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Sweat v. State

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Huntington Division

December 22, 2016

STATE OF WEST VIRGINIA, WEST VIRGINIA STATE POLICE, SGT. S. T. HARPER, in his individual and official capacity as a sergeant in the West Virginia State Police, WEST VIRGINIA STATE POLICE UNKNOWN OFFICERS, in their individual and official capacity as officers in the West Virginia State Police, Defendants.



         Pending before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss in Part (ECF No. 10). Plaintiffs filed the instant action on June 10, 2016 (ECF No. 1) alleging seven different counts against Defendants over the untimely death of their beloved dog, Willy Pete.[1] Defendants have moved to dismiss many of these claims, either in whole or in part. For the following reasons, the Court GRANTS Defendants' Motion to Dismiss in Part (ECF No. 10).

         I. Background

         This case involves a series of extremely unfortunate events that led to the death of Plaintiffs' dog, Willy Pete. Plaintiffs Jeremy and Ginger Sweat live in Milton, West Virginia on a rural piece of property. Pls.' Compl., ECF No. 1, at ¶ 10. On June 24, 2014, Mrs. Sweat noticed a heavy police presence on or near their property, including a helicopter overhead. Id. at ¶¶ 29-30. Plaintiffs later discovered that police were searching for a fugitive who had fled near their property. Id. at ¶ 32. Looking out the living room window, Mrs. Sweat observed men in military-type uniforms holding rifles and emerging from the woods near Plaintiffs' driveway. Id. at ¶ 35. With the men was a “large dark colored dog” - the K-9 unit's canine involved in the search. Id. One of Plaintiffs' dogs, Willy Pete, was lounging on the front porch near the door directly underneath the living room window. Id. at ¶ 36.

         According to the complaint, the canine with the police officers began to bark, and “its handler was struggling to control that dog.” Id. at ¶ 38. Willy Pete stood up from his position and began to trot towards the men. Id. at ¶ 39. Plaintiffs allege that Willy Pete was not aggressive and had no history of violence. Id. at ¶¶ 27-28. One of the men, later identified as Sergeant S.T. Harper, pointed his gun towards the oncoming dog. Id. at ¶ 40. Mrs. Sweat allegedly yelled for the officer to lower his weapon, screaming “Don't Shoot My Dog! He won't bite you! Let me put him inside!” Id. at ¶ 41. However, the officer allegedly fired one shot that landed in the dirt in front of Willy Pete, scaring the dog to run back to the house towards Mrs. Sweat. Id. at ¶¶ 43-45. Mrs. Sweat claims three more shots were fired in Willy Pete's direction, putting the house and Mrs. Sweat in the line of fire. Id. at ¶ 51.

         Willy Pete ran towards the back of the house, and Mrs. Sweat went to the back door to check on him. Id. at ¶ 55. Mrs. Sweat saw her dog lying on the ground, struggling for breath, and watched him die. Id. at ¶ 56. Mrs. Sweat struggled through her emotions to call Mr. Sweat to tell him about what just happened, and the police officers waited outside for him to return home. Id. at ¶¶ 61-65. When asked why they shot Willy Pete, one of the police officers told Mrs. Sweat that they “couldn't let the dogs fight.” Id. at ¶ 63. When Mr. Sweat arrived, he demanded to know who shot the dog. Id. at ¶ 75. In response, one of the police officers allegedly grabbed Mr. Sweat by the arm and said, “You had better shut your Goddamn mouth or you're going to get yourself into trouble.” Id. at ¶ 76. Mr. Sweat and the police officers eventually dug a hole to bury Willy Pete in the yard. Id. at ¶ 80.

         Both Mr. and Mrs. Sweat gave statements to Sergeant Mills, a member of the West Virginia State Police force on the scene. Id. at ¶¶ 82-85. Plaintiffs' complaint includes details of emotional distress resulting from the traumatic experience, including visits with psychiatrists and therapist counselors as well as prescriptions for “psychotropic medications.” Id. at ¶¶ 95-101. Mrs. Sweat has been diagnosed with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, depression, and generalized anxiety. Id. at ¶ 96. Mr. Sweat has also been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Id. at ¶ 99.

