Ray v. Roane

Decision Date22 January 2020
Docket NumberNo. 18-2120,18-2120
Citation948 F.3d 222
Parties Tina RAY, Plaintiff – Appellant, v. Michael ROANE, in his individual capacity, Defendant – Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

Dallas S. LePierre, Mario Bernard Williams, NDH LLC, Atlanta, GA, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Carlene Booth Johnson, Perry Law Firm, PC, Dillwyn, VA, for Defendant-Appellee.

ARGUED: Dallas S. LePierre, NEXUS DERECHOS HUMANOS ATTORNEYS, INC., Atlanta, Georgia, for Appellant. Carlene Booth Johnson, PERRY LAW FIRM, PC, Dillwyn, Virginia, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Mario B. Williams, NEXUS DERECHOS HUMANOS ATTORNEYS, INC., Atlanta, Georgia, for Appellant.

Before GREGORY, Chief Judge, KEENAN, and RICHARDSON, Circuit Judges.

Reversed and remanded by published opinion. Chief Judge Gregory wrote the opinion, in which Judge Keenan and Judge Richardson joined.

GREGORY, Chief Judge:

Appellant Tina Ray appeals the dismissal of her claim brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, in which she alleged that her Fourth Amendment rights were violated when Officer Michael Roane shot and killed her dog, Jax. According to the complaint, Roane shot Jax when it was in Ray’s yard, tethered, and incapable of reaching or harming Roane. Bound by those facts at this stage of the proceeding, we hold that the complaint plausibly states a claim for an unconstitutional seizure of Ray’s property for which Roane is not entitled to qualified immunity. Therefore, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.

I.

At the outset, we acknowledge that there is evidence in the record on appeal that appears to contradict some of the allegations in the complaint. However, because Ray’s claims were dismissed for failure to state a claim, we "limit our review to the complaint itself." Braun v. Maynard , 652 F.3d 557, 559 (4th Cir. 2011). Further, as we do in any case alleging unreasonable use of force under the Fourth Amendment, we focus on the facts and circumstances confronting the officer "immediately prior to and at the very moment" that force was used, and disregard information not known to the officer at that time. Greenidge v. Ruffin , 927 F.2d 789, 792 (4th Cir. 1991). With these principles in mind, the relevant factual allegations in the complaint are straightforward.

On September 24, 2017, Roane drove to Ray’s property to assist with an arrest warrant that was being served on Ray for domestic abuse. When Roane arrived on Ray’s property, four other officers were already present and parked in the driveway. Ray’s dog—a 150-pound German Shepard named Jax—was secured by a zip-lead attached to two trees that allowed the animal limited movement within a "play area" of the yard. Rather than park in the driveway like the other officers, Roane parked his truck within the dog’s "play area," prompting the other officers on scene to shout and gesture toward Roane, indicating that he should "[w]ait" and "[l]et [Ray] get her dog." Roane exited his vehicle and started walking toward the house.

As Roane emerged from his vehicle, Jax began barking at and approaching Roane. Roane responded by backing away from the dog and drawing his firearm, while Ray ran to the zip-lead and began shouting Jax’s name. "In a short moment," Jax reached the end of the zip-lead and "could not get any closer" to Roane. Roane observed that the dog could not reach him, and further observed that Ray was now holding onto Jax’s fully-extended lead and continuing to call Jax’s name. Roane therefore stopped backing up. Roane then took a step forward, positioning himself over Jax, and fired his weapon into the dog’s head. The dog died from the wound.

In her complaint, Ray asserted four claims for relief against Roane—unlawful seizure of Jax in violation of the Fourth Amendment, violation of substantive due process, conversion, and intentional infliction of emotional distress—seeking various categories of damages. Ray later indicated she would not pursue her substantive due process claim. Roane moved to dismiss the entire action against him and answered the complaint. On September 20, 2018, the district court dismissed Ray’s federal claim for unlawful seizure of Jax and declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining two state-law claims. In so doing, the district court concluded Roane’s actions had been reasonable under the totality of the circumstances and he would be entitled to qualified immunity.

