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Lester v. Prator

United States District Court, W.D. Louisiana, Shreveport Division

October 12, 2017

JAMES HAYWARD LESTER
v.
STEVE PRATOR, ET AL.

          HORNSBY, MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

          MEMORANDUM RULING

          S. MAURICE HICKS, JR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court is Defendant, Sergeant Jason Turner's (“Turner”) Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss (Record Document 11) Plaintiff James Hayward Lester's (“Lester”) allegations in his Complaint (Record Document 1) and Amended Complaints (Record Documents 33 and 42) of federal constitutional violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Louisiana constitutional violations, and torts under state law by Turner. For the reasons which follow, Turner's Rule 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss is GRANTED.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Lester is a resident of Tarrant County, Texas, but for many years has been active as a commercial contractor in Shreveport. See Record Document 1 at 1-4. On February 28, 2003, Lester first filed an application for a Louisiana commercial contractor's license in Shreveport. See id. at 4, ¶ 13. This application included a statement that Lester had never been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor; in fact, Lester had previously been convicted of a misdemeanor in Texas. See id. at 5, ¶ 25; see also State v. Lester, 165 So.3d 1181 (La.App. 2 Cir. 05/20/16). Lester received a valid Louisiana commercial contractor license on May 15, 2003. See Record Document 1 at 4, ¶ 14. He continually reapplied for such license and held a valid license during all times relevant to this case. See id. at 4, ¶ 15.

         Part of Lester's contracting work involved making repairs to houses of residents who applied for grants from the City of Shreveport's Bureau of Housing and Business Development. See id. at 4, ¶¶ 16-17. Lester would submit a bid for the requested work and, if he had the lowest bid, he would receive the contract to perform the work. See Id. In October 2007, Lester was awarded the contract to perform work on Ms. Bessie Lee Broadway's (“Broadway”) home. See id. On January 14, 2008, a change order for the original contract was approved, allowing Lester to receive an additional fee of $5, 100 for additional work. See id. at 4, ¶ 21. On January 24, 2008, Lester, Broadway, and City Inspector Daniel Lacour (“Lacour”) executed a “Contractor's Pay-Out Request” to pay Lester $17, 900 for work that Lester had completed. See id. at 4, ¶ 20.

         On March 8, 2008, Lacour and Lester orally agreed to a second change order which would allow Lester to repair and service the furnace in the home rather than replace it entirely and use the money that would have paid for a new furnace to replace a deteriorated wall. See id. at 4-5, ¶ 22. Lacour later admitted that he forgot to complete a physical change order for these changes. See id. On April 1, 2008, Lester, Broadway, and Lacour executed a second “Contractor's Pay-Out Request” to pay Lester $7, 090 for the remainder of the work that Lester had completed. See id. at 5, ¶ 23.

         On March 19, 2009, Sergeant Turner of the Louisiana State Police and Sergeant Jay Long (“Long”) and Corporal John May (“May”) of the Caddo Parish Sheriff's Department began an investigation into Lester's activities as a contractor. See id. at 5, ¶ 24. During the investigation, Turner found Lester's previous misdemeanor conviction and received documents related to the repairs Lester completed on Broadway's house. See id. at 5-6, ¶¶ 24-27. On July 15, 2009, Turner obtained a warrant for Lester's arrest for filing or maintaining false public records in violation of La. Rev. Stat. § 14:133 by submitting renewal applications for his contractor's license without correcting the statement that he had not been convicted of a previous misdemeanor. See id. at 6, ¶ 28.

         Turner, Long, and May continued their investigation of Lester by inspecting Broadway's property with another inspector, Timothy Weaver (“Weaver”). See id. at 6, ¶ 29. Weaver later sent a letter to Turner stating that he found that Lester had failed to install as much insulation in Broadway's attic as the contract specified. See id. at 7, ¶ 30. On August 29, Turner obtained an arrest warrant for Lester and Lacour's arrest for home improvement fraud in violation of La. Rev. Stat. § 14:202.1. See id. at 7 ¶ 31. In interviews with the officers after the arrest warrants were issued but prior to his actual arrest, Lacour admitted that he had failed to complete a second change order for Broadway's house, and he stated that if the officers had found something wrong with the repairs to the house, “its my fault, nobody elses . . . I should've did my job right (sic).” See id. at 8, ¶ 32.

