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Ali v. Raleigh County

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

March 29, 2018

MARQUEL ALI, Plaintiff,
v.
RALEIGH COUNTY, et al. Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          IRENE C. BERGER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF WEST VIRGINIA

         The Court has reviewed the Defendant Jason Redden in His Capacity as a Parole Officer with the West Virginia Division of Correction's Motion to Dismiss the Plaintiff's Complaint (Document 5) and Memorandum of Law in Support (Document 6), the Plaintiff's Response in Opposition (Document 21), and Defendant Jason Redden's Reply to the Plaintiff's Response (Document 27). The Court has also reviewed the Plaintiff's Complaint (Document 1), Amended Complaint (Document 23), and all attached exhibits. For the reasons stated herein, the Court finds that the motion should be granted in part and denied in part as more fully explained below.

         FACTUAL ALLEGATIONS

         The Plaintiff, Marquel Ali, initiated this action with a complaint filed in this Court on June 23, 2017. The Plaintiff originally named the following entities as Defendants: Raleigh County, a municipal corporation or political subdivision organized under the laws of the State of West Virginia, Raleigh County Sheriff's Department (Sheriff's Department), a law enforcement agency established, maintained, and controlled by Raleigh County, the City of Beckley, a municipal corporation organized under the laws of the State of West Virginia, Beckley Police Department (BPD), a law enforcement agency established, maintained, and controlled by the City of Beckley, and the West Virginia State Police (WVSP), a state law enforcement agency organized under the laws of the State of West Virginia. Mr. Ali also named several individuals as Defendants, in both their individual and official capacities: Mr. Steven Tanner, a resident of Raleigh County, West Virginia, and the Sheriff of Raleigh County during the applicable time frame, Mr. Gary Epling, a resident of Raleigh County, West Virginia, and a detective with the Raleigh County Sheriff's Department, Mr. Kenneth Pack, a resident of Raleigh County, West Virginia, and an officer with the WVSP, Mr. David Snuffer, a resident of Raleigh County, West Virginia, and an officer with the BPD, and Mr. Jason Redden, a citizen of Raleigh County, West Virginia, and, during the applicable time, a parole officer with the West Virginia Department of Corrections.[1] (Amended Compl. at ¶ ¶ 2-13.)[2] The Plaintiff alleges that “all acts of the Defendants were done . . . under the color and pretense of [the law] of the State of West Virginia and under the authority of the office” by which they were employed. (Id. at ¶ 14.)

         Mr. Ali, “an African American male with a dark complexion, ” was hired by the Defendant Raleigh County Sheriff's Department as a deputy and began his employment on March 18, 2014. (Id. at ¶ 1, 17.) The Sheriff's Department requires all new hires to complete a probationary year during which they receive on-the-job training and attend the West Virginia State Police Academy. According to the Plaintiff, four other new deputies were hired at the same time as him, and one of them was also an African American. The other African American had a “very light complexion, ” as alleged by Mr. Ali. (Id. at ¶ 19.) Mr. Ali alleges that he was, in fact, “the only African American officer employed with the Defendant Sheriff's Department who had a dark complexion.” (Id. at ¶ 21.)

         Mr. Ali alleges that, throughout his employment with the Defendant Sheriff's Department, he was frequently subjected to racial slurs and other inappropriate treatment. Defendant Tanner would often call him “boy” or refer to him as a “thug, ” other white officers would place bets on whether he would make it through his training at the police academy, and he would often receive write-ups while white officers “who engaged in the same activity were not issued any form of reprimand or other discipline.” (Id. at ¶ 23-28.) On March 16, 2015, Mr. Ali was subjected to an interrogation regarding allegations by someone he had arrested. A white officer was present with Mr. Ali when he made the arrest, but was not subjected to the same interrogation and investigation. On the following day, “one day prior to the end of his one year probationary period, ” Mr. Ali was terminated from his employment by Defendant Tanner. (Id. at ¶ 38.) Mr. Ali appealed his termination to the Raleigh County Civil Service Commission, and attended a hearing on June 2, 2015. The parties were required to submit proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law to the Commission by June 22, 2015.

