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Britton v. City of Southaven

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

March 25, 2019




         This matter comes before the court on the plaintiff's response to the court's order [12] to show cause why the instant case should not be dismissed under the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel. For the purposes of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, the court notes that the plaintiff was incarcerated when he filed this suit. The plaintiff has brought the instant case under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which provides a federal cause of action against “[e]very person” who under color of state authority causes the “deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” 42 U.S.C. § 1983. For the reasons set forth below, the instant case will be dismissed under the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel.

         The Show-Cause Order

         On December 7, 2018, the court issued an order for the plaintiff to show cause why the instant case should not be dismissed under the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel. The court originally mislaid that response but has now reviewed and considered it. In the interest of clarity and ease of reference, the court will restate the contents of the show-cause order, largely unchanged.

         The plaintiff, Meika DeSean Britton, filed the instant suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, challenging the circumstances surrounding his arrest on charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor and violating the terms of his supervised release. The court has, however, dismissed on summary judgment a substantially identical case that Mr. Britton filed in 2016. See Britton v. Southaven Police Department, et al., 3:16CV84-MPM-RP (N.D. Miss.)

         Generally, an affirmative defense (such as res judicata or collateral estoppel) must be pled, and not raised by the court sua sponte. A court may, however, do so when all of the relevant facts are contained in the record before the court and are uncontested. Mowbray v. Cameron County, Texas, 274 F.2d 269 (5th Cir. 2001). In that situation, “we may not ignore their legal effect, nor may we decline to consider the application of controlling rules of law to dispositive facts, simply because neither party has seen fit to invite our attention by technically correct and exact pleadings.” Am. Furniture Co. v. Int'l Accommodations Supply, 721 F.2d 478, 482 (5th Cir. Unit A Mar.1981). In the present case, the facts are uncontested, and the legal outcome appears unambiguous. The instant case is remarkably similar to a case the plaintiff previously brought in this court - and which the court decided against him on the merits.

         Mr. Britton's Previous Case[1]

         In the previous case, the court set forth the following undisputed material facts:

On May 5, 2011, Britton pled guilty to the charge of Child Exploitation and was sentenced to serve five years in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections, followed by ten years of post-release supervision under the MDOC. Doc. 63 at 5. Britton was incarcerated until December 2015. On March 16, 2016 a police report was filed by an individual concerned that Britton had inappropriate contact with his 14 year old daughter. Id. at 9. Detective Brannon Rushing of the Southaven Police Department asked the parent for permission to use the daughter's phone and to pose as the daughter to communicate with Britton, and the parent and the minor consented. Id. at 11.
After beginning his investigation, Detective Rushing discovered Britton was a registered sex offender, and was currently under supervision with MDOC for a ten year period, reporting to Probation Officer Frank Caswell. Id. On March 22, 2016, a juvenile female told Rushing that Britton had given liquor to minor children present at a gathering. Doc. 77 at 16. After several days of communicating, Detective Rushing arranged a meeting with Britton via his probation officer, Frank Caswell. Id. at 11. On March 24, 2016, Britton met with Detective Rushing and Probation Officer Caswell at the MDOC office in Hernando, Mississippi. Id. During the interview, Probation Officer Caswell asked Britton to produce his phone, and Britton stated he did not want Caswell to look in the phone and began to press buttons on the phone. Id. Detective Rushing, worried that Britton could be deleting incriminating evidence, took the phone for evidentiary purposes. Id. at 11-12. Detective Rushing informed Britton he could pick up a receipt for the seized property at the Southaven Police Department. Id.
On the same date, March 24, 2016, Detective Rushing applied for and obtained a search warrant for the contents of the phone. Id. at 13. A forensic analysis was then performed on the phone and its contents extracted. Id. at 15. On March 28, 2016 Britton was charged and arrested for Child Exploitation and Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor. Id. at 16-19. On April 4, 2016, an Affidavit and Warrant were filed for Violation of Post Release Supervision due to the new charges. Id. at 24-25. Following a revocation hearing, the Circuit Court of DeSoto County, Mississippi, held that Britton had violated the terms of his supervised release, and imposed the remaining ten years of his sentence to be served in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections.
Britton's version of the facts in this case differs from the defendants' only slightly. He notes insignificant differences (less than 30 minutes) in the timing of events surrounding his questioning and the seizure of his phone. He also alleges that, when he entered the Hernando building for questioning, he did not have his phone and went to retrieve it only when Caswell and Rushing requested a list of phone numbers. He also seems to dispute whether he was pushing keys on his phone at the time Detective Rushing seized it.

