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Middleton v. Miller

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

May 17, 2017

WILLIAM MIDDLETON, Plaintiff,
v.
MICHAEL MILLER, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          R. DAVID PROCTOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This case is before the court on the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation (Doc. # 16) and the Defendant's Response to Court's Order (Doc. # 23). The court directed Defendant Michael Miller (“Defendant”) to appear and respond to the Magistrate Judge's recommendation against dismissing Plaintiff's 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim for an unlawful seizure of a urine sample. (Doc. # 18 at 2). Defendant argues that the court should overrule the Magistrate Judge's recommendation because he is entitled to qualified immunity for the unlawful-seizure claim. (Doc. # 23 at 5). The court has granted Plaintiff an opportunity to respond to Defendant's assertion of qualified immunity; no response has been filed. (Doc. # 18 at 2). After careful review, and for the reasons explained below, the court concludes Defendant is due to be granted qualified immunity for the unlawful-seizure claim because Plaintiff's allegations about the seizure do not present a violation of clearly established law.

         I. Background Facts and Procedural History

         In his Amended Complaint, Plaintiff has alleged, among other charges, that Defendant violated his Fourth Amendment rights by performing an unreasonable search or seizure. (See Doc. # 12-1 at 8-9) (claiming that Defendant directed others to unlawfully seize a sample). Plaintiff alleges that Defendant, an officer employed by the Russellville Police Department, arrested him around midnight on October 26, 2013 following an auto accident. (Id. at 7). Defendant did not transport Plaintiff to a hospital, despite Plaintiff's complaints of back and neck injuries. (Id. at 8). Instead, Defendant transported Plaintiff to a jail. (Id.). Plaintiff remained at the jail for two or three hours before losing consciousness. (Id. at 11). After Plaintiff lost consciousness, he was transported to a Russellville hospital. (Id. at 8).

         Defendant allegedly directed two hospital employees, Peggy Williams and Kellon White, to obtain a urine sample from Plaintiff so that a drug test could be performed. (Id.). Williams and White then told Plaintiff that they would forcibly obtain a urine sample from him unless he peed into a jar. (Id.). The amended complaint does not assert that Defendant obtained a warrant for the seizure before instructing the hospital staff to get a urine sample.

         The Magistrate Judge determined that Plaintiff's allegations of an unlawful seizure stated a claim for relief against Defendant. (Doc. # 16 at 9-15). He noted that a warrantless seizure is per se unreasonable unless justified by a specifically established and delineated exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement. (Id. at 9). The Magistrate Judge found that Plaintiff did not voluntarily consent to the seizure. (Id. at 12). Moreover, he found that exigent circumstances did not justify the seizure because Defendant could have sought a warrant during the two or three hours that Plaintiff allegedly spent in jail before travelling to the hospital. (Id. at 13-14).

         The court raised some concerns about Plaintiff's unlawful-seizure claim against Defendant when it partially adopted the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation. (See Doc. # 17 at 5-7). The court queried whether Defendant could have timely obtained a warrant to seize evidence from Plaintiff at the time the seizure occurred. (Id. at 6). Because some of the claims against Defendant survived the court's initial screening, the court decided to allow Defendant to respond to the unlawful-seizure claim. (Id. at 6).

         II. Standard of Review

         The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require that a complaint provide “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). However, the complaint must include enough facts “to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Pleadings that contain nothing more than “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action” do not meet Rule 8 standards, nor do pleadings suffice that are based merely upon “labels and conclusions” or “naked assertion[s]” without supporting factual allegations. Id. at 555, 557. In deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, courts view the allegations in the complaint in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Watts v. Fla. Int'l Univ., 495 F.3d 1289, 1295 (11th Cir. 2007).

         To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. “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.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Although “[t]he plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement, '” the complaint must demonstrate “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. A plausible claim for relief requires “enough fact[s] to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence” to support the claim. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556.

         In considering a motion to dismiss, a court should “1) eliminate any allegations in the complaint that are merely legal conclusions; and 2) where there are well-pleaded factual allegations, ‘assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.'” Kivisto v. Miller, Canfield, Paddock & Stone, PLC, 413 F.Appx. 136, 138 (11th Cir. 2011) (unpublished) (quoting Am. Dental Assn. v. Cigna Corp., 605 F.3d 1283, 1290 (11th Cir. 2010)). That task is context specific and, to survive the motion, the allegations must permit the court based on its “judicial experience and common sense . . . to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. If the court determines that well-pleaded facts, accepted as true, do not state a claim that is plausible, the claims are due to be dismissed.[1] Twomb ly, 550 U.S. at 570.

         A qualified immunity defense can be reviewed at the Rule 12(b)(6) stage of litigation. Epps v. Watson, 492 F.3d 1240, 1243 (11th Cir. 2007). Indeed, the Supreme Court has recognized that a plaintiff must allege a “violation of clearly established law” before he or she is entitled to discovery from a defendant eligible for qualified immunity. Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526 (1985). See also Williams v. Bd. of Regents of Univ. Sys. of Ga., 477 F.3d 1282, 1300 (11th Cir. 2007) (“If a defendant asserts a qualified immunity defense in a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the court should grant qualified immunity if the plaintiff's complaint fails to allege a violation of a clearly established constitutional or statutory right.”).

         III. Analysis of Plaintiff's Unreasonable-Seizure Claim

         Defendant provides two grounds on which the court could find that the warrantless urine seizure did not violate clearly established law. First, Defendant contends that the seizure could have been justified by exigent circumstances under binding precedent existing in October 2013. (Doc. # 23 at 9-16). Second, he claims that the seizure could have been justified as a search incident to a lawful arrest. (Id. at 17-24). The court ...


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