         On June 23, 2015, one day after the submission of those findings of fact, the Plaintiff's cousin contacted him and asked for a ride. The Plaintiff's cousin was on parole at the time and owned no vehicle, so the Plaintiff agreed to pick him up. Prior to picking up his cousin, Mr. Ali received a phone call from a State Trooper regarding a case he had worked on while a deputy. The trooper asked the Plaintiff if he was currently in Beckley. Mr. Ali stated that he was in Beckley, and proceeded to pick up his cousin some twenty minutes later. While in route to do so, “[a]pproximately one-half mile from the residence . . . Plaintiff noticed several unmarked police cars parked in a car wash parking lot.” (Id. at ¶ 53.) Mr. Ali proceeded to his cousin's house where, after waiting several minutes, his cousin placed a bag in the trunk and got in the car. The two decided to go to Burger King, and when exiting the drive through with their food, the Plaintiff's car was “barricaded in by several unmarked police cars, including the cars Mr. Ali had seen near the residence when he picked up his cousin.” (Id. at ¶ 61.) “The officers who were involved in the traffic stop knew Mr. Ali and the vehicle he drove, ” and also “knew that [Mr. Ali] owned a personal firearm . . . .” (Id. at ¶ 62.)

         One of the officers approached Mr. Ali at gunpoint and asked him if he had a firearm. Although Mr. Ali responded that he did not have a firearm in the car, he was forced to the ground and handcuffed. After the Defendant officers had begun searching his car, Mr. Ali was asked to sign a consent form, and signed it, although it “had been previously completed by Defendants and/or agents of Defendants and was also incorrectly dated ‘6-22-2015.'” (Id. at ¶ 70.) After signing the form, the Plaintiff saw Defendant Epling “approach the back of the car carrying a mid-to-large sized brown or manila color envelope/package.” (Id. at ¶ 73.) Upon completing the search of the vehicle, the Defendants allegedly found illegal drugs in the trunk and a small amount of marijuana on the Plaintiff's cousin. Both the Plaintiff and his cousin were arrested. The Plaintiff was charged with two counts of possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver and conspiracy to commit a felony. “After Mr. Ali was arrested, the State Trooper who had called [him] less than an hour earlier to confirm [he] was in Beckley, arrived at the scene and transported Mr. Ali to the Beckley State Police office, then to jail.” (Id. at ¶ 80.) According to Mr. Ali, the Defendants conspired together to wrongfully and maliciously arrest and prosecute him in retaliation for his intent to bring a discrimination lawsuit against Defendant Raleigh County Sheriff's Department and Defendant Tanner.

         The Defendants interrogated Mr. Ali and his cousin and conducted a criminal investigation of the charges, during which time the Defendants proactively “took steps to hide [] exculpatory evidence from Mr. Ali for nearly two years.” (Id. at ¶ 100.) “Over the nearly two years following Mr. Ali's arrest, Defendants failed and/or refused to disclose or produce material evidence related to Mr. Ali's case despite repeated requests by Mr. Ali's counsel.” (Id. at ¶ 103.) The Defendants also made various false claims regarding why they pulled the Plaintiff over in the Burger King parking lot. On February 13, 2017, Mr. Ali's first criminal trial began in the Circuit Court of Raleigh County, West Virginia. On February 15, after being informed that certain individuals in court had been seen speaking with potential defense witnesses in the hallway, the court declared a mistrial sua sponte. On May 22, 2017, a second criminal trial began on the same charges. On May 26, 2017, after a four-day trial, the jury returned a defense verdict, finding Mr. Ali not guilty on all charges. Not quite three months later, Mr. Ali filed this action.

         Mr. Ali's amended complaint sets forth eleven counts: Count I - Race Discrimination, Count II - Color Discrimination, [3] Count III - Discrimination and Interference with Plaintiff's Right to Equal Benefit of the Law in Violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981, Count IV - Warrantless Arrest Pursuant to False Tip in Violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Count V - Conspiracy to Interfere with Constitutional Rights in Violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3), Count VI - Neglect to Prevent Conspiracy to Interfere with Plaintiff's Rights, Count VII - False/Wrongful Arrest and Improper Investigation and Prosecution in Violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Count VIII - Abuse of Process, Count IX - Malicious Prosecution, Count X - Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress, and Count XI - Outrage.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A motion to dismiss filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint. Francis v. Giacomelli, 588 F.3d 186, 192 (4th Cir. 2009); Giarratano v. Johnson, 521 F.3d 298, 302 (4th Cir. 2008). “[T]he legal sufficiency of a complaint is measured by whether it meets the standard stated in Rule 8 [of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure] (providing general rules of pleading) . . . and Rule 12(b)(6) (requiring that a complaint state a claim upon which relief can be granted.)” Id. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires that a pleading must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2).

