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Lewis v. Smith

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

August 2, 2019

RANDY SMITH, individually and in his capacity as Sheriff of St. Tammany Parish

         SECTION M (4)

          ORDER & REASONS


         Before the Court is a motion to dismiss filed by defendant Sheriff Randy Smith, individually and in his capacity as Sheriff of St. Tammany Parish (“Sheriff Smith”), [1] to which plaintiff Calvin Lewis (“Lewis”) responds in opposition.[2] Having considered the parties' memoranda and the applicable law, the Court issues this Order & Reasons.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case concerns alleged violations of constitutional rights. Lewis is a former employee of the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office (“STPSO”).[3] In 1997, the STPSO hired Lewis as a reserve deputy.[4] Lewis was promoted several times over the years and obtained the rank of captain in 2016.[5] In 2007, Lewis met Jane Doe (“Doe”)[6] while he was assigned to a work detail, and began a relationship with her.[7] Doe has a prior felony conviction.[8] In 2010, Lewis and Doe, along with Doe's two children who were then-ages two and five, began living together.[9] Lewis alleges that he, Doe, and the children continue to live together today.[10]

         In January 2017, Lewis learned of a Facebook post in which an unnamed individual commented that “a newly promoted captain” was living with a convicted felon.[11] Lewis informed Smith of the post.[12] Then in May 2017, Lance Vitter, Arthur Meyers, and Major Richard Palmisano of the STPSO internal affairs department called Lewis in to discuss the fact that he was living with Doe, a convicted felon, in violation of the STPSO's anti-fraternization policy.[13] The STPSO terminated Lewis's employment on May 19, 2017.[14]

         On May 9, 2018, Lewis filed this action against Sheriff Smith, in his official and individual capacities, alleging that he was terminated pursuant to the STPSO's anti-fraternization policy, which Lewis urges is unconstitutional and selectively applied.[15] The STPSO's anti-fraternization policy prohibits “fraternization” delineated, in pertinent part, as:

Romantic or intimate personal or other close relationships between an employee and a known felon, Transitional Work Program inmate, or any incarcerated individual.
* * *
Fraternization is also the undertaking of a personal relationship or association, with or without a sexual relationship, by a Deputy with a known felon, Work Release person, or any incarcerated individual(s) without the express written permission of the Sheriff, or his designee. This includes any person held in custodial confinement by arrest or imprisonment.[16]

         Lewis brings claims against Sheriff Smith, in his official and individual capacities, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that this policy violates the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution by infringing upon and burdening the right of individuals to enter into and maintain intimate relationships.[17] Lewis contends that strict scrutiny applies to evaluate the constitutionality of the policy because “of the close and intimate nature of” his relationship with Doe.[18]

         Lewis also alleges that the anti-fraternization policy is unconstitutionally overbroad and vague in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.[19] Lewis claims that the policy does not specifically or adequately define the terms “personal relationship, ” “close relationship, ” “association, ” “known felon, ” “work release person, ” “incarcerated individual, ” or “any person held in custodial confinement by arrest or imprisonment, ” therefore likely bringing unintended persons and relationships within the scope of the policy unbeknownst to the deputies.[20] Moreover, Lewis contends that the policy is vague because it does not provide guidelines for granting exceptions, nor does it contain a mens rea requirement meaning that a deputy can violate the policy without intentionally engaging in one of the prohibited relationships.[21]

         Finally, Lewis alleges that Sheriff Smith selectively enforces the anti-fraternization policy in violation of the equal protection component of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.[22] Lewis alleges that there are “several other” STPSO employees who are engaged in relationships or associations that violate the policy, including Sheriff Smith, who have not been disciplined or terminated.[23] Further, Lewis contends that the policy was arbitrarily enforced against him because he is African American.[24] Lewis seeks damages, including interest and attorney's fees.[25]

         Sheriff Smith filed the instant motion to dismiss arguing that Lewis has not stated any viable claims for relief and that he is entitled to qualified immunity for Lewis's claims against him in his personal capacity.[26] Lewis opposes the motion.[27]

         III. LAW & ANALYSIS

         A. Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure

          The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require a complaint to contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). Rule 8 “does not require ‘detailed factual allegations,' but it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). The statement of the claim must “‘give the defendant fair notice of what the ... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). A pleading does not comply with Rule 8 if it offers “labels and conclusions, ” “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action, ” or “‘naked assertion[s]' devoid of ‘further factual enhancement.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555-57).

         Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permits a party to move to dismiss for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). A claim is plausible on the face of the complaint “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. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). Plausibility does not equate to probability, but rather “it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). “Where a complaint pleads facts that are ‘merely consistent with' a defendant's liability, it ‘stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of “entitlement to relief.”'” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557). Thus, if the facts pleaded in the complaint “do not permit the court to infer more than a mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged - but it has not ‘show[n]' - ‘that the pleader is entitled to relief.'” Id. at 679 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)).

         In considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, a court employs the two-pronged approach utilized in Twombly. The court “can choose to begin by identifying pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions [unsupported by factual allegations], are not entitled to the assumption of truth.” Id. However, “[w]hen there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” Id. Motions to dismiss are disfavored and rarely granted. Turner v. Pleasant, 663 F.3d 770, 775 (5th Cir. 2011) (citing Harrington v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 563 F.3d 141, 147 (5th Cir. 2009)).

         A court's review of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss “is limited to the complaint, any documents attached to the complaint, and any documents attached to the motion to dismiss that are central to the claim and referenced by the complaint.” Lone Star Fund V (U.S.), L.P. v. Barclays Bank PLC, 594 F.3d 383, 387 (5th Cir. 2010) (citing Collins v. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, 224 F.3d 496, 498-99 (5th Cir. 2000)). A court may also take judicial notice of certain matters, including public records and government websites. Dorsey v. Portfolio Equities, Inc., 540 F.3d 333, 338 (5th Cir. 2007); see also Kitty Hawk Aircargo, Inc. v. Chao, 418 F.3d 453, 457 (5th Cir. 2005). Thus, in weighing a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, district courts primarily look to the allegations found in the complaint, but courts may also consider “documents incorporated into the complaint by reference or integral to the claim, items subject to judicial notice, matters of public record, orders, items appearing in the record of the case, and exhibits attached to the complaint whose authenticity is unquestioned.” Meyers v. Textron, Inc., 540 Fed.Appx. 408, 409 (5th Cir. 2013) (citing Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308, 322 (2007)).

         B. Section 1983 Claims

          Section 1983 provides a remedy against “every person, ” who under color of state law, deprives another of any rights secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States. 42 U.S.C. § 1983; Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978). The statute is not itself a source of substantive rights; it merely provides a method for vindicating federal rights conferred elsewhere. Olabisiomotosho v. City of Hous., 185 F.3d 521, 525 n.3 (5th Cir. 1999). To pursue a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must: (1) allege a violation of rights 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. Sw. Bell Tel., LP v. City of Hous., 529 F.3d 257, 260 (5th Cir. 2008); see also West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 50 (1988). Section 1983 claims can be brought against a person in his individual or official capacity. Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21, 23 (1991).

         For Sheriff Smith to be liable in either his individual or official capacity, Lewis must first allege constitutional violations. Lewis's complaint purports to allege violations of the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments related to rights of association, due process, and equal protection.

         1. Right of Association Under the First and Fourteenth Amendments

          As explained by the Fifth Circuit in Walker v. Henderson, 239 F.3d 366 (5th Cir. 2000):

