United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Northern Division, Ashland
JAMES YATES, et al. PLAINTIFFS
KIM DAVIS, individually and in her official capacity, et al. DEFENDANTS
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
L. BUNNING, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
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.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
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. 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
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. Id.
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
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.
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).
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).
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
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. (Doc. # 16).
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).
Standard of Review
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)).
“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
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.
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. 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.
Plaintiffs' official-capacity claim against Davis must be
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. 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).
Plaintiffs' personal-capacity claim against Davis will
not be dismissed.
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.”
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 ...