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Lawyer v. State of Vermont-Department of Public Safety

United States District Court, D. Vermont

December 27, 2016

RYAN LAWYER, Plaintiff,
STATE OF VERMONT-DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY; DREW COTA; BEN PATNODE; and DEREK ROLANDINI, individually and in their official capacities as Troopers for the Vermont State Police, Defendants.


          Honorable J. Garvan Murtha United States District Judge.

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Ryan Lawyer (“Lawyer”) sues the State of Vermont-Department of Public Safety (“State”), and Drew Cota, Ben Patnode, and Derek Rolandini, both individually and in their official capacities as Vermont State Police (“VSP”) Troopers. (Doc. 1 (“Compl.”).) Lawyer alleges Cota, Patnode, and Rolandini (collectively, the “Trooper Defendants”) acted negligently and/or recklessly by failing to conduct a thorough investigation before charging him with felony possession of heroin. Id. ¶¶ 8-30. Lawyer alleges the State violated his state and federal constitutional rights by failing to supervise and train the Trooper Defendants. Id. ¶¶ 31-34. Accordingly, jurisdiction is based on the existence of a federal question. Id. ¶ 1. Lawyer seeks a declaratory judgment, compensatory and punitive damages, and attorney's fees. Id. at 8. The State and Trooper Defendants move to dismiss the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and (6). (Docs. 7, 12.) Lawyer filed a response to the motions. (Doc. 13.) Defendants collectively filed a reply. (Doc. 16.) For the reasons discussed below, the State's motion to dismiss is granted. The State and Trooper Defendants, in their official capacity, are dismissed from the action. The Court defers ruling on the motion filed by the Trooper Defendants in their individual capacities.

         II. Background

         The following facts are assumed to be true for purposes of the pending motions and are gleaned from the complaint. On June 27, 2014, Lawyer, a resident of East Fairfield, was arrested for impeding a public officer and disorderly conduct after failing to heed Trooper Cota's orders to remain in the stopped vehicle in which Lawyer was a passenger. Lawyer, who was intoxicated, was lodged at the VSP barracks in St. Albans in a holding cell equipped with functional audio and video surveillance cameras. Trooper Cota later stated under oath that the holding cell in which Lawyer was placed was “clean, ” i.e. had been searched for contraband and none was found.

         While handcuffed to the wall and sitting on a bench in the cell, Lawyer dislodged from the sink and opened with his foot a package containing approximately 100 bags of heroin. Lawyer lost interest and laid down on the bench. Trooper Rolandini later briefly entered the cell, observing Lawyer asleep and the heroin bags on the floor. Trooper Rolandini returned to the cell with Troopers Cota and Patnode, roused Lawyer and inquired about the heroin. A still-intoxicated Lawyer replied unintelligibly. The Troopers charged Lawyer with felony possession of heroin. In an affidavit in support of the charge, Trooper Cota falsely averred Lawyer admitted to concealing the heroin in his shoe.

         The Franklin County State's Attorney's office charged Lawyer with two felonies, impeding a public officer and possession of heroin, and a misdemeanor count of unlawful mischief. He was arraigned on June 30, 2014. Lawyer's bail was set at $10, 000, resulting in his family paying an $1100 non-refundable commission fee to a bail bondsman. Based on a VSP press release, local media reported Lawyer had been arrested on these charges resulting in severe damage to his reputation, including almost losing his longstanding employment. Lawyer was released from custody on July 1, 2014. On July 10, the State's Attorney dismissed the heroin possession charge.

         In Count I, Lawyer alleges the Troopers negligently, recklessly, or with gross negligence failed to properly investigate the alleged criminal acts prior to preparing their affidavits and reports and prematurely contacted the State's Attorney's office and local media. (Compl. ¶¶ 8-30.) Specifically, he alleges the Troopers failed to review the recordings from the cell. In Count II, he alleges the State failed to properly train or supervise the Troopers and to properly sanction or discipline them for violations of constitutional rights of citizens. (Compl. ¶¶ 31-34.)

         III. Discussion

         A court should grant a Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss if it is not authorized by statute or the Constitution to adjudicate the plaintiff's claims. See Makarova v. United States, 201 F.3d 110, 113 (2d Cir. 2000). The plaintiff bears the burden of proving subject matter jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence. Hamm v. United States, 483 F.3d 135, 137 (2d Cir. 2007).

         A motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6) tests the legal rather than the factual sufficiency of a complaint. See, e.g., Sims v. Ortiz, 230 F.3d 14, 20 (2d Cir. 2000). The Court will grant a motion to dismiss only if the pleader fails to show a “plausible entitlement to relief.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). The Court must accept all facts alleged in the pleading as true and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the pleader. Nat. Res. Def. Council v. Johnson, 461 F.3d 164, 171 (2d Cir. 2006). Though the court must accept as true all factual allegations, this requirement “is inapplicable to legal conclusions.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). “[T]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Id.; see also Turkmen v. Hasty, 789 F.3d 218, 233 (2d Cir. 2015). “Plaintiffs cannot amend their complaint by asserting new facts or theories for the first time in opposition to Defendants' motion to dismiss.” K.D. ex rel. Duncan v. White Plains Sch. Dist., 921 F.Supp.2d 197, 209 n.8 (S.D.N.Y. 2013).

         A. Claims against the State and Trooper Defendants in their Official Capacities

         The State moves to dismiss Lawyer's claims against it and the Troopers in their official capacities arguing the Eleventh Amendment of the United States Constitution bars both federal and state law claims against them. (Doc. 7 at 3-6.) Lawyer does not object to the dismissal of the claims against the Vermont Department of Public Safety and Cota, Patnode, and Rolandini, in their official capacities as Vermont State Police Troopers. (Doc. 13 at 5.) Accordingly, the State and Troopers' motion to dismiss is granted and the claims against them are dismissed.

         B. Claims against the Trooper Defendants in their ...

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