Fields v. Town of Merrillville, 2:21-cv-361

CourtUnited States District Courts. 7th Circuit. United States District Court of Northern District of Indiana
Writing for the CourtAndrew P. Rodovich United States Magistrate Judge
PartiesGEORGE FIELDS, Plaintiff, v. TOWN OF MERRILLVILLE, et al, Defendants.
Docket Number2:21-cv-361
Decision Date15 December 2022


TOWN OF MERRILLVILLE, et al, Defendants.

No. 2:21-cv-361

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, Hammond Division

December 15, 2022


Andrew P. Rodovich United States Magistrate Judge

This matter is before the court on the Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [DE 22] filed by the defendants[1], Joseph Petruch, Jeff Rice, and Allison Ellis, on April 18, 2022. For the following reasons, the motion [DE 22] is GRANTED.


The plaintiff, George Fields, filed this action against the defendants, the Merrillville Police Department (the Department), the Merrillville Police Commission (the Commission), the Town of Merrillville (the Town), former Police Chief Joseph Petruch, Detective Allison Ellis, and Commander Jeff Rice, alleging violations of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and Indiana state law. The plaintiff initiated this lawsuit in Indiana State Court on November 3, 2021, and the defendants removed it to this court on November 17, 2021.

The pertinent facts are undisputed. Fields currently is a police officer with the Merrillville Police Department. He has been employed by the Department since October 29, 1995. In November 2019, Fields was placed on administrative leave without pay due to allegations that he


had engaged in criminal conduct. The reason he was placed on administrative leave was due to the fact that “concern had been expressed.”

Fields' alleged criminal conduct included allegations of domestic violence. The allegations were investigated internally at the direction of Defendants Petruch, Rice, and Ellis. Both Fields and the defendants indicate that an internal investigation is not a common practice of Lake County police departments and that investigations involving police misconduct typically are referred to an outside law enforcement agency.

The Merrillville Police Department's investigation included victim interviews and reviewing medical records, 911 calls, and photographs of victim's injuries. At the conclusion of the investigation, felony criminal charges were filed against Fields in state court by the Lake County Prosecutor. The criminal charges were reported to the press. Ultimately, the charges were dropped, and the case was dismissed. The record does not reflect why the state prosecutor declined to proceed further.

In addition to criminal charges, as a result of being placed on administrative leave, disciplinary charges also were brought against Fields. The disciplinary charges sought his termination. The Commission never held a hearing, but Fields was reinstated as a police officer in January 2021. Again, nothing in the record reflects the reason for this decision.

Fields has filed the instant case against the defendants claiming that their handling of the investigation into his alleged criminal conduct was in violation of his constitutional rights. His federal claims include false arrest and deprivation of his procedural due process rights by way of malicious prosecution. He also claims that the defendants' actions resulted in various violations


of Indiana law including intentional infliction of emotional distress, defamation, and failing to adhere to Ind. Code § 36-8-3-4(n)[2].

As stated above, the defendants filed the instant motion on April 18, 2022. In his response, Fields conceded that there were no viable claims against the Department and the Commission. He also withdrew his claim for Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress (NIED) against all defendants. The court dismissed the Commission and the Department from this case, as well as the NIED claim, on November 9, 2022.


As an initial matter, attached to the instant Motion is the Information [DE 23-1] related to Fields' criminal case. Similarly, Fields attached the related Probable Cause Affidavit to his Response [DE 30-1].

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(d) provides that “if, on a motion under Rule 12(b)(6) or 12(c), matters outside the pleadings are presented to and not excluded by the court, the motion must be treated as one for summary judgment under Rule 56.” However, the Seventh Circuit has recognized a narrow exception to this rule. District courts are entitled to take judicial notice of outside “matters of public record without converting a motion for failure to state a claim into a motion for summary judgment” if they are “not subject to reasonable dispute and either generally known within territorial jurisdiction or capable of accurate and ready determination through sources whose accuracy cannot be questioned.” General Elec. Capitol Corp. v. Lease Resolution Corp., 128 F.3d 1074, 1080 (7th Cir. 1997); Ennenga v. Starns, 677 F.3d 766, 773-74 (7th Cir. 2012).


