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Glass v. City of Glencoe

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division

April 20, 2017

SARAH BOWMAN GLASS, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF GLENCOE and JAMES SHELNUTT; Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          John E. Ott Chief United States Magistrate Judge

         In her now-governing Amended Complaint, Plaintiff Sarah Bowman Glass (“Plaintiff”) raises claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Alabama tort law against two Defendants: the City of Glencoe, Alabama (the “City”), and James Shelnutt (“Shelnutt”), a judge on the City's municipal court (collectively “Defendants”). (Doc.[1] 30). Those claims all arise from a core allegation that when Shelnutt issued an order revoking Plaintiff's probation, he lacked a valid Alabama law license, as required under state law to serve as a municipal court judge. The cause comes to be heard on three motions. The first two, filed separately by each of the Defendants, seek dismissal under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). (Docs. 7, 20). In the third motion, the City asks the court to strike two affidavits submitted by Plaintiff in opposition to the City's motion to dismiss. (Doc. 32). Upon consideration, the court[2] concludes that the City's motion to strike is moot and that both motions to dismiss are due to be granted.

         I. REVIEW STANDARDS

         Rule 12(b)(6), Fed. R. Civ. P., authorizes a motion to dismiss a complaint in whole or in part on the ground that its allegations fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. On such a motion, the “‘issue is not whether a plaintiff will ultimately prevail but whether the claimant is entitled to offer evidence to support the claims.'” Little v. City of North Miami, 805 F.2d 962, 965 (11th Cir. 1986) (quoting Scheur v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974)). The court assumes the factual allegations in the complaint are true and gives the plaintiff the benefit of all reasonable factual inferences. Hazewood v. Foundation Financial Group, LLC, 551 F.3d 1223, 1224 (11th Cir. 2008) (per curiam).

         Rule 12(b)(6) is read in light of Rule 8(a)(2), Fed. R. Civ. P., which requires only “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” in order to “‘give the defendant fair notice of what the ... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). “While a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff's obligation to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Id. (citations, brackets, and internal quotation marks omitted). “Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level ....” Id. Thus, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face, '” i.e., its “factual content ... allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citations omitted).

         II. BACKGROUND[3]

         Under both the state constitution and by statute, municipal court judges in Alabama are required to be licensed to practice law in this state. Ala. Const. of 1901, Art. VI, § 145; Ala. Code § 12-14-30(d). Plaintiff alleges, however, that Defendant Shelnutt, a judge on the City of Glencoe Municipal Court, did not have a valid law license at the time he issued an order revoking Plaintiff's probation on January 7, 2015, whereupon she spent the next eight days in jail. (Doc. 30 ¶¶ 8-10, 14). Plaintiff also asserts that the City's Mayor, Charles Gilchrist[4]; the City Prosecutor; the City Attorney “and/or other city officials knew or should have known of Shelnutt's unlicensed status, ” having been made aware of same by Plaintiff's counsel. (Doc. 30 ¶ 11). Despite such knowledge, Plaintiff says, those City officials failed “to remedy the situation or mitigate the damages caused to the Plaintiff.” (Id. ¶ 12). Plaintiff further claims that the City failed both “to properly train and supervise its officers, employees, against or assigns with regard to the constitutional right to due process” and “to implement proper policies and procedures to protect Plaintiff's constitutional rights.” (Id. at 1-2).

         Based on such allegations, Plaintiff raises claims in her Amended Complaint under both § 1983 and Alabama tort law. (Doc. 30). First, Plaintiff maintains that Defendants are liable under § 1983 for violating Plaintiff's rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (id., Counts I and II) and the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable seizures. (Id., Counts III and IV). Plaintiff also contends that Shelnutt, but not the City, is liable under § 1983 for subjecting her to cruel or unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. (Id., Count V). With regard to her state-law claims, Plaintiff contends that Defendants are liable for false imprisonment and false arrest (id., Counts VI and VII), and that the City is also liable for negligent, reckless, “and/or” wanton training “and/or” “monitoring.” (Doc. 30, Count VIII). In her demand for relief, Plaintiff seeks a declaration that Defendants violated her constitutional rights, an award of compensatory damages against both Defendants, an award of punitive damages against Shelnutt, as well as attorney's fees and costs. (Id. at 13).

         Shelnutt and the City have filed separate motions to dismiss all claims pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6)[5]. (Docs. 7, 20). In support, Shelnutt argues that he enjoys absolute judicial immunity on all of Plaintiff's claims. (See Docs. 7, 8, 31). The City, in turn, contends that Plaintiff has failed to allege facts plausibly supporting that the City caused or is otherwise legally responsible for any violation of her rights under either federal or state law. (See Docs. 20, 21, 33; see also Docs. 8, 19[6]).