         On August 31, 2009, Lester and six other African American contractors and inspectors, including Lacour, were arrested. See id. at 9, ¶ 34. That day, a press conference “featuring Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator and Caddo Parish District Attorney Charles Scott” was held on the steps of the Caddo Parish courthouse. See Id. at 9, ¶ 35. At the press conference, Prator announced a $1.5 million scandal involving the arrestees to defraud the City of Shreveport, a statement that Lester alleges was made “falsely and with the full intention to mislead the public.” See id. at 9, ¶ 35. On November 18, 2009, Assistant District Attorney Lea Hall, Jr. (“Hall”) filed the first Bill of Information against Lester, charging him with home improvement fraud and filing or maintaining false public records. See id. at 10, ¶ 36.

         On May 25, 2010, the trial of one of the other contractors, James Alex III (“Alex”), resulted in a mistrial. See id. at 10, ¶ 37. According to Hall's statements to a reporter after the trial, the parties had made a joint motion for mistrial after they discovered that the jury instructions did not reflect the fact that Alex was charged with home improvement fraud that allegedly occurred under an old statute and an amended statute. See id. at 10, ¶ 37. On July 8, 2010, Lester filed a Motion to Quash the Information in his case on the basis of statutory affirmative defenses to home improvement fraud. See id. at 11, ¶ 38. The trial judge held a hearing on the motion, but reserved a ruling until after trial. See id. at 11, ¶ 39. On September 28, 2011, Lester provided the State with photographic evidence that allegedly proved that he was innocent of the home improvement fraud charge. See id. at 11-12, ¶ 40. On February 14, 2012, a second Bill of Information was filed against Lester which dropped the home improvement fraud charge and included only the filing or maintaining false public records charge. See id. at 12, ¶ 41.

         On April 9, 2014, Lester filed a Motion to Quash the Amended Information, which the trial court granted. See id. at 12, ¶¶ 42-43. On July 4, 2014, Sheriff Prator gave an interview to the editor of local newspaper The Inquisitor in which he stated that he was frustrated with the fact that Lester had not been prosecuted for home improvement fraud and stating that Lester had committed theft and abuse of Broadway. See id. at 12- 13, ¶ 44. That same day, acting District Attorney Dale Cox[1] (“Cox”) sent an email to the editor of The Inquisitor stating why the home improvement fraud charge against Lester was dropped and that the State would be appealing the trial court's decision to quash the filing or maintaining false public records charge against Lester. See id. at 13, ¶ 45. On May 20, 2015, the Louisiana Second Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's decision to quash the filing or maintaining false public records charge against Lester on the basis of prescription. See id. at 14-15, ¶ 51; see also State v. Lester, 165 So.3d 1181 (La.App. 2 Cir. 05/20/16).

         Lester filed this suit against Hall, Scott, Cox, Turner, Long, May, and Prator on July 2, 2015. See Record Document 1. On October 26, 2015, Turner filed the instant Rule 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss. See Record Document 11. Lester filed his Memorandum in Opposition to the instant Motion on November 9, 2015. See Record Document 26. On November 9, 2015, Lester filed a Motion to Amend his Original Complaint in which he sought to (1) clarify that Turner is being sued in both his official and individual capacity and (2) ensure that all claims in the Original Complaint that applied to the “Sheriff Defendants” (Prator, Long, and May) also applied to Turner. See Record Document 25. On November 16, 2015, the Court granted the Motion to Amend. See Record Document 27.