Britton v. Southaven Police Department, supra (Memorandum Opinion of May 31, 2017).

         Based upon these facts, Mr. Britton claimed:

(1) Defendants Caswell and Rushing did not have probable cause to call him to a meeting;
(2) Defendants Caswell and Rushing did not have probable cause to seize and search his cellular phone; and
(3) Defendant Bonita Clark is responsible in her role as supervisor for the seizure and search of Mr. Britton's phone.

         The court then held:

[T]he plaintiff's claim [regarding the propriety of the search and seizure] fails on the merits, as the defendants had ample justification for seizing his phone and searching it for evidence of improper communication with minors. [In addition], as Bonita Clark had no direct involvement in the seizure and search of the plaintiff's cellular phone, he has sued her solely in her capacity as supervisor, and a plaintiff cannot sustain a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 based upon a respondeat superior theory.

Britton v. Southaven Police Department, et al., supra, Doc. 82 at 5-6. Mr. Britton challenged these rulings on direct appeal. The Fifth Circuit discussed these claims on the merits[2], upheld this court's decision, and dismissed the appeal as frivolous. Britton v. Southaven Police Department, et al., 17-60432 (April 2, 2017). These issues have been fully litigated.

         The Present Case

         In the present case, Mr. Britton acknowledges that he has largely restated the allegations and claims from his previous case:

[T]he majority of this suit consist[s] of the illegal actions of the Southaven Police Department and violations of my rights and substantive rights such as providing false statements to obtain warrants and known perjured testimony. Also manufactured exigent circumstances.

         Doc. 1 at 6. His legal issues in the present case are the same as those in the previous one:

My cellular phone was illegally seized by detective Rushing creating a violation of my 4th Amendment right[s].
Frank Caswell conspired with Rushing[, ] helping him avoid the warrant requirement on March 24, 2016.
[The victim] provided detective Rushing with knowingly false statements which [led]
to my illegal incarceration.
[Judge] David Delgado set a bond of [$]125, 000 for a misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor [- which Britton believes is excessive under state and federal law.]
Bonita Clark allowed her employee to conspire in a subterfuge of a probation meeting to investigate criminal activity.

Doc. 1 at 7-10.

         In this section of his complaint, Mr. Britton includes facts which he claims were unavailable to him in his previous case: (1) defendant Rushing's statement that he believed Britton was deleting evidence from his phone; and (2) the victim knowingly provided the defendants with false statements, causing Britton to be arrested. Initially, the court notes that Mr. Britton knew of defendant Rushing's statement regarding potential destruction of evidence in the previous case, as the defendants included it as part of their summary judgment evidence in that case. Indeed, the court recited this fact in the memorandum opinion granting summary judgment to the defendants (and it is contained above in the quote outlining the facts from the previous case).

         Without question, the gravamen of Mr. Britton's current case is the same as that of the previous one: his belief that the defendants did not have legal authority to detain him, seize his cellular phone, search it, and arrest him.

         Mr. Britton's Response to the Show-Cause Order

         Mr. Britton argues in his response to the show-cause order that Detective Rushing “created or manufactured an exigent circumstance to obtain a search warrant.” He also alleges that the arrest warrant and the affidavit supporting the search warrant contained “reckless and falsified statements” and “misleading statements.” He alleges further that the victim in the revocation proceeding “made false statements implicating Britton in a crime that never occurred.” Mr. Britton argues that he did not have knowledge of these statements until March 2017, when he found them in discovery documents from his previous suit. Mr. Britton offers the following allegations as newly discovered facts that would preclude dismissal of this case on res judicata grounds (restated here for clarity):

(1) Detective Rushing misrepresented the contents of the Facebook chats used to support the affidavit charging Mr. Britton with violation of Miss. Code Ann § 97-5-33, Child Exploitation. Mr. Britton argues that Detective Rushing made a false statement in the affidavit by stating that Mr. Britton told “a seventeen year old male to send him a photograph of his penis, ” when the Facebook chat stated only “I want to see your, ” rather than the word “penis” or a slang equivalent.
(2) The victim knowingly made false statements to Detective Rushing regarding a tablet sold to Britton that contained a pornographic video of a minor. The victim made those statements to avoid prosecution for creating the videos.

