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Wilson v. Brown Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram LLC

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

February 1, 2018





         Before the Court is a Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim Upon Which Relief Can Be Granted [Record Document 9] filed by Defendants Lt. Keith King (“King”), Officer Joel Kendrick (“Kendrick”), and the City of Minden. Plaintiffs, Mariette Kimble Wilson and John L. Wilson (“The Wilsons”), filed a motion in opposition. [Record Document 17]. Thereafter, Plaintiffs filed an Amended Complaint to provide additional facts in support of their claims. [Record Document 19]. In response, Defendants filed a supplemental Motion to Dismiss First Amended Complaint for Failure to State a Claim Upon Which Relief Can Be Granted. [Record Document 25] Plaintiffs oppose the motion. [Record Document 27].[1] For the reasons assigned herein, Defendants' motions are hereby GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART as specified in the conclusion of this ruling.


         The Wilsons are a married couple from Homer, Louisiana. [Record Document 19 at ¶ 2]. John Wilson is visually impaired and unable to operate a motor vehicle. Id. at ¶ 4. It is alleged that on or about February 15, 2016, Plaintiffs purchased a 2015 Dodge Charger from Brown Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram, LLC (“Brown Chrysler” or “dealership”). Id. at ¶ 5. Plaintiffs signed a contract, paid a $2000.00 down payment, and traded in a 2006 Chevrolet Impala. Id. The parties agreed upon the drafting of monthly payments from the Plaintiffs' bank account. Id. Plaintiffs departed the dealership with the Dodge Charger, leaving the Impala with the dealership. Id. Plaintiffs maintain that their transaction with Brown Chrysler qualifies as a consumer transaction pursuant to Louisiana Revised Statute 51:1401 et seq. Id.

         Thereafter, Brown Chrysler requested that Mariette Wilson return the vehicle because she allegedly failed a credit check. Id. at ¶ 6. Plaintiffs argue that as part of the sales transaction, Fred Shaffer (“Shaffer”), an employee of the dealership, verified Mariette Wilson's income and John Wilson's monthly disability payments. Id. However, at the time of the transaction Mariette was recovering from a medical procedure and had missed time from work, which lowered her income. Id. Plaintiffs allege that the dealership used this temporary dip in Mariette Wilson's income to claim that the Wilsons had misrepresented their income to the dealership. Id. When the dealership requested the return of the Dodge Charger, two payments in the amount of $293.38 each had been drafted from the Wilson's bank account. Id. at ¶ 7. The dealership had also placed the Impala for sale and had begun the process of transferring the tags. Id.

         On the advice of counsel, Mariette Wilson refused to return the Dodge Charger because she allegedly signed a valid and binding contract of sale. Id. at ¶ 8. She provided the dealership with her attorney's contact information, but claims no one from the dealership contacted her attorney. Id. Instead, Elliot Brown (“Brown”), co-owner of the dealership, Shaffer, and employee Judson Patrick Harper (“Harper”) contacted the Minden Police Department for assistance in retrieving the car. Id. at ¶ 9. Plaintiffs allege that Brown, Shaffer, and Harper filed a criminal complaint, requesting that Plaintiffs be arrested. Id. Plaintiffs allege that Brown, Shaffer, and Harper were acting in the scope of their employment with the dealership when the criminal complaint was filed. Id. at ¶ 10. Plaintiffs also allege that the employees “either refused to disclose exculpatory information or misled police, or the police failed to consider statements of these defendants.” Id.

