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Frank v. City of Ville Platte

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

February 4, 2019


          DOUGHTY, JUDGE



         Before the Court, on referral from the district judge, is the Rule 12 Motion to Dismiss, and alternatively, to Strike Plaintiff's Amended Complaint [Doc. 34] filed by defendants the City of Ville Platte, Chief of Police Neal Lartigue, and Mayor Jennifer Vidrine (collectively, “defendants”). The motion is opposed by the plaintiff, Steveniski Frank, Sr. (“Frank”) [Doc. 36], and the defendants filed a Reply brief [Doc. 39]. For the following reasons, the undersigned recommends that the Motion to Dismiss be GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART.


         The instant lawsuit arises out of the plaintiff's arrest and subsequent detention for nearly two and a half years for armed robbery. Specifically, the plaintiff, a resident of Ville Platte, alleges he was arrested on April 25, 2014 and charged with the armed robbery of a retail store. The record shows Mr. Frank's arrest was made pursuant to a warrant, however, a copy of the warrant has not been provided to this Court in connection with the pending motion. On April 28, 2014, Mr. Frank appeared in court for a 72 Hour Appointment of Counsel Hearing, at which time Jacob Fusilier was appointed as his attorney. On June 4, 2014, the plaintiff was again present in court before Judge J. Larry Vidrine for an arraignment. The plaintiff was represented at that time by attorney Alex Chapman, standing in for Mr. Fusilier. Counsel waived the reading of the bill of information and entered a plea of not guilty. The plaintiff was again in court on September 25, 2014, before Judge Thomas Fusilier. At that time, the defendants moved to continue various discovery motions that were set for hearing on that day, and the motions were re-set on October 23, 2014.

         A preliminary hearing was held on October 23, 2014, with the plaintiff present and represented by Mr. Fusilier. The State offered the testimony of Detective Chatuse James of the Ville Platte Police Department (“VPPD”), and Mr. Frank offered the testimony of witnesses Sadie Frank and Stephanie Frank. The evidence and argument presented to the state court at this hearing has not been presented to this Court in connection with the pending motion, and therefore, this Court has no knowledge of the factual basis upon which the court determined there was probable cause to bind Mr. Frank over for trial. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court found probable cause existed, and the trial of the matter was set on March 9, 2015. This Court emphasizes that the plaintiff's preliminary hearing took place six months after his arrest.

         On October 29, 2014, Assistant District Attorney Trent Brignac filed a Bill of Particulars for Armed Robbery with a lesser included charge of theft. The plaintiff alleges he was detained for two and a half years before the charges against him were dismissed and the District Attorney declined to indict him. This Court has scoured the record to determine the date the plaintiff was released from custody, but has been unable to locate that information.

         The plaintiff alleges that on the date he was arrested, he was told by a VPPD detective that “the detective knew” the plaintiff had not committed the crime for which he had been arrested. The plaintiff also alleges he was held in jail even though VPPD detectives knew that the store owner had not identified the plaintiff as the person who had robbed the store. The plaintiff alleges he has a distinctive scar in the area of his right eyebrow, which would have been visible to the store owner, even though the store owner stated the perpetrators were wearing masks. The plaintiff further alleges that for the next two and a half years, the VPPD attempted to coerce him into give false and incriminating statements, and that he was told by the prosecuting attorney that the prosecution did not believe the plaintiff had committed the crime with which he had been charged.

         Plaintiff filed the instant §1983 lawsuit in this Court on October 20, 2017, naming the City of Ville Platte, Chief Neal Lartigue, and Mayor Jennifer Vidrine as defendants. The plaintiff alleges violations of his Fourth and Fourteenth rights to be free from unlawful arrest and detention for two a half years on charges that were ultimately dismissed. The plaintiff alleges a pattern or practice on the part of the City of Ville Platte, through the VPPD, of illegally seizing and detaining innocent individuals for the sole purpose of investigating whether these individuals have been engaged in criminal activity, and alleges these “investigative holds” are used as a device to compel . . . individuals to provide information on others who may have engaged in criminal activity, even though those individuals may not have such information. The plaintiff alleges the City of Ville Platte, Chief Lartigue, and Mayor Vidrine acted with deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights of the plaintiff by: (1) failing to establish, implement, and follow the correct constitutional policies, procedures, customs, and/or practices; (2) failing to properly select, supervise, train, control and review the activities of their agents, servants, employees, and police officers regarding their compliance with constitutional safeguards; (3) permitting their agents, servants, employees, and police officer to engage in unlawful and unconstitutional conduct alleged herein; and (4) exercising, at a minimum, deliberate indifference towards the constitutional protections afforded to the plaintiffs by engaging in the unconstitutional practice and custom of illegal detention.

