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Vigil v. Tweed

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

June 7, 2019

John Vigil, Plaintiff,
v.
Frances Tweed, et al. Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING MOTION TO DISMISS

          STEVEN C. YARBROUGH UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff is a former 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. An anonymous, typewritten note sent to Plaintiff's superiors at the hospital claiming that Plaintiff stored cash and narcotics in his desk served as the catalyst for the searches. The hospital and its employees move 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. They also move to dismiss Plaintiff's claims against them under the New Mexico Tort Claims Act. For the reasons that follow, the Court grants the motion to dismiss in full.

         BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff filed suit in state court on April 26, 2018. Doc. 1-1. On May 30, 2018, he filed a First Amended Complaint (“FAC”). Doc. 1-4. In the FAC, Defendants Frances Tweed, Antonio Coca, Joe Chavez, and Corrine Dominguez are sued in their individual capacities as employees of the State of New Mexico. FAC at 2-3 ¶¶ 5-8.[1] Together with Defendant New Mexico Department of Health, who operates the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute (“NMBHI”), FAC at 4 ¶ 9, these Defendants are collectively the “State Defendants.” Additionally, the Amended Complaint names Deputies Sean Armijo and Antoine Whitfield, and Undersheriff Anthony Madrid, of San Miguel County, in their individual capacities. FAC at 3-4 ¶ 10-12. Together with Defendant Board of County Commissioners of San Miguel County, FAC at 5 ¶ 13, these Defendants are collectively the “County Defendants.”

         The FAC brings the following causes of action: Count I, “Unlawful Search and Seizure (Under the United States Constitution)”; Count II, “Unlawful Search and Seizure Under the New Mexico Constitution”; Count III, “Fourth Amendment Malicious Prosecution (Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983)”; Count IV, “Malicious Abuse of Process (Lack of Probable Cause) (Pursuant to the New Mexico Tort Claims Act)”; Count V, “First Amendment Retaliation (Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983)”; Count VI, “Respondeat Superior Claims Against Defendant NMBHI for Tort Claims Violation”; and Count VII, “Respondeat Superior Claims Against Defendant Board of County Commissioners of the County of San Miguel for Tort Claims Violation.” FAC at 10-22 (upper case omitted from original). Except for Counts VI and VII, the FAC brings all Counts against all Defendants. See id.[2]

         The County Defendants removed this case to federal court on August 30, 2018, alleging that this Court has original jurisdiction over the federal claims in the FAC 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, the State Defendants filed a notice of consent to removal. Doc. 5. The County Defendants filed an Answer to the FAC on October 5, 2018. Doc. 13. The State Defendants filed the instant Motion to Dismiss on October 12, 2018. Doc. 16. Meanwhile, Magistrate Judge Molzen found good cause to delay entry of a Rule 16 scheduling order pending the resolution of the Motion to Dismiss. Doc. 18. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), the parties consented to the undersigned to conduct any or all proceedings and to enter an order of judgment. Docs. 15, 21, & 22.

         B. Factual Background

         Because this matter is before the Court on a motion to dismiss, the Court accepts the following from the FAC as true for purposes of resolving the motion.

         Plaintiff worked for the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute (“NMBHI”), a psychiatric hospital in Las Vegas, New Mexico run by the New Mexico Department of Health (“the Department”). In June 2012, his longtime domestic partner, Patricia Vigil, brought suit against the NMBHI for discrimination and retaliation. FAC at 5 ¶ 14. Plaintiff supported Ms. Vigil throughout her litigation, attending hearings and conferences in his personal capacity. FAC at 5-6 ¶ 17. Plaintiff's employers at the State “were angered by Plaintiff's support of Ms. Vigil.” FAC at 6 ¶ 18. Ms. Vigil's lawsuit was resolved through settlement. FAC at 6 ¶ 19.

         On May 29, 2015, Plaintiff's superiors “received a typed anonymous letter alleging that Plaintiff had narcotics stored in his desk.” FAC at 6 ¶ 20. The desk was in a state building. Id. The letter stated:

I was told and everybody knows that supervisor john vigil has a lot of bottels of the patientes meds in his desk, and some are ativans and narcotics locked away. Also hundreds of dollars of there money to. John vigil is the psych tech supervisor at the arches. We will send to HR patient avocate and Investegations. You cannot tell him how you found out cuase he will know who send this letter.

Id. (errors in original).

         Five days later, when they knew Plaintiff would be on vacation, Defendants Tweed, Coca, and Chavez conducted a search of Plaintiff's desk. FAC at 6 ¶ 21. “Plaintiff's office was a secure area to which they did not normally have access; they nonetheless obtained a key to enter.” Id. They cut off the padlock on Plaintiff's desk. Id. They removed and photographed various items within the desk, and Defendant Chavez placed a new lock on it. Id.

