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Beaudry v. McKnight

United States District Court, D. Vermont

March 21, 2019

NEIL BEAUDRY, Plaintiff,
JAMES MCKNIGHT, in his individual and official capacities; JAMES WARDEN, in his individual and official capacities; UNKNOWN DEFENDANT, in his/her individual and official capacities; TOWN OF SHELBURNE; and PAUL BOHNE, in his individual and official capacities, Defendants.



         Plaintiff Neil Beaudry, who is self-represented, brings this action against Defendants in their individual and official capacities alleging violations of his civil rights, conspiracy, and state-law claims. His claims arise from a traffic stop of a vehicle he was operating on a Vermont public highway in the early morning hours of February 11, 2014. Pending before the court are Defendants' motions to dismiss. (Docs. 48, 49, 50, 51.)

         In his Second Amended Complaint ("SAC"), Plaintiff alleges Town of Shelburne ("Shelburne") Police Officer James McKnight issued him a speeding ticket and charged him with operating under the influence of alcohol ("DUI") in violation of Vermont law. Based on the initial stop and succeeding events, Plaintiff alleges thirteen claims: (1) unlawful seizure pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (2) fabrication of evidence; (3) unlawful arrest; (4) malicious prosecution; (5) assault and battery and excessive force; (6) violation of due process; (7) supervisory liability against former Shelburne Town Manager Defendant Paul Bohne; (8) supervisory liability against former Shelburne Police Chief Defendant James Warden; (9) municipal liability against Shelbume; (10) abuse of process; (11) conspiracy under 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (12) conspiracy under 42 U.S.C. § 1985;[1] and (13) intentional infliction of emotional distress. Plaintiff seeks compensatory and punitive damages.

         Defendants have moved to dismiss Plaintiffs SAC under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), arguing that it fails to state a claim for which relief can be granted. In the alternative, Defendants argue that Plaintiffs arrest and prosecution were supported by probable cause or arguable probable cause, entitling Defendants to qualified immunity. Plaintiff opposes the motions.

         I. Procedural History and Background.

         On February 10, 2017, Plaintiff filed his Complaint and notice of self-represented appearance. On May 3, 2017, without serving the Complaint, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint. On August 1, 2017, Plaintiff sought and received an extension of time to serve the Amended Complaint, which he understood "superseded the original complaint[.]" (Doc. 4 at 2.) Returns of service demonstrating service were filed.

         On August 28, 2017, Shelburne moved to dismiss the Complaint and the Amended Complaint. On August 30, 2017, former Shelburne Supervisor Bohne filed a separate motion to dismiss arguing: (1) Plaintiff failed to accomplish service within ninety days of commencing the action; (2) the Amended Complaint failed to comply with Fed.R.Civ.P. 15; and (3) the Amended Complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Following Defendants' filings, on September 4, 2017, Plaintiff filed a second motion to extend time for service of the original Complaint because "[t]here is a question[] . . . that Defendants may have been served with an improper amended filing of the complaint, in which case I ask to extend the time so that the proper original [C]omplaint may be served[.]" (Doc. 13 at 4.) The court granted an extension until October 23, 2017. Returns of service demonstrating service were filed.

         On October 19, 2017, former Police Chief Warden, Officer McKnight, and Mr. Bohne moved to dismiss the original Complaint pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(5) for insufficient service of process on the grounds Plaintiff failed to accomplish service within ninety days of commencing the action. They further asserted that Plaintiffs Complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). On October 23, 2017, Shelburne filed a supplemental motion to dismiss the Complaint and Amended Complaint, "in response to Plaintiffs service of his Complaint to the Town[, ]" under Fed. R Civ. P. 12(b)(6). (Doc. 29 at 1 n.l.) On November 17, 2017, Plaintiff responded to these filings with a motion for leave to amend his original Complaint and to withdraw the "improperly filed first [A]mended [C]omplaint." (Doc. 30 at l.)

         On March 26, 2018, the court issued an Entry Order granting Plaintiff leave to amend his Complaint and denying as moot Defendants' motions to dismiss. (Doc. 44.) Plaintiffs SAC was filed that same day. Defendants thereafter renewed their motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

         II. The SAC' s Allegations.

         In the early morning hours of February 11, 2014, Plaintiff was driving a vehicle in Charlotte, Vermont when Defendant Officer McKnight allegedly "rushed upon" him at a high speed in a car with its headlights on high-beam. (Doc. 45 at 2, ¶¶ 10-11.) Officer McKnight followed Plaintiff for approximately 1.5 miles before effecting a traffic stop of Plaintiffs vehicle. Plaintiff asserts that a video of the pursuit, observation, and stop shows that Plaintiff adhered to all traffic laws and committed no traffic violations.