         It is unclear whether Chief Lartigue and Mayor Vidrine are sued in their official capacities only, or in both their official and individual capacities. The plaintiff alleges Chief Lartigue was a policy-maker with respect to the detention practices of the VPPD and was responsible for the policies and practices that led to his unlawful detention. The plaintiff further alleges that Mayor Vidrine took a direct interest in overseeing the VPPD and was a policy-maker with respect to the detention practices of the VPPD.

         In his Amended Complaint, the plaintiff also references an investigative report of the United State Department of Justice (the “DOJ Report”), in which the Justice Department “found reasonable cause to believe that the Ville Platte, Louisiana, Police Department (VPPD) and the Evangeline Parish Sheriff's Office (EPSO) engage in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.” The DOJ Report goes on to state:

The department found that VPPD and EPSO used a procedure the agencies called an “investigative hold” to detain individuals without probable cause during criminal investigations. As a result of this pattern or practice, people in Louisiana's Evangeline Parish have been arrested and placed in holding cells without probable cause. Often, individuals were in holding cells for several days at a time, where they were unable to contact family, friends or employers and had limited access to food and personal items.[1]

         Prior to filing the instant motion to dismiss, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss on December 21, 2017 [Doc. 5]. The plaintiff failed to timely oppose that motion, but requested and was granted additional time to file an opposition [Doc. 10]. The plaintiff filed an opposition brief on March 26, 2018 [Doc. 20], and the next day, filed a Motion for Leave to File an Amended Complaint [Doc. 21]. The defendants then filed a Reply brief in support of their original motion to dismiss [Doc. 30], and also filed a second Rule 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss [Doc. 27].

         On July 13, 2018, the undersigned granted plaintiff's motion for leave to file an amended complaint [Doc. 31] and ordered that for the sake of clarity, both of the defendants' motions to dismiss should specifically address the allegations in the plaintiff's Amended Complaint and be consolidated into a single document [Doc. 33].

         The defendants responded by filing the instant motion to dismiss on July 24, 2018, seeking dismissal of all of the plaintiff's claims on grounds that the fact that the plaintiff had the benefit of the legal process - that is, the fact that he was arrested pursuant to a warrant, was arraigned and appointed counsel, and had the benefit of a probable cause hearing before a judge, who found probable cause to him over for trial - negates the possibility of a Fourth Amendment claim. The defendants also argue the plaintiff's claim of unlawful arrest are time-barred; all individual liability claims against Chief Lartigue and Mayor Vidrine should be dismissed as the allegations are insufficient to establish supervisory liability or to overcome the defense of qualified immunity; all official capacity claims against Chief Lartigue and Mayor Vidrine should be dismissed because they are redundant of the municipal liability claims against the City; all claims of municipal liability against the City should be dismissed because the plaintiff has not pled sufficient facts to support a claim that the alleged constitutional violations were due to an official policy of the City; the claim for punitive damages against the City should be dismissed, as such damages are not available under the law; and the claims for punitive damages against Chief Lartigue and Mayor Vidrine in their individual or official capacities should be dismissed. The defendants further urge this Court to dismiss any supplemental state law claims that may have been pled, to strike all allegations related to the alleged constitutional rights violations of third parties, and specifically, to strike all references to the Department of Justice's investigation into the VPPD's policy of using “investigative holds” as a police tool.

         The undersigned will address each argument in turn.


         A. Rule 12(b)(6)

         To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the plaintiffs must plead enough facts “to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 547 (2007)). A claim is facially plausible when the plaintiff pleads facts that allow the court to “draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949. A court must accept all well-pleaded facts as true and must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. Lormand v. U.S. Unwired, Inc., 565 F.3d 228, 232-33 (5th Cir.2009); Baker v. Putnal, 75 F.3d 190, 196 (5th Cir.1996). But the Court is not bound to accept as true legal conclusions couched as factual allegations. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949-50.