         In support of the first alleged “new” fact, Mr. Britton provides the same Facebook chat screenshots he submitted in his previous case - and the same denial that the four blanks stood for a slang term for the word “penis.” Hence, that information is not newly discovered, and the claim is identical in both cases. In support of the second alleged new fact, Mr. Britton provides screenshots of several Facebook Messenger chat sessions, purportedly between the victim's friends (who are twins), the victim, Mr. Britton, and an unidentified person. Mr. Britton argues that these chat sessions show that the victim lied to the police about his communication with Britton. The chat sessions took place from March 28, 2016, through January 1, 2017 - the day of the search and seizure of the cellular phone at issue and the time afterwards. Mr. Britton was arrested on March 28, 2016.

         Res Judicata and Collateral Estoppel

         All of the claims the plaintiff brings in this case are barred by the doctrine of res judicata, (claim preclusion), and by the related doctrine of collateral estoppel (issue preclusion). Res judicata means “a thing decided;” the doctrine states that a final judgment on the merits rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction is conclusive as to the parties and their privies; therefore, attempts to litigate the matter further are barred. Cromwell v. County of Sac., 94 U.S. 351, 352 (1876), Kaspar Wire Works, Inc. v. Leco Eng'g & Mach., Inc., 575 F.2d 530, 535 (5th Cir. 1978). Res judicata bars a plaintiff from bringing a second suit based upon the same event or series of events by asserting additional facts or proceeding under a different legal theory; the doctrine prevents “litigation of all grounds for, or defenses to, recovery that were previously available to the parties, regardless of whether they were asserted or determined in the prior proceeding.” Brown v. Felsen, 442 U.S. 127, 131, 99 S.Ct. 2205, 60 L.Ed.2d 767 (1979); see also Goldberg v. R. J. Longo Constr. Co., 54 F.3d 243, 246 (5th Cir. 1995) (res judicata bars claims that were or could have been raised in prior actions).

         In the Fifth Circuit res judicata bars a claim if: (1) the parties are the same in both actions, (2) the prior judgment is rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction, (3) the prior judgment was final on the merits; and (4) the cases involve the same cause of action. Travelers Ins. Co. v. St. Jude Hospital of Kenner, 37 F.3d 193, 195 (5th Cir. 1994). Two cases involve the same cause of action if both cases arise out of the same nucleus of operative facts. Id. Collateral estoppel, or issue preclusion, on the other hand, precludes relitigation of issues actually adjudicated, and essential to the judgment, in prior litigation involving a party to the first case. Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90, 94, 101 S.Ct. 411, 66 L.Ed.2d 308 (1980).

         Mr. Britton's allegations in this case are precluded by the doctrine of res judicata because: (1) The same parties are involved in this claim: Britton, Rushing, Caswell, and Clark; (2) This court had jurisdiction over the previous matter; (3) The prior judgment was final and on the merits; and (4) The allegations in this case arise out of the same nucleus of operative facts: Mr. Britton's meeting with defendants Caswell and Rushing, the seizure of his phone, and his subsequent arrest.

         The issues in the present case were actually adjudicated in the previous case, essential to the judgment, and involved Mr. Britton, the party against whom estoppel would operate. Thus, collateral estoppel also precludes relitigation of these issues. To afford Mr. Britton due process, the court provided him the opportunity to brief the matter, and he has done so.

         The Plaintiff's Claims Would Fail on the Merits, Even if the Court Accepted the Plaintiff's “New” Evidence

         As the court found in Mr. Britton's previous case, the defendants had ample evidence to establish probable cause to search his phone and arrest him:

[A] father had observed his 14-year-old stepdaughter's communications with Britton, who was 45 years old at the time. Britton had asked her to come babysit for him, requested a photograph of her, and told her that her “short friend was cute.” He also asked about one of the young girl's friends who liked black guys, describing the attraction as “jungle fever.” The girl's father was clearly concerned about the inappropriate nature of the communications: repeated efforts to have his young daughter come to Britton's home, his request for a photograph of her, the discussion of his attraction to the young lady's friend, and sexual innuendo regarding another of her minor female friends. Based on this information, Detective Rushing conducted an investigation, communicating with Britton while ...

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