The seminal Supreme Court decision addressing the constitutional right of intimate association is Roberts v. U.S. Jaycees, 468 U.S. 609 (1984). In Jaycees, the Court reasoned that its decisions “have referred to constitutionally protected ‘freedom of association' in two distinct senses.” Id. at 617. One set of decisions concludes that “choices to enter into and maintain certain intimate human relationships must be secured against undue intrusion by the State because of the role of such relationships in safeguarding the individual freedom that is central to our constitutional scheme.”[28] Id. (emphasis added). The other line of cases recognizes “a right to associate for the purpose of engaging in those activities protected by the First Amendment ....”[29] Id. at 618.
Freedom of association in the former sense has historically been couched in terms of family. Marriage, childbirth, raising and educating children, and cohabitation with one's relatives are all intimate associations that the Court has very willingly recognized as worthy of constitutional protection. Id. (citations omitted). From the nature of these family relationships, the Court gleaned its basis for determining when other relationships may warrant treatment as constitutionally protected intimate associations.
Initially the inquiry must focus on whether by its nature the relationship at issue involves “deep attachments and commitments to necessarily few other individuals with whom one shares not only a special community of thoughts, experiences, and beliefs but also distinctively personal aspects of one's life.” Id. at 620. Several factors elucidate the types of attachments and commitments that the Court would consider constitutionally protected intimate associations. They include “such attributes as relative smallness, a high degree of selectivity in decisions to begin and maintain the affiliation, and seclusion from others in critical aspects of the relationship.” Id.
These guideposts establish certain general parameters. As such, the Constitution imposes constraints on the State's power to control the selection of one's spouse that would be inapplicable to regulations affecting one's choice of fellow employees. Id. “Between these poles ... lies a broad range of human relationships that may make greater or lesser claims to constitutional protection from particular [State] incursions ....” Id. Accordingly, determining which intimate associations merit constitutional limits on State intrusion “entails a careful assessment of where that relationship's objective characteristics locate it on a spectrum from the most intimate to the most attenuated of personal attachments.”[1] Id.
Following Jaycees, the Court again addressed the right of intimate association stating that “freedom to enter into and carry on certain intimate or private relationships is a fundamental element of liberty protected by the Bill o[f] Rights.” Board of Dir. of Rotary Int'l v. Rotary Club of Duarte, 481 U.S. 537, 545 (1987). Recognizing that such relationships take various forms, the Court stated that it had not “attempted to mark the precise boundaries of this type of constitutional protection.” Id. Moreover, the Court unambiguously reasoned that such protection is not restricted to relationships among family members. See Id. The Court later qualified this view, however, expressing doubt that the “Constitution recognizes a generalized right of ‘social association.'” City of Dallas v. Stanglin, 490 U.S. 19, 25 (1989).
Courts in this circuit have asserted that whether the intimate association right includes relationships beyond the familial context depends upon the extent to which the persons share qualities distinctive to family relationships. Tillman v. City of West Point, 953 F.Supp. 145, 151 (N.D. Miss. 1996) (citing Louisiana Debating & Literary Ass'n v. City of New Orleans, 42 F.3d 1483, 1494 (5th Cir.1995)). This rationale is consistent with the Jaycees' factors analysis and underscores the inappropriateness of using “bright line determination[s] of familial relationships” to establish the constitutional right of intimate association. Tillman, 953 F.Supp. at 150. Nonetheless, basing the intimate association analysis on “qualities distinctive to family relationships” can be challenging because “the definitional boundaries that limit the types of associations that constitute ‘family relationships' are blurred.” Kipps v. Caillier, 205 F.3d 203, 206 (5th Cir.2000).

Walker v. Henderson, 239 F.3d 366, at *2-3 (holding that plaintiff failed to allege sufficient facts demonstrating a protected intimate association “with her family and friends” during the relevant period) (parallel citations omitted).

         Lewis' complaint alleges that the STPSO's anti-fraternization policy infringed on his right to enter into a relationship with Doe that is arguably protected by the right of association. Although Lewis and Doe are not married, Lewis alleges that they have cohabited for more than eight years and he is involved in raising her children. This relationship may fall on the continuum of protected relationships. While the jurisprudence does not define the precise contours of what relationships outside of marriage are protected, the Fifth Circuit has observed that relationships involving “deep attachments and commitments to necessarily few other individuals with whom one shares not only a special community of thoughts, experiences, and beliefs but also distinctively personal aspects of one's life” are protected. Walker, 239 F.3d at *2-3. The question becomes, then, whether the intimate relationship at issue falls within the protection outlined at a rather high level of generality in cases like the Supreme Court's decision in Roberts and the Fifth Circuit's decision in Walker. Courts have struggled to apply this general guidance to the factual circumstances surrounding the relationships at issue in the cases before them. Compare Isenbart v. Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs of Kit Carson Cty., 2012 WL 4378269 (D. Colo. Sept. 25, 2012) (finding constitutionally protected intimate relationship between state employee and sheriff who “moved in together” with intention “to create a familial relationship”), with Stevens v. Holder, 966 F.Supp.2d 622 (E.D. Va. 2013) (finding no constitutional protection for non-marital, non-familial, romantic relationship between FBI trainees who were divorcing their spouses; observing “that Isenbart distinguishes between marital relationships and those merely involving romantic association or cohabitation outside of marriage”), with Plummer v. Town of Somerset, 601 F.Supp.2d 358, 366 (D. Mass. 2009) (refusing to extend constitutional protection to right to intimate association outside bounds of marriage or civil union). Lewis cites no case directly on point holding that the kind of relationship he has with Doe undoubtedly falls within the ambit of a protected right of association.[30] However, Sheriff Smith does not dispute that Lewis' relationship with Doe is constitutionally protected. Under these circumstances, the Court declines to hold otherwise. But this does not end the inquiry into whether Lewis has stated a claim for violation of his First Amendment right of association.

