Trump Tight, LLC v. Bell

Decision Date18 May 2016
Docket NumberCivil Case No. 3:15-cv-00175-JAG
Citation188 F.Supp.3d 565
Parties Trump Tight, LLC, Plaintiff, v. Raymond R. Bell and Vincent B. Givens, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Virginia

Andrew Thomas Bodoh, Thomas Hunt Roberts, Thomas H. Roberts & Associates PC, Richmond, VA, Franklin Desean McFadden, Jr., Hull Street Law, Richmond, VA, for Plaintiff.

Carlene Booth Johnson, Perry Law Firm PC, Dillwyn, VA, Leslie A. Winneberger, William Fisher Etherington, Beale Davidson Etherington & Morris PC, Richmond, VA, for Defendants.

OPINION

John A. Gibney, Jr. United States District Judge

Trump Tight, LLC ("Trump"),1 opened a restaurant and lounge in Sussex County, Virginia, and, until its closing, butted heads with Sheriff Raymond R. Bell. During Trump's short-lived tenure in Sussex County, Sheriff Bell—through his deputies, including Lieutenant Vincent B. Givens—allegedly forced Trump to hire and pay off-duty uniformed deputies as security, decreased the maximum occupancy limit, refused to let Trump open to underage patrons, and, ultimately, shut Trump's facility down. Trump sued Bell and Givens, alleging multiple constitutional claims and one state law claim. The defendants now move to dismiss the case for failure to state a claim. Because qualified immunity protects Bell and Givens, the Court grants the defendants' motions to dismiss the constitutional claims. Without these federal claims, the Court declines to exercise jurisdiction over the remaining state law claim, dismissing this claim without prejudice.

I. BACKGROUND

Trump opened to the public in October 2013, after obtaining the proper licenses from the Commonwealth and entering into a lease. Every weekend or holiday night that Trump opened its doors, uniformed deputies from the Sussex County Sheriff's Office appeared to provide "security services outside and at the door of the facility."2 (Am. Compl. ¶ 23.) The deputies saw plenty of action while providing these services, making multiple arrests for various criminal violations. (See Am. Compl. Ex. H.)

On the nights that the deputies provided security, Trump had no control over the number or identities of the deputies present. Givens served as the point person on most nights, though he indicated that he worked at the direction of Bell. At the end of the night, Givens or his proxy would demand and collect cash payment from Trump for the deputies' services, refusing to accept a check or to provide any sort of documentation. The original cost of services was $25 per hour per deputy, but—as notified by letter from Bell on Sheriff's Office letterhead—increased to $35 per hour per deputy in January 2014.3 In total, Trump paid the deputies $31,550 in cash.

On January 25, 2014, Givens, at Bell's direction, informed Trump of a reduction in the facility capacity from 624—the maximum occupancy approved by the Virginia Department of Health—to 400. The deputies on scene enforced this reduction by preventing patrons from entering. Trump's management met with Bell and Givens to discuss its concerns, but understood Bell's comments in the meeting as "a veiled threat that [Bell] could have Trump closed if [it] did not cooperate with Givens and him." (Am. Compl. ¶ 36.)

On July 12, 2014, Trump planned to open to patrons eighteen years old or older—as opposed to patrons twenty-one or older, as it had been operating. Trump received clearance from the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control ("ABC") to open to these younger patrons. When Trump informed the Sheriff, however, Bell said "that he would not allow Trump to be open to those under the age of twenty-one," and refused to meet with Trump to discuss it. (Am. Compl. ¶ 41.) Despite Bell's statement, Trump opened to patrons eighteen years old or older. The deputies initially refused to allow eighteen-to twenty-year-old patrons into the facility, eventually refusing admission to those twenty-one or older as well.

Trump's management called Bell to protest. Between expletives, Bell yelled at the management and threatened to shut Trump's facility down. Bell said he would instruct Trump's landlord to cancel its lease and would work with an ABC employee to take Trump's ABC license. After the call, Bell came to Trump's facility and, with the assistance of Givens and the other deputies, entered the facility and directed all patrons to leave. Further, Bell made Trump not only refund the cover charge to patrons, but also pay the deputies who shut down the facility. Finally, Bell told Trump's management: "[I'm] going to revoke your [ABC] license as of Monday[ a]nd I've called [your landlord] ... [y]our contract has not been extended." (Am. Compl. ¶ 49.) Bell ended the evening by saying "I want you out—I want you out—no, I want you out of here this week. Out of my county. Because you know what? You have this thug mentality." (Am. Compl. ¶ 49.) After this evening, "[h]aving reasonable fear of Bell's threats of arrest, Trump's management closed the business and surrendered Trump's ABC license." (Am. Compl. ¶ 68.) The landlord leased the premises to Empire Restaurant and Lounge, which pays off-duty deputies to provide security services.

