790 F.3d 649 (6th Cir. 2015), 14-5870, Johnson v. Moseley

Docket Nº:14-5870
Citation:790 F.3d 649
Opinion Judge:McKEAGUE, Circuit Judge.
Party Name:ANDRE JOHNSON, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. JEREMY MOSELEY and LAURA THOMAS, Defendants-Appellants
Attorney:Keli J. Oliver, Derrick C. Smith, DEPARTMENT OF LAW OF THE METROPOLITAN GOVERNMENT OF NASHVILLE AND DAVIDSON COUNTY, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellants. Allen Woods, THE LAW OFFICES OF WOODS AND WOODS, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellee.
Judge Panel:Before: DAUGHTREY, McKEAGUE and STRANCH, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:June 02, 2015
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit

Page 649

790 F.3d 649 (6th Cir. 2015)

ANDRE JOHNSON, Plaintiff-Appellee,

v.

JEREMY MOSELEY and LAURA THOMAS, Defendants-Appellants

No. 14-5870

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

June 2, 2015

Page 650

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee at Nashville. No. 3:13-cv-01123--Kevin H. Sharp, Chief District Judge.

ON BRIEF:

Keli J. Oliver, Derrick C. Smith, DEPARTMENT OF LAW OF THE METROPOLITAN GOVERNMENT OF NASHVILLE AND DAVIDSON COUNTY, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellants.

Allen Woods, THE LAW OFFICES OF WOODS AND WOODS, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellee.

Before: DAUGHTREY, McKEAGUE and STRANCH, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

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McKEAGUE, Circuit Judge.

This is an appeal from an interlocutory ruling denying two police officers' motion to dismiss plaintiff's civil rights claim for malicious prosecution. Defendant officers asserted that the claim is barred by qualified immunity because plaintiff's complaint does not include fact allegations of specific conduct plausibly making out a violation of clearly established federal law. Because we find that the district court's denial of relief was based on an overly charitable reading of plaintiff's complaint, we reverse.

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I

Plaintiff Andre Johnson is a former officer in the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department. In October 2012, he was twice arrested based on domestic violence complaints by his now-estranged wife, Terri L. Smith-Johnson. The second arrest was made, pursuant to warrant, by fellow Metropolitan Nashville Police Officers Jeremy Moseley and Laura Thomas, defendants-appellants in this case. In March 2013, Johnson stood trial on the domestic violence charges and was acquitted by the jury. Johnson subsequently filed this action against his estranged wife, Officers Moseley and Thomas, and the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County.

The complaint purports to set forth claims against all four defendants, collectively, for federal civil rights violations based on false arrest and malicious prosecution, as well as state law claims for malicious prosecution and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Defendant Smith-Johnson has not been served and no appearance has been filed on her behalf. The other defendants moved for dismissal on the pleadings. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). The district court granted the motions to dismiss in part, but denied the officers' motion as to plaintiff's federal and state law claims for malicious prosecution. On appeal, the officers challenge exclusively the denial of their motion to dismiss the federal claim for malicious prosecution.

The federal claim for malicious prosecution against the officers is based on allegations that Smith-Johnson's medical records contained information inconsistent with details in her domestic violence accusations. The complaint also cites police department policies that, if heeded by officers conducting a proper investigation, would have disclosed reasons to question the veracity of Smith-Johnson's accusations and question whether there was probable cause to prosecute Johnson on the domestic violence charges. By nonetheless " pressing" prosecutors to pursue the charges, Officers Moseley and Thomas allegedly participated in malicious prosecution, in violation of Johnson's Fourth Amendment rights. The district court held the allegations sufficient to withstand the officers' motion to dismiss based, in part, on qualified immunity. The district court's ruling, though interlocutory, is subject to immediate review under the collateral order doctrine. Moldowan v. City of Warren, 578 F.3d 351, 369 (6th Cir. 2009).

II

The district court's rejection of the defendant officers' " qualified immunity defense at the pleading stage, posing a question of law, is reviewed de novo." Rondigo, L.L.C. v. Twp. of Richmond, 641 F.3d 673, 680 (6th Cir. 2011). Tested under Rule 12(b)(6), the complaint is viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiff, fact allegations in the complaint are accepted as true, and all reasonable inferences are drawn in favor of plaintiff. Id. However, " a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation" need not be accepted as true. Id. (quoting Bell A. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007)). Plaintiff's obligation to provide the " grounds" for the claimed entitlement to relief " requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. The factual allegations must " raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Id. The complaint must state a claim that is plausible on its face. That is, the court must be able to draw a " reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009). This " plausibility standard is not akin to a 'probability

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requirement,' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). " Where a complaint pleads facts that are 'merely consistent with' a defendant's liability, it 'stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of " entitlement to relief." '" Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).

Moreover, plaintiff's civil rights claim against the individual officers in their individual capacities implicates qualified immunity. Qualified immunity, if it applies, is a defense not just against liability, but against suit itself. Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231, 129 S.Ct. 808, 172 L.Ed.2d 565 (2009). Hence, insubstantial claims against government officials should be resolved as early in the litigation as possible, preferably prior to broad discovery. Id.

Qualified immunity ordinarily applies unless the contours of the asserted right were sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he was doing violated that right. Ashcroft v. al- Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 131 S.Ct. 2074, 2083, 179 L.Ed.2d 1149 (2011). Qualified immunity " gives ample room for mistaken judgments" by protecting all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law." Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 229, 112 S.Ct. 534, 116 L.Ed.2d 589 (1991) (per curiam) (quoting Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 343, 106 S.Ct. 1092, 89 L.Ed.2d 271 (1986)). Qualified immunity applies irrespective of whether the official's error was a mistake of law or a mistake of fact, or a mistake based on mixed questions of law and fact. Pearson, 555 U.S. at 231.

Since the defendant officers have raised the qualified immunity defense, plaintiff bears the burden of showing that defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity. Reilly v. Vadlamudi, 680 F.3d 617, 623 (6th Cir. 2012). At the pleading stage, this burden is carried by alleging facts plausibly making out a claim that the defendant's conduct violated a constitutional right that was clearly established law at the time, such that a reasonable officer would have known that his conduct violated that right. Wesley v. Campbell, 779 F.3d 421, 428 (6th Cir. 2015). " Unless the plaintiff's allegations state a claim of violation of clearly established law, a defendant pleading qualified immunity is entitled to dismissal before the commencement of discovery." Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526, 105 S.Ct. 2806, 86 L.Ed.2d 411 (1985) (citing Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982) (observing that " bare allegations . . . should not suffice to subject government officials either to the costs of trial or to the burdens of broad-reaching discovery." )). Plaintiff is thus obliged to plead facts that, viewed in the light most favorable to him, make out a violation of a constitutional right so clearly established in a particularized sense that a reasonable officer confronted with the same situation would have known that his conduct violated that right. al- Kidd, 131 S.Ct. at 2083-84. Moreover, the allegations must demonstrate that each defendant officer, through his or her own individual actions, personally violated plaintiff's rights under clearly established law. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 676; Robertson v. Lucas, 753 F.3d 606, 615 (6th Cir. 2014).

III

Considering the district court's opinion in light of these standards, the errors in its analysis are apparent. While the court acknowledged the governing standards and fairly applied them in dismissing plaintiff's false arrest claim, it did not do so in relation to the malicious prosecution claim.

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