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Gardner v. State

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

January 15, 2019

Joshua A. Gardner, Plaintiff,
State of Minnesota; Minnesota Department of Human Services; Minnesota Sex Offender Program; and Brian Ninneman, Randy Gordon, Troy Doe, and J. Doe, all in their individual and official capacities, Defendants.

          Zorislav R. Leyderman, The Law Office of Zorislav R. Leyderman, counsel for plaintiff.

          Bradley Richard Hutter, Minnesota Attorney General's Office, counsel for defendants.


          Katherine Menendez United States Magistrate Judge.

         Joshua A. Gardner is a patient who is involuntarily civilly committed to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (“MSOP”). He brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the defendants violated several of his constitutional rights when they subjected him to a strip-search after an incident at the MSOP facility in February of 2016. This matter is before the Court on the defendants' motion to dismiss. ECF No. 12. For the reasons outlined below, the Court recommends that the defendants' motion be granted and that the case be dismissed.[1]

         I. Background

         The defendants' motion to dismiss challenges the sufficiency of the Complaint on its face. For purposes of this decision, therefore, the Court accepts the factual allegations in Mr. Gardner's Complaint as true. Barton v. Taber, 820 F.3d 958, 963-64 (8th Cir. 2016).

         Mr. Gardner was sexually abused by his uncle when he was a child. His experience included being forced to remove his clothing while his uncle recorded him with a video camera. This experience caused Mr. Gardner “deep emotional scars and trauma, which continue to this day.” Compl. ¶ 9.

         Years after that childhood trauma, on February 18, 2016 at the MSOP facility in Moose Lake, Mr. Gardner was standing near two other MSOP patients who got into a “brief physical encounter.” Compl. ¶ 10. The encounter lasted under ten seconds and resulted in no physical injuries. Id. Mr. Gardner was not involved in the conflict. Id. After the brief incident ended, MSOP staff members gave Mr. Gardner verbal commands, with which he immediately complied. The staff members detained Mr. Gardner to investigate his possible involvement in the incident. Id. ¶ 11. Mr. Gardner denied any involvement and asked to be let go, but MSOP staff took him to the facility's High Security Area (“HSA”) to discuss the events. Id. ¶¶ 11-12. The two other patients were also detained, and the facility was secured. Id. ¶ 12.

         In the HSA, Mr. Gardner “was transferred into the custody of defendants Ninneman, Gordon, Troy Doe, and J. Doe.” Compl. ¶ 13. Mr. Gardner told them that he was not involved in the fight, but the defendants did not release him. Id. None of the defendants suspected Mr. Gardner had a weapon or other contraband on him. Id. ¶ 14. Nevertheless, the defendants told him that he would be subjected to a videotaped strip-search procedure. Id.

         Mr. Gardner “begged the Defendants to review the video surveillance recordings which would show that he was not involved in the incident and that the incident itself was not even a fight.” Compl. ¶ 15. He also informed the defendants that he had been abused by his uncle as a child by being forced to remove his clothes while he was videotaped. Id. He explained that the search the defendants intended to conduct would cause him significant trauma. Despite his plea, the defendants refused his requests that they watch the surveillance footage before conducting the search. Id. The defendants told Mr. Gardner that his requests were being denied and that he would be forcibly strip-searched if he did not comply with their commands to remove his clothing. Id. ¶ 16.

         The defendants placed Mr. Gardner into a room “where he was forced to strip naked and subjected to a strip search by Defendant Troy Doe while Defendant J. Doe video-recorded the entire procedure from a close distance. Defendants Ninneman and Gordon, both MSOP officers, also participated in the strip-search procedure by requesting and/or authorizing it.” Compl. ¶ 16. This incident caused Mr. Gardner to relive his experience of childhood abuse. See Id. ¶ 17. No. weapons or contraband were discovered during the strip search. Id. ¶ 18.

         Once the search was completed, the defendants reviewed the surveillance footage of the altercation; it confirmed that Mr. Gardner had not been involved in the incident. Compl. ¶ 19. Indeed, MSOP records show that “Gardner had no involvement in the altercation, ” and “the whole encounter [lasted] less than 10 seconds [and that the incident resulted in no] physical harm.” Id. (second alteration in Complaint). Because Mr. Gardner's “behavior did not meet the criteria for Protective Isolation Status, ” the defendants released him and informed him he was cleared of any wrongdoing. Id.