         Officer McKnight informed Plaintiff that he stopped him for speeding and crossing the white fog line four times. After Plaintiff refused to perform dexterity exercises and submit to a preliminary breath test ("PBT"), Officer McKnight issued Plaintiff a speeding ticket and arrested and charged him DUI in violation of 23 V.S.A. § 1201(a)(2). Plaintiff alleges that although he did not resist arrest, as he exited his vehicle, Officer McKnight allegedly "unnecessarily and forcibly twisted Plaintiffs arm behind his back in his effort to handcuff him." (Doc. 45 at 8, ¶ 58.) Plaintiff allegedly suffered bruising and a cut as a result. Plaintiff asserts he did not complain of the allegedly excessively tightened handcuffs because he was too afraid to do so, A second officer seat-belted Plaintiff in the patrol car.

         Plaintiff alleges that, during the transport to the police station, he leaned forward in an effort to reduce the pain caused by the handcuffs. Officer McKnight asked him what he was doing and commanded him to "sit back and stay there[.]" Id. at 9, ¶ 68 (internal quotation marks omitted). Officer McKnight pumped the brakes as he said "sit down ... sit down[.]" Id. ¶ 69 (internal quotation marks omitted). Plaintiff asked Officer McKnight: "or what?" Id. ¶ 70 (internal quotation marks omitted). Officer McKnight then abruptly stopped the patrol car, exited and opened Plaintiffs door, and asked Plaintiff if "he wanted to get tazed" to which Plaintiff responded "no." Id. ¶ 71 (internal quotation marks omitted). Officer McKnight stated there was a "safety issue" and Officer McKnight contacted another officer for "his cage[.]" Id. at 10, ¶ 78 (internal quotation marks omitted). Officer McKnight asked Plaintiff what he was reaching for and reported to dispatch that Plaintiff was being uncooperative. He told a second officer Plaintiff was standing up in his seat. Officer McKnight allegedly told Plaintiff "things can go very smoothly or very complicated, and you're making them as complicated as possible." Id. at 11, ¶ 84 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Plaintiff alleges that Officer McKnight's affidavit described Plaintiffs conduct as follows:

While transporting [Plaintiff] to Shelburne Police Dept. for processing [Plaintiff] became unruly in the back seat of my uncaged cruiser. On two accounts he was seen trying to stand up in the backseat with his hands being pushed downward in what appeared to be an attempt to retrieve something from his waistline or slip his cuffs under his feet. He was moved to another cruiser with a protective barrier. As I was walking [Plaintiff] to the second cruiser [Plaintiff] swung his head and hit the open front passenger's cruiser door. He then asked why I had hit him or pushed him into the door. He then tried to do it to the rear door as well but I was able to prevent him from hurting himself anymore. When he was asked to step into the cruise he told me to push him in. His behavior was extremely odd.

Id. at 8-9, ¶ 64. [2]

