Vigil v. Tweed, Civ. No. 18-829 SCY/JFR

CourtUnited States District Courts. 10th Circuit. District of New Mexico
Writing for the CourtSTEVEN C. YARBROUGH UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE Presiding by consent
PartiesJOHN VIGIL, Plaintiff, v. FRANCES TWEED et al., Defendants.
Docket NumberCiv. No. 18-829 SCY/JFR
Decision Date16 June 2020

JOHN VIGIL, Plaintiff,
FRANCES TWEED et al., Defendants.

Civ. No. 18-829 SCY/JFR


June 16, 2020


Plaintiff is an employee of a state-run psychiatric hospital in Las Vegas, New Mexico. He brings suit against the hospital, San Miguel County, and an assortment of individual defendants, claiming that a series of searches conducted of his belongings at his workplace was unlawful. Plaintiff's original complaint alleged that his superiors at the hospital conducted a series of unconstitutional, warrantless searches based on an anonymous, typewritten note claiming that Plaintiff stored cash and narcotics in his desk. After the Court found that the individual hospital defendants (hereinafter "State Defendants") had qualified immunity from that claim, Plaintiff amended his complaint to allege that the State Defendants fabricated those anonymous notes and planted the evidence uncovered in his desk and lockers at work. The Court agrees with the State Defendants that the relevant statute of limitations bars these new allegations and that the new allegations do not relate back to the claims in the original complaint. The Court does not, however, dismiss Plaintiff's First Amendment claim, as he has repleaded it to sufficiently allege speech on a matter of public interest. Finally, the Court finds that sovereign immunity protects

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the State Defendants from Plaintiff's state law claims. As a result, the Court GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART the Motion For Judgment On The Pleadings By State Defendants (Doc. 50).

The San Miguel County Sheriff's Department and its officers (hereinafter "County Defendants"), like the State Defendants, move to dismiss the claims against them in the amended complaint on grounds that Plaintiff may not relitigate issues a state court has already decided. The Court concurs that Plaintiff may not relitigate the precise issues that the state court decided; however, the state court did not previously decide all issues related to the County Defendants. Therefore, collateral estoppel only bars some of Plaintiff's claims against the County Defendants. As a result, the Court GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART the County Defendant's Motion To Dismiss (Doc. 49).


Plaintiff filed suit in state court on April 26, 2018. Doc. 1-1. On May 30, 2018, while the case was still in state court, he filed a First Amended Complaint. Doc. 1-4. The First Amended Complaint brought causes of action under the Fourth and First Amendments to the United States Constitution, as well as assorted state law claims. Defendants Frances Tweed, Antonio Coca, Joe Chavez, and Corrine Dominguez are sued in their individual capacities as employees of the State of New Mexico. Doc. 1-4 at 2-3 ¶¶ 5-8. Together with Defendant New Mexico Department of Health, who operates the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute ("NMBHI"), id. at 4 ¶ 9, these Defendants are collectively the "State Defendants." Additionally, the First Amended Complaint named Deputies Sean Armijo and Antoine Whitfield, and Undersheriff Anthony Madrid, of San Miguel County, in their individual capacities. Id. at 3-4 ¶ 10-12. Together with Defendant Board of County Commissioners of San Miguel County, id. at 5 ¶ 13, these Defendants are collectively

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the "County Defendants."

The County Defendants removed this case to federal court on August 30, 2018, alleging that this Court has original jurisdiction over the federal claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and supplemental jurisdiction over the state claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1367. See Doc. 1 ¶¶ 9-10. On August 31, 2018, the State Defendants filed a notice of consent to removal. Doc. 5. The County Defendants filed an Answer on October 5, 2018. Doc. 13.

The First Amended Complaint alleged that a series of searches conducted of Plaintiff's belongings at his workplace was unlawful. The hospital and its employees moved to dismiss the constitutional claims against them, arguing that they are entitled to qualified immunity because the law did not clearly establish any prohibition on workplace searches based on anonymous notes. The Court granted the motion, finding that the State Defendants were entitled to qualified immunity on Plaintiff's federal constitutional claims, and that Plaintiff did not state a claim under the New Mexico Tort Claims Act ("NMTCA"). Doc. 30. The Court also ordered that "Plaintiff will have thirty days to move to amend his complaint to the extent that he is able to do so consistent with this opinion." Doc. 30 at 28.