II. DISCUSSION4

Trump brings one state law claim and five constitutional claims against Bell and Givens pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 : three under the Due Process Clause, one under the Fourth Amendment, and one under the Equal Protection Clause. The defendants move to dismiss on grounds of qualified immunity.

Qualified immunity protects government officials from liability under § 1983 arising from the performance of discretionary actions within the scope of their authority.5 Harlow v. Fitzgerald , 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982). It applies so long as "their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Id. Qualified immunity protects "all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law." Malley v. Briggs , 475 U.S. 335, 341, 106 S.Ct. 1092, 89 L.Ed.2d 271 (1986). As the Fourth Circuit has said, qualified immunity exists so that "[o]fficials are not liable for bad guesses in gray areas; they are liable for transgressing bright lines." Maciariello v. Sumner , 973 F.2d 295, 298 (4th Cir.1992). In other words, qualified immunity "gives ample room for mistaken judgments." Malley , 475 U.S. at 343, 106 S.Ct. 1092.

The analysis of a qualified immunity claim entails two steps. In the first step, a court must decide "whether a constitutional right would have been violated on the facts alleged." Saucier v. Katz , 533 U.S. 194, 200, 121 S.Ct. 2151, 150 L.Ed.2d 272 (2001) ; Bailey v. Kennedy , 349 F.3d 731, 739 (4th Cir.2003). This includes an analysis, based on the evidence, of the specific right allegedly violated, and a conclusion that such a right exists in the particular circumstances of the case. Wilson v. Layne , 526 U.S. 603, 609, 119 S.Ct. 1692, 143 L.Ed.2d 818 (1999). In the second step, a court must determine whether, at the time of the violation, the right was clearly established such that a reasonable officer in the defendant's position would know that his actions would violate that right. Simmons v. Poe , 47 F.3d 1370, 1385 (4th Cir.1995). A court has flexibility in the order in which it must perform this analysis. Pearson v. Callahan , 555 U.S. 223, 236, 129 S.Ct. 808, 172 L.Ed.2d 565 (2009) ("[J]udges of the district courts and the courts of appeals should be permitted to exercise their sound discretion in deciding which of the two prongs of the qualified immunity analysis should be addressed first in light of the circumstances in the particular case at hand.").

In analyzing the second step, "the right allegedly violated must be defined at the appropriate level of specificity before a court can determine if it was clearly established." Layne , 526 U.S. at 615, 119 S.Ct. 1692 (quoting Anderson v. Creighton , 483 U.S. 635, 641, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 97 L.Ed.2d 523 (1987) ). Defining the right requires "a high level of particularity." Edwards v. City of Goldsboro , 178 F.3d 231, 251 (4th Cir.1999) (citing Anderson , 483 U.S. at 639, 107 S.Ct. 3034 ; Taylor v. Waters , 81 F.3d 429, 433 (4th Cir.1996) ); see, e.g., Layne , 526 U.S. at 615, 119 S.Ct. 1692 ("In this case, the appropriate question is the objective inquiry whether a reasonable officer could have believed that bringing members of the media into a home during the execution of an arrest warrant was lawful, in light of clearly established law and the information the officers possessed."). Indeed, the Supreme Court has "repeatedly told courts ... not to define clearly established law at a high level of generality." Ashcroft v. al Kidd , 563 U.S. 731, 131 S.Ct. 2074, 2084, 179 L.Ed.2d 1149 (2011) ; see also id. (providing the example that "[t]he general proposition ... that an unreasonable search or seizure violates the Fourth Amendment is of little help in determining whether the violative nature of particular conduct is clearly established").

Once defined, a court then determines whether the right "was clearly established at the time of the claimed violation" by looking at "the decisions of the Supreme Court, [the Fourth Circuit] and the highest court of the state in which the case arose." Wilson v. Kittoe , 337 F.3d 392, 402–03 (4th Cir.2003) (internal alteration and citations omitted) (citing Edwards , 178 F.3d at 251 ); see also Jean v. Collins , 155 F.3d 701, 709 (4th Cir.1998), cert. granted, vacated on other grounds , 526 U.S. 1142, 119 S.Ct. 2016, 143 L.Ed.2d 1029 (1999) ("[I]f a right is recognized in some other circuit, but not in this one, an official will ordinarily retain the immunity defense."). While the second step in a qualified immunity analysis "do[es] not require a case directly on point, ... existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate." al Kidd , 131 S.Ct. at 2083 ; see also Wilson v. Layne , 141 F.3d...

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