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Robinson v. Ash

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Southern Division

October 18, 2017

RUTH L. ROBINSON, Plaintiff,
v.
DOTHAN POLICE OFFICER SHANE ASH, in both his individual and official capacities, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          W. KEITH WATKINS CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Defendant Shane Ash, a police officer in the Dothan Police Department, obtained a warrant to search and seize Plaintiff Ruth L. Robinson's cell phone. One month later, Plaintiff brought this lawsuit against Defendant in his individual and official capacities. Plaintiff, an attorney, alleges that the warrant fails to pass constitutional muster and that Defendant obtained it to frustrate Plaintiff's representation of James Bailey, in part by gaining access to communications protected by the attorney-client privilege stored on the cell phone. Plaintiff's Complaint (Doc. # 1) includes claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of Plaintiff's rights under the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as state law claims for false imprisonment, conversion, and invasion of privacy.

         Defendant filed a Motion to Dismiss with Supporting Brief (Doc. # 9), in which he asserts the defense of qualified immunity and further asserts that Plaintiff has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Although the entirety of this action had been referred to the Magistrate Judge (Doc. # 5), the order of referral is VACATED with respect to Defendant's motion (Doc. # 9). Relatedly, the Magistrate Judge's December 9, 2016 Order (Doc. # 16) is also VACATED to the extent it converted Defendant's motion to a motion for summary judgment, so Defendant's motion is before the court as a motion to dismiss. Further, the Magistrate Judge's August 31, 2017 Recommendation addressing Defendant's motion (Doc. # 33) is due to be rejected.

         Because Defendant has not made the threshold showing for a qualified immunity defense and has offered only a conclusory argument that Plaintiff has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, Defendant's motion to dismiss (Doc. # 9) is due to be denied.

         I. JURISDICTION AND VENUE

         The court has subject-matter jurisdiction over this action under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and 28 U.S.C. § 1367. The parties do not contest personal jurisdiction or venue.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The court will consider Defendant's motion to dismiss as such in lieu of converting it to a motion for summary judgment because the record has not been sufficiently developed for this court to rule on a motion for summary judgment. See Harper v. Lawrence County, Alabama, 592 F.3d 1227, 1231-32 (11th Cir. 2010) (affirming a district court's recision of its conversion of a motion to dismiss to a motion for summary judgment after the district court found that “the current body of evidence simply is insufficient to support a ruling on a motion for summary judgment, ” id. at 1231 (citation omitted)). It is not necessary to convert Defendant's motion in light of the evidentiary submissions that followed the Magistrate Judge's December 9, 2017 Order (Doc. # 16) because the court will consider only the pleadings, the remaining attachment to the pleadings after this court's order striking the other attachments (Doc. # 36), and one fact of which the court takes judicial notice pursuant to Rule 201 of the Federal Rules of Evidence. See Id. at 1232; see also Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308, 321 (2007) (“[C]ourts must consider the complaint in its entirety, as well as other sources courts ordinarily examine when ruling on Rule 12(b)(6) motions to dismiss, in particular, documents incorporated into the complaint by reference, and matters of which a court may take judicial notice.”).

         A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure tests the sufficiency of the complaint against the legal standard set forth in Rule 8: “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). In ruling on a motion to dismiss, courts “must accept the well pleaded facts as true and resolve them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Paradise Divers, Inc. v. Upmal, 402 F.3d 1087, 1089 (11th Cir. 2005) (citation omitted); see also Watts v. Fla. Int'l Univ., 495 F.3d 1289, 1295 (11th Cir. 2007) (“We have held many times when discussing a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, that the pleadings are construed broadly, and that the allegations in the complaint are viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” (internal citations and quotation marks omitted)).

         To survive Rule 12(b)(6) scrutiny, however, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief [is] . . . a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id. at 679 (citation omitted). If there are “enough fact[s] to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence” to support the claim, there are “plausible” grounds for recovery, and a motion to dismiss should be denied. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556. The claim can proceed “even if it strikes a savvy judge that actual proof of those facts is improbable, and that a recovery is very remote and unlikely.” Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

         III. BACKGROUND

         On October 7, 2016, Plaintiff attended a post-conviction hearing for Mr. Bailey in the Henry County Courthouse. At the hearing, Plaintiff was accused of stalking and harassing Allen Hendrickson, one of the officers involved in one of Mr. Bailey's cases and “the very officer whom [Plaintiff] has sought to hold accountable in [those] cases” (Doc. # 1, at 7). Plaintiff denied the accusations, and the circuit court judge declined to address the matter.

         Immediately after the hearing, Plaintiff was detained and her cell phone was seized by Henry County Sheriff's deputies, who presented her a copy of a warrant Defendant had obtained that morning. The only crime mentioned in the warrant is “the crime of intimidating a witness.” (Doc. # 1-2, at 2.) Defendant later arrived to take possession of Plaintiff's cell phone and give her a receipt for her property. While the accusations levied against Plaintiff at the hearing suggest that the receipt would name Mr. Hendrickson as the victim, the receipt names someone else instead: Danielle Whittington.

         Plaintiff admits contacting and attempting to contact Ms. Whittington leading up to the October 7 hearing. On October 5, 2016, Plaintiff learned that Ms. Whittington might have some information relating to Mr. Bailey's case. Plaintiff then called Ms. Whittington's ...


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