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Cruse v. Blackburn

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

January 16, 2018

WENDELL LEONARD CRUSE, Plaintiff,
v.
ERNIE BLACKBURN, et al., Defendants.

          PROPOSED FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATION

          OMAR J. ABOULHOSN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Pending before the Court is Defendants Blackburn and Matovich's Motion for Summary Judgment (Document No. 49), filed on August 2, 2017. The Court notified Plaintiff pursuant to Roseboro v. Garrison, 528 F.2d 304 (4th Cir. 1975), that Plaintiff had the right to file a response to Defendants' Motion and submit Affidavit(s) or statements and/or other legal or factual material supporting his claims as they are challenged by the Defendants in moving to dismiss. (Document No. 54.) Plaintiff filed his Response in Opposition on December 27, 2017 (Document No. 75) and Defendants filed their Reply (Document No. 76). Having examined the record and considered the applicable law, the undersigned has concluded that Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment should be granted.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On September 1, 2017, Plaintiff, acting pro se and a pretrial detainee in confinement at Western Regional Jail in Barboursville, West Virginia, filed his letter-form Complaint claiming entitlement to relief under 42 U.S.C. §1983.[1] (Document No. 2.) As defendants, Plaintiff named the following: (1) Ernie Blackburn, Huntington Police Officer; and (2) Paul Matovich, Huntington Police Officer. (Id.) Plaintiff alleges that Defendants Blackburn and Matovich were conducting surveillance of Plaintiff's residence on December 29, 2016, and conducted an improper traffic stop of a vehicle that left Plaintiff's residence. (Id.) Plaintiff states that Defendants Blackburn and Matovich had “no probable cause for the traffic stop and conducted an illegal and improper search of the vehicle and an improper and illegal detainment of the vehicles occupants.” (Id.) Plaintiff alleges that Defendants Blackburn and Matovich searched his home on the same day after securing a search warrant obtained by the use of a “false affidavit” and “unsubstantiated accusations.” (Id.) Plaintiff states that “Defendants conducted a thorough and extensive search of Plaintiff's residence, but “no narcotics or illegal substances of any kind” were found in his residence. (Id.) Plaintiff, however, states that he was arrested based upon an “outstanding traffic warrant.” (Id.) Following his arrest, Plaintiff states that Defendants Blackburn and Matovich transported Plaintiff to the Huntington Police Department where he was placed in an interview room and read his Miranda rights. (Id.) Plaintiff alleges that Defendants Blackburn and Matovich then acknowledged that no drugs were found in Plaintiff's residence or on Plaintiff's person, but stated that “a small amount of suspected crack cocaine was found on Lisa, who was an occupant at Plaintiff's residence.” (Id.) Plaintiff contends that Defendants Blackburn and Matovich stated that “if Plaintiff did not cooperate with Defendants investigation, the narcotics found on Lisa would be attributed to Plaintiff and Plaintiff would be charged, and Lisa would not be charged, with narcotics found secreted on her person.” (Id.) Plaintiff alleges that he “vehemently protested that he did not have anything to do with ‘Lisa' and that the drugs found secreted on her person could not be legally attributed to Plaintiff.” (Id.) Plaintiff contends that Defendants Blackburn and Matovich “then knowingly, maliciously and feloniously filed false charges against the Plaintiff upon their oath and affirmation stating they found ‘a bag containing tan chucks that field tested positive for cocaine' in Plaintiff's residence.” (Id.) Plaintiff argues “Defendants knew the Complaint they swore to and affirmed was totally and absolutely untrue.” (Id.) Plaintiff states that Magistrate Black dismissed the charges during a preliminary hearing conducted on January 6, 2017, after verifying that no drugs were found on Plaintiff's person or in his residence. (Id.) Plaintiff contends that the actions by Defendant Blackburn and Matovich caused Plaintiff to be “illegally incarcerated for 11 days, caused severe emotional distress and mental anguish, and loss of property.” (Id.) As relief, Plaintiff requests monetary damages. (Id.)