As to whether Ray sufficiently alleged that Roane’s actions were unreasonable, the district court pointed to several facts in the complaint that led it to conclude the seizure was reasonable: (1) Jax was a large dog weighing approximately 150 pounds; (2) Jax was "alarmed" by Roane’s arrival; (3) Jax was "barking while approaching Roane," and Roane responded by moving backward, away from him; and (4) the entire incident took only a "short moment." J.A. 362. The district court also pointed to several allegations it distinguished, such as the fact that Jax had reached the end of his zip-lead and could not reach Roane. According to the district court, "an objectively reasonable officer would have felt threatened in the circumstances immediately preceding the shot and ... might not have been sure that Jax no longer posed a threat." J.A. 362–63. The important factor was instead Jax’s proximity to Roane.

The district court also held that Roane was entitled to qualified immunity. For the same reasons it concluded that Ray failed to allege an unreasonable seizure, the court concluded that a reasonable officer would not have known it was "clearly unreasonable" to shoot Jax in these circumstances. At worst, this was a "classic case" of a bad guess in a gray area or a reasonable but mistaken judgment. J.A. 370. Accordingly, the district court dismissed the entire action with prejudice. Ray now appeals the district’s court dismissal.

II.

We review a district court’s grant of a motion to dismiss de novo . See King v. Rubenstein , 825 F.3d 206, 214 (4th Cir. 2016) (citing Simmons v. United Mortg. & Loan Inv., LLC , 634 F.3d 754, 768 (4th Cir. 2011) ). In reviewing a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, we must "accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff." Id. at 212. A complaint need only "give the defendant fair notice of what the ... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Tobey v. Jones , 706 F.3d 379, 387 (4th Cir. 2013) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007) ). "A Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss ‘does not resolve contests surrounding facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses.’ " Id. (quoting Republican Party of N. Carolina v. Martin , 980 F.2d 943, 952 (4th Cir. 1992) ).

We also review a qualified immunity-based grant of a motion to dismiss de novo . Id. at 385 (citation omitted). To determine whether a complaint should survive a qualified immunity-based motion to dismiss, we exercise "sound discretion" in following the two-prong inquiry set forth by the Supreme Court, analyzing (1) whether a constitutional violation occurred and (2) whether the right violated was clearly established. See Pearson v. Callahan , 555 U.S. 223, 236, 129 S.Ct. 808, 172 L.Ed.2d 565 (2009) ; Saucier v. Katz , 533 U.S. 194, 200, 121 S.Ct. 2151, 150 L.Ed.2d 272 (2001) ; Melgar v. Greene , 593 F.3d 348, 353 (4th Cir. 2010). A court may consider either prong of the qualified immunity analysis first. Sims v. Labowitz , 885 F.3d 254, 260 (4th Cir. 2018).

III.

On appeal, Ray argues the district court erred in analyzing both prongs of the qualified immunity analysis. First, she asserts the district court erred dismissing the action and concluding the allegations in the complaint were insufficient to allege Roane unreasonably seized Jax in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Ray then contends, assuming the seizure was unconstitutional, the district court also erroneously concluded Roane was entitled to qualified immunity. We agree with Ray.

A.

As an initial matter, it is well-settled that privately owned dogs are "effects" under the Fourth Amendment, and that the shooting and killing of such a dog constitutes a "seizure." Altman v. City of High Point, N.C. , 330 F.3d 194, 203–05 (4th Cir. 2003). Thus, we will affirm the district court’s conclusion that the shooting of Ray’s dog by Roane was constitutional only if we conclude it was reasonable under the circumstances alleged in the complaint.

"To assess the reasonableness of [a government seizure under the Fourth Amendment], [w]e must balance the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against the importance of the governmental interests alleged to justify the intrusion.’ " United States v. Jacobsen , 466 U.S. 109, 125, 104 S.Ct. 1652, 80 L.Ed.2d 85 (1984) (citation omitted). As we held in Altman , private interests in dogs—and family pets especially—are highly significant since dogs "have aptly been labeled ‘Man’s Best Friend,’ and certainly the bond between a dog owner and his pet can be strong and enduring." 330 F.3d at 205 ("Many consider dogs to be their most prized personal possessions, and still others think of dogs solely in terms of an emotional relationship, rather than a property relationship."). Likewise, the government undoubtedly has a strong public interest in protecting citizens and officers from dogs that may be dangerous or otherwise a source of public nuisance. Id. at 205–06. Thus, "[t]he calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving—about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation." Altman , 330 F.3d at 205 (quoting Graham v. Connor , 490 U.S. 386, 396–97, 109 S.Ct. 1865, 104 L.Ed.2d 443 (1989) ).

In weighing these competing interests, we focus on the circumstances...

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