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Butterworth v. Black

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

September 8, 2016

CLARENCE BLACK, et al., Defendants.


          Paul W. Grimm United States District Judge.

         Following the termination of his employment from the Prince George's County Police Department, where he worked as a police officer, Kevin Butterworth filed suit in this Court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Corporal Clarence Black, Lieutenant Jason Fisher, and Prince George's County (the “County”) harassed him, suspended him, and terminated his employment in retaliation for whistleblowing. Compl., ECF No. 1. The County has moved to dismiss on Younger[1] or Rooker-Feldman[2] abstention grounds or under the doctrine of collateral estoppel, based on state court litigation in which the court found that Butterworth used excessive force and affirmed the administrative board's termination of his employment on that basis. Def.'s Mot. 1, ECF No. 14; Def.'s Reply 3, ECF No. 16; Def.'s Supp. 5-8, ECF No. 32.[3]Dismissal is not warranted under either abstention doctrine, but the Younger abstention doctrine requires that I stay his claims, which seek monetary relief, during the pendency of the state court litigation, which currently is on appeal. Dismissal is not warranted under collateral estoppel, either, even though Butterworth is estopped from re-litigating the factual findings of the state court. The scope of this litigation is much broader, encompassing claims that the County retaliated in other ways and that the termination of his employment, even if justified by his excessive force, was in retaliation for his whistleblowing. Therefore, collateral estoppel does not bar Butterworth's § 1983 claims. Accordingly, I will deny the County's motion in part and grant it in part.[4]


         On November 21, 2013 Kevin Butterworth, who was a County police officer at that time, responded to another officer's call for assistance and was pursuing a suspect when a woman “jumped on his back.” Compl. ¶¶ 54-57. Butterworth “struck her with his baton” until she “was subdued.” Id. ¶ 58. Butterworth was advised on December 11, 2013 that Internal Affairs would investigate the incident. Def.'s Ex. 2, ECF No. 14-2.

         Then, on April 16, 2014, before the investigation of the November incident had concluded, [5] Butterworth reported to Corporal Kyle Bodenhorn in Internal Affairs a March 9, 2014 incident in which Butterworth's immediate supervisor, Defendant Corporal Clarence Black, “had a citizen strip searched on the side of the road, without probable cause, in full view of the public, ” in violation of the citizen's “civil rights and Prince George's Police Department policy.” Compl. ¶¶ 5, 23, 29-33. Butterworth gave Corporal Bodenhorn an “anonymous letter” regarding the incident for him to “pass. . . on to higher officials, ” but “[b]y the end of April 2014, word had spread throughout District 4 that Officer Butterworth had filed a police abuse complaint.” Id. ¶¶ 33, 34, 42.

         Butterworth claims that “Corporal Black was telling the members of Officer Butterworth's squad to stay away from Office Butterworth because he's a ‘snitch' and a ‘rat, '” “not to talk to him, ” and “not to respond to Officer Butterworth's calls for back up.” Id. ¶¶ 37- 38, 47. Three weeks after Butterworth's anonymous letter, on May 7, 2014, Butterworth was suspended “without an official reason for the suspension.” Id. ¶ 46. Then, on July 18, 2014, he was suspended again “without an official reason for the suspension.” Id. ¶ 49.

         After that, the investigation of the November incident concluded and Butterworth was charged with three counts of excessive force and four of lying and “served with termination papers” on September 1, 2014. Id. ¶¶ 53-55. The police disciplinary board cleared all but one excessive force charge, and his employment was terminated based on that one charge on April 17, 2015. Id. ¶¶ 61-63.

         Butterworth filed a Petition for Judicial Review in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County, in which he sought “to reverse the decision of the Administrative Hearing Board that found him guilty of Charge 1, use of excessive force.” Pl.'s Opp'n 7. He did not raise any constitutional claims in state court. The state court affirmed the administrative decision “to terminate [Butterworth's] employment for excessive force, ” see Def.'s Ex. 13, ECF No. 16-1, and Plaintiff appealed. See Def.'s Ex. 9, ECF No. 14-9. That appeal is pending.

