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Wilkerson v. Lowndes County

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Aberdeen Division

March 12, 2018

DENNIS WILKERSON, PLAINTIFF
v.
LOWNDES COUNTY, et al. DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

         Presently before this court are Defendants Lowndes County and Bobby Reeves' motion [50] for summary judgment and Defendant Steve Scott's motion [55] for summary judgment. Having considered the motions the Court finds that they should be granted in part and denied in part.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         In this matter, Plaintiff Dennis Wilkerson seeks to recover against Defendants for seizing horses he owns and keeps at his stables in Lowndes County, Mississippi. Defendant Bobby Reeves is an animal control officer with the Lowndes County Sherriff s Department. Defendant Steve Scott is an animal control officer with the City of Columbus, located in Lowndes County. Pursuant to an agreement between the county and the city, the two partnered together to provide animal control services over the entirety of Lowndes County.

         In late March 2014, Scott received a call from a woman who relayed to him a complaint from an anonymous source that some of the horses Wilkerson kept looked emaciated. Dep. of Steve Scott ("Scott Dep.") [50-4], at p. 11. As a result of the call, Reeves and Scott went to Wilkerson's property to check on the horses. Id. at p. 17-20.

         The two arrived at the property, where they found Wilkerson. Dep. of Bobby Reeves ("Reeves Dep.") [50-3], at p. 29. Wilkerson proceeded to show the two the horses and his property, including water stations for the horses and a barn containing hay. Id. at 29, 32-33; Scott Dep. at p. 24, 61-64. Scott took photographs of the horses while they were examining them. Id. Wilkerson admits that some of the horses were underweight at the time Reeves and Scott were at his property. Dep. of Dennis Wilkerson ("Wilkerson Dep.") [50-2] at p. 231. Reeves also claims he noticed that one horse had visible swelling on its scrotum. Reeves Dep. at 72. While they were being shown the property and horses, Scott asked Wilkerson questions about how Wilkerson fed the horses. Scott Dep. at p. 23-24. Wilkerson took offense to the manner in which Scott asked the questions. Wilkerson Dep. at p. 207-208. Wilkerson told Reeves that "If [Scott] pops off to me one more time, y'all can get off of my place." A/, at 211. According to Wilkerson, Scott then said that if he wanted he could come back with trailers and take all the horses. Id. at 211 -12. Wilkerson responded that if they did return that they "better have a court order." Id. at 212.

         According to Scott, the next day he visited Dr. Kerry Blanton, the veterinarian who Wilkerson told him had vetted the animals. Scott Dep. at 30. Scott asked Dr. Blanton about any potential infectious diseases that the horses might have been suffering from, because, according to Scott, Wilkerson had specifically stated that he was concerned that the horse with the swollen scrotum had some infectious disease. Id. at 30-31. Scott testified that Blanton told him that she had looked at the horse one evening while at a party at Wilkerson's house, but had not diagnosed the issue. Id. at 30. Wilkerson contends that Scott was aware that the swelling was caused by a noninfectious edema.

         Two days after Reeves and Scott went to Wilkerson's property, Reeves filed an affidavit in the Lowndes County Justice Court, which read as follows:

Before me, Peg Mordecai, Justice Court DC/Judge of said County Bobby Reeves whose address is Lowndes County S.O., makes affidavit that on or about the 26 day of March 2014, Dennis Wilkerson whose address is 1296 Stanley Road Caledonia, MS, did willfully and unlawfully[1] confine in a pasture, several horses, emaciated horses, that were deprived of proper substance [sic], i.e. hay, water, grain, medical care[2], in violation of section 97-41-2 To Wit: Approximately 20-25 horses to be seized by the Lowndes County Sheriffs Office.

         Justice Court File [50-7], at p. 2. Afterwards, Reeves spoke to the Justice Court Judge Chris Hemphill about the condition of the horses, including the possibility of the presence of infectious disease in the horses. Reeves Dep. at p. 61-12.[3]

         Judge Hemphill then entered an order finding that, after considering "eyewitness accounts and photographic evidence as well as admissions made to [Bobby Reeves] by Dennis Wilkerson, " probable cause had been established pursuant to Miss. Code Ann. § 97-41-2 that the horses were "being neglected due to a failure to provide sufficient food and/or medical care..." Justice Court File at p. 4 the order appointed Lowndes County as temporary custodian of all the horses on Wilkerson's property. Because of concerns of infectious disease, the order permitted the horses to actually remain at Wilkerson's property, pending a hearing to determine whether the horses should ultimately be forfeited. Justice Court File at p. 4-5.

