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Waters v. Madson

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

April 11, 2019

Charles Waters; Anita Waters Plaintiffs - Appellants
B. Madson; Alyssa Newbury; City of Coon Rapids Defendants - Appellees Menard, Inc. Defendant Tom Hawley; Emily Kirchner Defendants - Appellees

          Submitted: November 15, 2018

          Appeal from United States District Court for the District of Minnesota - Minneapolis

          Before COLLOTON, SHEPHERD, and STRAS, Circuit Judges.


         In 2016, Charles Waters refused to allow Menards home supply store employees, pursuant to posted store policy, to search the trunk of his vehicle as he exited a Menards lumberyard in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. Mr. Waters eventually called the police, who responded to the scene. Based on this encounter, Mr. Waters and his wife Anita filed a 19-count Amended Complaint in federal district court, [1]alleging violations of both federal and state law against the City of Coon Rapids, various Coon Rapids police officers, and Menard, Inc. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the Amended Complaint pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), which the district court granted. Mr. and Mrs. Waters now appeal. Having jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291, we affirm.


         On March 27, 2016, Appellants visited a Menards store in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, to exchange a saw Mr. Waters had previously purchased for a new saw he had purchased online. Mr. Waters video-recorded their visit through a sunglass camera clipped to his shirt.[2] (He later posted excerpts of this video on his YouTube channel. See Dist. Ct. Dkt. 16-1.) An employee inside the store directed Appellants to the online pickup location inside the Menards lumberyard. Mr. Waters drove into the lumberyard with Mrs. Waters in the passenger seat. While it is undisputed that Menards had posted signs at the yard's entrance and exit stating that vehicles leaving the lumberyard were subject to inspection, Appellants claim they did not see any such signs upon entry.

         After Appellants arrived in the lumberyard, a Menards employee loaded the saw into their vehicle's trunk. Appellants then proceeded to the lumberyard exit, where a Menards employee requested that they open their vehicle's trunk for inspection as per the signs. Mr. Waters refused, stating that he had no legal obligation to do so. When the gate employee refused to open the exit gate and called for a manager, Mr. Waters called the police.

         Coon Rapids police officers Alyssa Smith[3] and Emily Kirchner arrived in response to Mr. Waters's call. After being told by the Menards manager that posted store policy required Menards to verify Mr. Waters's purchase before Appellants could leave the lumberyard and that Mr. Waters believed he was being unlawfully detained, Officer Smith approached Appellants' vehicle and told Mr. Waters to allow the Menards employees to verify his purchase. When Mr. Waters refused, Officer Smith asked Mr. Waters for identification, which he refused to provide, stating that he was "not currently driving" and did not have to "provide ID until there [was] a reasonable suspicion of a crime." Officer Smith informed Mr. Waters that she had reasonable suspicion he had committed a crime because he would not open the trunk.

         Officer Smith then asked Mr. Waters to step out of his vehicle, and Officer Kirchner explained that, because Mr. Waters was noncompliant with Menards policy, the officers reasonably suspected he had something in his vehicle's trunk that he was not supposed to have. The officers again told Mr. Waters to step out of his vehicle. Mr. Waters, still video-recording, stated, "I'm being ordered out of my vehicle. I'm being placed under arrest," to which Officer Smith calmly responded, "I didn't say you were under arrest; I said you need to step out of the vehicle." When Mr. Waters asked if he was free to go, Officer Smith stated, "You are not free to go." Mr. Waters replied, "Then I'm being detained. Under what reasonable suspicion of what crime?" The officers again told Mr. Waters to get out of his car and he repeated his question, then repeatedly asked the officers for their names and badge numbers. Officer Kirchner told Mr. Waters yet again to step out of his car and, when he failed to comply, told him he could go to jail.

