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Clifton v. Jeff Davis County

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Brunswick Division

June 5, 2019

TYLER BRENT CLIFTON, Plaintiff,
v.
JEFF DAVIS COUNTY, GEORGIA; and RAY WOOTEN, HUGH BRANTLEY, WANDA MARCHANT, WAYNE HALL, CARLA ROBERTS POWELL, and SHERIFF PRESTON BOHANNON, Individually, Defendants.

          ORDER

          R. STAN BAKER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Presently before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment, (doc. 56).[1]This case arises out of a series of events in Jeff Davis County, Georgia, that resulted in the criminal indictment and prosecution of Plaintiff Tyler Brent Clifton. Plaintiff asserts that Defendant Jeff Davis County and Defendants Ray Wooten, Hugh Brantley, Wanda Marchant, Wayne Hall, Carla Roberts Powell, and Sheriff Preston Bohannon, in their individual capacities, conspired to maliciously prosecute him in violation of federal and Georgia law. (Doc. 43, pp. 2- 3, 10-12.) Based on the undisputed facts, Plaintiff has failed to support any of his claims with sufficient evidence to survive summary judgment. Moreover, even if a genuine dispute of material fact existed as to the merits of Plaintiff's claims, Defendants would be shielded from Plaintiff's federal claims by qualified immunity and from his state law claims by official immunity. Accordingly, the Court GRANTS Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment, (doc. 56). The Court DIRECTS the Clerk of Court to enter the appropriate judgment of dismissal and to CLOSE this case.

         BACKGROUND

         I. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed this suit in July 2016, (doc. 1), and subsequently filed an Amended Complaint, (doc. 43), alleging violations of his Fourth Amendment rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and violations of Georgia law. (Id.) Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants “reached an understanding to arrest and prosecute” him after he installed a water line under a county road, (id. at p. 11), and that as a result, Defendants are liable for: malicious prosecution in violation of the Fourth Amendment and Georgia law (Counts I, III); conspiring to violate his constitutional rights (Count II); intentional infliction of emotional distress in violation of Georgia law (Count IV); attorney's fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 and Georgia law (Count V); and punitive damages under § 1983 and Georgia law (Count V). (Id. at pp. 10-12.) Plaintiff asserts these claims against Defendant Jeff Davis County (hereinafter, the “County”) and Defendants Ray Wooten, Hugh Brantley, Wanda Marchant, Wayne Hall, Carla Roberts Powell, and Preston Bohannon in their individual capacities. (Id. at pp. 2-3.) At all times relevant to this action, Defendant Wooten served as the Jeff Davis County Board of Commissioners Chairman, Defendants Marchant and Hall served as commissioners, Defendant Powell was employed as the County Attorney, and Defendant Bohannon was employed as the County Sheriff. (See generally Docs. 56, 61.) While Defendant Brantley was not serving as a commissioner at the time Plaintiff installed his water line, he had served as a commissioner in the past.[2] (Doc. 61-10; Doc. 80, p. 6.) Defendants filed this Motion for Summary Judgment on December 18, 2017. (Doc. 56). Plaintiff filed a Response, (docs. 61, 62), and Defendants filed a Reply, (doc. 68).[3] In an Order issued on October 26, 2018, the Court ordered the parties to file supplemental briefs on the issues of qualified and official immunity. Defendants filed a supplemental brief, (doc. 77), Plaintiff filed a Response, (doc. 80), and Defendants filed a Reply, (doc. 81). Based on factual clarity provided by these supplemental briefs, the Court has determined that Defendants' Motion is due to be granted on the merits, regardless of whether immunity protects any of the Defendants. However, the Court cites to these documents as needed for factual assertions.

         II. Factual Background

         The events giving rise to this action took place over a three-year period. In May 2013, Plaintiff appeared before the Jeff Davis County Board of Commissioners (hereinafter, the “Board”) and sought permission to install a water line under a public road. (Doc. 62, p. 1.) The line was installed several days later, and in April of 2014, Plaintiff was indicted on criminal charges in connection with that installation. (Id., at pp. 3, 10.) The charges were disposed of via entry of nolle prosequi in April 2016. (Id. at pp. 1, 11.) The crux of Plaintiff's claims in this lawsuit is that the Defendants, based on feelings of ill will, [4] prompted and/or participated in a baseless criminal investigation regarding his installation of the water line which resulted in his indictment and prosecution. (See generally id. at pp. 1-11; doc. 61-20, p. 2.) The relevant details are discussed below.

