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Clopton v. City of Plymouth

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

January 3, 2017


          Thomas J. Lyons, LYONS LAW FIRM, P.A., for plaintiffs.

          Jason M. Hiveley, IVERSON REUVERS CONDON, for defendants.


          JOHN R. TUNHEIM Chief Judge

         This case arises out of the self-help repossession of Plaintiff Jason Clopton's automobile. On June 3, 2014, repossession agents attempted to repossess Clopton's Chrysler Aspen from the underground parking garage of his apartment complex, but were interrupted by Plaintiff DeAndre June, one of Clopton's friends who also had a part-time job performing security-related duties for the apartment complex. A dispute ensued, and June moved his personal car to block the agents from leaving with the Aspen. Eventually, three City of Plymouth (the “City”) police officers arrived at the scene, as did Clopton. According to Clopton, both he and June objected to the repossession. The officers, however, threatened to arrest June if he did not move his car. June complied, and the Minnesota Recovery Bureau, Inc. (“MRB”) agents left with the car.

         Clopton and June commenced this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action against the City and the individual police officers (the “Police Defendants”). Clopton alleges that the Police Defendants deprived him of his property - the Aspen - without due process, and that the City failed to train its officers and had illegal policies and customs. June also brings claims against the Police Defendants, alleging that they violated his constitutional right to perform his security-related duties, unlawfully repossessed Clopton's car, and unreasonably seized him by threatening to arrest him in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The Police Defendants and the City now move for summary judgment on all claims.

         Because there are genuine factual disputes regarding what occurred on June 3, 2014, the Court will decline to find that the Police Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity for Clopton's claims. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Clopton, a reasonable fact-finder could conclude that the Police Defendants violated Clopton's clearly established constitutional rights by unlawfully aiding in the private repossession. However, the Court will grant summary judgment for the Police Defendants and the City on all other claims. Clopton has not offered evidence sufficient to show that the City failed to train its officers or had illegal policies and customs, and the Police Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity from June's claims because June has not shown that he was deprived of any constitutional rights.


         Plaintiff Jason Clopton purchased a 2009 Chrysler Aspen in 2013 and financed it with a loan from Capital One. (Second Am. Compl. ¶ 16, Mar. 10, 2016, Docket No. 75.) The loan agreement required Clopton to make monthly installment payments, but Clopton struggled to pay on schedule and made numerous late and partial payments. (Id. ¶ 20.) Capital One accepted Clopton's irregular payments for a time, but eventually decided to pursue self-help repossession. (Id. ¶ 24-25.) Capital One hired MRB to recover Clopton s vehicle. (Id. ¶ 25.) [1]

         On the evening of June 3, 2014, the husband-and-wife team of Brian and Carolyn Halberg, agents of MRB, went to Clopton's residence at the Granite Woods Apartment Complex in Plymouth, Minnesota in search of Clopton's vehicle. (See Aff. of Brian P. Taylor (“Taylor Aff.”), Ex. 4 (“B. Halberg Dep.”) at 20:15-20, Mar. 11, 2016, Docket No. 78.) Granite Woods is a multi-family housing complex with several hundred tenants. The complex has an enclosed parking garage, which sits beneath one of the apartment buildings on site. (Id., Ex. 5 (“Nunally Dep.”) at 20:18-21:5.) The garage is accessible through several garage doors, which open when activated by a remote control. (See id., Ex. 15 at 50:4-20.) The garage is for tenants of the complex, who have assigned spaces. (See id., Ex. 14 (“Reihsen Dep.”) at 45:2-13.)

         When the Halbergs arrived, they observed that one of the garage doors was open and Clopton's Chrysler Aspen was parked inside. (Id., Ex. 2 (“C. Halberg Dep.”) at 44:9-45:4; B. Halberg Dep. at 52:9-22.) The Halbergs called another MRB employee, Ben Gallop, and asked him to bring a tow truck. (C. Halberg Dep. at 45:8-17.) When Gallop arrived, the group attempted to drive the tow truck into the garage, but it was too big. (Id. at 48:9-13; B. Halberg Dep. at 53:4-7.) Because the tow truck would not fit, the Halbergs instead decided to manually move Clopton's car from its parking spot to the garage door opening, where they could attach it to the tow truck parked outside. (B. Halberg Dep. at 53:6-12.) To do this, they affixed devices called “GoJaks” to two of the vehicle's tires. (Id. at 53:16-18; C. Halberg Dep. at 47:13-49:9.) GoJaks are “pieces of equipment that lift up . . . the drive tires of the vehicle so that you can move [the vehicle] freely.” (C. Halberg Dep. at 47:17-20.)