         By Order entered on January 24, 2017, United States Magistrate Judge Cheryl A. Eifert granted Plaintiff's Motion to Proceed Without Prepayment of Fees, directed the Clerk to issue a summons for each named defendant, directed the United States Marshals Service to serve the Summons and a copy of Plaintiff's Complaint upon each Defendant. (Document No. 4.) On February 28, 2017, Defendants Blackburn and Matovich filed their Answer. (Document No. 9.) On the same day, the above civil action was transferred from Judge Eifert to the undersigned for total pretrial management and submission of proposed findings of fact and recommendations for disposition. (Document No. 10.) By Scheduling Order entered on March 1, 2017, the undersigned set forth deadlines for the completion of discovery and the filing of dispositive motions. (Document No. 11.)

         On March 13, 2017, Plaintiff filed a Motion to Amend Complaint to include “two new defendants and two new counts.” (Document No. 12.) Plaintiff attached a copy of his “Amended Complaint” as an Exhibit. (Document No. 12-1.) By Order entered on March 30, 2017, the undersigned granted Plaintiff's Motion to Amend, directed the Clerk to file Plaintiff's Amended Complaint, and directed that Plaintiff's Amended Complaint be served upon Defendants. (Document No. 14.) In his Amended Complaint, Plaintiff named the following as additional defendants: (1) Sean Hammers, Cabell County Prosecutor; and (2) Sharon Frazier, Cabell County Assistant Prosecutor. (Document No. 15.) As additional “counts, ” Plaintiff asserted claims of “malicious prosecution and abuse of process” and retaliation. (Id.) In support, Plaintiff asserts that Defendants Hammers and Frazier “appeared before a Cabell County West Virginia Grand Jury and sought an indictment against the Plaintiff based solely upon the perjured testimony and false affidavit filed 12-29-16” in retaliation for Plaintiff's instant civil right action.” (Id.)

         On April 21, 2017, Defendants Blackburn and Matovich filed their Answer. (Document No. 23.) On May 4, 2017, Defendants Hammer and Frazier filed their Motion to Dismiss and Memorandum in Support. (Document Nos. 28 and 29.) Plaintiff filed his Response in Opposition to Defendants Hammer and Frazier's Motion to Dismiss on June 23, 2017. (Document No. 42.) On August 3, 2017, all Defendants filed Motions for Summary Judgment and Memorandums in Support. (Document No. 49, 52, 53, and 55.) Defendants Blackburn and Matovich argue that Plaintiff's federal claims should be dismissed because Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity. (Document No. 55, pp. 4 - 8.) Defendants Blackburn and Matovich then contend that Plaintiff's “remaining claims should be dismissed, without prejudice, because they purportedly arise solely under State law.” (Id., pp. 8 - 10.)

         Notice pursuant to Roseboro v. Garrison, 528 F.2d 309 (4th Cir. 1975), was issued to Plaintiff on August 4, 2017, advising him of the right to file a response to the Defendants' Motions for Summary Judgment. (Document No. 54.) On August 31, 2017, a Voluntary Order of Dismissal was entered regarding Defendants Frazier and Hammer. (Document No. 62.) On December 27, 2017, Plaintiff filed his Response in Opposition to Defendants Blackburn and Matovich's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Document No. 75.) Defendants Blackburn and Matovich filed their Reply on January 3, 2018. (Document No. 76.) In support, Defendants Blackburn and Matovich attached the following Exhibits: (1) A copy of Plaintiff's Complaint (Document No. 76-1.); (2) A copy of Courtney Bohnke's statement (Document No. 76-2.); and (3) A copy of the transcripts from Plaintiff's plea hearing in Nos. 17-F-016 and 15-F-236 (Document No. 76-3.).

         STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 when no genuine issue of material fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Once the moving party demonstrates the lack of evidence to support the non-moving party's claims, the non-moving party must go beyond the pleadings and make a sufficient showing of facts presenting a genuine issue for trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 - 87, 106 S.Ct.1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986). All inferences must be drawn from the underlying facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587, 106 S.Ct. at 1356. Summary judgment is required when a party fails to make a showing sufficient to establish an essential element of a claim, even if there are genuine factual issues proving other elements of the claim. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-23, 106 S.Ct. at 2552-53. Generally speaking, therefore, summary judgment will be granted unless a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party on the evidence presented. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). If no facts or inferences which can be drawn from the circumstances will support Plaintiff's claims, summary judgment is appropriate.

         ANALYSIS

         “[F]ederal courts must take cognizance of the valid constitutional claims of prison inmates.” Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 84, 107 S.Ct. 2254, 2259, 96 L.Ed.2d 64 (1987). Title 42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides a remedy for violations of all “rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws [of the United States].” Thus, Section 1983 provides a “broad remedy for violations of federally protected civil rights.” Monell v. Dep't of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 685, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978). Generally speaking, to state and prevail upon a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a Plaintiff must prove that (1) a person acting under color of State law (2) committed an act which deprived him of an alleged right, privilege or immunity protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.

         1. Federal Constitutional Claims:

         In his Complaint and Amended Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants Blackburn and Matovich conducted an improper search and subjected him to false arrest, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. (Document Nos. 2 and 15.) In their Motion, Defendants Blackburn and Matovich (hereinafter “Defendants”) argue that Plaintiff's claim for unconstitutional search and seizure must be dismissed based on qualified immunity. (Document No. 55, pp. 4 - 8.) Courts have established qualified immunity for government officials in consideration of a number of factors including the substantial cost of litigation against government officials, the distraction of government officials from their public responsibilities and the disincentive to responsible and capable persons to accept government positions if there is no protection against suits accusing them of misconduct in the performance of their public duties. Government officials performing discretionary functions are generally protected from civil damages liability if 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, 129 S.Ct. 808, 815, 172 L.Ed.2d 565 (2009)(quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 2738, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982)). In determining the validity of a qualified immunity defense, the Court should be guided by a two-prong test: (1) whether the facts viewed in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff establish a deprivation of an actual constitutional right; and (2) whether that right was clearly established at the time of the purported violation. Id. The sequence of the steps is immaterial following Pearson. The Court may exercise discretion in deciding which of the two prongs “should be addressed first in light of the circumstances in the particular case at hand.” Id. at 818. “A constitutional right is ‘clearly established' when its contours are sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right.” Cooper v. Sheehan, 735 F.3d 153, 158 *4th Cir. 2013)(internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

         In the instant case, Defendants appear to acknowledge that the Fourth Amendment right to unreasonable search and seizure was clearly established at the time of the allegation violation. Defendants, however, argue that they are entitled to qualified immunity because Plaintiff cannot establish that Defendants violated his constitutional rights.

         (a) Unlawful Search:

         Plaintiff first alleges that he was subjected to an unreasonable search in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights because the search warrant authorizing the search of his home was not supported by probable cause. (Document No. 2.) Specifically, Plaintiff asserts that the search warrant was unsupported by probable cause because it was secured by the use of a “false affidavit” and “unsubstantiated accusations.” (Id.) In their Motion for Summary Judgment and Reply, Defendants argue that the search was appropriate and they are entitled to qualified immunity. (Document Nos. 49 and 76.) Defendants attach as Exhibits a copy of the “Affidavit and Complaint for Search Warrant, ” the “Search Warrant, ” and the Statement of Courtney Bohnke. (Document Nos. 49-2 and 76-2.)

         The undisputed evidence reveals that Defendant Matovich prepared and submitted an “Affidavit and Complaint for Search Warrant” to the Magistrate of Cabell County on December 29, 2016. (Document No. 49-2.) In support of his Complaint for Search Warrant, ...


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