         On June 5, Defendant Chavez made contact with Deputy Armijo of the San Miguel County Sheriff's Department, claiming a possible narcotics larceny had occurred, and gave him a copy of the anonymous letter. FAC at 6-7 ¶ 23. Deputy Armijo and Undersheriff Madrid obtained and executed a search warrant for Plaintiff's desk. Id. Defendant Chavez took off the lock he had placed on the desk to aid the search. Id.

         Approximately two weeks later, Defendant Tweed received a second anonymous note. FAC at 7 ¶ 26. It stated:

John paul vigil has 2 lokers in mesa an el paso unit 1 in mesa has a combination and 1 in el pasao has a yellow lock. I no the 1 in el paso has pills. He uses.

Id. (errors in original). Defendant Tweed and other state employees conducted searches of the lockers referenced in the note. FAC at 7 ¶ 27. On June 19, Defendant Tweed contacted Undersheriff Madrid to inform him of the allegations and that a search had been performed. FAC at 7-8 ¶ 28. “She itemized the pills allegedly found in the locker during her first search, claiming that she had ‘researched' them and identified them as narcotics.” Id. On June 26, 2015, Undersheriff Madrid and Deputy Whitfield obtained and executed a search warrant for the lockers. FAC at 8 ¶ 29. Several items were seized. Id.

         On November 15, 2015, Plaintiff was charged with felony possession of a controlled substance; misdemeanor possession of a controlled substance; and felony possession of dangerous drugs. FAC at 9 ¶ 36. After trial, he was acquitted on two of the three charges and the third charge was dismissed. FAC at 10 ¶ 38.

         The State Defendants filed the instant Motion to Dismiss, moving to dismiss all claims against them. Doc. 16. The individual State Defendants argue they are entitled to qualified immunity from the federal constitutional claims, and all State Defendants argue that the state claims are not cognizable against them. Id. Plaintiff opposed the motion, but clarified that he agrees to dismiss the malicious prosecution claims against the State Defendants. Doc. 23 at 10. Thus, the issues for the Court to decide are (1) whether the State Defendants have qualified immunity from the Fourth Amendment unlawful search and seizure claims and the First Amendment retaliation claims; and (2) whether the FAC states a claim against the State Defendants for violations under the New Mexico Tort Claims Act.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         A. Motions to Dismiss 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 “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, 1255 (10th Cir. 2016). The court's consideration, therefore, is limited to determining whether the complaint states a legally sufficient claim upon which the court can grant relief. See Sutton v. Utah State Sch. for the Deaf & Blind, 173 F.3d 1226, 1236 (10th Cir. 1999). The court is not required to accept conclusions of law or the asserted application of law to the alleged facts. See Hackford v. Babbitt, 14 F.3d 1457, 1465 (10th Cir. 1994). Nor is the Court required to accept as true legal conclusions that are masquerading as factual allegations. See Brooks v. Sauceda, 85 F.Supp.2d 1115, 1123 (D. Kan. 2000). The Court must, however, view a plaintiff's allegations in the light most favorable to him. Schrock v. Wyeth, Inc., 727 F.3d 1273, 1280 (10th Cir. 2013).

         B. Qualified Immunity

         Qualified immunity protects public officials from liability “insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). In order to defeat qualified immunity, a plaintiff must assert facts that rebut the presumption of the officer's immunity from suit. Medina v. Cram, 252 F.3d 1124, 1130 (10th Cir. 2001). The plaintiff carries the burden of showing that 1) the officer violated a constitutional or statutory right and 2) the right was clearly established when the alleged violation occurred. Olsen v. Layton Hills Mall, 312 F.3d 1304, 1312 (10th Cir. 2002). A court may address these prongs in either order, Pearson, 555 U.S. at 236, but a plaintiff must satisfy both in order to avoid qualified immunity, Olsen, 312 F.3d at 1304. As with other motions to dismiss, to survive a motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 677.

         A right is clearly established if “[t]he contours of the right [are] sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right.” Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640 (1987). The action at issue need not have been previously declared unlawful, but its unlawfulness must be evident in light of preexisting law. Beedle v. Wilson, 422 F.3d 1059, 1069 (10th Cir. 2005). Unlawfulness is generally demonstrated “when there is controlling authority on point or when the clearly established weight of authority from other courts supports plaintiff's interpretation of the law.” Id. at 1069-70 (internal quotation marks omitted). “A prior case need not have identical facts, ” Patel v. Hall, 849 F.3d 970, 980 (10th Cir. 2017), but the precedent must make it clear “to every reasonable officer . . . that what he is doing violates that right, ” Mullenix v. Luna, 136 S.Ct. 305, 308 (2015) (internal quotation marks omitted). The plaintiff ...


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