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Barnard v. Bires

United States District Court, D. Maine

March 15, 2018

TROY BIRES, et al., Defendants


          John C. Nivison, U.S. Magistrate Judge.

         In this action, Plaintiff Jeffrey Barnard alleges, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, that Defendants violated his constitutional rights during an encounter on May 31, 2014. The matter is before the Court on Defendant Scott Duff's Motion to Dismiss. (ECF No. 43.)

         Through his motion, Defendant Duff contends that given Plaintiff's allegations and given the Court's findings at Plaintiff's sentencing on a criminal charge arising out of the encounter, Plaintiff cannot prevail on his claim against Defendant Duff.[1]

         After review and consideration of the motion and the relevant filings, I recommend the Court deny the motion.

         Background Facts

         The facts set forth herein are derived from Plaintiff's amended complaint. (ECF No. 16.) The factual allegations of the amended complaint are deemed true when evaluating the motion to dismiss. McKee v. Cosby, 874 F.3d 54, 59 (1st Cir. 2017).

         In May 2014, Plaintiff and his wife lived in their mobile home, which was located on property owned by a third party. Pursuant to an agreement with the landowner, Plaintiff had use of the landowner's tractor. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 11 - 12.) Sometime in May 2014, a dispute arose between Plaintiff and the landowner over possession of the tractor, which dispute evidently prompted the landowner to call the Ellsworth Police Department for assistance. Officer Barton Tokas came to the property and, after learning of the nature of the dispute, instructed the landowner and Plaintiff that the dispute was a civil matter and should be handled accordingly. (Id. ¶ 13.)

         On or about May 31, 2014, the landowner again sought assistance from the Ellsworth Police Department. (Id. ¶ 14.) Officer Troy Bires first arrived at the scene, and Officer Tokas arrived shortly thereafter. (Id. ¶ 15.) The landowner had arranged for a man to go to the property with a flatbed trailer to remove the tractor from the property. Plaintiff intervened and removed the key from the tractor while the man was operating the tractor, thereby preventing the man from taking the tractor. The encounter included some physical contact between Plaintiff and the person attempting to retrieve the tractor. (Id. ¶ 16.)

         When questioned by Officer Bires, Plaintiff told Officer Bires that it was a civil matter. After speaking with the other individual, Officer Bires returned to Plaintiff's home and knocked on the door. According to Plaintiff, when he partially opened the door, Officer Bires drew his firearm, pointed it at Plaintiff, and instructed Plaintiff to show the hand obstructed by the door. (Id. ¶ 18.) Plaintiff asserts that after Officer Bires repeated the command, Plaintiff complied, and Officer Bires, with his weapon still pointed at Plaintiff, told Plaintiff to turn over the key. (Id. ¶ 19.) When Plaintiff protested, Officer Bires told Plaintiff that if he did not turn over the key, he would be arrested for theft and assault. (Id.) Plaintiff refused to turn over the key. (Id. ¶ 20.)

         Officer Bires holstered his weapon and left, but advised Plaintiff that he would return. (Id. ¶ 21.) Plaintiff then took a five gallon gas canister that was near his entry and carried it into the mobile home. (Id.)

         Shortly thereafter, Officer Tokas called out Plaintiff's name. (Id. ¶ 22.) Plaintiff and Officer Tokas communicated through the doorway. When Officer Tokas directed Plaintiff to turn over the key, Plaintiff reminded Officer Tokas that he previously told Plaintiff that the dispute was a civil matter. (Id.) Officer Tokas told Plaintiff he needed to return the key or he would be arrested. (Id. ¶ 23.) Plaintiff then showed Officer Tokas the gas can and threatened to use it if law enforcement attempted to enter his home by force. (Id.)

         For the next 20 hours, Plaintiff and the police were in a standoff. (Id.) The standoff ended on June 1, 2014, at approximately 4:20 a.m., when, after Plaintiff exited the home, Defendant Duff shot Plaintiff. (Id.) The parties dispute whether Plaintiff possessed a rifle and raised it in the direction of law enforcement prior to the shooting.

         Following Plaintiff's arrest, the United States prosecuted Plaintiff for the unlawful possession of a firearm, based on Plaintiff's status as a convicted felon.[2] United States v. Barnard, No. 1:14-cr-00088-JAW. Plaintiff pleaded guilty to the charge. At Plaintiff's sentencing hearing on January 4, 2017, in accordance with 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(1), the Court made certain findings of fact concerning the nature and circumstances of the offense. As part of its assessment, the Court found that during the standoff Plaintiff discharged a firearm multiple times when he was in the mobile home, and that immediately prior to being shot, Plaintiff emerged from his home and raised a rifle. (Motion to Dismiss Ex. D, Sent. Tr. at 153:8-11, 154:6-14, 157:14-16, 159:1 - 160:10, ECF No. 45.)


