United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Southern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANTS HOPE THORNTON, LINDA JONES, EDDIE CLARK, AND CHAD HECK'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT BASED ON QUALIFIED IMMUNITY
HALIL SULEYMAN OZERDEN, District Judge.
BEFORE THE COURT is the Motion for Summary Judgment Based on Qualified Immunity  filed by Defendants Hope Thornton, Linda Jones, Eddie Clark, and Chad Heck. Plaintiff James Hagan has filed a Response in Opposition  and Defendants Hope Thornton, Linda Jones, Eddie Clark, and Chad Heck have filed a Rebuttal . Having considered the parties' submissions, the record, and relevant legal authority, the Court is of the opinion that Defendants Hope Thornton, Linda Jones, Eddie Clark, and Chad Heck's Motion should be granted in part and denied in part. Defendants Hope Thornton, Linda Jones, Eddie Clark, and Chad Heck are entitled to qualified immunity on Plaintiff's individual capacity claims against them under federal law, and are further entitled to summary judgment on each of Plaintiff's state law claims against them, with the exception of Plaintiff's claim for malicious prosecution.
A. Factual Background
During the afternoon of November 28, 2011, Rebie Walley ("Walley") presented herself at the Jackson County Sheriff's Office ("JCSO") to make a report of potential criminal activity allegedly committed by Plaintiff James Hagan ("Plaintiff") against his then sixteen-year-old stepdaughter, MW. Jackson County Investigative Report 1 [139-1]. Walley initially spoke to Annie Vaughn ("Vaughn"), an employee of the JCSO who takes reports of alleged criminal activity, but Defendant Detective Hope Thornton ("Thornton"), an investigator with the JCSO, soon joined Walley and Vaughn. Dep. of Hope Thornton ("Thornton Dep.") 13:19-14:7 [139-45]. Thornton recalls that Walley's report was based on information Walley had received from KS, MW's then seventeen-year-old stepsister. Id. at 14:13-18, 19:15-18. KS had allegedly informed Walley that MW complained to KS that Plaintiff was "touching her[, ]" "talking trash[, ]" and would "crawl in bed with [MW]." Id. at 20:19-23, 24:17-25. Walley added that MW told KS that MW would often notice Plaintiff looking into a bathroom window from outside the home while MW showered in the bathroom, and Walley expressed concern that Plaintiff may have been taking photographs of MW. Id. at 29:14-16. Thornton did not conduct an independent investigation into the background of either Walley or KS to ascertain whether either had a criminal history. Id. at 15:16-21. Thornton relied upon the fact that Walley was a youth minister and upon Walley's demeanor and statements. Id. at 23:11-13; 24:1-2.
1. Investigation of Criminal Activity Allegedly Perpetrated by Plaintiff Against MW
Based upon Walley's report, on the morning of November 29, 2011, Thornton prepared two affidavits seeking two separate search warrants for Plaintiff's residence, one seeking forensic evidence and the other seeking computers and electronic equipment. Affs. for Search Warrants [139-6] [139-7]. Thornton relied almost exclusively upon Walley's report to obtain the search warrants. Thornton Dep. 22:3-6 [139-45]. Thornton also independently verified Walley's statement that Plaintiff was an alderman for the City of Ocean Springs, and learned that Plaintiff had been issued a laptop by the City in 2009 but had reported it missing in 2010. Aff. of Search Warrant 7 [139-7]. According to Vickie Sears, an employee of the JCSO assigned to the Criminal Approval Investigation Division, Thornton and Defendant Investigator Linda Jones ("Jones") were concerned that they were not going to be able to convince a judge to issue search warrants related to Plaintiff's residence because "they did[ not] have anything...." Aff. of Vickie Spears ¶ 3 [139-4]. Defendants Thornton and Jones did in fact obtain both search warrants from Justice Court Judge Cecil Byrd later that morning. Search Warrants [139-8] [139-9].
Subsequent to obtaining the search warrants but prior to initiating any search, Defendants Thornton and Jones, along with John McGrath ("McGrath"), a Mississippi Department of Human Services ("DHS") employee, made contact with MW and her mother at Ocean Springs High School at or around 12:30 p.m. on November 29, 2011. Pl.'s Ex. "10", Excerpt from DHS Investigation Report 3 [145-3]; Dep. of Linda Jones ("Jones Dep.") 15:13-16:1, 17:21-18:10 [139-50]. When asked why she thought that Jones and McGrath wanted to talk with her, MW indicated to Jones and McGrath that she believed they wanted to talk to her because Plaintiff touched MW and did things to make MW feel uncomfortable. Thornton Dep. 65:2-12 [139-46]; Jones Dep. 18:21-19:12 [139-50]. The record reflects that at that point a forensic interview of MW was scheduled for 4:00 p.m. that same afternoon, and Thornton and Jones proceeded to Plaintiff's residence, where a search was by then underway. Excerpt from DHS Investigation Report 2 [145-3]; Jones Dep. 18:20-19:9 [139-50]. The search of Plaintiff's residence yielded a Toshiba laptop computer, a Dell desktop computer, two external drives, a digital camera, and various other electronics. Return [139-8].
