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James v. City of Plaquemine

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana

September 17, 2019

ETHAN JAMES
v.
CITY OF PLAQUEMINE, LOUISIANA, ET AL.

          RULING AND ORDER

          JOHN W. deGRAVELLES UNITED STATES JUDGE

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 8) filed by Defendants City of Plaquemine, Christopher Graves, Dustin Hebert, and Kenny Payne (collectively, “Defendants”). Plaintiff Ethan James (“Plaintiff”) opposes the motion. (Doc. 14.) Defendants have filed a reply. (Doc. 19.) Oral argument is not necessary. The Court has carefully considered the law, facts in the record, and arguments and submissions of the parties and is prepared to rule. For the following reasons, Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss is granted.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background [1]

         At all relevant times, Officers Christopher Graves and Dustin Hebert were employed by the City of Plaquemine Police Department. (Doc. 1 at 1–2.) Kenny Payne was the Chief of Police in Plaquemine, Louisiana. (Id. at 1.)

         On or about April 30, 2016,[2] Ethan James was approached by two officers, Graves and Hebert, while asleep in the driver’s seat of his vehicle in a McDonalds drive through lane in Plaquemine. (Doc. 1 at 2–3.) After Plaintiff exited his vehicle pursuant to a request from Officer Hebert, Officer Graves claimed that he noticed a bag of crack cocaine sitting within the front left cupholder of the vehicle in plain view. (Doc. 1 at 3.) Plaintiff’s vehicle was searched, and he was subsequently arrested for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. (Id. at 2–3.)

         At the time of the search of Plaintiff’s vehicle, both officers wore body cameras, which allegedly contain exculpatory footage showing that there was no cocaine in the cupholder. (Id.) It can be heard in the body camera footage that Plaintiff requested to watch as his vehicle was searched, but his request was denied. (Id. at 5.) The footage further shows that during the officers’ search, Officer Graves stated that “he had not yet found anything in the vehicle.” (Id. at 3.)

         In his state criminal proceedings, Plaintiff was originally represented by a public defender. (Id. at 4.) On July 6, 2016, Plaintiff’s attorney requested exculpatory information from the prosecutor, including, the video footage of the search of his vehicle. (Id. at 3.) Plaintiff alleges that the prosecutor did not turn over the video to his counsel until his new attorney filed a discovery motion on November 30, 2018, “over two years after Plaintiff’s arrest.”[3] (Id. at 4–5.) On February 27, 2018, the prosecutor dismissed the charges against Plaintiff. (Id. at 1–2.)

         Plaintiff filed suit on September 21, 2018. (Doc. 1.) Among the defendants named are Officers Christopher Graves and Dustin Hebert, sued in both their official and individual capacities under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Id. at 1–2.) Plaintiff also asserts claims against Chief of Police Kenny Payne[4] and the City of Plaquemine Police Department. (Id. at 1.)

         II. Rule 12(b)(6) Standard

         In ruling on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Court must accept all well-pled factual allegations in the complaint as true and construe them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Gonzalez v. Kay, 577 F.3d 600, 603 (5th Cir. 2009). To defeat a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). A claim is “plausible on its face” if “the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). The complaint “requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. Factual allegations need not be detailed, but “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level,” id., and “unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation[s]” are not sufficient. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         III. Pleading Deficiencies

         The Court notes at the outset of its analysis that Plaintiff’s complaint suffers from several distinct pleading deficiencies and fails to meet the requirements of the pleading standards established by Rules 8 and 10 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure,[5] tasking both Defendants and the Court with sorting through an amalgamation of potential claims “interwoven in a haphazard fashion.” Weiland v. Palm Beach Cnty. Sheriff’s Office, 792 F.3d 1313, 1320 (11th Cir. 2015) (quoting T.D.S. Inc. v. Shelby Mut. Ins. Co., 760 F.2d 1520, 1544 n.14 (11th Cir. 1985)). In Weiland, the Eleventh Circuit identified four types of “shotgun pleadings”–– imprecise complaints that fail “to give the defendants adequate notice of the claims against them and the grounds upon which each claim rests.” Id. at 1323.