         During the time between the seizure and the hearing, Lowndes County hired Dr. Allen Etheridge, a veterinarian, to assess the condition of the horses. Dep. of Allen Etheridge ("Etheridge Dep.")[50-5] at p. 29-31. Etheridge assigned each of the horses a Body Condition Score between 1.0 and 9.0, Expert Opinion of Allen Etheridge ("Etheridge Op.")[50-6] at p. 9. According to a description of scores attached to Dr. Etheridge's opinion, a score of 1 meant the horse was "extremely emaciated" while a score of 9 meant the horse was extremely fat" Id. at 13-14 Of the 24 horses in Wilkerson's care, Dr. Etheridge assigned 10 of them a score below 3.0. Id. at 9. Three of the horses were assigned a score below 2.0, which according to Dr. Etheridge meant "they were in critical condition and in imminent danger of death. Further it implies there was little, if any fat left in the horses." Id.

         At the subsequent hearing, after being presented with further evidence regarding the condition of the horses, Judge Hemphill found that the horses should be returned to the custody of Wilkerson. Justice Court File at p. 5-6. Accordingly to Judge Hemphill this was because 1) the winter of 2013-2014 had been especially harsh; 2) Wilkerson had not "intentionally" neglected any of the horses; and 3) Wilkerson was willing able to provide adequately for the horses. Id. Custody of the horses was returned to Wilkerson.

         Wilkerson subsequently brought this suit against the defendants alleging that Reeves and Scott violated his Fourth Amendment rights by providing false testimony and withholding exculpatory evidence from the Justice Court Judge in order to obtain the seizure order without probable cause. Wilkerson also alleges that Reeves and Scott did so to retaliate against Wilkerson in violation of his First Amendment rights. Finally, Wilkerson alleges state law claims of abuse of process and conversion.

         Summary Judgment Standard

         Summary judgment "should be rendered if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a); Johnston & Johnston v. Conseco Life Ins. Co., 732 F.3d 555, 561 (5th Cir. 2013). The rule "mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a sufficient showing to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548.

         The party moving for summary judgment bears the initial responsibility of informing the Court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the record it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. See Id. at 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548. "An issue of fact is material only if its resolution could affect the outcome of the action." DeBlanc v. St. Tammany Par. Sch. Bd, 640 Fed.App'x 308, 312 (5th Cir. 2016) (per curiam) (quoting Manning v. Chevron Chem. Co., LLC, 332 F.3d 874, 877 (5th Cir. 2003) (quoting Wyatt v. Hunt Plywood Co., 297 F.3d 405, 408 (5th Cir. 2002) (internal quotation marks omitted))).

         Under Rule 56(a), the burden then shifts to the nonmovant to "go beyond the pleadings and by... affidavits, or by the 'depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, ' designate 'specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324, 106 S.Ct. 2548; Littlefield v. Forney Indep. Sch Dist, 268 F.3d 275, 282 (5th Cir. 2001); Willis v. Roche Biomedical Labs., Inc., 61 F.3d 313, 315 (5th Cir. 1995). The Court "'resolve[s] factual controversies in favor of the nonmoving party, but only where there is an actual controversy, that is, when both parties have submitted evidence of contradictory facts.'" Thomas v. Baldwin, 595 Fed.App'x. 378, 378 (5th Cir. 2014) (per curiam) (quoting Antoine v. First Student, Inc., 713 F.3d 824, 830 (5th Cir. 2013) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)). "[T]he nonmoving party cannot defeat summary judgment with conclusory allegations, unsubstantiated assertions, or only a scintilla of evidence.'" Id. at 380 (quoting Hathaway v. Bazany, 507 F.3d 312, 319 (5th Cir. 2007)).

