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Hunt v. Iron County

United States District Court, D. Utah

February 27, 2019

MARVIN JAY HUNT and COLBY ELIAS HUNT, Plaintiffs,
v.
IRON COUNTY, a body corporate and politic of the State of Utah; Iron County Sheriff MARK O. GOWER, individually, and in his official capacity; Deputy DAN RADDATZ, individually and in his official capacity; Deputy JEFF HUMPHRIES, individually and in his official capacity; Iron County Attorney SCOTT GARRETT, individually, and in his official capacity; STATE OF UTAH, by and through its state prosecutor, Iron County Attorney, Scott Garrett, and; JOHN/JANE DOES I through X, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

          CLARK WADDOUPS UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE

         INTRODUCTION

         Ranchers in southwestern Utah frustrated by a neighbor's difficult roaming stallion finally took matters into their own hands when they corralled and castrated the problem horse in April, 2013. This action led to criminal charges of Wanton Destruction of Livestock against the plaintiffs in Iron County, as well as the lawsuit pending before this court.[1] Originally filed in 2015 while their criminal prosecutions were pending in state court, plaintiffs amended this § 1983 action as a matter of right three months later. (ECF No. 3.) In both initial complaints, plaintiffs sought for this court to certify an issue of first impression to the Utah Supreme Court, namely, that a legitimate finding of probable cause for the criminal charges against them depends on a determination of the animal's ownership by a brand inspector that complies with various statutory provisions of the Utah Livestock Brand and Anti-Theft Act.

         Defendants moved to dismiss the amended complaint for two reasons. (ECF No. 6.) First, they alleged that plaintiffs would have a full and fair opportunity to litigate their statutory ownership arguments in the pending state criminal cases, such that Younger abstention applied and certification of the state issue was not necessary. Second, they alleged that plaintiffs' complaint otherwise failed to state a claim for relief under Rule 12(b)(6). The following day, defendants also answered the amended complaint. (ECF No. 7.)

         Plaintiffs filed additional motions that led to the procedural posture now before the court. First, plaintiffs moved to amend (the court refers to this proposed complaint as “the first proposed second amended complaint”). (ECF No. 11.) Second, plaintiffs filed a motion for Rule 11 sanctions against defendants (ECF No. 25) and third, plaintiffs filed a conditional motion to stay defendants' Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss in the event that the court exercised Younger abstention. (ECF No. 30.) A hearing was held on these motions. Following the hearing, the court granted the motion to stay this action until the underlying criminal prosecutions were completed and all appeals exhausted. The court also deferred ruling on the motion to dismiss (ECF No. 6) and the motion to amend the complaint (ECF No. 11), but denied the motion for sanctions. (ECF No. 25.)

         Plaintiffs' criminal prosecutions and appeals became complete in 2018, when the Utah Court of Appeals issued its decision[2] and plaintiffs did not petition for review by the Utah Supreme Court. Plaintiffs withdrew their first motion to amend the complaint and filed a second motion to amend the complaint (ECF No. 47). This proposed amended complaint was subsequently revised twice, (ECF No. 50 and ECF No. 57-1), and the court refers to the proposal at ECF No. 57-1 as the “second proposed Second Amended Complaint.” Plaintiffs also filed a motion to lift the stay that had been in place while the underlying criminal matters and appeals were pending. Defendants did not object and the motion is GRANTED. (ECF No. 46.) The court does not believe that additional oral argument would be helpful in reaching its decision on the remaining motions. Accordingly, consistent with DUCivR7-1(f), the motions will be determined by the court on the basis of the previous arguments and the written memoranda of the parties.

         MOTION TO AMEND

         Defendants argue that the court should decide their deferred motion to dismiss prior to considering the rather moving target of plaintiffs' motion to amend the complaint, including the various iterations of those proposed amended complaints. On one hand, it would be a more efficient use of the court's resources to consider the latest iteration of plaintiffs' second proposed Second Amended Complaint (ECF No. 57-1), because the resolution of the underlying criminal cases and appeal prompted plaintiffs to eliminate all references in earlier complaints to the statutory arguments about how to determine ownership of horses as well as to eliminate two other claims outright.[3] On the other hand, plaintiffs' second proposed Second Amended Complaint problematically contains the statement that it does not stand alone, but rather “re-allege[s] and incorporate[s] by this reference any and all previous allegations set forth in previous pleadings, if applicable, including all previous factual allegations and all allegations regarding the legal bases and applicable law regarding Plaintiff(s)' claims.” (Second proposed Sec. Am. Compl. ¶ 12, ECF No. 57-1.)