         A legally sufficient complaint must establish more than a “sheer possibility” that plaintiff's claim is true. Id. It need not contain detailed factual allegations, but it must go beyond labels, legal conclusions, or formulaic recitations of the elements of a cause of action. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. In other words, the face of the complaint must contain enough factual matter to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of each element of the plaintiff's claim. Lormand, 565 F.3d at 255-57. If there are insufficient factual allegations to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, or if it is apparent from the face of the complaint that there is an insuperable bar to relief, Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 215 (2007); Carbe v. Lappin, 492 F.3d 325, 328 & n. 9 (5th Cir.2007), the claim must be dismissed.

         When deciding a motion to dismiss, the court is generally limited to matters contained within the Complaint, and attachments thereto. As stated by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Lovelace v. Software Spectrum, Inc., 78 F.3d 1015 (5th Cir. 1996):

Normally, in deciding a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, courts must limit their inquiry to the facts stated in the complaint and the documents either attached to or incorporated in the complaint. However, courts may also consider matters of which they may take judicial notice. See Fed.R.Evid. 201(f) (“Judicial notice may be taken at any stage of the proceeding.”).

         The commentators in Federal Practice and Procedure have noted:

Memoranda of points and authorities as well as briefs and oral arguments in connection with the motion, however, are not considered matters outside the pleadings for purposes of conversion. The same is true for various types of exhibits that are attached to the pleading, matters of which the district court can take judicial notice, and items of unquestioned authenticity that are referred to in the challenged pleading and are “central” or “integral” to the pleader's claim for relief.

5C Charles A. Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure, §1366 (emphasis added).

         In In re Katrina Canal Breaches Consol. Lit., 533 F.Supp.2d 615, 632 (E.D.La. Jan. 30 2008), the court explained:

Rule 201 of the Federal Rules of Evidence provides that a court may take judicial notice of an “adjudicative fact” if the fact is “not subject to reasonable dispute in that it is either (1) generally known within the territorial jurisdiction of the trial court or (2) capable of accurate and read determination by resort to resources whose accuracy cannot be questioned.” In addressing the question of what constitutes an adjudicative fact, in the Advisory Committee Notes to that rule, citing to Professor Davis, A System of Judicial Notice Based on Fairness and Convenience, in Perspectives of Law 69, 73 (1964), “ ‘When a court or an agency finds facts concerning the immediate parties-who did what, where, when, how, and with what motive or intent-the court or agency is performing an adjudicative function, and the facts are conveniently called adjudicative facts.' ”

(internal citations omitted).

         Specifically, the Fifth Circuit has determined that courts may take judicial notice of governmental websites. See, e.g., Hawk Aircargo, Inc. v. Chao., 418 F.3d 453, 457 (5th Cir.2005) (taking judicial notice of approval by the National Mediation Board published on the agency's website); Coleman v. Dretke, 409 F.3d 665, 667 (5th Cir.2005) (per curiam) (Fifth Circuit taking judicial notice of Texas agency's website); O'Toole v. Northrop Grumman Corp., 499 F.3d 1218, 2007 WL 2421754, at *6 (10th Cir.Aug.28, 2007) (“It is not uncommon for courts to take judicial notice of factual information found on the world wide web.”) (citations omitted); Denius v. Dunlap, 330 F.3d 919, 926 (7th Cir.2003) (taking judicial notice of information on official government website pursuant to Rule 201).

         Here, the undersigned takes judicial notice of the DOJ Report, which is readily available on the Department of Justice's website, is generally known within the territorial jurisdiction of this Court, and is not subject to reasonable dispute. Consequently, the DOJ Report is properly considered under the standards of Rule 12(b)(6), and it is recommended that the defendants' motion to strike that Report be denied.

         B. Section 1983

         United States Code Title 42, Section 1983, creates a cause of action for an individual whose constitutional rights are violated by a person acting under the color of state or federal law. The purpose of §1983 is to deter “state actors from using the badge of their authority to deprive individuals of their federally guaranteed rights and to provide relief to victims if such deterrence fails.” Wyatt v. Cole, 504 U.S. 158, 161 (1992). State actors may defend themselves by claiming they have qualified immunity for their actions, as long as “their actions could reasonably have been thought consistent with the rights they are alleged to have violated.” Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 638 (1987).

