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Darling v. District Court Judge Linda Falls

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

February 17, 2017

MARGARET ELIZABETH LAWSON DARLING, Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT COURT JUDGE LINDA FALLS, officially and individually, DISTRICT COURT JUDGE ANGELA FOX, officially and individually, MAGISTRATE A. G. THOMAS, officially and individually, MAGISTRATE J. A. WILLIAMS, officially and individually, MAGISTRATE B. MCDOWELL, officially and individually, ANY AND ALL BOND GUARANTORS OF THESE MAGISTRATES, GREENSBORO POLICE OFFICER REGINALD MILLS, officially and individually, GREENSBORO POLICE OFFICER A. W. FAIR, officially and individually, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Loretta C. Biggs United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff, Margaret Elizabeth Lawson Darling, appearing pro se, [1] brings this action against the above-named Defendants pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, [2] alleging violations of the United States Constitution, as well as various state law claims. Plaintiff seeks injunctive relief, declaratory relief, and damages. Before the Court are: (i) a Motion to Dismiss filed by Defendants Reginald Mills and Andrew Fair, (ECF No. 12); and (ii) a Motion to Dismiss filed on behalf of Defendants Falls, Fox, Thomas, Williams, and McDowell, (ECF No. 19). For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants Defendants' motions.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The allegations in Plaintiff's Complaint arise out of a domestic violence proceeding[3] in state court, initiated by Jason Allan Sawyer (“Sawyer”), [4] against Plaintiff. Plaintiff alleges that during these proceedings, which occurred between February 2013 and May 2013, District Court Judges Linda Falls and Angela Fox, Magistrates A. G. Thomas, J. A. Williams, and B. McDowell, and Greensboro Police Officers Reginald Mills and Andrew Fair, violated her constitutional rights by engaging in the following acts: (i) entering two Domestic Violence Protection Orders (“DVPOs”) against Plaintiff; (ii) issuing five arrest warrants for Plaintiff; (iii) executing four actual arrests of Plaintiff; (iv) detaining Plaintiff in jail for over 30 hours; (v) issuing a misdemeanor criminal summons for Plaintiff; (vi) filing eight criminal charges against Plaintiff; and (vii) providing Plaintiff's personal information to Sawyer. (ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 8, 21-31.) Ultimately, the state court proceeding was “disposed of in [Plaintiff's] favor.”[5](Id. ¶ 7.)

         Defendants Reginald Mills and Andrew Fair (collectively, “Police Defendants”) move to dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint pursuant to Rules 12(b)(5) and 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (ECF No. 12 at 1.) District Court Judges Linda Falls and Angela Fox, and Magistrates A. G. Thomas, J. A. Williams, and B. McDowell (collectively, “Judicial Defendants”) move to dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1), (2), (5), and (6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (ECF No. 19 at 1, 2.) Further, the Judicial Defendants move to dismiss Plaintiff's claims based on absolute judicial immunity and Eleventh Amendment immunity. (Id. at 2.) Because the Court will grant the Police Defendants' motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) and grant the Judicial Defendants' motion to dismiss under Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6), the Court need not address the remaining arguments for dismissal.[6]

         II. STANDARDS OF REVIEW

         A. Rule 12(b)(1)

         Under Rule 12(b)(1), a party may seek dismissal based on the court's “lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). Subject matter jurisdiction is a threshold issue that relates to the court's power to hear a case and must be decided before a determination on the merits of the case. Constantine v. Rectors & Visitors of George Mason Univ., 441 F.3d 474, 479- 80 (4th Cir. 2005). A motion under Rule 12(b)(1) raises the question of “whether [the plaintiff] has a right to be in the district court at all and whether the court has the power to hear and dispose of [the] claim.” Holloway v. Pagan River Dockside Seafood, Inc., 669 F.3d 448, 452 (4th Cir. 2012). The burden of proving subject matter jurisdiction rests with the Plaintiff. McNutt v. Gen. Motors Acceptance Corp., 298 U.S. 178, 189 (1936); Adams v. Bain, 697 F.2d 1213, 1219 (4th Cir. 1982). When evaluating a Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss, the court should grant the motion “only if the material jurisdictional facts are not in dispute and the moving party is entitled to prevail as a matter of law.” Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac R.R. Co. v. United States, 945 F.2d 765, 768 (4th Cir. 1991).

         B. Rule 12(b)(6)

         A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure “challenges the legal sufficiency of a complaint, ” including whether it meets the pleading standard of Rule 8(a)(2). Francis v. Giacomelli, 588 F.3d 186, 192 (4th Cir. 2009). Rule 8(a)(2) requires a complaint to contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), thereby “giv[ing] 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)).

         A complaint may fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted in two ways: first, by failing to state a valid legal cause of action, i.e., a cognizable claim, see Holloway, 669 F.3d at 452; or second, by failing to allege sufficient facts to support a legal cause of action, see Painter's Mill Grille, LLC v. Brown, 716 F.3d 342, 350 (4th Cir. 2013). Dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) is appropriate only when the complaint “lacks a cognizable legal theory or sufficient facts to support a cognizable legal theory.” Capital Associated Indus., Inc. v. Cooper, 129 F.Supp.3d 281, 300 (M.D. N.C. 2015) (quoting Brown v. Target, Inc., No. ELH-14-00950, 2015 WL 2452617, at *9 (D. Md. May 20, 2015)). In other words, “[t]o 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.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570).