         Ultimately, the court did examine the factual allegations in all versions of the complaint in deciding defendants' motion to dismiss (excluding the two eliminated causes of action). Because no version of the existing or proposed complaints survives defendants' motion to dismiss, see infra, the court DENIES plaintiffs' motion to amend the complaint. (ECF No. 47.)

         MOTION TO DISMISS

         Dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) “is appropriate only if the complaint, viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiff, lacks enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” United States ex rel. Conner v. Salina Regional Health Center, Inc., 543 F.3d 1211, 1217 (10th Cir. 2018). A claim is plausible on its face “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (citing Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556 (2007)). “Mere ‘labels and conclusions' and ‘a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action' will not suffice.” Khalik v. United Air Lines, 671 F.3d 1188, 1191 (10th Cir. 2012) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). Thus, factually unsupported conclusory allegations do not state a claim for relief. Erickson v. Pawnee County Bd. of County Com'rs, 263 F.3d 1151 (10th Cir. 2001). Additionally, the complaint must “make clear exactly who is alleged to have done what to whom, to provide each individual with fair notice as to the basis of the claims against him or her.” Robbins v. Oklahoma, 519 F.3d 1242 (10th Cir. 2008).

         “[I]n general, a motion to dismiss should be converted to a summary judgment motion if a party submits, and the district court considers, materials outside the pleadings.” Prager v. LaFaver, 180 F.3d 1185, 1188 (10th Cir. 1999). Here, both parties submitted materials outside of the pleadings. The court need not convert a motion to dismiss to a motion for summary judgment, however, to consider facts subject to judicial notice, such as court files and records and facts which are a matter of public record. Grynberg v. Koch Gateway Pipeline Co., 390 F.3d 1276, 1279 n.1 (10th Cir. 2004). The court takes judicial notice only of the underlying state case pleadings, dockets, and decisions and thus does not convert this motion to dismiss to a summary judgment motion.

         1. First Amendment Retaliation Claim

         A claim for retaliation under the First Amendment requires plaintiffs to plead that they engaged in conduct protected under the First Amendment, that adverse action was taken against them that would deter a person of ordinary firmness from continuing to engage in that speech or conduct, and that the adverse action taken against them was “substantially motivated as a response to the plaintiff[s'] exercise of constitutionally protected conduct.” Klen v. City of Loveland, Colo., 661 F.3d 498, 508 (10th Cir. 2011). See also Van Deelen v. Johnson, 497 F.3d 1151, 1155-56 (10th Cir. 2015).

         Both plaintiffs' first amended and proposed second amended complaints allege that plaintiffs repeatedly petitioned Iron County government officials for redress of grievances related to estray or feral horses as well as related to the horses of their neighbor, Mr. Allen Bailey, and Bailey's alleged vandalism, theft, and threats. Plaintiffs' speech and/or expressions of this type is protected under the First Amendment. Van Deelen, 497 F.3d at 1156. The complaints go on, however, to allege that eventually, on or about April 27, 2013, plaintiffs knowingly took matters into their own hands and castrated some of the feral, estray horses, as well as Mr. Bailey's problematic pinto stallion. (First Am. Compl. ¶ 52, ECF No. 2; second proposed Sec. Am. Compl. ¶ 20, ECF No. 57-1.) After this incident, both complaints allege that Iron County government officials began to engage in a host of adverse actions against plaintiffs, including arresting, searching, seizing, detaining, and prosecuting them for Wanton Destruction of Livestock, warning them that they could be charged with witness tampering or obstruction of justice if they attempted to contact or engage in settlement discussions or negotiations with Allen Bailey-who was a witness and a victim in the criminal prosecutions-and in doing so that defendants injured them by violating their First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment constitutional rights. (First Am. Compl. ¶¶ 125-128, ECF No. 2; second proposed Sec. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 60-62, ECF No. 57-1.)

