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Taylor v. Art Villegas

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

September 28, 2019



         Presently before the Court is Defendant Art Villegas' Motion for Summary Judgment, (doc. 34). This case arises out of a series of events in Lyons, Georgia, that resulted in the arrest of Plaintiff Charles Kevin Taylor. Plaintiff asserts that Defendants Art Villegas, Robert Daniel Dismuke, Kevin Bessent, and Christopher Anthony Gino Harrison conspired to maliciously arrest and prosecute him in violation of federal and Georgia law.[1] (Doc. 1, pp. 9-20.) For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds that Plaintiff has failed to support any of his claims with enough evidence to survive summary judgment as to Defendant Villegas. Moreover, even if a genuine dispute of material fact existed as to the merits of Plaintiff's claims, Defendant would be shielded from Plaintiff's federal claims by qualified immunity. Accordingly, the Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, (doc. 34). The Court DIRECTS the Clerk of Court to enter the appropriate judgment and TERMINATE Defendant Villegas as a party to this case. Plaintiff's counsel shall file a status report within fourteen days of the date of this Order updating the Court on the status of Plaintiff's claims as directed more specifically below.


         I. Procedural History

         Plaintiff filed this suit in the Superior Court of Toombs County on September 13, 2017, alleging violations of his Fourth Amendment rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and violations of Georgia law. (Doc. 1, pp. 9-20.) Defendants subsequently removed the case to this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1446. (See id. at pp. 1-5.)

         Plaintiff, who was employed as a maintenance supervisor for the City of Lyons Housing Authority (“Housing Authority”), (doc. 40, p. 1), alleges that, after he removed Defendant Bessent from working on a roofing job, Bessent and the other Defendants conspired to “cause [his] false arrest and prosecution” and, in furtherance of this conspiracy, Defendants “plant[ed] drugs in [his] work vehicle” and “provided false information to the [Georgia Bureau of Investigation].” (Doc. 34-1, pp. 9-20.) As a result, Plaintiff contends Defendants are liable for: malicious prosecution in violation of the Fourth Amendment and Georgia law (Counts III, VII); malicious or false arrest in violation of Georgia law (Count II); attorney's fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 and Georgia law (Count V);[2] and punitive damages under Georgia law (Count IV).[3] (Id. at pp. 15-20.) Defendant Villegas filed this Motion for Summary Judgment on September 10, 2018. (Docs. 34, 34-1, 34-2, 35, 36.) Plaintiff filed a Response, (doc. 40), and Defendant filed a Reply, (doc. 42).

         II. Factual Background

         The events giving rise to this action began in May 2015, when employees of Sweet Onion Construction, Inc. (“Sweet Onion”), which is owned by Defendant Dismuke, (doc. 40, p. 1), were working on a project for the Housing Authority at the Gould Mosley Village Apartments in Lyons, Georgia. (Doc. 34-2, p. 2.) Plaintiff and Defendant Bessent, a Sweet Onion employee, were both tasked with supervising the Sweet Onion roofing contractors-Plaintiff on behalf of the City, and Bessent on behalf of Sweet Onion. (Doc. 34-1, p. 2.) On May 1, 2015, while on the job site, Plaintiff noticed that Bessent was not laying shingles correctly. (Doc. 35-1, pp. 130-31.) Plaintiff relayed these observations to his boss, Patricia Murphy, and Murphy instructed Plaintiff to “shut the [entire] job down.” (Id.; doc. 40, p. 2.) Before Plaintiff could do so, however, Defendant Dismuke convinced Murphy that removing Bessent from the job was a better alternative to terminating the entire operation. (Doc. 40, p. 2.) Plaintiff informed Bessent of Murphy's decision and instructed him to leave the job. (Id.; doc. 35-1, pp 130-31.)

         On May 8-one week later-Dismuke called Defendant Villegas, an officer with the City of Lyons Police Department (“Police Department”).[4] (Doc. 40, pp. 2-3; doc. 34-1, pp. 2-4.) During their call, Dismuke told Villegas that an inspector for the Housing Authority named “Kevin” had attempted to sell drugs to some Sweet Onion employees, including Bessent. (Doc. 40, pp. 2-3; doc. 34-3, p. 2.) Villegas advised that Bessent needed to give a statement at the Police Department. (Doc. 34-2, p. 3.) Shortly thereafter, Bessent met with Villegas and provided a written statement, explaining that “Kevin” approached him “around April 8th, 2015” and “said that he found [some] pot and pills in a unit they were cleaning and wanted to know if I wanted them or if I knew someone that wanted any.” (Id.; doc. 34-3, p. 10.) At some point, Villegas also spoke to Police Chief Wesley Walker. (Doc. 34-4, p. 2; doc. 34-3, p. 3.) Villegas said that he “received information” that the Housing Authority's “maintenance supervisor . . . was attempting to sell illegal drugs to roofing workers” at a job site. (Doc. 34-4, p. 2.) According to Walker, it was standard protocol for officers to notify him about “suspected drug activity, ” and for the Police Department to relay these tips to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's Southeastern Regional Drug Task Force (“Task Force”). (Id. at pp. 2-3.) Accordingly, after talking with Villegas, Walker called Task Force Agent Josh Thompson. (Id.) However, Walker was not the only person to contact Agent Thompson. That same day, Sheriff's Deputy Terry Smith called Agent Thompson to report a call he received from Dismuke alleging that Plaintiff was offering to sell drugs to Sweet Onion employees. (Doc. 34-5, pp. 2-3.) After talking to Deputy Smith, Agent Thompson spoke with Dismuke directly. (Id. at p. 3.) Dismuke told Agent Thompson that Plaintiff had tried to sell drugs to Bessent in April of 2015. (Id.) In a second phone call, Dismuke told Agent Thompson that, earlier that same day, Plaintiff attempted to sell drugs to another employee named Christopher Harrison. (Id.) Agent Thompson then spoke directly with Harrison, who told him that Plaintiff had offered him drugs between 10:15 and 10:30 a.m. (Id.) Harrison also told Agent Thompson that after he rejected the offer, Plaintiff wrapped the drugs in a paper towel and put them in his “work truck.” (Id.)

