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Hicks v. Ferreyra

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

April 11, 2017

NATHANIEL HICKS, Plaintiff,
v.
OFFICER GERALD L. FERREYRA, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Paul W. Grimm United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Nathaniel Hicks, a Secret Service agent, filed suit against Defendants Gerald L. Ferreyra and Brian Phillips, United States Park Police (“USPP”) officers, for detaining him without probable cause twice, first for an hour along the highway after he showed them his credentials, and then a second time shortly after the first. Compl., ECF No. 1. Special Agent Hicks claims that Defendants violated his Fourth Amendment rights. Id. Asserting qualified immunity, Defendants move to dismiss or for summary judgment insofar as Plaintiff's claim is based on the first detention. ECF No. 37.[1] Because it is not clear from either the pleadings or the scant record currently before me that Defendants had probable cause for Plaintiff's continued detention during the first stop, I will deny the motion.

         Background[2]

         Plaintiff alleges that on July 11, 2015, while working as a Secret Service agent, he was in a Secret Service-issued vehicle on the shoulder of Interstate 295 North, waiting to accompany the motorcade for Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. Compl. ¶¶ 2-4. Officer Ferreyra, who was in uniform at the time, pulled over behind Plaintiff and approached his vehicle with his weapon drawn. Id. ¶ 5. According to Officer Ferreyra, Special Agent Hicks “was dressed in civilian clothes” and asleep in an unmarked vehicle that “was unwashed and had a damaged exterior, ” with “a loaded handgun lying on the passenger seat.” Ferreyra Aff. ¶¶ 4-8. Special Agent Hicks claims that he “immediately and calmly identified himself as a United States Secret Service Agent” and then “provided his federal law enforcement credentials to Officer Ferreyra, ” who inspected them, and Hicks “explained that he was on-duty and waiting to lead an official motorcade of a Secret Service protectee.” Compl. ¶¶ 6-7.

         Special Agent Hicks contacted his supervisors by phone, Officer Phillips arrived to assist Officer Ferreyra, and Officer Phillips “told [Plaintiff] that he did not care” that Plaintiff's “supervisor was on the line.” Id. ¶¶ 35-36. Both officers “acknowledg[ed] that Special Agent Hicks was, in fact, a federal law enforcement agent with the Secret Service.” Id. ¶¶ 7-8. Yet, they continued to detain him for an hour, during which time the motorcade passed and they would not allow the agent to join it. Id. ¶¶ 7-12. Then, USPP Sergeant T. F. Wallace arrived and “spoke with Special Agent Hicks's supervisor (who was still on the line), admitted that Offericers Ferreyra and/or Phillips had told him that Special Agent Hicks was a federal law enforcement officer.” Id. ¶ 43. After that, Plaintiff was released. Id. ¶ 44. Plaintiff claims that, in detaining him for an hour after he provided his credentials, Defendants violated his Fourth Amendment rights. Id. ¶¶ 55-57. Defendants insist that they are entitled to qualified immunity, and move to dismiss or, alternative, for summary judgment on that basis.

         Standard of Review

         Under Rule 12(b)(6), Plaintiff'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)).

         “Although a motion pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) invites an inquiry into the legal sufficiency of the complaint, not an analysis of potential defenses to the claims set forth therein, dismissal nevertheless is appropriate when the face of the complaint clearly reveals the existence of a meritorious affirmative defense, ” such as qualified immunity. Occupy Columbia v. Haley, 738 F.3d 107, 116 (4th Cir. 2013) (quoting Brockington v. Boykins, 637 F.3d 503, 506 (4th Cir.2011) (internal quotation marks omitted)). Thus, “[a] qualified immunity defense can be presented in a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, but, . . . when asserted at this early stage in the proceedings, ‘the defense faces a formidable hurdle'” and “ ‘is usually not successful.'” Owens v. Baltimore City State's Attorneys Office, 767 F.3d 379, 396 (4th Cir. 2014) (quoting Field Day, LLC v. Cnty. of Suffolk, 463 F.3d 167, 191-92 (2d Cir. 2006)).

         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). If the party seeking summary judgment demonstrates that there is no evidence to support the nonmoving party's case, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to identify evidence that shows that a genuine dispute exists as to material facts. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 585-87 & n.10 (1986). The existence of only a “scintilla of evidence” is not enough to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986). Instead, the evidentiary materials submitted must show facts from which the finder of fact reasonably could find for the party opposing summary judgment. Id.

         Although Defendants move in the alternative for summary judgment, the only evidence they provide is a brief affidavit from Officer Ferreyra, asserting, as noted, that Special Agent Hicks “was dressed in civilian clothes” and asleep in an unmarked vehicle that “was unwashed and had a damaged exterior, ” with “a loaded handgun lying on the passenger seat.” Ferreyra Aff. ¶¶ 4-8. And, although Plaintiff opposes the treatment of this motion as one for summary judgment, see Pl.'s Opp'n 26-28, he fails to provide an “affidavit or declaration that, for specified reasons, [he] cannot present facts essential to justify its opposition, ” as Rule 56(d) requires. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(d). In any event, under either standard the outcome is the same: Defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity on either the facts alleged or the scant record before the Court.

         Discussion

         Hicks asserts a Bivens claim to recover monetary damages from Defendants, who are federal law enforcement officers, for their alleged violations of his Fourth Amendment rights. See Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Fed. Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388, 389, 397 (1971); cf. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (providing cause of action against state officers or agents for constitutional rights violations). “But government officials performing discretionary functions generally are granted a qualified immunity and are ‘shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'” Wilson v. Layne, 526 U.S. 603, 609 (1999) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). Thus, qualified immunity is available for officers or agents who “act in objectively reasonable reliance on existing law.” Queen v. Prince George's Cnty., 188 F.Supp.3d 535, 541 (D. Md. 2016) (quoting Rockwell v. Mayor & City Council of Baltimore, No. RDB-13-3049, 2014 WL 949859, at *8 n.10 (D. Md. Mar. 11, 2014)).

         Courts apply the same analysis to determine whether qualified immunity is available to a law enforcement officer or agent under either Bivens or § 1983. See Wilson, 526 U.S. at 609. The analysis “balances two important interests-the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009). “In particular, . . . qualified immunity protects law officers from ‘bad guesses in gray areas' and it ensures that they may be held personally liable only ‘for transgressing bright lines.'” Gomez v. Atkins, 296 F.3d 253, 261 (4th Cir. 2002) (quoting Maciariello v. Sumner, 973 F.2d 295, 298 (4th Cir. 1992)).

         Pursuant to this doctrine, police officers are not liable under Bivens or § 1983 unless “(1) the allegations, if true, substantiate a violation of a federal statutory or constitutional right and (2) the right was ‘clearly established' such that a reasonable person would have known his acts or omissions violated that right.” Streater v. Wilson, 565 Fed.App'x 208, 210 (4th Cir. 2014) (quoting Brockington v. Boykins, 637 F.3d 503, 506 (4th Cir. 2011) (internal citations omitted)). The Court may “exercise [its] sound discretion in deciding which of the two prongs of the qualified immunity analysis should be addressed first in light of the circumstances in th[is] particular case at hand.” Pearson, 555 U.S. at 236. The defendant carries the ...


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