         On December 1, 2015, Lester filed an Amended Complaint adding Caddo Parish as a defendant. See Record Document 33. On December 8, 2015, Lester filed another Motion to Amend his Complaint, along with seventeen numbered exhibits. See Record Document 40. The Court granted the Motion, allowing Lester to file the Amended Complaint but stating that no further amendments will be allowed. See Record Documents 41, 42, and 42-1. This most recent Amended Complaint adds more specific allegations against some Defendants and cites to the attached exhibits as proof of these allegations. See Record Documents 42 and 42-1.

         On September 29, 2016, the Court granted the Rule 12(b)(6) Motions to Dismiss filed by Hall and Scott, dismissing all claims against them with prejudice. See Lester v. Caddo Parish, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 136192 (W.D. La. 2016). On October 26, 2016, the Court granted in part and denied in part a Rule 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss by Cox, dismissing most claims against him with prejudice but allowing the defamation claims under federal and state law to proceed past the Motion to Dismiss stage. See Lester v. Caddo Parish, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 148414 (W.D. La. 2016). On March 30, 2017, the Court granted the Rule 12(b)(6) Motion by Caddo Parish, dismissing all claims against Caddo Parish with prejudice. See Lester v. Caddo Parish, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 48031 (W.D. La. 2017).

         LAW AND ANALYSIS

         I. Legal Standards.

         A. Pleading Standards and the Rule 12(b)(6) Standard

         Rule 8(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure governs the requirements for pleadings that state a claim for relief, requiring that a pleading contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." The standard for the adequacy of complaints under Rule 8(a)(2) is now a "plausibility" standard found in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 127 S.Ct. 1955 (2007), and its progeny. Under this standard, "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)." Id. at 555-556, 127 S.Ct. at 1965. If a pleading only contains "labels and conclusions" and "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action, " the pleading does not meet the standards of Rule 8(a)(2). Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (citation omitted).

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) allows parties to seek dismissal of a party's pleading for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. In deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, a court generally "may not go outside the pleadings." Colle v. Brazos Cty., Tex., 981 F.2d 237, 243 (5th Cir. 1993). However, a court may also rely upon "documents incorporated into the complaint by reference and matters of which a court may take judicial notice" in deciding a motion to dismiss. Dorsey v. Portfolio Equities, Inc., 540 F.3d 333, 338 (5th Cir. 2008). Additionally, courts must accept all allegations in a complaint as true. See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. at 1949. However, courts do not have to accept legal conclusions as facts. See id. Courts considering a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) are only obligated to allow those complaints that are facially plausible under the Iqbal and Twombly standard to survive such a motion. See id. at 678-679, 129 S.Ct. at 1949. If the complaint does not meet this standard, it can be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. See id. Such a dismissal ends the case "at the point of minimum expenditure of time and money by the parties and the court." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 558, 127 S.Ct. at 1966.

         B. Section 1983 Actions against State Officials

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff may file suit against a person acting under color of state law who has allegedly violated the plaintiff's constitutional rights. Section 1983 claims do not provide a remedy against States because (1) States are not “persons” for the purposes of § 1983 and (2) such claims are barred by the Eleventh Amendment, which grants immunity to the States. See Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 66, 109 S.Ct. 2304, 2309 (1989); see Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651, 663, 94 S.Ct. 1347, 1356 (1974). “A suit against a state official in his . . . official capacity is not a suit against the official but rather is a suit against the official's office, " and thus is "no different from a suit against the State itself." Will, 491 U.S. at 71, 109 S.Ct. at 2312. Thus, claims against state officials in their official capacity for alleged constitutional violations are both (1) unavailable under § 1983's definition of a “person” and (2) barred by Eleventh Amendment immunity.

         However, § 1983 claims against state officials in their individual capacity are not barred. Rather, “state officials, sued in their individual capacities, are ‘persons' within the meaning of § 1983.” Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21, 31, 112 S.Ct. 358, 365 (1991). Additionally, “the Eleventh Amendment does not bar such suits, nor are state officers absolutely immune from personal liability under § 1983 solely by virtue of the ‘official' nature of their acts.” Id. at 31, 112 S.Ct. at 365. Thus, any damages award against a state official in his individual capacity will be payable from the individual official's funds, not those of the State. See id. at 30-31, 112 S.Ct. at 365.