         Plaintiffs' First Amendment retaliation cause of action must fail because, on the face of the complaints, the specific adverse actions about which plaintiffs complain arose only after April 27, 2013 from plaintiffs' constitutionally unprotected conduct, namely, from plaintiffs knowingly castrating horses that did not belong to them. Under Utah law, this was criminal activity and not speech or expressive activity protected by the First Amendment. Furthermore, the required nexus between the adverse actions defendants allegedly took and “the plaintiff's exercise of constitutionally protected conduct, ” Klen, 661 F.3d at 508, is missing. Plaintiffs have not adequately pled that the injuries they suffered as a result of defendants' adverse actions were substantially motivated in response to plaintiffs' protected, rather than unprotected, speech or activities. As a result, the plaintiffs' First Amendment retaliation cause of action fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted and must be dismissed.[4]

         2. Warrantless search, seizure, arrest, detention of persons and property under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments

         Plaintiffs allege violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments based on allegations that defendants lacked probable cause to search, seize, arrest, or detain plaintiffs or their property. As previously noted, plaintiffs' second proposed Second Amended Complaint abandons the “Brand Certification of Livestock” requirement as an obstacle to probable cause, which was thoroughly litigated in state court where plaintiffs' arguments did not prevail. Instead, plaintiffs now argue that probable cause did not exist because law enforcement officers relied on Allen Bailey's statements of the value of the horses castrated by plaintiffs to justify a warrantless felony arrest rather than charging them with a misdemeanor. This argument is based on allegations in all versions of plaintiffs' complaints. (Compl. ¶ 74, ECF No. 2; First Am. Compl. ¶ 74, ECF No. 3; first proposed Sec. Am. Compl. ¶ 74, ECF No. 11-1; and second proposed Sec. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 23, 40, 73; ECF No. 57-1.)

         Defendants argue that these claims are precluded because the Utah state courts have fully reviewed and ruled in their favor on plaintiffs' probable cause arguments, and in any event, there was probable cause under the Fourth Amendment. Plaintiffs argue that the state court used an improper probable cause standard and thus their probable cause arguments are not precluded.

         a. Probable Cause Standard

         The court first considers whether the Utah courts evaluated probable cause under the proper standard. Calling Utah's bindover probable cause standard “meager, ” plaintiffs cite State v. Clark, 20 P.3d 300, 2001 UT 90 (2001), State v. Ramirez, 289 P.3d 444, 2012 UT 59 (2012), and State v. Jones, 365 P.3d 1212, 2016 UT 4 (2016) in support of their argument that Utah evaluates probable cause under a standard less rigorous than the standard required for Fourth Amendment purposes.

         In Clark, the Utah Supreme Court reversed a district court order quashing a magistrate's order binding the defendants over for trial. The Court described the probable cause standard the prosecution must meet at a preliminary hearing as “sufficient evidence to establish that the crime charged has been committed and that the defendant has committed it.” 2001 UT ¶ 10. The Court acknowledged that it had previously described this standard using various approaches, including “more than is required to establish probable cause for arrest, ” id. at ¶ 11, less than that required to “establish a prima facie case against defendant” and also “less than would prove the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, ” id., and “lower, even, than a preponderance of the evidence standard applicable to civil cases.” Id. At the time of this 2001 case, the Court summarized its prior precedent as placing “the level of proof necessary to support a preliminary hearing bindover somewhere between the reasonable belief necessary to support a warrant and the preponderance of the evidence standard applicable in the civil context.” Id.

         Contrary to plaintiffs' argument, this case does not demonstrate that Utah's probable cause standard to bind a defendant over for trial is less than Fourth Amendment probable cause. The standard stated in Clark is at least as high as the standard required by the Fourth Amendment. Nor do the Ramirez and Jones cases state a lesser probable cause standard, notwithstanding plaintiffs' selective quotations about the “lowness” of the bindover standard. (Pls.' Reply Mem. 4, ECF No. 57.) As did the Utah Supreme Court in Clark, in Jones the Court emphasized that magistrate judges at a bindover hearing are not authorized “to second-guess the prosecution's evidence by weighing it against the totality of the evidence in search of the most reasonable inference to be drawn therefrom.” Jones, 2016 UT at ¶ 21. Compare Clark, 2001 UT at ¶ 14 (clarifying that while the preponderance of the evidence standard requires weighing evidence, it is improper to weigh the evidence “at the preliminary hearing stage of a criminal ...


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