         Plaintiff alleges that he was being "cooperative and not resistant as Defendant McKnight escorted him [and] was then suddenly shoved by Defendant McKnight into the open door as they passed it, striking Plaintiff[']s head and causing him injury and emotional distress." Id. at 11-12, ¶ 91. In response, Plaintiff asked "why did you do that to me? That's fucked up." Id. at 12, ¶ 92 (internal quotation marks omitted). Officer McKnight then allegedly "slammed Plaintiffs back up against the patrol SUV[, ]" and said, "knock it off, alright, you're acting like an idiot, smacking yourself into the door[, ]" to which Plaintiff responded, "I didn't do anything." Id. ¶¶ 93-95 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Plaintiff asked Officer McKnight for assistance entering the SUV, saying "help me, please, push me." Id. ¶ 96. When he was seated inside the vehicle, Plaintiff alleges Officer McKnight "told Plaintiff he tried to kick him." Id. ¶ 97. Plaintiff contends he "did not kick, or attempt to kick Defendant McKnight, and responded that T didn't kick you."' Id. ¶ 98. While he was seat belting Plaintiff, Officer McKnight purportedly said to Plaintiff "if you want to act like a 2-year old we'll treat you like one" before transporting Plaintiff to the Shelburne Police Department for DUI processing. Id. ¶¶ 99-100 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         On February 13, 2014, Officer McKnight forwarded his affidavit of probable cause to the State of Vermont's attorney. Plaintiff alleges Officer McKnight knowingly and intentionally fabricated material facts in the affidavit, including that Plaintiff was swerving, crossed the white fog line at least four times, and braked suddenly before crossing the center line as he made a right-hand turn. Plaintiff further alleges Officer McKnight "made allegations, attempting to paint Plaintiff as acting 'mad'" during the encounter. Id. at 7, ¶ 50. Plaintiff asserts these allegations are untrue and that Officer McKnight lacked probable cause for the DUI charge. As a result of the DUI charge, Plaintiffs license to operate a motor vehicle was suspended for several months and he suffered a loss of his liberties by virtue of court-ordered conditions of release. Because Plaintiff was self-employed and relied on his ability to drive to operate his business, he alleges he suffered severe emotional distress.

         On February 19, 2014, Plaintiff requested the video recording of the traffic stop in accordance with 23 V.S.A. § l203(k). He alleges he received the video on March 6, 2014, after the ten-day statutory deadline for its production.

         On April 9, 2014, the Vermont Superior Court held hearings on both Plaintiffs civil suspension and DUI charge.[3] In connection with Plaintiffs motion to suppress evidence and motion to dismiss, the state court reviewed the video recording of the February 11, 2014 traffic stop. At the hearing, Officer McKnight testified consistent with his affidavit. In an April 28, 2014 decision, Plaintiff asserts the state court noted its "concern[] that the cruiser video fail[ed] to corroborate much of Officer McKnight's testimony[.]" (Doc. 45 at 6-7, ¶ 46) (internal quotation marks omitted) (first alteration added). Specifically, the state court found Officer McKnight's testimony that he observed Plaintiffs vehicle swerving back and forth and making an abrupt right-hand turn and that Plaintiffs speech was mumbled and slurred was not corroborated by the cruiser video. The court, however, also found: "[a]ccording to the cruiser video, it took approximately 45 seconds to establish visual contact with the vehicle. Officer McKnight is certain that the vehicle he stopped was the same vehicle he observed speeding. The court so finds." (Doc. 69-3 at 2 (State v. Beaudry, No. 622-2-14 Cncr, No. 60-2-14 Cncs (Vt. Super. Ct. Apr. 23, 2014)).) The court noted that during the subsequent roadside encounter, Officer McKnight became "slightly more confrontational[, ]" while Plaintiff was "polite and courteous with the officer." Id. at 2. The court found the cruiser video:

reveals that once [Plaintiff] declined the invitations to exit the car, take dexterity tests, and submit to a PBT [preliminary breath test], Officer McKnight became more aggressive with him. Officer McKnight advised [Plaintiff] that since he could smell alcohol and suspected him of drinking, going home was not going to happen.. . . Faced with the threat of arrest, [Plaintiff] agreed to submit to the PBT.. . . When [Plaintiff] failed to give a sufficient sample of breath, Officer McKnight asked [him] if he wanted "to blow or not." . . . When [Plaintiff] refused to submit to the PBT, Officer McKnight opened the driver's door and began to physically remove [Plaintiff] from the vehicle. [Plaintiff] did not resist, but faced with the prospect of arrest for the second time, he agreed to submit to the PBT again.

(Doc. 69-3 at 3-4.) After several more attempts to administer the PBT, Plaintiff was arrested and transported to the Shelburne Police Department for DUI processing. The Vermont Superior Court made no rulings that Officer McKnight physically assaulted Plaintiff or that Plaintiff sustained any injuries in the course of his arrest. At the police station, Officer McKnight contacted the on-call Public Defender. After consulting with both the Public Defender and his private attorney, Plaintiff agreed to submit an evidentiary breath sample which reflected a blood alcohol content ("BAC") of. 130 at 3:31 a.m. Vermont law prohibits operating a motor vehicle on a public highway with a blood alcohol content of .08 or greater. See 23 V.S.A. § 1201(a)(1). Plaintiff was cited and released.