Jones returned to the school at or around 3:20 p.m. to transport MW to the child advocacy center to undergo a forensic interview. Jones Dep. 18:17-19:9, 19:13-22 [139-50]. The interview of MW commenced at or around 4:37 p.m. on November 29, 2011. Tr. of Forensic Interview of MW 2 [145-6]. The interview was conducted by Kristian Clark, a licensed forensic interviewer, and was observed by Jones via a camera. Jones Dep. 20:19-21:1 [139-50]. During the forensic interview, MW indicated that Plaintiff "always" talked about her breasts, and had been doing so for at least the previous year. Tr. of Forensic Interview of MW 4-5, 7 [145-6]. MW described an incident which occurred in Michigan in which Plaintiff laid in a bed with MW and allegedly inappropriately touched MW's belly beneath her shirt and made comments about the effect that his touching had on MW's breasts. Id. at 4-5. MW provided details regarding the fact that Plaintiff on numerous occasions had painfully grabbed MW's breasts from the outside of her clothing, but did so in a purportedly "joking" manner referred to as a "tiddy twister." Id. at 13-15. MW also described instances in which Plaintiff would allegedly take pictures of MW's breasts, which according to MW only occurred while she was clothed. Id. at 7, 11.
2. Plaintiff's Arrest on November 29, 2011
After the forensic interview concluded at or around 5:10 p.m. on November 29, 2011, Jones relayed to Thornton the results of the interview. Id. at 16; Jones Dep. 41:3-42:13 [139-51]. Although Jones cannot recall verbatim what she told Thornton, Jones informed Thornton that MW had substantiated the allegations of sexual abuse. Jones Dep. 44:21-25 [139-51]. At or around 5:37 p.m. the same afternoon, Plaintiff presented himself to the JCSO and was placed under arrest by Thornton for the crimes of molestation and embezzlement of the Ocean Springsissued laptop computer. Thornton Dep. 72:7-15 [139-46]; JCSO Custody Form [139-18]. Although she arrested Plaintiff without an arrest warrant, Thornton made the arrest because she believed sufficient probable cause existed to place Plaintiff under arrest for molestation and embezzlement. Thornton Dep. 73:5-9, 74:18-20 [139-46]. Thornton obtained arrest warrants on both charges the following day, November 30, 2011. Warrants [139-29]. These charges were submitted to a grand jury, which returned a "no true bill" for the molestation charge on or around June 25, 2012, and a "no true bill" for the embezzlement charge on or around October 31, 2012. Jackson County Grand Jury No Bill Lists [139-37] [139-39].
3. Search of Plaintiff's Office and Seizure of Items from the Office
At some point prior to nightfall on November 29, 2011,  Defendant Eddie Clark ("Clark"), an investigator with the JCSO, and Defendant Chad Heck ("Heck"), a Sergeant with the JCSO, were instructed by their superior, Captain James Mick Sears ("Sears"), to travel to the Moss Point Police Department to retrieve a laptop computer belonging to the City of Ocean Springs but allegedly embezzled by Plaintiff. Clark Dep. 20:23-21:1 [139-16]; Heck Dep. 6:24-7:11 [139-14]. Despite being instructed to retrieve the laptop, neither Clark nor Heck knew whether a search warrant had been issued for the computer or whether the computer had been used in the commission of a crime. Id. at 7:17-23; Clark Dep. 26:12-18 [139-16].
Once Clark and Heck arrived at the police department, Plaintiff led them to Plaintiff's office in the City of Moss Point Code Enforcement Office and turned over the laptop which had been issued by the City of Ocean Springs. Clark Dep. 25:13-16 [139-16]. Heck contacted Sears to verify that he had obtained possession of the correct computer, and after confirming that Heck had the correct laptop, Sears instructed Heck to "detain" Plaintiff's cellular telephone because officers were executing a search warrant at Plaintiff's home and believed that Plaintiff had been texting his wife, who was at home during the search. Heck Dep. 10:2-5 [139-14]. Heck recalls that Plaintiff ultimately handed over his cellular telephone. Id. at 10:20-25. Clark claims that Plaintiff was free to decline to speak with the deputies and was free to leave at anytime. Clark Dep. 31:24-32:2 [139-16]. Neither Clark nor Heck informed Plaintiff of this fact, or of the fact that Plaintiff did not have to turn over the computer. Id. at 28:5-8; Heck Dep. 12:4-11 [139-14]. Heck and Clark delivered the computer and cellular telephone to Thornton later that same day. Heck Dep. 11:8-18 [139-14]. Neither Heck nor Clark had any further involvement with the investigation of Plaintiff. Id. at 19:21-23; Clark Dep. 28:24-29:5 [139-16].