         Analysis

         Wilkerson makes the following claims: three § 1983 claims against Reeves and Scott for violating for First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights; an state law abuse of process claim against Reeves, Scott, and Lowndes County; and a state law conversion claim against Reeves, Scott, and Lowndes County. The Court will first analyze the Fourth Amendment claim, because the Court's determination of the validity of the seizure order will affect Wilkerson's other claims.

         1. Fourth Amendment Claim

         Wilkerson also alleges that the Reeves and Scott violated his Fourth Amendment rights by providing materially false information and failing to provide exculpatory evidence to the judge in order to obtain the seizure order. Specifically, Wilkerson alleges that Reeves and Scott falsely told the judge that the horses were not being fed and that some of the horses may be exposed to infectious disease. Wilkerson also alleges that the Defendants failed to inform the judge that many of the horses were in good health. Wilkerson also alleges that the Defendants knew there was no evidence that Wilkerson intentionally cruelly treated, neglected, or abandoned the animals. Thus, they were unjustified in seeking the seizure order in the first place.

         Defendants argue they are entitled to summary judgment for several reasons. First, they argue that the horses were not actually "seized" because they were not removed from Wilkerson's property. Second, they argue they are entitled to qualified immunity because the seizure order was not obtained through materially false information. Third, they argue that by presenting the evidence to an "independent intermediary, " their actions did not cause the seizure order to be issued. Finally, they argue that it was not clearly established that they needed evidence that each horse was being mistreated in order to seize all of the horses.

         Defendants first argue that because the horses were never actually removed from Wilkerson's property they were never "seized." That argument is not well-taken. "A seizure of property occurs when there is 'some meaningful interference with an individual's possessory interests in that property.'" Morris v. Livingston, 739 F.3d 740, 751 (5th Cir. 2014) (quoting United States v. Jacobsen, 466 U.S. 109, 113, 104 S.Ct. 1652, 80 L.Ed.2d 85 (1984)). The seizure order makes clear that the Lowndes County Sheriffs Department was granted temporary possession of the horses, that the Department had a right to access the horses without Wilkerson's permission, and that it was within the Department's discretion to determine where the horses should be kept. Justice Court File at p. 3-6. Had Wilkerson attempted to remove horses from the property or prevented the Department from accessing the horses, he would have been in violation of the order. Thus, there was meaningful interference with his possessory interest in the horses. The horses were "seized" for the purposes of the Fourth Amendment.

         Next the Court must determine whether Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity. "'[A] plaintiff seeking to defeat qualified immunity must show: "(1) that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that the right was 'clearly established' at the time of the challenged conduct.'"" Da Vinci Inv., Ltd. P 'ship v. Parker, 622 Fed.Appx. 367, 374 (5th Cir. 2015) (per curiam) (quoting Morgan v. Swanson, 659 F.3d 359, 371 (5th Cir. 2011) (en banc) (quoting al-Kidd, 563 U.S. at 735, 131 S.Ct. 2074)). "A Government official's conduct violates clearly established law when, at the time of the challenged conduct, '[t]he contours of [a] right [are] sufficiently clear' that every 'reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.'" Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 741, 131 S.Ct. 2074, 179 L.Ed.2d 1149 (2011) (alterations in original) (quoting Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 97 L.Ed.2d 523 (1987)).

         It is clearly established that a Fourth Amendment violation occurs when an officer secures a warrant by providing false information knowingly or with reckless disregard for the truth. Freeman v. Cnty. Of Bexar, 210 F.3d 550, 553 (5th Cir. 2000) (citing Franks v. Delaware, 438 U.S. 154, 171, 98 S.Ct. 2674, 57 L.Ed.2d 667 (1978))). "[I]ntentional misrepresentations in warrant applications and material omissions from the same may give rise to Fourth Amendment claim." Johnson v. Norcross, 565 Fed.Appx. 287, 289 (5th Cir. 2014) (citing Kohler v. Englade, 470 F.3d 1104, 1113-14 (5th Cir. 2006)).

         Thus, to prevail, Defendants must show that there is no genuine issue of material fact whether 1) Defendants included materially false evidence or knowingly or recklessly omitted exculpatory evidence in obtaining the seizure order; or 2) without the evidence, probable cause would not have been established. Johnson, 565 Fed.Appx. ...


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