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Davis v. Baker

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington

November 18, 2019




         This matter is before the Court on Defendants' joint motion to dismiss Plaintiff's complaint or, in the alternative, a joint motion for judgment on the pleadings. Plaintiff Charles Coleman Davis, Jr. brought suit for damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of his Constitutional rights; he also alleges violations of state law. (DE 1.) Defendants Joseph Baker and Phillip Johnson filed their joint motion pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) and 12(c). (DE 8.) For the reasons stated below, the Court grants Defendants' motion.


         In the early morning of March 20, 2018, Defendants - officers with the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government Police Department - were patrolling an area in response to recent complaints of possible drug and prostitution activity. (DE 1 at 2-3.) Running a check on the registration number for Plaintiff's black Dodge Charger, Defendant Baker learned that the number was assigned to a white Dodge Charger, and the officers stopped the vehicle. (DE 1 at 3.) During the traffic stop, Defendants reportedly smelled marijuana and conducted a search of the vehicle, finding 2.5 grams of marijuana and a 9-millimeter handgun. (DE 1 at 3.)

         Defendants arrested Plaintiff, and he was later indicted by a Fayette County grand jury for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, carrying a concealed deadly weapon, possession of marijuana, and being a persistent felony offender in the first degree. (DE 1 at 3.) On October 24, 2018, the Fayette County Circuit Court granted Plaintiff's motion to suppress the evidence that was found during the traffic stop. (DE 1-4.) Plaintiff had argued that Defendants did not have reasonable suspicion that criminal activity had occurred, or was about to occur, sufficient to justify stopping his vehicle; he did not commit a traffic violation, it is not illegal to change a vehicle's paint color, and the law does not require notification to the state when a vehicle is repainted. (DE 1 at 4.) Plaintiff spent approximately 205 days detained in the Fayette County Detention Center while his motion to suppress was pending. (DE 1 at 4.) Plaintiff was also on probation at the time of the traffic stop, and the Fayette County Circuit Court revoked his probation and sentenced him to five years in prison. (DE 1 at 4.)

         Plaintiff filed suit in this Court on March 18, 2019. (DE 1.) The complaint alleges that the seizure, search, and arrest violated Plaintiff's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. (DE 1 at 5-6.) He seeks damages and other relief for those violations pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (DE 1 at 5-8.) Plaintiff also brings state law claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and malicious prosecution. (DE 1 at 6-7.) Defendants filed their joint motion on April 24, 2019. (DE 8.) Defendants argue that Plaintiff's federal law claims are barred by their qualified immunity and Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994) (DE 8 at 1, 16-17), [1] and that the Court should dismiss the state law claims either on the merits or because Plaintiff has failed to meet his pleading burden (DE 8 at 1).


         I. Standard

         A party may move for judgment on the pleadings after the pleadings have closed. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). The standard of review for a Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings and a Rule 12(b)(6) motion for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted are the same.[2] See Fritz v. Charter Twp. of Comstock, 592 F.3d 718, 722 (6th Cir. 2010). For the purposes of either motion, the well-pleaded allegations of the complaint must be taken as true and all reasonable inferences drawn in the plaintiff's favor. Id. (quoting JPMorgan Chase Bank, N.A. v. Winget, 510 F.3d 577, 581 (6th Cir. 2007)); Gavitt v. Born, 835 F.3d 623, 640 (6th Cir. 2016).

         To survive a Rule 12(c) or Rule 12(b)(6) motion, “[t]he factual allegations in the complaint need to be sufficient to give notice to the defendant as to what claims are alleged, and the plaintiff must plead ‘sufficient factual matter' to render the legal claim plausible, i.e., more than merely possible.” Fritz, 592 F.3d at 722 (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009)). “A legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation, ” however, “need not be accepted as true on a motion to dismiss, nor are recitations of the elements of a cause of action sufficient.” Id. (quoting Hensley Mfg. v. ProPride, Inc., 579 F.3d 603, 609 (6th Cir. 2009)).

         II. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Claims

         Even if Defendants' conduct violated Plaintiff's rights, that alone is not enough for the Plaintiff to secure damages in a § 1983 action. The Court finds that the law which might determine that Defendants violated Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment rights was not clearly enough established to defeat Defendants' qualified immunity claim.

         A. Qualified immunity

         42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides “a vehicle for a plaintiff to obtain damages for violations of the Constitution or a federal statute.” Boler v. Earley, 865 F.3d 391, 401 (6th Cir. 2017). Under the statute -

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress…

42 U.S.C. § 1983.

         However, the law provides government officials with qualified immunity from such actions. “[G]overnment officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded 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.” Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). If the law at the time of the conduct “did not clearly establish that the [official's] conduct would violate the Constitution, the [official] should not be subject to liability or, indeed, even the burdens of litigation.” Brosseau v. Haugen, 543 U.S. 194, 198 (2004). Although the procedure “should not be regarded as mandatory in all cases, ” a court can look to the two-step sequence described in Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194 (2001), to aid its evaluation of an official's qualified immunity claim. Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009). “First, a court must decide whether the facts that a plaintiff has alleged… make out a violation of a constitutional right. Second, if the plaintiff has satisfied this first step, the court must decide whether the right at issue was ‘clearly established' at the time of defendant's alleged misconduct.” Id. at 232 (citations to Saucier, 533 U.S. at 201 omitted).

         The Supreme Court has further clarified that conduct violates clearly established law if at the time of the conduct the “contours” of the right were “sufficiently clear” such that “every reasonable official would [have understood] that what he is doing violates that right.” Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 741 (2011) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). Qualified immunity will apply “if reasonable officials could disagree as to whether the conduct violated the plaintiff's rights.” Thomas v. Cohen, 304 F.3d 563, 580 (6th Cir. 2002). The law does “not require a case directly on point, but existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate.” Ashcroft, 563 U.S. at 741 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). In other words, the conduct at issue need not have “previously been held unlawful, ” but “in the light of pre-existing law the unlawfulness must be apparent.” Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640 (1987); see also St. John v. Hickey, 411 F.3d 762, 774 (6th Cir. 2005) (“The critical question is whether the case law has put the officer on notice that his conduct is clearly unlawful.”), abrogated on other grounds by Marvin v. City of Taylor, 509 F.3d 234, 246 n. 6 (6th Cir. 2007). The Sixth Circuit has instructed that, “[w]hen ...

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