         Plaintiffs allege that King and Kendrick of the Minden Police Department were provided with ample information surrounding the vehicle sale, which was sufficient to demonstrate that no probable cause existed for their arrest. Id. at ¶ 11. Specifically, Plaintiffs allege that King and Kendrick were aware that Plaintiffs gave the dealership a $2000.00 down payment, trade-in vehicle, and cooperated in providing income information. Id. Plaintiffs contend that King and Kendrick “acting in concert” were provided a copy of the sales contract, and were aware that Plaintiffs were represented by counsel regarding the dealership's request for return of the vehicle. Id. at ¶ 12. Despite this information, King and Kendrick failed to consider that Plaintiffs had entered into a valid sales contract, and failed to contact their attorney to discuss the matter. Id. Plaintiffs contend that King and Kendrick should have known that there was no probable cause for their arrest given that the dispute involved a civil matter, and King and Kendrick failed to investigate available exculpatory evidence. Id. Plaintiffs allege that “Lt. King, in concert with and acting with the knowledge of Officer Kendrick applied for a warrant” without informing the Judge of the exculpatory evidence surrounding the sale of the vehicle. Id. at ¶ 13. Plaintiffs further allege that King and Kendrick's actions were “in furtherance of the Minden Police Department's practice of assisting local merchants to recover property and rescind contracts without incurring the expense of a civil proceeding, even if probable cause to arrest is absent.” Id.

         The dealership, through Harper, also contacted Deputy James Spillers (“Spillers”) of the Claiborne Parish Sheriff's Office. Id. at ¶10.[2] On March 1, 2016, Claiborne Parish Sheriff Deputies Jerry Nehl and Spillers arrested the Plaintiffs for the felony of Unauthorized Use of Motor Vehicle, allegedly without probable cause. Id. at ¶ 12.[3]John Wilson alleges that the deputies should have known there was no probable cause for his arrest because he is legally blind and cannot drive a vehicle. Furthermore, the Plaintiffs allege that Spillers “knew the Plaintiffs deposited $2, 000 cash and their trade in vehicle was in possession of Brown Dodge.” Id. at ¶ 14. Plaintiffs were placed into custody at the Claiborne Parish Detention Center, and were transferred the next day to the Bayou Bodceau Detention Center. Id. Thereafter, Plaintiffs were released on bond. Id. Plaintiffs were formally charged with Unauthorized Use of a Movable or Motor Vehicle, and made several court appearances concerning the charge. Id. at ¶ 15. However, the charges were ultimately dismissed on June 14, 2016. Id.

         Plaintiffs returned the Dodge Charger. Id. After retaining an attorney, Plaintiffs received a refund of all monies paid as well as their Chevy Impala. Id. Because it took several weeks for the dealership to return the Impala, Plaintiffs had to rent a vehicle during the interim. Id. Plaintiffs also allege that the dealership damaged their credit, making it difficult for them to finance a vehicle to replace the Impala. Id. at ¶16. These actions caused additional inconvenience, anxiety, embarrassment, and stress. Id. Mariette Wilson later hired a third party to repair her credit. Id.

         Plaintiffs name the following Defendants in this matter: Brown Chrysler, Brown, Shaffer, Harper, the City of Minden, King in his official and individual capacities, Kendrick in his official and individual capacities, Claiborne Parish Sheriff in its official capacity, and Spillers in his official and individual capacities.

         Plaintiffs assert claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for false arrest and malicious prosecution against the City of Minden, King, Kendrick, Spillers, Brown Chrysler, Brown, Shaffer, and Harper. Id. at ¶ 17. Plaintiffs claim that Defendants violated their rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution. Id. at ¶¶ 18 and 20.

         Plaintiffs also claim that the City of Minden is liable pursuant to section 1983 for its failure to adequately train King and Kendrick regarding sales contracts, unfair trade practices used by car dealerships, illegal debt collection practices, and the protections afforded to individuals under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Id. at ¶¶ 19 and 24. Plaintiffs also claim that the City of Minden failed to properly supervise King and Kendrick by failing to instruct them not to engage in unfair trade practices and illegal debt collection. Id. Plaintiffs also allege that the City of Minden is liable because it instituted a policy at the direction of the Chief of Police to assist car dealers with repossessing vehicles through the use of criminal laws rather than civil proceedings, regardless of probable cause. Id. Plaintiffs assert that this unconstitutional policy was the moving force behind their arrest in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Id.