On November 30, 2011, Thornton sought a search warrant for Plaintiff's office at the Moss Point Code Enforcement Office located at 4125 Main Street, Moss Point, Mississippi. Aff. for Search Warrant [139-24]. The Affidavit requesting the search warrant included a list of items believed to be located in Plaintiff's office, which was identical to a list of items previously provided via electronic mail to Thornton by a detective in the Moss Point Police Department. Compare id. with Pl.'s Ex. "3" [139-23]. The search warrant was issued by a county court judge that same day. By its terms, the search warrant authorized a search of the information and data stored on electronic devices located in Plaintiff's office. Aff. for Search Warrant [139-25]. The return on the search warrant indicates that the search warrant was executed at or around 3:30 p.m. on November 30, 2011, and that the items seized were the same as the items identified by the detective from the Moss Point Police Department and listed in the Affidavit for Search Warrant. Return [139-27].
4. Plaintiff's Arrest on December 6, 2011
On December 5, 2011, Thornton performed a scan of the Dell laptop computer which belonged to the City of Ocean Springs and which had been located in Plaintiff's Moss Point office. Investigator's Report 4 [139-11]. The scan revealed one video dating back to December 3, 2009, which appeared to be child pornography. Id.; Aff. in State Cases [139-31]. Thornton obtained a warrant for Plaintiff's arrest on December 5, 2011, based on one count of possession of child pornography. Warrant [139-32]. Plaintiff was arrested at or around 1:10 p.m. on December 6, 2011. JCSO Custody Form [139-33]. On August 21, 2012, a grand jury indicted Plaintiff on the charge of exploitation of a child based on the child pornography found on the Dell laptop belonging to the City of Ocean Springs. Plaintiff claims that this indictment was based on "illegally seized evidence and evidence that had not been properly secured in a safe location...." Mem. in Opp'n to Mot. for Summ. J. 8 . On November 30, 2012, at the request of the Jackson County District Attorney, the Circuit Court of Jackson County entered a Nolle Prosequi Order [139-40] effectively dismissing the charge against Plaintiff for exploitation of a child.
B. Procedural Background
On June 24, 2013, Plaintiff filed the Complaint  in this case advancing claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985. The Complaint alleges that Defendants violated Plaintiff's right to be free from false arrest as provided by the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, his right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment, and his right not to be deprived of liberty without due process of law as guaranteed by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Compl. 22 . Plaintiff also appears to assert claims under both federal and state law for malicious prosecution, intentional infliction of emotional distress, abuse of process, civil conspiracy, and "neglect." Id. at 24-28, 31-32. Plaintiff further alleges pursuant to § 1983 a general "[v]iolation of [c]ivil [r]ights" and a violation of his First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Id. at 28-31. As against Defendant Jackson County, Plaintiff makes a claim under the Mississippi Torts Claims Act, Mississippi Code Ann. §§ 11-46-1 to -23 ("MTCA"), and a claim based upon respondeat superior liability. Id. at 32-34.
Defendants Hope Thornton, Linda Jones, Eddie Clark, and Chad Heck (collectively, "Defendants") now move for summary judgment asserting that they are entitled to qualified immunity with respect to Plaintiff's claims against them in their individual capacities for false arrest, unreasonable search and seizure, malicious prosecution, abuse of process, "violation of civil rights, " and civil conspiracy and neglect asserted under federal law. Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for Summ. J. 8-16 . Defendants further contend that they are entitled to immunity under the MTCA from Plaintiff's state law claims for false arrest, unreasonable search and seizure, malicious prosecution, intentional infliction of emotional distress, abuse of process, "violation of civil rights, " and civil conspiracy and neglect. Id. Defendants alternatively argue that to the extent Plaintiff may be asserting intentional tort claims falling outside the scope of the MTCA, such claims are barred by the applicable one-year statute of limitations contained in Mississippi Code Annotated § 15-1-35, and that no discovery rule applies to toll the limitations period. Id.; Rebuttal 2-7 .
Plaintiff responds that Defendant Thornton is not entitled to qualified immunity because Thornton, when asked hypothetical questions regarding variations in the evidence underlying the arrest of Plaintiff on November 29, 2011, responded that she would not have had sufficient evidence to support obtaining the search warrants, the embezzlement charge, or the molestation charge based upon the various hypothetical situations posed by counsel. Mem. in Opp'n to Mot. for Summ. J. 11-13  (citing Grand Jury Testimony of Hope [Thornton] 58, Case No. JRH12-2012 [145-1]). Plaintiff argues that Defendants Heck and Clark are not entitled to qualified immunity with respect to Plaintiff's false arrest and unreasonable search and seizure claims based on the Fourth Amendment because they detained Plaintiff, searched Plaintiff's office, and seized Plaintiff's cellular telephone and laptop computer without an arrest warrant or probable cause. Id. at 13-19. Plaintiff maintains that Defendant Jones is not entitled to qualified immunity with respect to Plaintiff's Fourth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendment claims because she acted with reckless disregard for the truth while playing a "vital role" in procuring an arrest warrant for Plaintiff related to the charge of touching a child for lustful purposes. Id. at 19-25. Plaintiff further maintains that Thornton is not entitled to qualified immunity as to Plaintiff's Fourth, Sixth, and Fourteenth ...