Plaintiff timely filed the Motion to Amend and the Court granted it. See Docs. 31 & 36. Plaintiff filed his Second Amended Complaint ("SAC") on September 22, 2019. Doc. 38. The SAC alleges that the State Defendants fabricated the anonymous note suggesting that Plaintiff kept cash and drugs in his desk at work and, further, that they then planted evidence in Plaintiff's desk during the subsequent search that was based on this fabricated anonymous note. The SAC alleges that the County Defendants were aware the warrantless searches of Plaintiff's belongings were illegal, that they failed to conduct the minimal investigation necessary to determine the anonymous notes were fabricated, and that they knew that Plaintiff had a lawful prescription for

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the drugs found in his desk and locker.

The County Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the SAC on December 2, 2019. Doc. 49. In their motion, the County Defendants first argue that Plaintiff claims must be dismissed because Plaintiff fails to properly identify the personal involvement of each individual Sheriff's deputy. Next, the County Defendants argue Plaintiff is precluded from bringing these claims because he litigated and lost on the issue of probable cause in his criminal prosecution, that the prior finding of probable cause prevents Plaintiff from bringing malicious prosecution claims, and that, because Plaintiff's individual claims fail, so do his respondeat superior state claims against the County Board of Commissioners. Plaintiff filed a response in opposition on December 18, 2019. Doc. 51. The County Defendants filed their reply on January 16, 2020. Doc. 56.

The State Defendants filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings on December 6, 2019. Doc. 50. The State Defendants move to dismiss the new factual allegations in the SAC as barred by the relevant statute of limitations. They also argue that Plaintiff does not meet the pleading standard to overcome a defense of qualified immunity; that the Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity even if the claims are properly pled; that issue preclusion applies (they join the County Defendants' motion on this issue); and that the state-law claims should be dismissed on the basis of sovereign immunity. Plaintiff filed a response in opposition on January 14, 2020.2

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Doc. 55. The State Defendants filed a reply on January 28, 2020. Doc. 58.

The Court held a hearing on both motions on May 20, 2020. Doc. 65 (Hearing Transcript). Briefing is complete and both motions are ready for decision.


The County Defendants filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6). Doc. 49 at 1, 5. The State Defendants filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c) which, as they note, is addressed under the same standards as a motion filed under Rule 12(b)(6). Doc. 50 at 1, 5. Because both sets of defendants filed answers to the SAC, Docs. 39 & 41, a Rule 12(c) motion is appropriate rather than a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6). Rule 12(c) permits a litigant to file a motion for judgment on the pleadings after the pleadings have closed, that is, after the filing of the complaint and answer. The Court will construe the County Defendants' motion to dismiss as a motion for judgment on the pleadings, because the difference is not material. "A motion for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c) is treated as a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6)." Atl. Richfield Co. v. Farm Credit Bank of Wichita, 226 F.3d 1138, 1160 (10th Cir. 2000).

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) allows a court to dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim upon which the court can grant relief. "[T]o withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain enough allegations of fact, taken as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Khalik v. United Air Lines, 671 F.3d 1188, 1190 (10th Cir. 2012) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). While a complaint does not require detailed factual allegations to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, it

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"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.

A court considering a challenge under Rule 12(b)(6) may proceed according to a "two-pronged approach." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009). First, a court "can choose to begin by identifying pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth." Id. "While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations." Id. Second, "[w]hen there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief." Id.

For purposes of this second prong, the Court "accept[s] the well-pled factual allegations in the complaint as true, resolve[s] all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor, and ask[s] whether it is plausible that the plaintiff is entitled to relief." Diversey v. Schmidly, 738 F.3d 1196, 1199 (10th Cir. 2013) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). "A claim is facially plausible when the allegations give rise to a reasonable inference that the defendant is liable." Mayfield v. Bethards, 826 F.3d 1252...

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