         Mr. Waters eventually complied with orders to step out of his car. Officer Kirchner searched him for weapons and told him that the officers had "reasonable suspicion that [he] ha[d] something in the trunk," stating, "You came into a shipment yard which has a policy that you are not supposed to leave without showing the product that you have picked up, and you are not willing to do that." Officer Kirchner then handcuffed Mr. Waters, who is significantly taller than either of the female officers, and placed him in the back seat of a squad car. Officer Smith spoke to the nearby Menards employees and asked them if they had ever dealt with sovereign citizens, mentioning that Mr. Waters's behavior resembled that exhibited by sovereign citizens.[4]

         Officer Smith then returned to Appellants' vehicle. When Officer Smith asked if Mr. Waters was a sovereign citizen, Mrs. Waters replied that her husband "takes it all very seriously." Officer Smith then told Mrs. Waters that Mr. Waters was creating more problems for himself. Mrs. Waters responded, "I know." Officer Smith asked Mrs. Waters to identify her husband, and Mrs. Waters did so.

         While Officer Smith was speaking with Mrs. Waters, Coon Rapids Police Sergeant Brady Madson arrived on scene. Officer Smith conferred with Sergeant Madson. Officer Kirchner[5] then approached Mrs. Waters and asked, "Would you be willing to open the trunk for these gentlemen? Because that's the only thing that's holding us up here." When Mrs. Waters explained that Appellants had come into the lumberyard to pick up a saw, which a Menards employee placed in the trunk for them, Officer Kirchner stated, "It'd be doing us a huge favor if you could just bring that invoice and step out with these guys and pop the trunk for us. We'll chalk it up to [Mr. Waters] having a bad day." Mrs. Waters did as Officer Kirchner requested. A Menards employee and one of the officers looked into the trunk and verified the purchase. The officers then released Mr. Waters, issuing a trespass warning that prevented him from reentering the Coon Rapids Menards for a year.

         After receiving the trespass warning but before leaving the lumberyard, Mr. Waters requested the officers' names and badge numbers. He approached Sergeant Madson to read the name and badge number off the sergeant's uniform. When Mr. Waters reached well within arm's length of Sergeant Madson, the sergeant physically turned Mr. Waters away from him and pushed him toward Appellants' vehicle. Appellants then drove out of the lumberyard. The entire encounter with the officers lasted less than twenty minutes.

         Following the incident, Mr. Waters emailed the Coon Rapids Police Department, seeking to file a formal complaint against the officers involved. Captain Thomas Hawley initially refused to accept a written complaint through email, stating that Mr. Waters or his representative needed to communicate with the police department by telephone or in person. Although the record does not indicate that Mr. Waters, personally or through a representative, further communicated with the department other than by email, Coon Rapids Chief of Police Brad Wise reviewed Mr. Waters's complaint, determined the officers had acted lawfully, and formally closed the complaint.

         Appellants filed a 19-claim Amended Complaint in the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota, alleging violations of the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Minnesota Human Rights Act, as well as common-law claims for false imprisonment, battery, defamation, trespass, invasion of privacy, and negligence. They named Sergeant Madson, Officers Smith and Kirchner, and Captain Hawley, in their individual capacities; the City of Coon Rapids; and Menard, Inc. as defendants.

         Menards filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), alleging that Menards is not a state actor and that Appellants consented to the search of their vehicle's trunk when they entered the lumberyard. The officers and the City also filed a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, arguing that Appellants failed to plausibly allege their claims and raising the affirmative defenses of qualified, official, and absolute immunity. All defendants moved in the alternative for summary judgment.

         The district court found that, with the exception of their Fourth Amendment claim for unlawful search, Appellants failed to plausibly allege any violation of their clearly-established constitutional rights, and that the officers were therefore entitled to qualified immunity on all but one of Appellants' constitutional claims. While the district court determined that Appellants plausibly alleged a violation of their clearly-established constitutional right to be free from unlawful searches, it also determined that they failed to allege, as required for a damages claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, that the violation caused any compensable injury. The district court further found that Appellants failed to identify a City policy or custom that caused the alleged constitutional violations, that Appellants failed to plausibly allege their state law claims, and that Menards was not a state actor subject to § 1983 claims. The district court therefore granted the defendants' motions and dismissed all of Appellants' claims with prejudice.