         C. Section 1983/Monell Claims

         In addition to suits against persons acting under the color of state law in their individual capacities, § 1983 also allows for suits against local government entities themselves. In Monell v. Dept. of Social Serv., 436 U.S. 658, 98 S.Ct. 2018 (1978), the Supreme Court held that municipalities and local government agencies cannot be held liable for constitutional torts under § 1983 under a theory of respondeat superior, but they can be held liable "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." Id. at 691, 694, 98 S.Ct. at 2036-38. In other words, merely establishing a constitutional violation by an employee of a local government entity is not enough to impose liability upon that entity under § 1983.

         Rather, to succeed on a Monell claim against a local government entity, the plaintiff must establish (1) an official policy or custom, of which (2) a policymaker can be charged with actual or constructive knowledge, and (3) a constitutional violation whose "moving force" is that policy or custom. McGregory v. City of Jackson, 335 F. App'x 446, 448, 2009 WL 1833958, *2 (5th Cir. 2009), citing Rivera v. Houston Indep. Sch. Dist., 349 F.3d 244, 247-49 (5th Cir. 2003). Locating an official "policy" or "custom" ensures that a local government entity will be held liable only for violations of constitutional rights that resulted from the decisions of those officials whose acts may fairly be said to be those of the government entity itself. See Bryan Cty. Comm'rs v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 403-05, 117 S.Ct. 1382, 1388 (1997).

         D. Qualified Immunity of State Officials

         Though a plaintiff may pursue an action under § 1983 against a state official in his individual capacity, that official, like local officials, may still be protected by qualified immunity. See Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 243-45, 129 S.Ct. 808, 822 (2009) (holding that state law enforcement officers were entitled to qualified immunity protection). The concern with ending a case at a point of minimum expenditure of time and money is particularly acute when the defendant raises an immunity defense. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 685, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1953 (2009) (“the basic thrust of the qualified-immunity doctrine is to free officials from the concerns of litigation, including avoidance of disruptive discovery”) (internal quotations and citations omitted). In fact, a qualified immunity defense is truly “an immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability.” Pearson, 555 U.S. at 231, 129 S.Ct. at 815. Because of the important public policy behind the qualified immunity doctrine, a higher pleading standard applies in evaluating a plaintiff's complaint against a public official in his individual capacity once the official has raised a qualified immunity defense. See Schultea v. Wood, 47 F.3d 1427, 1433-34 (5th Cir. 1995) (en banc).

         Once the defendant raises a qualified immunity defense, the plaintiff carries the burden of demonstrating the inapplicability of qualified immunity. See Club Retro LLC v. Hilton, 568 F.3d 181, 194 (5th Cir. 2009). First, the court must determine whether the plaintiff alleged sufficient facts to make out a violation of a constitutional right. See Pearson, 555 U.S. at 232, 129 S.Ct. at 816. Second, the court must determine whether the constitutional right at issue was “clearly established” at the time of the defendant's alleged misconduct. Id. at 232, 129 S.Ct. at 816. A defendant who can validly raise a qualified immunity defense will enjoy its protection so long as the allegedly violated constitutional right was not clearly established at the time of the violation. See id. The qualified immunity inquiry turns on “the objective legal reasonableness of the action, assessed in light of the legal rules that were clearly established at the time it was taken”. Id. at 244, 129 S.Ct. at 822.

         E. Qualified Immunity under the Louisiana Constitution

         In Moresi v. State, the Supreme Court of Louisiana explained that though the Louisiana Constitution creates a private right of action against those who violate rights secured thereunder, those who act under the color of state law in doing so are entitled to the protection of qualified immunity from liability for violations of the Louisiana Constitution. 567 So.2d 1081, 1091-95 (La. 09/06/1990). In so holding, the Court applied the same standard as federal law for deciding whether a person's actions are protected by qualified immunity. See ...


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