         Before the Halbergs could move the car to the open garage door and attach it to the tow truck, however, they were interrupted by Plaintiff DeAndre June. (C. Halberg Dep at 50:15-18; B. Halberg Dep. at 53:25-54:7; Taylor Aff., Ex. 3 (“June Dep.”) at 33:16-22.) June was a tenant at Granite Woods who also had a part time job performing security-related duties for the complex. (June Dep. at 7:9-23.) The Halbergs testified that they had completely moved the car out of its parking spot and were pushing it in a straight line towards the garage door when June appeared. (C. Halberg Dep. at 50:8-18; B. Halberg Dep. at 53:19-54:7.) June, on the other hand, testified that the car was still in its parking spot when he arrived, and that while the GoJaks had been affixed to the tires, only one of the wheels was off of the ground. (June Dep. at 35:9-36:1.)

         June told the MRB employees that he was a security guard for Granite Woods, that the vehicle belonged to one of his friends, and that he would not allow the group to remove the vehicle from the premises. (Id. at 36:3-8; C. Halberg Dep. at 54:4-18.) The encounter quickly grew tense. According to the Halbergs and Dustin Lee, another MRB employee who had recently arrived at the garage, June took his shirt off, raised his voice, and became belligerent, insisting that MRB could not leave with the Aspen. (Taylor Aff., Ex. 6 (“Lee Dep.”) at 22:16-22; B. Halberg Dep. at 59:24-25; C. Halberg Dep. at 56:8-12, 72:2-5.) June also purportedly shoved Brian Halberg. (Lee Dep. at 23:4-7; C. Halberg Dep. at 72:4-5; B. Halberg Dep. at 14:12-20.)

         At some point during the confrontation, June retrieved his own vehicle, a Chevy Tahoe, and positioned it within the garage so that it blocked the path between Clopton's Aspen and the tow truck at the garage's entrance. (B. Halberg Dep. at 54:13-20; June Dep. at 36:11-12.) June also directed another car, driven by his wife, to block the Aspen in from behind. (B. Halberg Dep. at 54:22-55:3; June Dep. at 38:10-14.) At that time, the Halbergs decided to call the police. Brian Halberg testified that he wanted the police to come because June was getting “physical, ” “[h]e had no identification that he was security, ” “[i]t wasn't his vehicle, ” he was “trying to prevent the repossession from happening, ” and the Halbergs “didn't want to deal with him.” (B. Halberg Dep. at 14:15-25.) Brian Halberg also made the decision to open the Aspen's door using a tool called a “Slim Jim” and sit inside. (Id. at 55:4-15; C. Halberg Dep. at 54:10-12; June Dep. at 38:22-39:1.) He testified that he took this action because he thought Clopton himself might come to the garage soon, and he wanted to prevent Clopton from driving away with the car while the GoJaks were still attached to the tires. (B. Halberg Dep. at 55:4-20.)

         Clopton arrived at the scene shortly thereafter. Clopton had been in his apartment, unaware of the incident, until another Granite Woods tenant, Jay Nunally, came to get him. (Clopton Dep. at 11:24-12:10.) Clopton testified that when he entered the garage, the Aspen was “slightly” out of its parking spot and June was talking with the Halbergs. (Id. at 12:12-18.) According to Clopton, he told Carolyn Halberg that the MRB agents were “not supposed to be” in the garage and could not take his Aspen. (Id. at 15:2-4.) The Halbergs, on the other hand, testified that Clopton never said anything about trespassing, never said that they could not take his car, and instead acknowledged that he had been expecting his car to be repossessed and simply asked if there was anything he could do to prevent the repossession, to which Carolyn Halberg responded no. (C. Halberg Dep. at 57:4-16; B. Halberg Dep. at 57:11-14.) Other witnesses testified that Clopton seemed calm. Nunally stated that he was “a little surprised” at Clopton's reaction because he “didn't seem to be that upset about” his car being repossessed. (Nunally Dep. at 41:18-42:1.) Clopton eventually left the garage and returned to his apartment, while June and the MRB employees continued to argue.