         Plaintiffs filed this suit to recover damages and to request injunctive relief against Defendants' policies that allow officers to kill domestic pets without due process and without exigent circumstances. The complaint alleges seven causes of action, which will each be addressed according to the arguments brought in Defendants' Motion to Dismiss in Part: (1) Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Defendant Harper and Unknown Officers in their individual capacities; (2) Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the State of West Virginia and the West Virginia State Police (WVSP); (3) a negligent training, supervision, and retention claim against the WVSP; (4) an intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) claim against all Defendants; (5) a negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED) claim against all Defendants; (6) a negligence claim against all Defendants; and (7) a conversion claim against all Defendants. For relief, Plaintiffs request compensatory damages, punitive damages, injunctive relief, and attorneys' fees and costs.

         II. Legal Standard

         Federal Rule 8(a) requires a complaint to include “a short and plain statement of the claim … showing entitle[ment] to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). To overcome a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule 12(b)(6), a complaint must also be plausible. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 546 (2007). This standard requires a plaintiff to set forth the “grounds” for an “entitle[ment] to relief” that is more than mere “labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Id. at 555 (internal quotations and citations omitted). 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) (internal quotations and citation omitted). Facial plausibility exists when a claim contains “factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (citation omitted).

         Accepting the factual allegations in the complaint as true (even when doubtful), the allegations “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level ….” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citations omitted). If the allegations in the complaint, assuming their truth, do “not raise a claim of entitlement to relief, this basic deficiency should … be exposed at the point of minimum expenditure of time and money by the parties and the court.” Id. at 558 (internal quotations and citations omitted). Finally, “[a]lthough for the purposes of a motion to dismiss we must take all of the factual allegations in the complaint as true, we are not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (internal quotations and citation omitted).

         III. Discussion

         a. Claims against Unknown Officers

         Defendants challenge Plaintiffs' inclusion of Unknown Officers in the complaint as contrary to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Briefings by both parties focus on District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin's decision in Price v. Marsh to argue opposite positions. See Price v. Marsh, Civ. No. 2:12-cv-05442, 2013 WL 5409811 (S.D. W.Va. Sept. 25, 2013). Plaintiffs highlight Judge Goodwin's comment that “lawsuits against John Doe defendants are permitted where the ‘true identity of an unnamed party can be discovered through discovery or through intervention by the court.'” Id. at *5 (quoting Schiff v. Kennedy, 691 F.2d 196, 198 (4th Cir. 1982)). Defendants focus on the following sentence, stating that “this determination and its subsequent reiteration by the Fourth Circuit … occurred in the era prior to Twombly and Iqbal.” Id. Judge Goodwin goes on to say that “[i]f a judgment may not be entered against an unnamed party, by definition it is impossible for a plaintiff to state a claim against an unnamed party upon which relief can be granted.” Id. This analysis ultimately led Judge Goodwin to dismiss Trooper John Doe from that action.

         Although the cited analysis in both parties' briefs appears to suggest that no actions can survive against John Doe defendants, both Plaintiffs and Defendants failed to discuss the most important part of Judge Goodwin's analysis, occurring before any of the cited discussion. The dismissal of Trooper John Doe importantly appears after Judge Goodwin discusses the plaintiff's motion to amend the complaint to substitute an actual defendant for the unnamed officer. Id. at *2-3. Judge Goodwin highlights the plaintiff's untimely amendment, citing the failure to request information from the defendants in discovery to learn the trooper's name, the attempted alteration of the complaint three months before any motion to amend was filed, the six-month delay of filing a motion to amend after the time for amended pleadings in the scheduling order had passed, and the plaintiff's failure to request an extension to file an amended pleading. Id. at *2. Based on all of these damaging facts, Judge Goodwin held that the plaintiff “was not diligent in seeking leave to amend the complaint, and therefore the motion for leave to amend the complaint is DENIED.” Id. at *3. The complaint moving forward, therefore, contained allegations against Trooper Marsh, Trooper John Doe, Colonel Cr. Smithers, and the WVSP. Facing these defendants as the final defendants allowed to be named ...

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