         There is a heightened pleading standard for cases brought under §1983. “When a defendant invokes qualified immunity, the burden is on the plaintiff to demonstrate the inapplicability of the defense.” McClendon v. City of Columbia, 305 F.3d 314, 323 (5th Cir. 2002). In discharging this burden the plaintiff must satisfy a two-prong test. Id. The plaintiff must allege that defendants committed a constitutional violation under current law, and that defendant's actions were objectively unreasonable “in light of the law that was clearly established at the time of the actions complained of.” Atteberry v. Nocona General Hosp., 430 F.3d 245, 253 (5th Cir. 2005). For the law to be clearly established at the time of the action, “‘[t]he contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right.'” Kinney v. Weaver, 367 F.3d 337, 349-50 (5thCir. 2004) (en banc), quoting Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640 (1987).

         Thus, to state a Section 1983 claim, “a plaintiff must (1) allege a violation of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States and (2) demonstrate that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law.” James v. Texas Collin County, 535 F.3d 365, 373 (5th Cir. 2008), citing Moore v. Willis Indep. Sch. Dist., 233 F.3d 871, 874 (5th Cir.2000). A plaintiff must establish that the defendant was either personally involved in the deprivation or that his wrongful actions were causally connected to the deprivation. James, 535 F.3d at 373, citing Anderson v. Pasadena Indep. Sch. Dist., 184 F.3d 439, 443 (5th Cir.1999). A supervisor is not personally liable for his subordinate's actions in which he had no involvement. Id. at 443-44.

         1. The Fourth Amendment

         The Supreme Court has held that “[t]he first inquiry in any §1983 suit is to isolate the precise constitutional violation with which [the defendant] is charged.” Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 140, 99 S.Ct. 2689, 61 L.Ed.2d 433 (1979). As an initial matter, the undersigned notes that the plaintiff's claims are properly framed within the scope of the Fourth Amendment, which protects “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons ... against unreasonable ... seizures.” In Manuel v. City Joliet, 137 S.Ct. 911 (2017), the Supreme Court addressed the question of whether alleged violations of improper “seizure” - by way of pre-trial detention - are more properly considered under the Fourth Amendment or the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause, when probable cause has been found to justify holding the detainee over for trial. The Manuel court definitively held that alleged violations of improper seizure lie under the Fourth Amendment, even after a probable cause determination, to wit:

As reflected in Albright's tracking of Gerstein's analysis, pretrial detention can violate the Fourth Amendment not only when it precedes, but also when it follows, the start of legal process in a criminal case. The Fourth Amendment prohibits government officials from detaining a person in the absence of probable cause. That can happen when the police hold someone without any reason before the formal onset of a criminal proceeding. But it also can occur when legal process itself goes wrong - when, for example, a judge's probable-cause determination is predicated solely on a police officer's false statements. Then, too, a person is confined without constitutionally adequate justification.
Legal process has gone forward, but it has done nothing to satisfy the Fourth Amendment's probable-cause requirement. And for that reason, it cannot extinguish the detainee's Fourth Amendment claim - or somehow, as the Seventh Circuit has held, convert that claim into one founded on the Due Process Clause. If the complaint is that a form of legal process resulted in pretrial detention unsupported by probable cause, then the right allegedly infringed lies in the Fourth Amendment.

137 S.Ct. 911, 918-19 (emphasis added). The Court went on:

For that reason, and contrary to the Seventh Circuit's view, Manuel stated a Fourth Amendment claim when he sought relief not merely for his (pre-legal-process) arrest, but also for his (post-legal-process) pretrial detention. Consider again the facts alleged in this case. Police officers initially arrested Manuel without probable cause, based solely on his possession of pills that had field tested negative for an illegal substance. So (putting timeliness issues aside) Manuel could bring a claim for wrongful arrest under the Fourth Amendment. And the same is true (again, disregarding timeliness) as to a claim for wrongful detention-because Manuel's subsequent weeks in custody were also unsupported by probable cause, and so also constitutionally unreasonable. No. evidence of Manuel's criminality had come to light in between the roadside arrest and the County Court proceeding initiating legal process; to the contrary, yet another test of Manuel's pills had come back negative in that period. All that the judge had before him were police fabrications about the pills' content. The judge's order holding Manuel for trial therefore lacked any proper basis. And that means Manuel's ensuing pretrial detention, no less than his original arrest, violated his Fourth Amendment rights. Or put just a bit differently: Legal process did not expunge Manuel's Fourth Amendment claim because the process he received failed to establish what that Amendment makes essential for pretrial detention-probable cause to believe he committed a crime.

