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Yates v. Davis

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Northern Division, Ashland

September 15, 2017

JAMES YATES, et al. PLAINTIFFS
v.
KIM DAVIS, individually and in her official capacity, et al. DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          DAVID L. BUNNING, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant Kim Davis's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs James Yates and Will Smith's Complaint. (Doc. # 29). Plaintiffs having filed their Response (Doc. # 31), and Defendant having filed her Reply (Doc. # 37), the Motion is fully briefed and ripe for review. For the reasons stated herein, Defendant's Motion to Dismiss will be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Since August of 2015, three cases against Defendant Kim Davis have been pending on this Court's docket: (1) Miller, et al. v. Davis, et al, 0:15-cv-44-DLB-EBA; (2) Ermold, et al. v. Davis, et al., 0:15-cv-46-DLB-EBA; and (3) Yates, et al. v. Davis, et al., 0:15-cv-62-DLB-EBA.[1] Each of these cases arose from the same circumstances-Kim Davis's refusal to issue marriage licenses to legally eligible couples. Factually, however, the cases differ in significant ways. The first of these-the Miller case-is not like the others; the last two-the Ermold and Yates cases-are nearly identical.[2]

         In Miller, the Plaintiffs sought prospective injunctive relief, which this Court granted. Specifically, the Court enjoined Davis from enforcing her “no marriage licenses” policy. Miller, 0:15-cv-44-DLB-EBA (Docs. # 43 and 74 therein). Thereafter, the Court held that the Miller Plaintiffs “prevailed” against Davis, in her official capacity, when they obtained a preliminary injunction forcing her to issue marriage licenses. Id. (Doc. # 206 therein). Accordingly, the Court recently awarded the Miller Plaintiffs attorneys' fees and costs under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 and ordered the Commonwealth of Kentucky, which Davis represented in her official capacity, to foot the bill.[3] Id.

         In contrast to the Miller Plaintiffs, the Ermold and Yates Plaintiffs do not pursue prospective injunctive relief. Instead, they seek retrospective money damages. And in suits against government officials, the type of relief requested makes all the difference. Therefore, this case, and the companion case, Ermold, et al. v. Davis, et al., will chart their own course.

         On June 26, 2015, the United States Supreme Court held that the fundamental right to marry extended to same-sex couples, and therefore, states are constitutionally required to recognize same-sex marriage. Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S.Ct. 2584 (2015). At that time, Plaintiffs James Yates and Will Smith had been in a committed same-sex relationship for nine years. (Doc. # 1 at ¶ 8). Ten days later-on July 6, 2015-Plaintiffs went to the Rowan County Clerk's Office and requested a marriage license. (Doc. # 1 at ¶ 13). The couple's request was denied and they were informed of Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis's “no marriage licenses” policy. Id.

         On August 12, 2015, this Court granted the Miller Plaintiffs' Motion for Preliminary Injunction and enjoined Davis from enforcing her “no marriage licenses” policy to future marriage-license requests by those Plaintiffs. Miller, 0:15-cv-44-DLB-EBA (Doc. # 43 therein). The next day-August 13, 2015-Plaintiffs Yates and Smith's marriage-license request was again denied. (Doc. # 1 at ¶ 18). On August 25, 2015, the Plaintiffs filed the instant action. (Doc. # 1).

         Davis unsuccessfully appealed the Court's preliminary-injunction ruling to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and to the United States Supreme Court. Miller v. Davis, No. 15-5880, 2015 WL 10692640 (6th Cir. Aug. 26, 2015); Davis v. Miller, 136 S.Ct. 23 (2015). Despite this Court's directive and her failed appeals, Davis refused to comply with the Court's Order. Miller, 0:15-cv-44-DLB-EBA (Doc. # 67 therein).

         On September 3, 2015, the Court found Davis in contempt of the Court's Order and remanded her to the custody of the United States Marshal, pending compliance. Id. (Doc. # 75 therein). That same day, the Court modified the preliminary injunction and clarified that Davis, in her official capacity as Rowan County Clerk, was “preliminarily enjoined from applying her ‘no marriage licenses' policy to future marriage license requests … by [any] individuals who [were] legally eligible to marry in Kentucky.” Id. (Doc. # 74 therein).

         While multiple appeals from the Miller case were pending before the Sixth Circuit, the briefing in this matter was stayed. (Doc. # 11). Before the Sixth Circuit resolved the Miller appeals, the parties in that matter agreed that a legislative change had rendered the consolidated appeals moot, and the Sixth Circuit dismissed those appeals. Miller, 0:15-cv-44-DLB-EBA (Doc. # 179 therein). In its July 13, 2016 Order, the Sixth Circuit remanded the Miller matter to this Court, “with instructions to vacate” the August 12, 2015 and September 3, 2015 Preliminary Injunction Orders. Id. After the mandate issued, this Court complied with the Sixth Circuit's instructions and vacated the Preliminary Injunction Orders, denied all pending motions as moot, and dismissed the Miller matter from the Court's active docket. Id. (Docs. # 180 and 181 therein). In that same Order, the Court lifted the stay in this case and dismissed this matter from the Court's active docket.[4] (Doc. # 16).