         Appellants subsequently settled their claims against Menard, Inc. They now appeal the district court's dismissal of their claims against the officers and the City for interference and retaliation under the First Amendment; unlawful arrest, excessive force, unlawful search, and unlawful seizure under the Fourth Amendment; and false imprisonment, battery, and defamation under Minnesota common law; and their claim against the City under Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978).


         We review de novo a grant of a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), accepting as true all factual allegations in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Aten v. Scottsdale Ins. Co., 511 F.3d 818, 820 (8th Cir. 2008). The complaint "must allege more than '[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements[;]' . . . [it must] allege sufficient facts that, taken as true, 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" K.T. v. Culver-Stockton Coll., 865 F.3d 1054, 1057 (8th Cir. 2017) (first alteration in original) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)) (internal quotation marks omitted). We need not accept as true a plaintiff's conclusory allegations or legal conclusions drawn from the facts. Hanten v. Sch. Dist. of Riverview Gardens, 183 F.3d 799, 805 (8th Cir. 1999); Westcott v. City of Omaha, 901 F.2d 1486, 1488 (8th Cir. 1990). Nor need we adopt the plaintiff's version of the facts if they are "blatantly contradict[ed]" by video evidence. Boude v. City of Raymore, 855 F.3d 930, 933 (8th Cir. 2017). "We will not affirm a dismissal of a complaint for failure to state a claim unless the plaintiff can prove no set of facts that would demonstrate an entitlement to relief." Hanten, 183 F.3d at 805.

         Appellants brought a multitude of constitutional claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Section 1983 provides a mechanism by which aggrieved plaintiffs may sue a state actor for violation of their constitutional rights. See Foster v. Wyrick, 823 F.2d 218, 221 (8th Cir. 1987). However, state actors, such as police officers, are protected from § 1983 suits by the affirmative defense of qualified immunity. See Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 340 (1986); Gomez v. Toledo, 446 U.S. 635, 640 (1980) (explaining that qualified immunity is an affirmative defense). Qualified immunity shields police officers from lawsuits based on official conduct if reasonable officers in the same position could have believed their conduct was "lawful, in light of clearly established law and the information the . . . officers possessed" at the time. Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 641 (1987).

         Because qualified immunity protects officers from suit, not merely from liability, courts should "resolv[e] immunity questions at the earliest possible stage in litigation." Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 227 (1991) (per curiam). To overcome qualified immunity, a plaintiff must allege (1) a violation of his statutory or constitutional rights, and (2) that "the right at issue was 'clearly established' at the time of [the] defendant's alleged misconduct." Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 232 (2009). "Qualified immunity is appropriate only if no reasonable factfinder could answer yes to both of these questions." Hess v. Ables, 714 F.3d 1048, 1051 (8th Cir. 2013) (citation omitted). Courts may analyze either of the qualified immunity prongs first. Pearson, 555 U.S. at 236.

         The district court dismissed all of Appellants' constitutional claims on qualified immunity grounds except the unlawful search claim, which it dismissed for failure to state a claim. Similarly, on each of Appellants' constitutional claims, we will first determine whether qualified immunity is applicable and, if not, whether Appellants stated sufficient facts to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss.

         Appellants also brought a number of tort claims under Minnesota common law.[6] Police officers in Minnesota may avoid state tort actions through the application of another affirmative defense-official immunity. Elwood v. Rice County, 423 N.W.2d 671, 677 (Minn. 1988) (en banc). "The official immunity doctrine provides that 'a public official charged by law with duties which call for the exercise of his judgment or discretion is not personally liable to an individual for damages unless he is guilty of a willful or malicious wrong.'" IcL (quoting Susla v. State, 247 N.W.2d 907, 912 (Minn. 1976) (en banc)). While the officers in this case asserted official immunity, the district court did not analyze whether immunity barred Appellants' state tort claims. Rather, it dismissed those claims for failure to ...

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