         Plaintiff opposes both motions to dismiss. (Docs. 26, 27, 28). Her brief in response to the City's motion also appends two affidavits. (Doc. 28-1). One is sworn by Justin Hayes, the former public defender for the City. (Doc. 28-1 at 2-3 (“Hayes Aff.”)). The other is from Jonathan Welch, an attorney Plaintiff retained after learning of Shelnutt's unlicensed status, while she was in jail. (Doc. 28-1 at 4-5 (“Welch Aff.”)). The City has filed a motion to strike both affidavits (Doc. 32, 36), which Plaintiff also opposes. (Doc. 34).

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. The City's Motion to Strike

         As a threshold matter, the court considers the City's motion to strike the affidavits of Hayes and Welch. (Doc. 32). In the former, Hayes states that sometime “in January 2015, ” while serving as the public defender for the City, he learned that Shelnutt's name did not appear on the attorney membership list on the Alabama State Bar Association (the “Bar”) website. (Hayes Aff. ¶ 3). Hayes indicates that a representative of the Bar informed him thereafter that such an omission indicated that Shelnutt was “not in good standing.” (Id. ¶ 4). Hayes claims he then relayed that fact to the Glencoe City Attorney. (Id. ¶ 5).

         In his affidavit, Welch indicates that Plaintiff retained him as her attorney during the eight-day period she was confined to jail, after Shelnutt had revoked her probation. (Welch Aff. ¶¶ 2-3). Welch says he then spoke the Glencoe City Prosecutor about Shelnutt's unlicensed status as it related to Plaintiff's case. (Id. ¶ 4). Apparently as a result, a “special judge” set aside Shelnutt's order, and Plaintiff was released from jail. (Id.)

         In support of its motion to strike the affidavits, the City argues, among other things, that it is inappropriate and unnecessary as a procedural matter for Plaintiff to file them in connection with a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6). (Doc. 32, ¶ 2). The City is generally correct in that assertion. The inquiry at the Rule 12(b)(6) stage is to determine merely whether the plaintiff has pled sufficient material to state a legally cognizable claim for relief. In that undertaking, the court is must accept the complaint's well-pled allegations as true, affording the plaintiff the benefit of all reasonable inferences flowing from those allegations. So to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a plaintiff need do no more than plead, i.e., allege in her complaint, facts upon which the law would authorize recovery. As such, it is wholly unnecessary for the plaintiff to proffer, and generally improper for the court to consider, extrinsic evidence on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion. See Adinolfe v. United Techs. Corp., 768 F.3d 1161, 1168 (11th Cir. 2014) (“The court's function on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion is not to weigh potential evidence that the parties might present at trial, but to assess whether the plaintiff's complaint alone is legally sufficient to state a claim for which relief may be granted.” (quoting Tal v. Hogan, 453 F.3d 1244, 1252 (10th Cir. 2006)); Watts v. Florida Int'l Univ., 495 F.3d 1289, 1298 (11th Cir. 2007) (“The district court dismissed Watts' complaint under Rule 12(b)(6). We are at the pleading stage, not the proof stage.”).

         Plaintiff responds, however, that the court may consider the affidavits on the theory that they are “central” to her claims. (Doc. 34 at 3). It is true that, although a court faced with a Rule 12(b)(6) motion is generally restricted to reviewing the four corners of the complaint, it may also consider documents that are both “central” to the plaintiff's claim and undisputedly authentic.[7] See United States ex rel. Osheroff v. Humana Inc., 776 F.3d 805, 811 (11th Cir. 2015); SFM Holdings, Ltd. v. Banc of Amer. Securities, LLC, 600 F.3d 1334, 1337 (11th Cir. 2010); see also Rule 10(c), Fed.R.Civ.P. But the difficulty with Plaintiff's theory is that, in this context, a document is typically “central” to a claim only if it is a written instrument attached to or referenced in the complaint and itself gives rise, or is otherwise intrinsic, to the claim, such as an insurance policy or other contract or a promissory note; it does not encompass witness affidavits that merely recount circumstances or information relevant to a claim. See Adamson v. Poorter, 2007 WL 2900576, at *3 (11th Cir. Oct. 4, 2007); Intersport, 896 F.Supp.2d at 1109; Bros. v. Saag, 2014 WL 838890, at *4-5 (N.D. Ala. Mar. 4, 2014); Holloway v. American Media, Inc., 947 F.Supp.2d 1252, 1262 n. 12 (N.D. Ala. 2013); Lawrence v. Christian Mission Ctr. Inc. of Enter., 780 F.Supp.2d 1209, 1215 (M.D. Ala. 2011)[8]. If it were otherwise, almost all evidence would be “central” to a claim, and the distinction between motions to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) and motions for summary judgment under Rule 56 would be eviscerated.