         Plaintiffs filed a Motion for Reconsideration of the Order dismissing this matter. (Doc. # 17). In response to that same Order, the Ermold Plaintiffs appealed to the Sixth Circuit. Ermold, 0:15-cv-46-DLB-EBA (Doc. # 20 therein). On May 2, 2017, the Sixth Circuit reversed the Order dismissing the Ermold Plaintiffs' case, and remanded the action for further proceedings. Ermold, 0:15-cv-46-DLB-EBA (Docs. # 21 and 22 therein). Specifically, the Sixth Circuit held that the Ermold Plaintiffs' money-damages claim was not moot because they sought money damages, not an injunction. Id. For the same reason, this Court granted Plaintiffs' Motion for Reconsideration and set a telephonic conference to discuss a briefing schedule. (Docs. # 24 and 25). Now, the Defendant has moved to dismiss all of Plaintiffs' claims against her, arguing that she is immune from Plaintiffs' damages claims. (Doc. # 29).

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. Standard of Review

         To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) 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.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Put another way, “the plaintiff must allege facts that state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face and that, if accepted as true, are sufficient to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Wesley v. Campbell, 779 F.3d 421, 427 (6th Cir. 2015) (quoting Handy-Clay v. City of Memphis, Tenn., 695 F.3d 531, 538 (6th Cir. 2012); Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)).

         Although “Plaintiffs need not meet a ‘probability requirement' … they must show ‘more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.'” Id. at 427-28 (quoting Rondigo, LLC v. Twp. of Richmond, 641 F.3d 673, 680 (6th Cir. 2011)). “In ruling on the issue, a district court must ‘construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, accept its allegations as true, and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff.'” Id. at 428 (quoting Directv, Inc. v. Treesh, 487 F.3d 471, 476 (6th Cir. 2007). After all, the “defendant has the burden of showing that the plaintiff has failed to state a claim for relief.” Id.

         B. Immunities

         To state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Plaintiffs must allege that a person acting under color of state law deprived them of a right secured by the Constitution or federal law. See Will v. Mich. Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58 (1989). When a plaintiff seeks to hold governmental officials liable under § 1983, the Court must first consider immunities, which erect legal hurdles for claims against government entities and their officials. Three variables dictate whether immunity bars these Plaintiffs' suit: (1) the type of government entity the official represents, (2) the nature of the relief requested, and (3) the capacity in which the government official is sued.

         First, Davis is a state official. As mentioned above, and discussed in detail in the July 21, 2017 Memorandum Opinion and Order in Miller, Davis was acting as an agent of the Commonwealth of Kentucky when she refused to issue marriage licenses to legally eligible couples.[5] Second, Plaintiffs are seeking to vindicate their constitutional rights by obtaining money damages. And third, Plaintiffs have sued Davis in both her official capacity and her personal capacity. “Personal-capacity suits seek to impose personal liability upon a government official for actions … take[n] under color of state law.” Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 165 (1985) (citing Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 237-38 (1974)). “Official-capacity suits, in contrast, ‘generally represent only another way of pleading an action against an entity of which an officer is an agent.'” Id. (quoting Monell v. New York City Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 690 n.55 (1978)). Because different immunities apply to Plaintiffs' official-capacity and personal-capacity claims, the Court will address each in turn.

         1. Plaintiffs' official-capacity claim against Davis must be dismissed.

         Plaintiffs' official-capacity claim against Davis faces an insurmountable hurdle- sovereign immunity. The Eleventh Amendment's “[s]overeign immunity protects states, as well as state officials sued in their official capacity for money damages, from suit in federal court.” Boler v. Earley, 865 F.3d 391, 409-10 (6th Cir. 2017) (citing Ernst v. Rising, 427 F.3d 351, 358 (6th Cir. 2005)). Therefore, Plaintiffs' money-damages claim against Davis in her official capacity, which “is, in all respects other than name, to be treated as a suit against the” Commonwealth, is barred by the Eleventh Amendment.[6] Graham, 473 U.S. at 166. Accordingly, to the extent Plaintiffs seek money damages from Davis in her official capacity, she is immune from such relief, and that claim must be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Barker v. Goodrich, 649 F.3d 428, 433 (6th Cir. 2011).

         2. Plaintiffs' personal-capacity claim against Davis will not be dismissed.

         Qualified immunity-although an obstacle to Plaintiffs' personal-capacity claim against Davis-can be overcome. “The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials ‘from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). “Qualified immunity balances two important interests-the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.” Id.

         “Qualified immunity ‘gives ample room for mistaken judgments' by protecting ‘all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violated the law.'” Johnson v. Moseley, 790 F.3d 649, 653 (6th Cir. 2015) (quoting Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 229 (1991) (per curiam)). And “[t]he protection of qualified immunity applies regardless of whether the government official's error is ‘a ...


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