         Lewis argues that strict scrutiny applies to evaluate the constitutionality of the STPSO's anti-fraternization policy, [31] while Sheriff Smith argues that rational basis review is required.[32] Courts employ a two-step analysis to determine the appropriate level of scrutiny to apply to governmental action that allegedly infringes on the right of marriage. Montgomery v. Carr, 101 F.3d 1117, 1124 (6th Cir. 1996). Although Lewis and Doe are not married, the Court finds it is appropriate to utilize the same approach because of the alleged marriage-like status of their relationship. First, courts “ask whether the policy or action is a direct or substantial interference with the right of marriage; second, if the policy or action is a direct and substantial interference with the right of marriage, apply strict scrutiny, otherwise apply rational basis scrutiny.” Id. The court in Montgomery v. Carr cited two examples of “direct and substantial” interference with the right to marry - namely, the anti-miscegenation statute at issue in Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967), which prohibited persons of different races from marrying, and the statute at issue in Zablocki v. Redhail, 434 U.S. 374 (1978), which required non-custodial parents with child support obligations to obtain the court's permission to marry. Montgomery, 101 F.3d at 1124-25. The court then observed that anti-fraternization and anti-nepotism policies, on the other hand, do not place a “direct and substantial” burden on marriage, but rather “place a non-oppressive burden on the decision to marry” by making some potential partners less appealing than others, and thus such policies are analyzed under a rational basis standard. Id. at 1125-26 (collecting cases that apply rational basis test in reviewing anti-fraternization and anti-nepotism policies).

         The STPSO's anti-fraternization policy does not place a “direct and substantial” burden on the right to intimate relationships because it does not completely prohibit one class of people from being with another. Instead, it affects that right only incidentally by requiring STPSO employees to relinquish their jobs if they choose to violate the policy. See, e.g., Bautista v. Cty. of Los Angeles, 190 Cal.App.4th 869, 877-78 (2010) (anti-fraternization policy prohibiting peace officer's relationship with persons under criminal investigation or indictment or having reputation for criminal activity upheld under rational basis test). The policy has no more than an incidental or minimal residual impact on the right to intimate association because it does not prohibit the relationship itself. Thus, this Court will analyze the rule under the rational basis test, as have other courts reviewing such policies.

         While “public employees do not surrender all their First Amendment rights by reason of their employment, … [w]hen a citizen enters government service, the citizen by necessity must accept certain limitations on his or her freedom.” Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410, 417-18 (2006). The question is not whether the governmental entity can establish a genuine public need for the regulation at issue, but whether the public employee attacking the regulation can demonstrate that there is no rational connection between the regulation and the promotion of safety of persons and property. Kelly v. Johnson, 425 U.S. 238, 247 (1976). “[A]nti-fraternization rules prohibiting police officers from socializing with those who they know are engaging in criminal conduct have routinely been upheld against constitutional challenges ….” Bautista, 190 Cal.App.4th at 878.

         Under the deferential rational basis test, “[t]he question is only whether a rational relationship exists between the [government action] and a conceivable legitimate objective.” Simi Inv. Co. v. Harris Cty., 236 F.3d 240, 249 (5th Cir. 2000). If the question is at least debatable, there is no violation. Lewis contends that the STPSO has not identified a legitimate objective for its anti-fraternization policy. However, the STPSO has a legitimate interest in regulating the behavior of its employees, especially its most senior officers like Lewis, to minimize the risk for potential conflicts of interest posed by any association with persons of notoriety and to protect the credibility and integrity of the office. The STPSO's legitimate interests in preventing its officers from placing themselves in compromising positions and in preserving the STPSO's reputation in the public and in the law enforcement community are reasonably advanced by the anti-fraternization policy and therefore are sufficient to uphold the policy under the rational basis test. See Keeney v. Heath, 57 F.3d 579, 580 (7th Cir. 1995) (upholding anti-fraternization prison regulation under rational basis review; while regulation made it more costly for prison guard to marry prisoner, “the cost being the loss of her job, or more precisely the loss of whatever margin made it a better job for her than any other that she could get, ” it did not forbid her from marrying); Parks v. City of Warner Robins, 43 F.3d 609, 614 (11th Cir. 1995) (anti-fraternization policy does not infringe right to intimate association where it “does not ‘order' individuals not to marry”); Poirier v. Mass. Dep't of Correction, 532 F.Supp.2d 275, 280-81 (D. Mass. 2008) (Department of Correction's rule prohibiting fraternization with inmates advanced department's “interest in assuring the integrity and objectivity of its correction officers in the discharge of their official duties, ” rejecting need to apply strict scrutiny analysis), aff'd, 558 ...

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