         Plaintiffs also assert several state law claims against the Defendants, including: unlawful arrest, malicious prosecution, abuse of process, and unfair trade practices pursuant to La. R.S. 51:1401. Id. at ¶ 26.


         To survive a motion to dismiss brought under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a plaintiff must “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (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.” Id. at 663. “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Id. at 678. The court must accept as true all of the factual allegations in the complaint in determining whether plaintiff has stated a plausible claim. See Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007); In re Katrina Canal Breaches Litigation, 495 F.3d 191, 205 (5th Cir. 2009). However, a court is “not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.” Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986). If a complaint cannot meet this standard, it may be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678-679. A court does not evaluate a plaintiff's likelihood for success, but instead determines whether plaintiff has pleaded a legally cognizable claim. United States ex rel. Riley v. St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital, 355 F.3d 370, 376 (5th Cir. 2004). A dismissal under 12(b)(6) ends the case “at a point of minimum expenditure of time and money by the parties and the court.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 558.


         I. Plaintiffs' Federal Claims [4]

         A. Plaintiffs' Federal Claims against the City of Minden

         Plaintiffs assert claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the City of Minden, alleging that the City instituted an unconstitutional policy of assisting local businesses in seizing property through criminal procedures without regard for probable cause. Plaintiffs also allege that the City of Minden failed to properly train King and Kendrick in the law concerning the unauthorized use of a movable, unfair trade practices, theft, and probable cause. Plaintiffs also assert that the City failed to properly supervise King and Kendrick, and directed its officers to engage in unfair trade practices and illegal debt collection procedures.

         I. City of Minden's Policy Regarding Car Dealerships

         A municipality cannot be held liable for the actions of its employees under the traditional respondeat superior theory. Monell v. New York City Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). However, a municipality may be sued if it is “alleged to have caused a constitutional tort through a policy statement, ordinance, regulation, or decision officially adopted and promulgated” by officers of the municipality. City of St. Louis v. Praprotnik, 485 U.S. 112, 121 (1988). Municipal liability under section 1983 requires proof of three elements: (1) a policymaker; (2) an official policy; and (3) a violation of constitutional rights whose “moving force” is the policy or custom. Piotrowski v. City of Houston, 237 F.3d 567, 578 (5th Cir. 2001). An “official policy” can be evidenced through “duly promulgated policy statements, ordinances or regulations, ” or by a custom that is such a persistent and widespread practice that, although not officially promulgated, it fairly represents a municipal policy. Webster v. City of Houston, 735 F.2d 838, 841 (5th Cir. 1984); see also Zarnow v. City of Wichita Falls, Tex., 614 F.3d 161, 168-69 (5th Cir. 2010). To establish the “moving force” requirement, a plaintiff must show that the municipality's policy or custom that caused the alleged harm was either unconstitutional or “promulgated with deliberate indifference.” Piotrowski, 237 F.3d at 578. Where a policy is facially constitutional, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the policy was promulgated with deliberate indifference that a known or obvious unconstitutional consequence would result. Id. at 579.

         Plaintiffs allege that the City of Minden, through its police department, has an established policy or practice of using criminal laws to repossess property and rescind contracts on behalf of local businesses, regardless of probable cause. [Record Document 19 at ¶¶ 13, 19, and 24]. Plaintiffs allege that the policy is unconstitutional and was the moving force behind their unlawful arrest and malicious prosecution. Plaintiffs have also alleged that the policy was established, tolerated, and perpetuated by the Chief of Police, the City's decision-maker on matters of law enforcement. Id. at ¶¶ 19 and 24.

         Plaintiffs have named a policymaker and identified a policy, which they allege to be the moving force behind the deprivation of their constitutional rights. Plaintiffs have also alleged that the policy is unconstitutional because its application leads to arrest without probable cause in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. In a situation in which the ownership of property is the subject of a civil dispute, if the City of Minden has a policy to use criminal statutes to recover that property for local businesses without regard to probable cause or due process, such a policy would be unconstitutional. Taking all of Plaintiffs' alleged facts as true, and viewing them in a light most ...

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