         Specifically, the complaint here fails to separate Plaintiff’s claims into distinct causes of action or clearly differentiate between his state and federal claims. Thus, it is unclear to both Defendants and the Court (1) exactly which claims Plaintiff is asserting; (2) which claims are brought under federal law, which are brought under state law, and which are both state and federal claims; and (3) which claims are asserted against which Defendants. This is an example of a “shotgun complaint” which fails to “give the defendants adequate notice of the claims against them and the grounds upon which each claim rests.” Weiland, 792 F.3d at 1323. By failing to separate each claim into a separate cause of action with the corresponding factual support for that claim only and failing to differentiate between the state and federal claims, the complaint violates the letter and spirit of Rules 8 and 10. To the extent Plaintiff wishes to amend his complaint, he must state his claims in separate causes of action in accord with the pleading requirements of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

         Nevertheless, based on the facts alleged and the named defendants, the Court construes the complaint as containing alleged violations of Plaintiff’s rights under the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which includes claims against the individual defendants in both their official and individual capacities. Additionally, the complaint appears to assert several claims under state law.

         IV. Discussion

         A. Prescription of Fourth Amendment Claims

         1. Parties’ Arguments

         Defendants argue that Plaintiff’s claim for unreasonable search and seizure has prescribed. (Id. at 4.) They state that the Plaintiff had knowledge of his injury on the date of the search, April 30, 2016, starting the clock on the statute of limitations over two years before the present action was filed. (Doc. 8-1 at 4; Doc. 19 at 3.) Because federal courts borrow the forum state’s personal injury prescriptive period, Defendants state that Louisiana’s one-year prescriptive period applies, and as a result, the alleged Fourth Amendment violation prescribed on April 30, 2017. (Doc. 8-1 at 5; Doc. 19 at 3.)

         Plaintiff contends that his claim for unreasonable search or seizure did not accrue until his criminal charges were dismissed or the date that his attorney received the body camera footage because there was no proof that the search of James’ vehicle was unjust or unsupported by probable cause until that point. (Doc. 14 at 1.) He argues that the doctrine of contra non valentem applies because there was a legal impediment to bringing his claim until his charges were dismissed and because his Fourth Amendment cause of action was not reasonably knowable by the Plaintiff until he received the exculpatory body camera footage. (Id. at 2.) Plaintiff asserts that under the continuing tort theory of negligence, prescription could not accrue until after the body camera footage was provided to his attorney. (Id. at 5.) Furthermore, he could not pursue his malicious prosecution claim until there was “bona fide termination in the plaintiff’s favor.” (Id.) Thus, he concludes that this claim could not have begun to run until the charges were dismissed. (Id. at 6.)

         2. Analysis

         a. Vehicle Search

         Plaintiff alleges that Officers Graves and Hebert conducted an unlawful search of his vehicle, unsupported by probable cause, in violation of the Fourth Amendment. (Doc. 1 at 3.) While the limitations period is determined state law, the accrual of a § 1983 claim is a matter of federal law. Burrell v. Newsome, 883 F.2d 416, 418 (5th Cir. 1989). “Under federal law, the limitations period begins to run the moment the plaintiff becomes aware that he has suffered an injury or has sufficient information to know that he has been injured.” Piotrowski v. City of Houston, 237 F.3d 567, 576 (5th Cir. 2001) (internal quotation marks omitted). The prescriptive period for a claim under § 1983 in Louisiana is one year. Jacobsen v. Osborne, 133 F.3d 315, 319 (5th Cir. 1998). In the case of an alleged illegal search, prescription begins to run at the time of the search, as that is the moment the plaintiff “becomes aware that he has suffered an injury.” Piotrowski, 237 F.3d at 576; see also McLin v. Ard, No. 13-538, 2016 WL 482046, at *2 (M.D. La. Feb. 5, 2016), aff’d, 866 F.3d 682 (5th Cir. 2017) (“[T]he law clearly states that prescription begins to run at the time of the search in the case of an alleged illegal search.”). Additionally, and of particular note here, “[a] federal court applying a state statute of limitations should give effect to the state’s tolling provisions as well.” Jackson v. Johnson, 950 F.2d 263, 265 (5th Cir. 1992).

         In the present case, Officers Graves and Hebert searched Plaintiff’s vehicle “on or about” April 30, 2016. (Doc. 17 at 2.) Plaintiff should have been aware that he suffered an injury and that there was a connection between his injuries and the officers’ actions, as Plaintiff alleges that the officers essentially lied about the presence of contraband in the cupholder of his vehicle. (Doc. 1 at 3.) Thus, as his allegations currently stand, the statute of limitations for Plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment claim began to run on April 30, 2016. Because Plaintiff filed suit over two years later on September 21, 2018, his Fourth Amendment claim arising out of the purportedly illegal search of his vehicle is time-barred.