         Three police officers from the City of Plymouth - Officers William Dane, Daniel Raquet, and Sara Phillippe - then arrived at the scene in response to the Halbergs' call. There is conflicting evidence as to what the officers knew before arriving. Dane wrote in his incident report that he “was dispatched to assist [MRB] with picking up a vehicle.” (Decl. of Thomas Lyons, Ex. 4 (“Dane Report”) at 3, Mar. 24, 2016, Docket No. 92.).

         But he testified in his deposition that he was dispatched merely in response to a disturbance call and did not know about the repossession until he arrived at Granite Woods. (Taylor Aff., Ex. 8 (“Dane Dep.”) at 13:17-25.) Phillippe, on the other hand, conceded that she knew that the disturbance call related to a repossession, but testified that she was dispatched to break up a “possible fight.” (Taylor Aff., Ex. 9 (“Phillippe Dep.”) at 9:16-19.)

         When the officers arrived, they observed June's Tahoe blocking the Aspen and blocking the garage's entrance, impeding traffic. (See Dane Dep. at 19:20-25.) June testified that at least three cars were lined up outside of the garage, waiting to get in, when the officers arrived on the scene. (June Dep. at 40:16-41:2, 61:1-25.) June also testified that he was “yelling” at the MRB employees. (Id. at 58:6-19.) Dane testified that June was “very loud, ” “yelling, ” “swearing, ” and “acting belligerent.” (Dane Dep. at 14:11-13, 35:21-36:9, 38:7-15.) Phillippe testified that June “was getting pretty upset” and was “threatening the repo employees.” (Phillippe Dep. at 12:21-24.) And Raquet testified that June was “yelling and screaming.” (Raquet Dep. at 19:9.)

         Dane spoke with June first. (Dane Dep. at 15:5-9.) June identified himself as a security guard with Granite Woods and told Dane that the MRB employees were trespassing in the garage. (Id. at 23:21-24:3; June Dep. at 58:19-25.) Dane conceded in his deposition that he did not inquire into or investigate June's trespassing claims. (Dane Dep. at 27:15-22.) Phillippe and Racquet also testified that they did not investigate whether the MRB agents were trespassing in the garage. (Phillippe Dep. at 16:18-23; Racquet Dep. at 14:16-23.) Dane additionally noted that he did not observe any “no trespassing” signs within the garage, (Dane Dep. at 31:5-18), but several other witnesses testified that there were “no trespassing” signs posted at the garage's entrance, (see June Dep. at 47:16-48:1; Clopton Dep. at 41:22-42:10; Reihsen Dep. at 62:7-24).

         Dane next spoke with one of the MRB agents, although it is not clear which one. The agent told Dane that MRB was there to repossess the Aspen, June “was almost starting a fight, ” and the group called the police because they did not “want to get into a physical altercation” with June. (Dane Dep. at 20:21-21:4.) Dane then “verified” that the employee had the “proper paperwork” relating to the repossession. (See Id. at 22:14-22.) Phillippe also apparently spoke with Brian Halberg. According to Halberg, Phillippe first asked to see MRB's repossession order, which Halberg provided. (B. Halberg Dep. at 57:23-58:1.) Then, after Halberg told Phillippe that he was not going to “get out of the vehicle, ” Phillippe purportedly agreed, stating, “No. You're just doing your job.” (Id. at 58:1-3.)

         Dane also spoke to Clopton, who returned to the garage for a second time at around the time the officers arrived. Clopton testified that he told Dane that the MRB agents were not supposed to be in the garage, and that he asked Dane to prevent them from repossessing his car. (Clopton Dep. at 17:23-18:8.) According to Clopton, Dane told him in response: “[W]e're going to let them take the car.” (Id. at 18:2-4.) Dane, by contrast, testified that Clopton did not object to the repossession and instead told him that “he was expecting the vehicle to be taken.” (Dane Dep. at 46:23-47:9.) After their conversation was over, Clopton collected a few personal items from the Aspen and left the garage, returning to his apartment for good. Clopton testified that he left the scene at June's direction, believing that June would “handle” the situation on his behalf and prevent his car from being repossessed. (Clopton Dep. at 15:10-12.) Prior to leaving, Brian Halberg asked Clopton for his keys, but Clopton declined to turn them over. (B. Halberg Dep. at 56:18-22, 78:11-16.)