While acceptable outside matters have included public court documents, “courts generally cannot take judicial notice of findings of fact from other proceedings for the truth asserted therein because these findings are disputable and usually are disputed.” Lopez v. Pastrick, 2011 WL 2357829, at *4 (N.D. Ind. June 8, 2011) (quoting General Elec. Capitol Corp., 128 F.3d at 1082 n.6)); Opoka v. I.N.S., 94 F.3d 392, 395 (7th Cir. 1996); Fedex Ground Package System, Inc., Employment Practices Litig., 2010 WL 1253891, at *6 (N.D. Ind. Mar. 29, 2010) (finding that “the court can take judicial notice of filings in other proceedings to establish the fact of such litigation and related filings”); ABN AMRO, Inc. v. Capital Int'l Ltd., 2007 WL 845046, at *9 (N.D. Ill. March 16, 2007) (holding that “judicial notice is generally not for the truth of the matters asserted in a court document”). Ultimately, the Seventh Circuit cautions that “courts should strictly adhere to the criteria established by the Federal Rules of Evidence before taking judicial notice of pertinent facts.” General Elec. Capitol Corp., 128 F.3d at 1081.

Federal Rule of Evidence 201 describes the kinds of facts that may be judicially noticed as follows: “(1) facts that are generally known within the trial court's territorial jurisdiction; or (2) can be accurately and readily determined from sources whose accuracy cannot reasonably be questioned.” “In order for a fact to be judicially noticed under Rule 201(b), indisputability is a prerequisite.” Mayes v. City of Hammond, Ind., 2006 WL 1765407, at *5 (N.D. Ind. June 21, 2006) (Cherry, Magistrate Judge) (taking judicial notice of a criminal conviction but declining to take judicial notice of underlying DNA evidence or its validity). Both the Information and Probable Cause Affidavit fit these criteria: each one is publicly available, is not factually disputed, and is derived from sources whose accuracy cannot reasonably be questioned. See Swanigan v. City of Chi., 881 F.3d 557 (7th Cir. 2019) (taking judicial notice of facts from a


prior proceeding within the same case); Estate of Brown v. Arc Music Group, 523 Fed.Appx. 407, 410 (7th Cir. 2013) (taking judicial notice of a settlement agreement); Scholes v. Lehmann, 56 F.3d 750, 762 (7th Cir. 1995) (taking judicial notice of facts recited in a plea agreement); Philips Med. Sys. Int'l v. Bruetman, 982 F.2d 211, 215 (7th Cir. 1992) (taking judicial notice of a default judgment); Ryan v. Phillip Morris USA, Inc., 2007 WL 270119, at *1 (N.D. Ind. Jan. 26, 2007) (taking judicial notice of a probate file).

Additionally, the court gave the parties the option to file supplemental briefs and to treat this motion as one for summary judgment. The defendants requested that the court take judicial notice of the attached documents instead, and Fields never responded to the defendants' request. Therefore, the court takes judicial notice of the Information and the Probable Cause Affidavit and will evaluate the instant Motion under the Rule 12(c) standard.

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) provides that a party may move for judgment on the pleadings after the complaint and answer have been filed. See Supreme Laundry Serv., LLC v. Hartford Cas. Ins. Co., 521 F.3d 743, 746 (7th Cir. 2008). Rule 12(c) motions are evaluated under the same standard as a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), which tests the sufficiency of the complaint and not the merits of the suit. See Gibson v. City of Chi., 910 F.2d 1510, 1520 (7th Cir. 1990).

As stated above, Fields has asserted that the defendants violated 42 U.S.C. § 1983 when they falsely arrested him, engaged in malicious prosecution[3] against him, and violated his due process rights. He also has alleged three Indiana state law claims: intentional infliction of emotional distress, defamation, and a violation of Ind. Code § 36-8-3.5-19. As to the § 1983


claims, the defendants argue that they are entitled to qualified immunity because their actions did not violate “clearly established constitutional rights.”

The doctrine of qualified immunity “shields public officials ‘from undue interference with their duties and from potentially disabling threats of liability.'” Smith v. Finkley, 10 F. 4th 725, 737 (7th Cir. 2021) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 806 (1982)). Qualified immunity “is more than a mere defense to liability, it provides immunity from suit.” Smith, 10 F. 4th at 737 (internal quotations omitted) (emphasis in original). Therefore, “once the defense is raised, it becomes the plaintiff's burden to defeat it.” Smith, 10 F.4th at 737 (internal quotations omitted).

The Supreme Court has established a two-step process for resolving qualified immunity claims in Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 199 (2001). The first step is whether a constitutional right has been violated on the facts alleged, and second, assuming a violation is established, whether the right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation. 533 U.S. 194 at 200; see Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223,231 (2009) (explaining “whether the facts alleged show the officer's conduct violated a constitutional right ... must be the...

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