         A. The City Hall Meeting

         On May 20, 2013, the Board held a meeting, (doc. 62, pp. 1, 11), which was recorded and documented in written minutes.[5] (Doc. 57-7; Id. (audio).) Plaintiff's request to install a water pipe under Lonnie Johnson Road, a road which traverses two of his properties, was on the Board's agenda. (Id. (audio) at 27:44.) Prior to addressing Plaintiff specifically, one commissioner stated that he had discussed Plaintiff's request with three other commissioners and asked Plaintiff whether he wished to “cut or bore” the water line.[6] (Id. at 27:58-28:13.) Plaintiff responded that either option was fine. (Id. at 28:13.) The commissioner then summarized the concerns that were raised during his discussions with the other commissioners. (Id. at 28:15- 29:40.) First, he noted that the County had previously dealt with a “cut” pipe located near Plaintiff's pond and explained that the pipe “blew out” after it was clogged with concrete. (Id. at 28:23-49.) The commissioner then told Plaintiff, “every one of [the commissioners] says that if you do bore it, you need to hire someone to do it and it needs to be double-sleeved.” (Id.)

         About a minute later, someone queried about who would be responsible for future damage if such damage should occur from Plaintiff's project. (Id. at 29:45-47.) In response, another commissioner explained, “That's up to y'all; if you want him to be responsible, the property owner, I think you'd be well to get it in writing that you'd allow him to place an inch and a half water line under the road . . . three foot below the top of the pavement” and that the property owner “agrees to be responsible for any damages resulting from that installation.” (Id. at 29:47-30:45.) After more discussion about the proper placement of the line, someone stated that “there needs to be some kind of agreement” as to how the pipe would be installed and who would do the installation, and another person asked if the Board would “like to table” the discussion until it was “squared up.” (Id. at 32:01-11.) Before answering the question, someone asked Plaintiff who was going to perform the water line installation. (Id. at 32:11.) Plaintiff stated that he did not know yet and then listed some options. (Id. at 32:12-28.) Defendant Wooten then said, “Why don't you do your due diligence on this thing, Tyler, and find out who you can get to do it and then just get back with us?” (Id. at 33:05; see also doc. 62, p. 2.) Plaintiff said “Alright, that's fine, ” and the Board passed a motion to table the matter. (Doc. 57-7 (audio) at 33:12-18; see also doc. 61-8 (newspaper article).)

         B. Installation of the Water Line and Subsequent Investigation

         Approximately one week after the Board meeting, Plaintiff arranged for Emory Taylor to install the water pipe under Lonnie Johnson Road, and the work was completed on June 1, 2013. (Doc. 61, pp. 4-5.) Mr. Taylor utilized the “boring” method to install a 1.5-inch PVC pipe under the road, extending from one side of Plaintiff's property to the other.[7] (Id.; doc. 43, p. 5.) Plaintiff did not contact the Board prior to the pipe's installation. (Doc. 61, p. 4; doc. 62, p. 4.) On June 3, 2013, Defendant Hall returned to his home near Plaintiff's property after a trip out of town. (Doc. 62, p. 3.) After noticing Plaintiff had completed the project, Hall called Defendant Powell (the County Attorney) and the road superintendent. (Id.) The trio subsequently met to inspect the newly-installed pipe where they also discussed their concerns that the pipe could cause future damage to the road. (Id. at p. 4.) Within one week of the site inspection, Hall informed Defendant Wooten that Plaintiff had bored under the road without addressing any of the concerns discussed at the Board meeting. (Id.) Hall also argued with Plaintiff's father at some point after discovering the pipe. (Doc. 61-25; doc. 57-3, pp. 84-89.)

