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Cottrell v. Stepp

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

March 12, 2019

BRADELY COTTRELL, on behalf of the Estate of BERNARD DALE COTTRELL, Plaintiff,
v.
NATHAN SCOTT STEPP, Individually as a member of the West Virginia State Police, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          THOMAS E. JOHNSTON, CHIEF JUDGE

         Plaintiff Bradely Cottrell (“Plaintiff”) brings this action on behalf of the estate of his deceased father, Bernard Dale Cottrell (“Mr. Cottrell”), pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and West Virginia state law against Defendants Nathan Scott Stepp (“Stepp”), Zach W. Hartley (“Hartley”), Okey S. Starsick (“Starsick”), the West Virginia State Police (“WVSP”) (collectively, “State Police Defendants”), Robert B. Hickman (“Hickman”) and the Roane County Sheriff's Department (“RCSD”) (collectively, “Roane County Sheriff Defendants”). (ECF No. 1.) Before this Court are motions to dismiss filed by State Police Defendants, (ECF No. 10), and by RCSD, (ECF No. 13). For the reasons explained more fully herein, State Police Defendants' motion, (ECF No. 10), is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. RCSD's motion, (ECF No. 13), is GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case arises out of the September 6, 2016 death of Mr. Cottrell at the hands of WVSP and RCSD officers during a high-speed pursuit. (ECF No. 1 at 5-8.) The complaint alleges that Mr. Cottrell's family contacted law enforcement to report that Mr. Cottrell had brandished a shotgun and was mentally ill. (Id. at 5.) That afternoon, the officers “pursued Mr. Cottrell [] at a high rate of speed” and were able to disable his vehicle by “block[ing] him in” when he attempted to “evade pursuit” by making “a three-point turn to change direction.” (Id.) Immediately afterward, Stepp, Hartley, and Hickman exited their cruisers and began firing their weapons at Mr. Cottrell, whom they claim was armed. (Id. at 5-6.) The officers fired a total of 29 shots, 8 of which hit Mr. Cottrell, killing him. (Id. at 6.)

         State Police Defendants filed a motion to dismiss several of Plaintiff's claims on October 2, 2018. (ECF No. 10.) Plaintiff filed a timely response, (ECF No. 18), and State Police Defendants filed a timely reply, (ECF No. 20). RCSD filed a motion to dismiss all of Plaintiff's claims against it on October 3, 2018. (ECF No. 13.) Plaintiff filed a timely response, (ECF No. 19), and RCSD filed a timely reply, (ECF No. 21). As such, the motions to dismiss are fully briefed and ripe for adjudication.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         In general, a pleading must include “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2); see McCleary-Evans v. Md. Dep't of Transp., State Highway Admin., 780 F.3d 582, 585 (4th Cir. 2015) (stating that this requirement exists “to give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests” (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007))). However, to withstand a motion to dismiss made pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a complaint must plead enough facts “to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Wikimedia Found. v. Nat'l Sec. Agency, 857 F.3d 193, 208 (4th Cir. 2017) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Stated another way, the factual allegations in the complaint “must be sufficient ‘to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.'” Woods v. City of Greensboro, 855 F.3d 639, 647 (4th Cir. 2017) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). A complaint that alleges enough facts “to satisfy the elements of a cause of action created by [the relevant] statute” will survive a motion to dismiss. Id. at 648 (quoting McCleary-Evans, 780 F.3d at 585).

         In evaluating the sufficiency of a complaint, this Court first “identif[ies] pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. This Court then “assume[s] the[] veracity” of the complaint's “well-pleaded factual allegations” and “determine[s] whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” Id. Review of the complaint is “a context-specific task that requires [this Court] to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id. “[T]o satisfy the plausibility standard, a plaintiff is not required to plead factual allegations in great detail, but the allegations must contain sufficient factual heft to allow a court, drawing on judicial experience and common sense, to infer more than the mere possibility of that which is alleged.” Nanni v. Aberdeen Marketplace, Inc., 878 F.3d 447, 452 (4th Cir. 2017) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. State Police Defendants' Motion to Dismiss

         1. Sovereign Immunity

         WVSP contends that Plaintiff's 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim against it should be dismissed because the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution bars such claims against states and their agencies. (See ECF No. 11 at 5-7.) Indeed, the Eleventh Amendment prohibits actions for money damages against states, their instrumentalities, and their agents in most circumstances. See Lee-Thomas v. Prince George's Cty. Pub. Schs., 666 F.3d 244, 248-49 (4th Cir. 2012). This sovereign immunity applies to § 1983 claims; thus, a state and its instrumentalities are not considered “persons” that may be sued under § 1983. Will v. Mich. Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 65-67 (1989). Plaintiff concedes that Count III, his § 1983 claim against WVSP, should be dismissed “on sovereign immunity grounds.” (ECF No. 18 at 2 n.1.) Accordingly, Count III is DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.

         2. Official Immunity

         Stepp and Hartley argue that they are entitled to immunity from suit with respect to Plaintiff's negligence claims against them. (ECF No. 11 at 8-10.) “Under the doctrine of qualified immunity, the discretionary actions of government agencies, officials and employees performed in an official capacity are shielded from civil liability so long as the actions do not violate a clearly established law or constitutional duty.” W.Va. State Police v. Hughes, 796 S.E.2d 193, 198 ( W.Va. 2017).[1] This rule operates even when the “discretionary acts” that are the subject of the complaint were “committed negligently.” Maston v. Wagner, 781 S.E.2d 936, 948 ( W.Va. 2015). Therefore, in determining whether qualified immunity applies, the principal inquiry is whether a public official's conduct “violate[s] clearly established laws of which a reasonable official would have known” or is “fraudulent, malicious, or otherwise oppressive.” W.Va. ...


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