Id. at 919-20.

         In the instant case, the plaintiff was arrested pursuant to a warrant, and was afforded the benefits of the legal process, including a 72 hour hearing at which he was appointed counsel, and - six months later - a probable cause hearing, after which a judge determined there was probable cause to hold the defendant over for trial. The defendants strenuously argue that the fact that a judge determined there was probable cause - and that the defendant was afforded the benefits of the legal process - acts as a bar to pursuing a Fourth Amendment claim for improper seizure, on the basis of both his allegedly defective arrest and his allegedly defective detention. The defendants also argue the plaintiff “does not allege which agency arrested him, who the arresting officer was, where he was incarcerated during this 2 ½ year period, or how these defendants remained responsible for that incarceration, or the supposed delay in his prosecution, ”[2] calling the foregoing fatal to alleging a constitutional deprivation.

         Contrary to the defendants' argument, however, the plaintiff does indeed allege, albeit somewhat inartfully, that his arrest and detention were illegal, in that there was no probable cause to support either, despite the fact that probable cause was determined to exist both before the issuance of the warrant and by Judge Fusilier at the plaintiff's October 2014 probable cause hearing. The plaintiff alleges the owner of the store that was robbed stated the perpetrators were wearing ski masks and the store owner was therefore unable to see the face of the perpetrator. Regardless, the plaintiff argues he has a distinctive scar in the area of his right eyebrow, which would have been visible even when wearing a ski mask. The plaintiff argues the store owner did not state the perpetrator had a scar. The plaintiff further argues that on the day he was arrested, a VPPD detective told him that the detective knew the plaintiff had not committed the crime for which he had been arrested, and he was later told by the prosecuting attorney that the prosecution did not believe the plaintiff had committed the crime for which he had been charged. The plaintiff argues that despite the foregoing, he was arrested, charged, and detained for two and a half years before the charges against him were dismissed. The plaintiff argues, in effect, that the legal process he was afforded was tainted.

         Probable cause exists when the totality of facts and circumstances within a police officer's knowledge at the moment of arrest are sufficient for a reasonable person to conclude that the suspect had committed or was committing an offense. Resendiz v. Miller, 203 F.3d 902, 903 (5th Cir. 2000), citing United States v. Wadley, 59 F.3d 510, 512 (5th Cir.1995). See also Gerstein v. Pugh, 420 U.S. 103, 112, 95 S.Ct. 854, 43 L.Ed.2d 54 (1975), citing Beck v. Ohio, 379 U.S. 89, 91, 85 S.Ct. 223, 225, 13 L.Ed.2d 142 (1964). See also Henry v. United States, 361 U.S. 98, 80 S.Ct. 168, 4 L.Ed.2d 134 (1959); Brinegar v. United States, 338 U.S. 160, 175-176, 69 S.Ct. 1302, 1310-1311, 93 L.Ed. 1879 (1949). The presence of probable cause is a mixed question of fact and law. Id. “This standard, like those for searches and seizures, represents a necessary accommodation between the individual's right to liberty and the State's duty to control crime.” Gerstein, 420 U.S. at 112.

         While the defendants make much of the fact that the plaintiff was arrested pursuant to a warrant, and had a probable cause hearing at which a judge determined probable cause existed in this case, significantly, the defendants have not provided this Court with a copy of the arrest warrant or the application for the arrest warrant.[3]Furthermore, although the defendants argue who testified at the probable cause hearing, the undersigned has no knowledge concerning what evidence was presented to the judge for him to make his probable cause determination, only that he made one. Therefore, this Court is not able to assess the reasonableness of the probable cause determinations made, either prior to the arrest or at the time of the probable cause hearing. Without the foregoing information, this Court is unable to determine that the ‚Äútotality of facts and circumstances within [the arresting] police officer's knowledge at the moment ...

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