         After meeting with Hall and the road superintendent, Powell took several steps to begin investigating whether Plaintiff's project damaged government property or violated any laws. (Doc. 61, p. 6.) First, Powell conducted legal research and used a listserv for county attorneys to inquire about laws related to Plaintiff's boring.[8] She then contacted the office of the Jeff Davis County District Attorney (“D.A.”) to obtain advice on how to proceed; according to Powell, Assistant D.A. Kennedy (“A.D.A. Kennedy”) told her to contact the local sheriff's department. (Doc. 57-1, p. 40.) Powell acted on this advice and asked the County Sheriff's Office to conduct an investigation. (Doc. 62, p. 6.) When Powell called the Sheriff's Office, she spoke with Defendant Bohannon. (Doc. 56-2, p. 6.) Bohannon assigned the matter to Deputy Jamie Taylor (whom Plaintiff did not name as a defendant), and Deputy Taylor eventually asked Powell to give a statement. (Doc. 62, p. 6.) Powell obliged. (Id.)

         After the investigation, Deputy Taylor prepared a report (the “Report”) and the resulting document is not disputed by either party. In addition to Powell's statement, the Report contained summaries of Deputy Taylor's conversations with Plaintiff, Plaintiff's father, Emory Taylor, and Emory Taylor's employer. (Doc. 61-22.) The case file also included photos of the property where the pipe was bored, a recorded copy of the May 20 Board meeting, a copy of a newspaper article containing highlights from the May 20 meeting, a DVD with video footage of Plaintiff's interview with Deputy Taylor, land plots, and various photos of other county roads.[9] (Id.) The Report did not contain any representations that Lonnie Johnson Road was visibly damaged and, in an affidavit prepared for this case, Deputy Taylor stated that he “did not see any damage to the road.” (Id.; doc. 61-17, p. 3 (Taylor Aff.).) After he completed the Report, Deputy Taylor gave the case file to his secretary, and both he and his secretary contacted Powell to let her know the file was ready. (Doc. 62, p. 8.) At some point prior to April 2014, Powell picked up the file from the secretary and took it to the D.A.'s office. (Id.) There is no evidence that any Defendant interacted or spoke with anyone at the D.A.'s office about Plaintiff's case outside of Powell's initial conversation with A.D.A. Kennedy, Powell's delivery of the file to the D.A.'s office, and Powell's testimony at a later motions hearing, discussed below. (Doc. 61-4, p. 9; doc. 57-3, pp. 97-98 (Hall Dep.); 57-4, p. 10 (Bohannon Dep.); doc. 57-2, p. 57 (Powell Superior Ct. Test. Tr.); doc. 57-1, p. 53 (Powell Dep.).)

         Plaintiff maintains that a secret meeting took place at some point prior to his prosecution where the Defendants who were serving as commissioners (along with other members of the Board) “voted” to seek his indictment. (Doc. 61, pp. 11-12.) In support of this contention, Plaintiff cites to an affidavit of a former commissioner, Steve Toler. (Id.) Toler states that he attended a meeting where Powell asked the commissioners if they wanted to “indict” Plaintiff, but he further explains that he “did not know exactly what the word ‘indict' meant, but understood that [the Board] was going to get a statement from [Plaintiff] where he agreed to be responsible for any future damage to the roadway.” (Doc. 61-24, p. 2.) Defendants, on the other hand, do not recall any such meeting and maintain that the record does not show such a meeting occurred. (Doc. 56-2, p. 14; doc. 57-3, pp. 74-75 (Hall Dep.).)

         After this case was filed, Plaintiff obtained the contents of the D.A.'s file pursuant to a subpoena. (Doc. 61-2, p. 14.) Among the documents in the file was a printed copy of a 2009 Georgia Court of Appeals opinion (issued in an unrelated criminal proceeding) that had apparently been found via a search for certain words and terms on the “Lexis” database. (Doc. 61-23.) The document appears to have been printed on March 24, 2014. (Id.) The case pertained to the issue of interference with government property. (Id.) Additionally, the file contained what appeared to be an envelope with a printed return address for the “Law Offices of Ken W. Smith, P.C.” along with the words “Investigator Jamie Taylor” written in Powell's handwriting. (Doc. 61-2, p. 14.) The two documents were found adjacent to one another in the file, but the “Lexis” case opinion print-out does not contain the law office information (or any other information about who printed it). (Id.)