         In reviewing a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim, the Court must “accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint.” Erikson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007). The Court must also “draw[ ] all reasonable factual inferences from those facts in the plaintiff's favor.” Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 244 (4th Cir. 1999). However, statements of bare legal conclusions “are not entitled to the assumption of truth” and are insufficient to state a claim. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009). Furthermore, the Court need not “accept as true unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusions, or arguments.” E. Shore Mkts., v. J.D. Assocs. Ltd. P'ship, 213 F.3d 175, 180 (4th Cir. 2000). “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice… [because courts] ‘are not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)).

         To survive a 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.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570.) In other words, this “plausibility standard requires a plaintiff to demonstrate more than ‘a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.'” Francis v. Giacomelli, 588 F.3d 186, 193 (4th Cir. 2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570.) In the complaint, a plaintiff must “articulate facts, when accepted as true, that ‘show' that the plaintiff has stated a claim entitling him to relief.” Francis, 588 F.3d at 193 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557.) “Determining whether a complaint states [on its face] a plausible claim for relief [which can survive a motion to dismiss] will ... be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679.

         DISCUSSION

         Defendant Redden, having filed this motion specifically in his capacity as a parole officer for the West Virginia Division of Corrections, sets forth several different grounds for dismissal.

         A. Sovereign Immunity

         Mr. Redden first argues that all of the Plaintiff's claims against him, in his official capacity as a parole officer, should be dismissed because he is entitled to sovereign immunity. Mr. Redden was a parole officer working in an official capacity for the West Virginia Division of Corrections at the time of the Plaintiff's allegations, and he argues that claims against him in that capacity are considered claims against the State itself. Because the State of West Virginia has sovereign immunity, Mr. Redden argues that he also has sovereign immunity from any claims filed against him in his official capacity.

         In his response in opposition, the Plaintiff concedes that his claims against Defendant Redden in his official, as opposed to his individual, capacity may be subject to dismissal on grounds of sovereign immunity. The Plaintiff also concedes in his response that the Section 1983 claims against Defendant Redden in his official capacity as a parole officer with the West Virginia Division of Corrections are subject to dismissal. The Court finds that all claims against Defendant Redden in his official capacity as a parole officer for the West Virginia Division of Corrections should be dismissed.

         B. Qualified Immunity

         Mr. Redden contends that the Plaintiff's Section 1983 claims against him must be dismissed because he is entitled to qualified immunity. He argues that the Plaintiff has failed to establish that Mr. Redden violated any clearly established constitutional law and is therefore entitled to qualified immunity. The Plaintiff counters that the “Amended Complaint sets forth hundreds of detailed factual allegations” explaining how Defendant Redden played a role in the unconstitutional plan to arrest him, and that Defendant Redden's motion should therefore be denied.

         Under the doctrine of qualified immunity, “[g]overnmental officials performing discretionary functions are shielded from liability for money damages so long ‘as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'” Tomashek v. Raleigh Cty. Emergency Operating Ctr., No. 2:17-CV-01904, 2018 WL 522420, at *3 (S.D. W.Va. Jan. 23, 2018) (Goodwin, J.) (quoting Maciariello v. Sumner, 973 F.3d 295, 298 (4th Cir. 1992)). Defendants asserting a qualified immunity defense first bear the burden of “demonstrating that the conduct of which the plaintiff complains falls within the scope of the defendant's duties.” In re Allen, 106 F.3d 582, 594 (4th Cir. 1997) (internal quotation marks omitted.)

         Officials are protected even if they make reasonable mistakes of fact or law, so long as they do not violate a clearly established statutory or constitutional right. Pearson, 555 U.S. at 231-32. Courts are advised to “ask first whether a constitutional violation occurred and second whether the right violated was clearly established.”[4]Id. “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); Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640 (1987) (“This is not to say that an official action is protected by qualified immunity unless the very action in question has previously been held unlawful . . . but . . . that in the light of pre-existing law the unlawfulness must be apparent.”). The reasonableness analysis is objective. Courts must “examine[] only the actions at issue and measure[] them against what a reasonable police officer would do under the circumstances, ” but the inquiry “must be filtered through the lens of the ...


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