         Claims for Relief

         Based on the events discussed above, Mr. Gardner brought suit against the State of Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Human Services (“DHS”), MSOP, and staff members at MSOP, raising several constitutional claims pursuant to § 1983. First, he alleges that the individual defendants (Ninneman, Gordon, Troy Doe, and J. Doe) violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches. Compl., Count 1 ¶¶ 23-25. Specifically, he asserts that he was subjected to an “unreasonable and unjustified strip-search.” Id. ¶ 24. Second, Mr. Gardner asserts that the individual defendants' conduct violated his procedural and substantive due-process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. Id., Count 2 ¶¶ 26-28. He contends that the individual defendants' actions violated his procedural due-process rights because he was transferred to the HSA without justification, while his substantive due-process rights were violated as a result of the search. Id. ¶ 27.

         Finally, Mr. Gardner claims that the State of Minnesota, DHS, MSOP, and the individual defendants in their official capacities violated his rights under Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Compl., Count 3 ¶¶ 29-33. Mr. Gardner asserts that the strip-search procedure could have been avoided if the defendants had simply detained him briefly in one of many secured areas in the MSOP facility, such as the one where the search was conducted, and investigated the incident by reviewing the video first. Compl. ¶ 20. However, Mr. Gardner asserts that MSOP policies allow the use of “unnecessary video-recorded strip searches of MSOP patients without justification and without a reasonable investigation.” Id. ¶ 21. Moreover, “MSOP fails to train its staff to refrain from strip-searching patients unless there is at least some suspicion that the patient committed a crime or violated some MSOP policy or procedure.” Id. These policies and lack of training allow “MSOP employees [to] believe[] that their actions would not be properly monitored by supervisory employees and that misconduct would not be investigated or sanctioned, but would be tolerated, ” causing the alleged violations of Mr. Gardner's constitutional rights. Id. ¶¶ 32-33.

         In his Prayer for Relief, Mr. Gardner seeks an order finding that his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated by the defendants. Compl., Prayer for Relief ¶ a. He also seeks compensatory and punitive damages from the individual defendants in their individual capacities. Id. ¶¶ b-c. Further, he asks for an injunction requiring the State of Minnesota, DHS, and MSOP “to implement new policies and training which prohibit and discourage unjustified and unreasonable strip searches of MSOP clients.” Id. ¶ d. Finally, he requests an award of reasonable attorney's fees and costs pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988.

         II. Legal Standards: Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6)

         The defendants bring their motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). Defs.' Mem. at 1, 4-5, ECF No. 14. Under the circumstances here, the legal standard applied by the Court is the same under both provisions. On a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6), courts review the complaint to determine whether it contains sufficient factual allegations, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). A claim is facially plausible when the factual content permits the court to draw a reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for misconduct. Id. The Court does not accept as true wholly conclusory statements 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). In resolving such a motion, courts look only at the allegations in the complaint and do not consider matters “outside the pleadings.” See Gorog v. Best Buy Co., Inc., 760 F.3d 787, 791 (8th Cir. 2014).

         A motion under Rule 12(b)(1) challenges a federal court's subject-matter jurisdiction over a dispute. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). Where such a motion is based only on the sufficiency of the allegations in a complaint, it is called a “facial” challenge to the court's jurisdiction. Osborn v. United States, 918 F.2d 724, 729 n.6 (8th Cir. 1990). Here, the defendants' have brought a facial challenge to the Court's jurisdiction based on the doctrine of sovereign immunity. “[S]overeign immunity ... is a jurisdictional threshold matter.” Lors v. Dean, 746 F.3d 857, 861 (8th Cir. 2014) (internal quotation marks omitted). Because the defendants raise this jurisdictional issue based only on the allegations in the Complaint, the Court applies the same standards discussed above. Osborn, 918 F.2d at 729 n.6 (“In [a facial attack], the court restricts itself to the face of the pleadings ... and the non-moving party receives the same protections as it would defending against a motion brought under Rule 12(b)(6).”).