         The Vermont Superior Court held:

While the court is concerned that the cruiser video fails to corroborate much of Officer McKnight's testimony, the court is satisfied that reasonable suspicion for the stop existed as a result of the speeding violation. . .. After carefully reviewing the officer's testimony and cruiser video, the court concludes that the State has not met its burden to establish the validity and justification for the exit orders. The court recognizes that in the vast majority of traffic stops, drivers readily agree to do what the officer asks. Submission to authority, couched in terms of "requests" to do things, is natural. It is rare to come across someone who understands his legal rights and declines repeated "requests" to perform roadside tests "that will only help him." This is such a case. The original justification for the stop was speeding and erratic operation, but. . . the video does not corroborate the erratic operation described by the officer. Momentary touching of a fog line is not a traffic violation. Moreover, the video confirms that [Plaintiff] was polite and courteous while invoking his right not to submit to dexterity or PBT tests. It was the officer, not [Plaintiff], who grew more aggressive as the process unfolded. At best, the exit order was based on a slight odor of alcohol and a speeding violation. The sole reason [Plaintiff] agreed to submit to the PBT was the clear threat that a failure to submit to the test would result in his arrest. Suffice it to say, at the time the threat was made, there was no probable cause for any arrest. . . . Based on the credible and objective facts and circumstances, the court concludes that there was insufficient reasonable suspicion to justify the exit order. Accordingly, all evidence obtained following the unlawful exit order must be suppressed. . . . Apart from the unlawful exit order, there was no probable cause to arrest [Plaintiff] for DUI.

(Doc. 69-3 at 6-7.)[4] Because the Vermont Superior Court granted the motion to suppress, the State of Vermont could not use Plaintiffs evidentiary breath test result in the civil suspension proceeding and thus the court held that "the State has not met its burden of establishing, by a preponderance of the evidence, each element of 23 V.S.A. § 1205(h)(1)(A) through (E)." Id. at 7. Judgment was entered for Plaintiff in the civil suspension hearing. In the criminal case, Plaintiffs motion to dismiss was granted.

         On November 20, 2014, Plaintiff appeared at a hearing before the Vermont Judicial Bureau contesting the citation for a speeding violation. The hearing officer ruled against Plaintiff who appealed the decision. Plaintiff alleges the speeding citation "ultimately terminated in [his] favor when the State declined to pursue the charge through jury trial and dismissed the ticket." (Doc 45 at 14, ¶ 118.)

         Finally, Plaintiff alleges that the Shelburne Police Department had an "internal, public award program for most motor vehicle stops and DUI[s.]" Id. at 21, ¶ 161. He asserts this program led to the violation of his constitutional rights when Officer McKnight stopped him in February 2014. Plaintiff alleges Defendant Warden, the Shelburne Chief of Police at the time, sanctioned the program and required his officers to perform more traffic stops. He further alleges Shelburne was on notice of the unconstitutional actions of its officers when Wallace Nolen of Barre, Vermont informed the Shelburne Selectboard at an August 2013 meeting that there seemed to be a pattern of "the issuance of'bogus' tickets by Shelburne police officer[s.]" Id. at 18, ¶ 140. He alleges that Officer Lawton was the subject of a civil rights claim filed by Roderick Maclver in the United States District Court in September of 2013 and sets forth facts regarding that incident in the SAC.

         III. Conclusions of Law and Analysis.

         In adjudicating a motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), the court must "accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint" and determine whether the complaint states a claim for relief that is "plausible on its face." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal quotation marks omitted). "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." Id. "[T]he tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions." Id.

         A court must liberally construe a complaint filed by a self-represented litigant because it "must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers[.]" Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007); see also Ahlers v. Rabinowitz, 684 F.3d 53, 60 (2d Cir. 2012) (noting a document filed by a self-represented litigant must be liberally construed). While "lenity . . . must attend the review of pro se pleadings[, ]" Harris v. Mills, 572 F.3d 66, 68 (2d Cir. 2009), self-represented litigants nevertheless must satisfy the plausibility standard set forth in Iqbal and Fed.R.Civ.P. 8 and 12(b)(6).

         A. Shelburne's Motions to Dismiss under 24 V.S.A. § 901a.

         Shelburne moves to dismiss all claims against it as well as those against its employees and officers "to the extent it is obligated to stand in the place of its employees ...

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