         At this point, Agent Thompson believed the Task Force had probable cause to question Plaintiff. (Id. at p. 4.) Agent Thompson apprised Task Force Agent Joshua Contreras of the information he received from Dismuke and Harrison and instructed him to speak with Plaintiff at the Housing Authority's job site. (Id.) Per Agent Thompson's instructions, Contreras went to the job site with Investigator Wayne Waldon and, upon their arrival, asked Plaintiff for permission to search his vehicle. (Id. at pp. 3-4; doc. 34-4, p. 3.) Plaintiff consented. (Doc. 34-5, p. 4; doc. 40, p. 5.) Contreras conducted the search and found drugs inside Plaintiff's work truck. (Doc. 40, p. 5.) Contreras then placed Plaintiff under arrest and transported him to the Toombs County Sheriff's Department, where Agent Thompson and Contreras conducted a custodial interview.[5](Doc. 34-5, p. 4.) Plaintiff stayed at the Toombs County Jail overnight and appeared before Toombs County Magistrate Judge Rizza O'Connor on the morning of May 9, 2015. (Doc. 35-1, p. 60; see doc. 5, pp. 12-13.) At the hearing, Judge O'Connor issued warrants for his arrest for the crimes of possession of hydrocodone, possession of cocaine, and possession of marijuana. (Doc. 5, pp. 12-16.) Plaintiff remained in police custody until he posted bond later that day. (Doc. 35-1, p. 137.)

         Sometime after Plaintiff's arrest on May 8, 2015, Chief Walker told Villegas to “prepare a written police report based on the information that he received from the sources who reported the suspected criminal activity to him.” (Doc. 34-4, p. 4.) Villegas did not write the report until June 10, 2015, approximately one month later. (Id. at 4; doc. 34-3, pp. 3-4.) In the report, Villegas states that on May 5, he received a call from “the owner of the roofing company” who told him that “the Inspector for the Housing Authority a Kevin (unknown last name) white male driving a white company truck with tool boxes on the sides” tried to sell drugs to one of his workers. (Doc. 34-3, p. 9.) The report does not distinguish between the initial phone call and Bessent's subsequent statement but does state that “Mr. Kevin Basset [sic] said that he saw where the Inspector had grabbed the drugs from behind the drivers side seat in a white paper napkin.” (Id.) According to Villegas, he drafted the report from memory and did not review Defendant Bessent's written statement prior to doing so. (Doc. 34-3 at pp. 3, 6.)

         The District Attorney of Toombs County dismissed the charges against Plaintiff on September 15, 2015. (Doc. 34-2, p. 9). Plaintiff then filed this suit on September 13, 2017.


         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., 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).


         I. Malicious Prosecution (O.C.G.A. § 51-7-40) & Malicious Arrest (O.C.G.A. § 51-7-1)

         Defendant Villegas moves for summary judgment on both of Plaintiff's state law claims asserted against him. (Doc. 34-1, pp. 16, 22.) First, Villegas argues that Plaintiff's malicious arrest claim fails as a matter of law. (Doc. 34-1, pp. 16-17.) The Court agrees. In Ferrell v. Mikula, the Georgia Court of Appeals unequivocally held that, as a matter of Georgia law, a warrantless arrest cannot form the basis for a malicious arrest claim. 672 S.E.2d 7, 12-13 (2008). The Ferrell Court explicitly overruled “any other cases which hold that an arrest without a warrant can constitute false/malicious arrest under O.C.G.A. § 51-7-1.” Id. at 13. Here, it is undisputed that Plaintiff was detained after a warrantless arrest. (Doc. 34-5, p. 4; doc. 34-2, p. 5.) Accordingly, Plaintiff's malicious arrest claim fails as a matter of law.

         As to his state law malicious prosecution claim, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants acted with “malice” and without probable cause to “initiate[] and maintain[] a criminal prosecution against Plaintiff” in violation of O.C.G.A. § 51-7-40. (Doc. 1, pp. 15-16.) “A claim for malicious prosecution under . . . Georgia law requires showing[:] ‘(1) a criminal prosecution instituted or continued by the present defendant; (2) with malice and without probable cause; (3) that terminated in the plaintiff accused's favor; and (4) caused damage to the plaintiff accused.'” Green v. City of Lawrenceville, 745 Fed.Appx. 881, 883 (11th Cir. 2018) (per curiam) (quoting Kjellsen v. Mills, 517 F.3d 1232, 1237 (11th Cir. 2008)); see Condon v. Vickery, 606 S.E.2d 336, 339 (Ga.Ct.App. 2004) (affirming grant of summary judgment where plaintiff ...

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