         III. Sovereign Immunity

         The defendants raise two sovereign-immunity arguments. First, the State, DHS, and MSOP argue that Mr. Gardner's claims against them cannot proceed because they are immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment. Defs.' Mem. at 5. Second, both Ninneman and Gordon argue that Mr. Gardner's claims for monetary damages brought against them in their official-capacities are no different from a suit against the State itself and must be dismissed based on the State's Eleventh Amendment immunity. Id. at 6. Mr. Gardner did not address these arguments in his response to the motion to dismiss. Pl.'s Resp., ECF No. 17.

         Under the Eleventh Amendment, a state that has not consented to be sued is immunized “from damage actions brought in federal court, except when Congress has abrogated that immunity for a particular cause of action.” Becker v. University of Nebraska at Omaha, 191 F.3d 904, 908 (8th Cir. 1999) (citing Hadley v. North Arkansas Community Technical College, 76 F.3d 1437, 1438 (8th Cir. 1996)). This immunity prevents both actions brought against the state directly, and actions brought against state agencies and instrumentalities. Id. Congress did not abrogate states' Eleventh Amendment immunity when it passed § 1983. Will v. Mich. Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 66-67 (1989).

         The State of Minnesota, DHS, and MSOP are entitled to sovereign immunity under these rules. Minnesota has not explicitly consented to suit in federal court and § 1983 does not provide an avenue for Mr. Gardner's claims against the State via the abrogation exception. DHS is an agency of the State, and MSOP is operated and maintained by DHS. Minn. Stat. § 246B.02. They are, therefore, agencies and instrumentalities of the State of Minnesota that are entitled to invoke the State's sovereign immunity.

         Although Mr. Gardner alleges in his Complaint that he seeks only prospective injunctive relief against DHS and MSOP, see Compl. ¶ 6, this does not change the fact that sovereign immunity bars his claims. “In the absence of consent a suit in which the State or one of its agencies or departments is named as the defendant is proscribed by the Eleventh Amendment. This jurisdictional bar applies regardless of the nature of the relief sought.” Rose v. State of Nebraska, 748 F.2d 1258, 1262 (8th Cir. 1984) (quoting Pennhurst State School & Hospital v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 104 (1984)); Ernst v. Hinchliff, 129 F.Supp.3d 695, 722 (D. Minn. 2015) (“Moreover, while under the doctrine of Ex parte Young, state officials may be sued in their official capacities for prospective injunctive relief without violating the Eleventh Amendment, the same doctrine does not extend to states or state agencies.”) (alteration and internal quotation marks omitted).[2]

         To the extent that Mr. Gardner asserts official-capacity claims for monetary damages against the individual defendants Ninneman and Gordon, those claims should also be dismissed on sovereign-immunity grounds. “A suit against state employees in their official capacities is the functional equivalent of a suit against the State.” Zajrael v. Harmon, 677 F.3d 353, 355 (8th Cir. 2012). This is so because “the real party in interest in an official-capacity suit is the governmental entity and not the named official....” Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21, 25 (1991). As such, any official-capacity claims for monetary damages against the MSOP employees Ninneman and Gordon should be dismissed because they are prohibited by the Eleventh Amendment. Treleven v. Univ. of Minn., 73 F.3d 816, 818 (8th Cir. 1996).

         For these reasons, the Court concludes that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction over the claims in Count 3 of Mr. Gardner's Complaint against the State of Minnesota, DHS, and MSOP based on Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity. Moreover, the Court lacks jurisdiction over any official-capacity claims for damages against the individual defendants. The defendants' motion to dismiss these claims under Rule 12(b)(1) should be granted, and they should be dismissed without prejudice. Hart v. United States, 630 F.3d 1085, 1091 (8th Cir. 2011) (affirming dismissal for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction but modifying the dismissal to be without prejudice).

         IV. Due Process Claims

         The defendants next argue that Mr. Gardner has failed to state a plausible individual-capacity claim against Ninneman or Gordon for any violation of his procedural or substantive rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment for several reasons. Defs.' Mem. at 8-13. They argue that the substantive due process claim fails because the alleged conduct is insufficiently outrageous or egregious. Id. at 8-10. Further, they argue that Mr. Gardner fails to state a procedural due-process claim because: (1) he has not alleged a protected liberty interest; (2) was not deprived of the process to which he was entitled; and (3) Ninneman and Gordon were not involved in his transfer to HSA. Id. at 10-13. Mr. Gardner did not contest the defendants' position on these claims in his response to the motion to dismiss.

         Substantive ...

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