985).
In Wilson v. Johnson, 535 F.3d 262, 263 (4th Cir. 2008), a former inmate asserted
a § 1983 claim based on “unconstitutional imprisonment because Virginia
improperly extended the length of his prison sentence.”
The Fourth Circuit
reversed the district court’s dismissal of his complaint and found that the claim was
I find that Wells has plausibly alleged that the defendants violated his
constitutional right not to be held involuntarily and without legal authority beyond
his term of incarceration. I further find that this right was clearly established.
Wells alleges that the defendants would not allow him to leave ADC despite the
applicable statute’s voluntary withdrawal provision.
By the time he was
transported to ADC, his sentence of incarceration had expired. The Wise County
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Circuit Court’s sentencing order merely stated that completion of the DCIP was a
condition of his probation. According to the statutory procedure, upon voluntarily
withdrawing from the program, Wells should have been brought before the circuit
court and ordered to show cause why his probation should not have been revoked.
Though evidence adduced in discovery may ultimately contradict the Complaint’s
alleged version of events or provide additional details tending to show that the
defendants did not violate a clearly established right, at this early stage of the
proceedings, the facts alleged in the Complaint are sufficient to overcome the
defendants’ claim of qualified immunity.
Because I find that the Complaint states a cognizable § 1983 claim and that
the defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity at this stage, I will deny the
Motion to Dismiss.
For the foregoing reasons, it is ORDERED that Defendants’ Motion to
Dismiss, ECF No. 13, is DENIED.
ENTER: May 3, 2017
/s/ James P. Jones
United States District Judge
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