         III.DISCUSSION

         A. Police Defendants' Motion to Dismiss

         1. Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment claim against Defendant Mills

         Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Mills, a Greensboro police officer, is liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violating her Fourth Amendment rights. (ECF No. 1 ¶ 39.) Specifically, Plaintiff argues that Defendant Mills conducted an “unreasonable search under the color of law, ” (ECF No. 18 at 8), when he used her license plate number to obtain “identifying personal information” from the DMV database which he then provided to Sawyer (ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 21, 39). Defendant Mills argues that his actions, as alleged by Plaintiff, do not implicate the Fourth Amendment, and should therefore be dismissed. (ECF No. 13 at 6.) The Court agrees with Defendant Mills.

         The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution provides that “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. The Supreme Court has held that “the Fourth Amendment protects people, not places.” Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 351 (1967). Accordingly, a search under the Fourth Amendment occurs when the government invades a person's “constitutionally protected reasonable expectation of privacy.” Id. at 360-61. (Harlan, J., concurring).

         In examining a Fourth Amendment unreasonable search claim, the Court must first determine whether there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in the area searched, and if so, whether the search is reasonable. See United States v. Rusher, 966 F.2d 868, 873-74 (4th Cir. 1992). Courts have held that there is “no reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to [a] vehicle's license plate number.” United States v. White, No. 1:98CR332-1, 1999 WL 1939263, at *3 (M.D. N.C. Jan. 14, 1999); see, e.g., United States v. Diaz-Castaneda, 494 F.3d 1146, 1151 (9th Cir. 2007) (agreeing “that people do not have a subjective expectation of privacy in their license plates, and that even if they did, this expectation would not be one that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable”); United States v. Ellison, 462 F.3d 557, 561 (6th Cir. 2006) (holding that a “motorist has no reasonable expectation of privacy in the information contained on his license plate under the Fourth Amendment”); see also United States v. George, 971 F.2d 1113, 1120 (4th Cir. 1992) (finding that “one does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the visible exterior parts of an automobile that travels the public roads and highways”).

         Here, Plaintiff alleges in her Complaint that Defendant Mills provided a third party (Sawyer) with “identifying personal information that he obtained after running my vehicle tag . . . through the DMV database” while on duty. (ECF No. 1 ¶ 21.) However, because Plaintiff has no reasonable expectation of privacy in the information on her license plate, Defendant Mills' actions do not constitute a search under the Fourth Amendment. Thus, Plaintiff has failed to allege a cognizable claim for relief under the Fourth Amendment, and the Court will grant Defendant Mills' motion to dismiss this claim.

         2. Plaintiff's Fourteenth Amendment claim against Defendant Mills

         Plaintiff also alleges that Defendant Mills violated her rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. (Id. ¶ 39.) While the Complaint does not, on its face, specify the nature of Plaintiff's Fourteenth Amendment claim, Plaintiff argues in her Response brief that her procedural due process rights were violated by Defendant Mills when he “[ran] a tag on behalf of and provid[ed] a citizen with identifying information about the driver.” (ECF No. 18 at 11.) Defendant Mills argues, in part, that Plaintiff's claim under the Fourteenth Amendment should be dismissed because her allegation is “insufficient to invoke the Fourteenth Amendment.” (ECF No. 22 at 6-7.)

         Under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, state actors shall not deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. U.S. Const. Amend. XIV, § 1. To state a claim for relief for a violation of procedural due process, Plaintiff must show: “(1) a cognizable ‘liberty' or ‘property' interest; (2) the deprivation of that interest by ‘some form of state action'; and (3) that the procedures employed were constitutionally inadequate. Iota Xi Chapter of Sigma Chi Fraternity v. Patterson, 566 F.3d 138, 145 (4th Cir. 2009) (quoting Stone v. Univ. of Md. Med. Sys. Corp., 855 F.2d 167, 172 (4th Cir. 1988)). “If no ‘life, liberty, or property' interest within the meaning of the Constitution is in issue, then there can be no deprivation of constitutional due process.” Mills v. Holmes, 95 F.Supp.3d 924, 931 (E.D. Va. 2015); see Bd. of Regents of State Colls. v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 569 (1972) (“The requirements of procedural due process apply only to the deprivation of interests encompassed by the Fourteenth Amendment's protection of liberty and property.”).

         Defendant Mills argues that, rather than articulating a specific property or liberty interest allegedly violated, “Plaintiff appears to take the phrase ‘procedural due process' at its literal meaning, ” (ECF No. 22 at 6). The Court agrees. Plaintiff seemingly argues that by providing Sawyer with information obtained from the DMV database, Officer Mills permitted Sawyer to circumvent the proper procedure for obtaining such information. (See ECF No. 18 at 10-11.) However, “[p]rocedural protections, standing alone, even if clearly mandated by state law, do not create a liberty interest in either the procedures themselves or the substantive result they purportedly protect.” Holmes v. Cooper,872 F.Supp. 298, 302 (W.D. Va. 1995) (citing Stewart v. Bailey,7 F.3d 384, 392 (4th Cir. 1993)). Therefore, to state a plausible claim for deprivation of procedural due process, Plaintiff must allege facts to show more than a deprivation of state-prescribed process; rather, she must show that she was deprived of a constitutionally protected interest. An examination of the Complaint, however, reveals that it is devoid of specific factual allegations concerning the nature of the liberty or property interest violated as a result of Defendant Mills' actions. Rather, the Complaint contains only conclusory statements alleging that Defendant Mills' actions violated the Fourteenth Amendment.[7] Such legal conclusions, without the articulation of a protected liberty or property interest, do not suffice to state a plausible claim for relief sufficient to survive a motion to ...


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