         C. Plaintiff's Indictment and Prosecution

         On April 1, 2014, a grand jury indicted Plaintiff on charges of criminal trespass and interference with government property. (Doc. 61-20, p. 2.) Deputy Taylor was subpoenaed and testified before the grand jury. (Doc. 61-17, p. 2.) However, none of the Defendants participated in the grand jury proceedings. (Doc. 62, p. 10.) Plaintiff turned himself in on April 4, 2014. (Doc. 62, p. 10.) Plaintiff's defense attorney eventually filed a motion to dismiss the indictment and there was an oral hearing on October 19, 2015; Powell testified at the hearing pursuant to a subpoena from Plaintiff's counsel. (Doc. 61-4, p. 10; see generally doc. 57-2, pp. 16-109 (Powell Test. Tr.).) On April 11, 2016, an A.D.A. sent Plaintiff's attorney an email stating that “[t]he State has decided not to proceed further on the indictment, ” and that a “nolle prosse” was forthcoming. (Doc. 61-31, p. 2.) The order of nolle prosequi was entered on April 13, 2016, and the charges against Plaintiff were dropped. (Doc. 62, p. 11.)

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Summary judgment “shall” be granted if “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A fact is “material” if it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” FindWhat Inv'r Grp. v. FindWhat.com, 658 F.3d 1282, 1307 (11th Cir. 2011) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). A dispute is “genuine” if the “evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id.

         The moving party bears the burden of establishing that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact. See Williamson Oil Co. v. Philip Morris USA, 346 F.3d 1287, 1298 (11th Cir. 2003). Specifically, the moving party must identify the portions of the record which establish that there are no “genuine dispute[s] as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Moton v. Cowart, 631 F.3d 1337, 1341 (11th Cir. 2011). When the nonmoving party would have the burden of proof at trial, the moving party may discharge his burden by showing that the record lacks evidence to support the nonmoving party's case or that the nonmoving party would be unable to prove his case at trial. See id. (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986)). If the moving party discharges this burden, the burden shifts to the nonmovant to go beyond the pleadings and present affirmative evidence to show that a genuine issue of fact does exist. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 257.

         In determining whether a summary judgment motion should be granted, a court must view the record and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Peek-A-Boo Lounge of Bradenton, Inc. v. Manatee County, 630 F.3d 1346, 1353 (11th Cir. 2011) (citing Rodriguez v. Sec'y for Dep't of Corr., 508 F.3d 611, 616 (11th Cir. 2007)). However, “facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party only if there is a ‘genuine' dispute as to those facts.” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007). “[T]he mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Id. (emphasis and citations omitted).

         DISCUSSION

         I. The Parties' Arguments

         Plaintiff brings claims for: malicious prosecution in violation of the Fourth Amendment and Georgia law (Counts I, III); conspiring to violate his constitutional rights (Count II); intentional infliction of emotional distress in violation of Georgia law (Count IV); and attorney's fees and punitive damages pursuant to federal and Georgia law (Count V). (Doc. 43, pp. 10-12.) Plaintiff alleges that Defendants used their positions as county officials to encourage law enforcement to bring “false” charges against him and that they “conspired to have [him] prosecuted.” (Doc. 61, p. 1.) Plaintiff argues the lack of visible damage to Lonnie Johnson Road caused by his boring proves that Defendants were determined to hold him criminally liable despite a dearth of evidence providing a basis for them to do so. (Id.) Plaintiff contends that these actions were motivated by “personal animus” stemming from his previous investigations into the County's records. (Id. at pp. 3-4.)

         In their Motion, Defendants first argue that Plaintiff's claims for malicious prosecution fail as a matter of law. Because the D.A. made an independent choice to present the case to the grand jury, Defendants allege they cannot be held liable for malicious prosecution under § 1983 or Georgia law as they did not institute Plaintiff's prosecution. (Doc. 56-2, pp. 10, 21.) Further, Defendants maintain that Plaintiff's malicious prosecution claims fail because Plaintiff cannot prove the absence of probable cause for his prosecution; that is, Plaintiff has no evidence to support his allegations that Defendants wrongfully encouraged law enforcement officers to indict and prosecute him, gave false statements to law enforcement, fabricated evidence, or failed to disclose exculpatory ...


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