         Plaintiff argues that Louisiana’s doctrine of contra non valentem applies here to toll the prescriptive period. (Doc. 14 at 2.) The four situations in which contra non valentem can apply are as follows:

1) Where there was a legal cause which prevented the courts or their officers from taking cognizance of or acting on the plaintiff's action; (2) where some condition coupled with the proceedings prevented the creditor from suing or acting; (3) where the debtor has done an act to prevent the creditor from using the cause of action; (4) where the cause of action is not known or reasonably knowable by the plaintiff, even though he is not induced by the defendant.

Burge v. Par. of St. Tammany, 996 F.2d 786, 788 (5th Cir. 1993) (quoting Minor v. Casten, 521 So.2d 465, 467 (La. Ct. App. 1988)). Plaintiff contends that the first and fourth scenarios are applicable here. (Doc. 14 at 2). Plaintiff states that the prosecution of his case was a legal impediment to bring his § 1983 claim, and that he “did not know and could not reasonably have known that a cause of action existed until he was provided with the exculpatory evidence.” (Id.)

         Though Plaintiff asserts that there was a legal impediment to bring his lawsuit, his argument relies upon the contention that he could not have reasonably brought his claim while being prosecuted. “Contra non valentem cannot apply merely where as a practical matter, filing suit is difficult or the prospects of success on the merits are slight due to a given plaintiff's situation.” Sincox v. Blackwell, 525 F. Supp. 96, 99 (W.D. La. 1981). And Plaintiff pointed to no legal authority standing for the proposition that an ongoing criminal prosecution acts as a legal impediment and tolls the statute of limitations. Thus, although the plaintiff’s prospects of success on his § 1983 claims grew with his acquisition of the exculpatory footage, he did not show that there was a legal impediment preventing him from bringing suit.

         Further, the other category of contra non valentem cannot save Plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment Claim. “As a judicial exception to the statutory rule of prescription, Louisiana courts strictly construe this doctrine and only extend its benefits up to ‘the time that the plaintiff has actual or constructive knowledge of the tortious act.’” Eldredge v. Martin Marietta Corp., 207 F.3d 737, 743 (5th Cir. 2000) (quoting Bergeron v. Pan Am. Assurance Co., 98-2421 (La. App. 4 Cir. 4/7/99); 731 So. 2d 1037, 1042)). The Fifth Circuit defines this as “the time at which the plaintiff has information sufficient to excite attention and prompt further inquiry.” Id. On April 30, 2016, officers searched Plaintiff’s vehicle and supposedly found cocaine in plain view, prompting Plaintiff’s arrest. (Doc. 17 at 2.) Plaintiff denied having cocaine in his vehicle. (Doc. 1 at 5.) Thus, at this point, Plaintiff had “information sufficient to excite attention and prompt further inquiry.” Eldredge, 207 F.3d at 743. Because Plaintiff should have then had “actual or constructive knowledge of a tortious act,” id., his argument that he could not have reasonably known of the existence of his cause of action is unpersuasive, and the doctrine of contra non valentem cannot apply to toll the statute of limitations on this basis. Thus, Plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment search claim has prescribed.

         b. Seizure

          To determine the accrual date of a plaintiff’s § 1983 claim based upon a Fourth Amendment seizure, the Fifth Circuit has analogized the plaintiff’s claim to the common law of torts to determine whether it more closely resembles a claim for false imprisonment or malicious prosecution. Winfrey v. Rogers, 901 F.3d 483, 492–93 (5th Cir. 2018). The Supreme Court has also noted the difference. The Winfrey court explains that detainment without legal process more closely resembles a false imprisonment claim, which accrues once the plaintiff is “detained pursuant to legal process.” Id. at 492. Alternatively, “detention accompanied by wrongful institution of legal process” more closely resembles malicious prosecution, which accrues once prosecution terminates in the plaintiff’s favor. Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). In Winfrey, this determination was based on whether officers conducted a warrantless arrest, or whether they conducted an arrest pursuant to a warrant supported by fabricated evidence. Id.

         The Supreme Court has also noted the difference in false imprisonment and malicious prosecution. “Reflective of the fact that false imprisonment consists of detention without legal process, a false imprisonment ends once the victim becomes held pursuant to such process-when, for example, he is bound over by a magistrate or arraigned on charges.” Wallace v. Kato, 549 U.S. 384, 389, 127 S. Ct. 1091, 1096 (2007) (emphasis in original). Further, “unlawful detention forms part of the damages for the ‘entirely distinct’ tort of malicious prosecution, ...


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