         Hayes and Welch are but third-party witnesses, and their affidavits merely recite some of their activities related to Plaintiff's case. Moreover, the affidavits are not referenced in the complaint; indeed, they were not created until after Defendants filed their pending motions to dismiss. In its discretion, see Intersport, Inc. v. T-Town Tickets LLC, 896 F.Supp.2d 1106, 1109 (N.D. Ala. 2012), the court concludes that the affidavits are extrinsic evidence and are not “central” to Plaintiff's claims so as to render them subject to consideration on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion.

         Plaintiff nevertheless insists that her presentation of the affidavits was “necessary” to “rebut” certain “unsupported and speculative statements” that went “beyond the allegations” of her complaint. (Doc. 34 at 1-2). In particular, Plaintiff has pled that, when Shelnutt revoked her probation and remanded her to jail on January 7, 2015, “he was not a licensed attorney recognized by the Alabama State Bar Association.” (Doc. 30, ¶ 10). In response, the City has argued that the court should not credit that allegation on the ground that it is “conclusory.” (Doc. 21 at 14). The City contends, rather, that Plaintiff is required to plead additional details regarding exactly why Shelnutt allegedly was not a licensed attorney, which Plaintiff has not done. (Id. at 14-15). The City then further offers to dispel any such uncertainty, claiming in its brief, “upon information and belief, ” that Shelnutt merely did not pay his bar dues on time and that he corrected the failure immediately once it was brought to his attention. (Id. at 15). As such, Plaintiff argues that she filed the affidavits of Hayes and Welch to (1) “rebut the [City's] unsupported assertions” that Shelnutt had merely failed to pay his bar dues on time and had promptly corrected issue and (2) “to support the facts pled in the complaint” with regard to the City's argument that Plaintiff has failed to provide necessary details underlying Shelnutt's alleged lack of a valid law license. (Doc. 34 at 2).

         Ultimately, however, the court concludes that it is immaterial whether it considers the affidavits at this time because it is not necessary to do so, and the affidavits do not materially aid Plaintiff with respect to either purpose she now cites for offering them. For starters, insofar as Plaintiff suggests the affidavits “support the facts pled in her complaint, ” it is difficult to see what she means. If she is trying to amend or supplement her complaint by way of third-party affidavits, that is improper. See Shah v. Orange Park Med. Ctr., 2015 WL 1638231, at *1 (M.D. Fla. Apr. 13, 2015). If she believes additional allegations are necessary to adequately state her claims, then she should seek leave to file an amended complaint. See Id. Moreover, to the extent Plaintiff conceives the affidavits as meeting the City's argument that the complaint is deficient because it fails to allege enough underlying facts regarding how or why Shelnutt lacked a valid license to practice law, neither affidavit is up to that task. That is to say, the only additional information referenced in the affidavits on that front is Hayes's testimony that, sometime in January 2015, he “learned” that Shelnutt's name did not appear on the Bar's website and that such meant he was “not in good standing with the Bar.” (Hayes Aff. ¶ 4). But on its face, that does not explain what circumstance might have led to Shelnutt's name being omitted from the Bar's website, and Hayes expressly admits he does not know. (See id.) Likewise, while Plaintiff claims she filed the affidavits to counter the City's “unsupported and speculative” assertion that Shelnutt's name did not appear on the Bar membership rolls simply because he did not pay his bar dues on time, it is plain that neither Hayes's nor Welch's affidavit offers anything whatever to dispute that assertion.

         Even so, the court concludes that it is bound at the Rule 12(b)(6) stage to credit Plaintiff's pled allegation that, at the time he issued his order revoking Plaintiff's probation and remanding her to jail, Shelnutt “was not a licensed attorney recognized by the Alabama State Bar Association.” (Doc. 30, ¶ 10). On a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court must credit the plaintiff's well-pled allegations, irrespective of what evidence may support them, either upon the filing of the action or as might be revealed in discovery. Plaintiff herself maintains that this principle applies to her allegation that Shelnutt was not a licensed attorney, and the court agrees. The City disputes that, contending that the allegation need not be accepted because it is “conclusory, ” insofar as Plaintiff fails to supply additional background circumstances relating to exactly how or why Shelnutt was not licensed. However, the City does not offer any legal authority or rationale to support that the particular circumstances underlying Shelnutt's lack of a valid law license at the relevant time, whether because of a failure to pay bar dues or for some other reason, should matter to the viability of Plaintiff's claims. Therefore, the court will credit Plaintiff's allegation that Shelnutt ...


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