         Before the state court issued its ruling, Butterworth filed a three-count, § 1983 complaint against Corporal Black, Lieutenant Jason Fisher, and the County, alleging violations of his First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Compl. ¶¶ 65-83. He believes that he was subjected to “harassment, threats, an intolerable and hostile work environment, and termination” in retaliation for “his whistleblowing police misconduct” regarding the March 2014 incident. Id. ¶¶ 71, 78, 82. In his view, his whistleblowing “was a substantial or motivating factor for the adverse employment action.” Id. ¶ 73. While Plaintiff characterizes his pleading as one for “declaratory relief; injunctive relief, damages and to secure protection of and to redress deprivation of freedom of speech rights, ” he only asks the Court to “[i]ssue a declaratory judgment that Defendants' acts, policies, practices and procedures complained of herein [] violated Plaintiff's rights . . . and, Order Defendants to make whole Plaintiff” and “compensate the Plaintiff for emotional pain and suffering, and los[t] pay and benefits . . . .” Compl. 2, 11. He does not seek injunctive relief. See Id. at 11-12.

         Standard of Review

         The County moves to dismiss and/or for summary judgment. Butterworth's Complaint is subject to dismissal if it “fail[s] to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). A complaint must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), and must state “a plausible claim for relief, ” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678-79 (2009). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Rule 12(b)(6)'s purpose “‘is to test the sufficiency of a complaint and not to resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses.'” Velencia v. Drezhlo, No. RDB-12-237, 2012 WL 6562764, at *4 (D. Md. Dec. 13, 2012) (quoting Presley v. City of Charlottesville, 464 F.3d 480, 483 (4th Cir. 2006)).

         The County also asserts collateral estoppel as an affirmative defense. The Court may consider affirmative defenses such as collateral estoppel on motions to dismiss only when they “‘clearly appear[] on the face of the complaint.'” Kalos v. Centennial Sur. Assocs., No. CCB-12-1532, 2012 WL 6210117, at *2 (D. Md. Dec. 12, 2012) (quoting Andrews v. Daw, 201 F.3d 521, 524 n.1 (4th Cir. 2000) (citation and quotation marks omitted)). That is not the case here, as Butterworth filed suit before the circuit court issued its ruling, and collateral estoppel does not apply until there is a final adjudication on the merits. GAB Enters., Inc. v. Rocky Gorge Devel., LLC, 108 A.3d 521, 530 (Md. Ct. Spec. App.), cert. denied sub nom. Rocky Gorge Dev. v. GAB Enters., 114 A.3d 711 (Md. 2015). Therefore, I will treat the County's motion as one for summary judgment insofar as it relies on collateral estoppel. See Kalos, 2012 WL 6210117, at *2.

         In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the Court considers the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, drawing all justifiable inferences in that party's favor. Ricci v. DeStefano, 557 U.S. 557, 585-86 (2009); George & Co., LLC v. Imagination Entm't Ltd., 575 F.3d 383, 391-92 (4th Cir. 2009). Summary judgment is proper when the moving party demonstrates, through “particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations . . ., admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials, ” that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a), (c)(1)(A); see Baldwin v. City of Greensboro, 714 F.3d 828, 833 (4th Cir. 2013).

         Younger Abstention

         The County first argues that this Court should abstain from ruling in this case based on Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971). Def.'s Mot. 3.[6] The Younger abstention doctrine

“requires a federal court to abstain from interfering in state proceedings, even if jurisdiction exists, ” when there is “(1) an ongoing state judicial proceeding, instituted prior to any substantial progress in the federal proceeding; that (2) implicates important, substantial, or vital state interests; and (3) provides an adequate opportunity for the [party] to raise the federal constitutional claim advanced in the federal lawsuit.”

B.G. v. Malhotra, No. RDB-15-2663, 2016 WL 3384941, at *6 (D. Md. June 20, 2016) (quoting Laurel Sand & Gravel, Inc. v. Wilson, 519 F.3d 156, 165 (4th Cir. 2008)).

         Younger abstention is an exception to the general rule that “federal courts are obliged to decide cases within the scope of federal jurisdiction, ” and the Supreme Court has “cautioned . . . that federal courts ordinarily should entertain and resolve on the merits an action within the scope of a jurisdictional grant, and should not ‘refus[e] to decide a case in deference to the States.'” Sprint Commc'ns, Inc. v. Jacobs, 134 S.Ct. 584, 588 (2013) (quoting New Orleans Public Service, Inc. v. Council of City of New Orleans,491 U.S. 350, 368 (1989) (“NOPSI”)). While the Supreme Court “has extended Younger abstention, ” which originally only applied to state criminal prosecutions, “to particular states civil proceedings that are akin to criminal prosecutions, or that implicate a State's interest in enforcing the orders and judgments of its courts, ” the doctrine nonetheless applies only under “‘exceptional'” ...

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