         With the stand-off between June and the MRB agents still unresolved, Dane decided to call one of his supervisors, Plymouth Police Sergeant Kevin Wilson, to get his “opinion” on how to proceed - Dane “didn't know” the relevant law and had never dealt “with repossessions” before. (Dane Dep. at 25:12-26:2.) Dane testified that he told Wilson that a vehicle had been repossessed; the owner was not disputing the repossession; and a man identifying himself as a security guard for Granite Woods, with no affiliation to the Aspen, was preventing the tow truck from leaving. (Id. at 26:15-27:11, 29:10-16.) In response, Wilson told Dane that MRB had “the right to pick up the vehicle on behalf of the bank, ” the repossession was “legal, ” and Dane should “tell the security officer” to move his car and “let [the MRB employees] get out of there.” (Dane Report at 3; see also Dane Dep. at 30:19-31:1; Wilson Dep. at 21:3-15.)

         After speaking with Wilson, Dane reengaged with June and the two began to argue; according to Dane, June “got very irate and belligerent.” (Dane Dep. at 32:2-3.) At that point, Dane told June that he needed to move his Tahoe. (Id. at 32:3-7.) Dane testified that he made this decision based on his assessment that the MRB employees had already repossessed the car; his conversation with Wilson; and his assessment that, because June was objecting to the alleged trespass, the “easiest solution” would be to “tell June to move his vehicle . . . and get the guy out of there that June doesn't want to be there in the first place.” (Id. at 36:14-37:3.)

         June initially objected and refused to move his Tahoe, but Dane threatened to place June under arrest if he did not comply. (June Dep. at 67:13-20; Dane Dep. 32:3-11.) June's wife, who was also at the scene, told June that he should cooperate to avoid being arrested. (June Dep. at 62:10-22.) June also spoke to one of the Granite Woods' managers by phone, who told him, “[M]ove your car and we'll deal with it later.” (Id. at 62:23-63:3.) Eventually, June relented and moved his Tahoe. (Id. at 23-24.) With the Tahoe out of the way, the MRB agents pushed the Aspen to the garage door opening, connected it to the tow truck, and drove away with Clopton's vehicle. (See Dane Report at 3; C. Halberg Dep. at 72:8-73:2.) Also, several cars that had been lined up outside of the garage were able to pull in and park. (Lee Dep. at 32:16-20.)

         After the MRB employees towed the Aspen away, June continued to argue with the officers. At some point, June called 911 and demanded to speak with a sergeant about what had occurred. (June Dep. at 70:9-13.) Plymouth Police Sergeant Jeff Dorfsman came to the scene and spoke with June about June's concerns. June, however, did not believe that Dorfsman was listening to him, and so he ended the meeting. (Id. at 66:17-25.)

         June testified that but for the police's involvement, he would not have moved his car or backed down from preventing the MRB employees from repossessing Clopton's vehicle. (June Dep. at 44:15-45:25.) Brian Halberg, on other hand, testified that although the Tahoe partially blocked the Aspen's path to the open garage door, he believed that he could have maneuvered it around the Tahoe with the help of his wife, Gallop, and Lee. (B. Halberg Dep. at 65:8-25, 67:16-21.) Brian Halberg further testified that he would not have taken the vehicle off of the GoJaks or relinquished possession. (Id. at 78:7-15.) But he also noted that the vehicle was too heavy for one person alone to push it around the Tahoe. (Id. at 65:8-14.)


         Clopton and June commenced this action on September 5, 2014, bringing § 1983 claims against Dane, Phillippe, Racquet, Wilson, and Dorfsman (“Police Defendants”), and the City of Plymouth (the “City”). Clopton alleges that the Police Defendants violated his constitutional rights under the Fourteenth Amendment by depriving him of his property - the Aspen - without due process. Clopton also brings claims against the City, alleging that it failed to train its officers on how to deal with self-help repossessions, and employed illegal policies and customs. And finally, June alleges that the Police Defendants violated his constitutional right to enforce security measures at Granite Woods, violated his constitutional rights based on their repossession of Clopton's vehicle, and violated ...

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