         A. Standard of Review

         Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a party may seek dismissal of “a claim for relief in any pleading” if that party believes that the pleading fails “to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” In its assessment of the motion, a court must “assume the truth of all well-plead facts and give the plaintiff[] the benefit of all reasonable inferences therefrom.” Blanco v. Bath Iron Works Corp., 802 F.Supp.2d 215, 221 (D. Me. 2011) (quoting Genzyme Corp. v. Fed. Ins. Co., 622 F.3d 62, 68 (1st Cir. 2010)). A court may also “supplement those facts with facts ‘gleaned from … matters of public record, and facts susceptible to judicial notice.'” Gonzalez v. Velez, 864 F.3d 45, 48 (1st Cir. 2017) (quoting Haley v. City of Boston, 657 F.3d 39, 46 (1st Cir. 2011)). To overcome the motion, Plaintiff must establish that his allegations raise a plausible basis for a fact finder to conclude that the defendant is legally responsible for the alleged claim. Blanco, 802 F.Supp.2d at 221.

         B. Defendant Duff's Motion to Dismiss

         Defendant Duff argues dismissal is warranted because (1) a finding for Plaintiff would impermissibly invalidate Plaintiff's sentence in the related criminal matter, and (2) given the Court's sentencing findings, Plaintiff cannot prevail on his claims.[3] (Motion at 1 - 2, 8 - 11, 11 - 15.)

         1. Effect on Plaintiff's Sentence

         Defendant Duff argues that the Court should dismiss Plaintiff's claim because any finding in Plaintiff's favor would impermissibly implicate the duration of Plaintiff's federal sentence.

         In Preiser v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 475 (1973), the Supreme Court held that a state prisoner cannot bring a § 1983 claim if “the relief he seeks is a determination that he is entitled to immediate or a speedier release, ” and that the sole federal remedy in such a case is a writ of habeas corpus. Id. at 500. In Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), the Supreme Court held that a state prisoner could not maintain a § 1983 claim for damages where he alleged that his arrest, trial, and conviction were unconstitutional because an award of damages on such a claim would implicitly invalidate the conviction. Because the plaintiff challenged his conviction, the Supreme Court held that the plaintiff must first obtain relief from the conviction through state or federal habeas proceedings, or similar proceedings, before seeking a remedy under § 1983. Id. at 487.

         More recently, the Supreme Court explained that its decisions on the issue, “taken together, indicate that a state prisoner's § 1983 action is barred (absent prior invalidation) - no matter the relief sought (damages or equitable relief), no matter the target of the prisoner's suit (state conduct leading to conviction or internal prison proceedings) - if success in that action would necessarily demonstrate the invalidity of confinement or its duration.” Wilkinson v. Dotson, 544 U.S. 74, 81 - 82 (2005)[4] (emphasis in original).

         Although the Supreme Court precedent involves claims of state court convicted prisoners, courts have extended the Supreme Court's rationale to civil rights claims brought by federal prisoners if the claims involve matters that are traditionally the subject of habeas corpus proceedings or direct appeals. Skinner v. U.S. Dep't of Justice & Bureau of Prisons, 584 F.3d 1093, 1099 (D.C. Cir. 2009) (involving challenge to federal BOP's revocation of good time credits); Beverly v. Reno, 23 F.3d 158, 159 (7th Cir. 1994) (involving claim that federal statute under which the plaintiff was convicted was unconstitutional). Under this reasoning, in a claim asserted by a federal prisoner, such as Plaintiff, the issues are whether the claim asserted in the § 1983 action could be pursued in a § 2255 habeas petition[5] and, if so, whether success on the asserted § 1983 claim would necessarily invalidate the prisoner's sentence. For instance, in Davis v. U.S. Sentencing Commission, 716 F.3d 660 (D.C. Cir. 2013), the district court held that a federal prisoner could proceed with claims asserted under the Declaratory Judgment Act and Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Fed. Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), without first pursuing habeas relief, where the prisoner's contention was that certain amendments to the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines were unconstitutional. The court concluded the claim was actionable because success on the claim would not “necessarily imply the invalidity of [his] confinement or shorten its duration.” Id. at 666 (quoting Wilkinson, 544 U.S. at 82). The invalidity of the sentence or its duration was not necessarily implied, the court reasoned, because success on the prisoner's claim “would do no more than allow him to seek a sentence reduction, which the district court retains the discretion to deny.” Id. (citing 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2)).

         Here, Defendant Duff argues Plaintiff cannot proceed on his § 1983 claim because in order to prevail on the claim, Plaintiff must obtain a finding that is inconsistent with the Court's determination that immediately before Defendant Duff shot Plaintiff, Plaintiff exited his home with a rifle and raised the rifle. Defendant contends that such a finding would necessarily implicate Plaintiff's sentence. Defendant's argument is unpersuasive.

         Even if the Court assumes Plaintiff could challenge in a habeas proceeding the Court's factual finding at sentencing, a finding in Plaintiff's favor on his § 1983 claim does not necessarily imply the invalidity of his conviction or sentence. Although the Court found that Plaintiff possessed and raised a rifle when he exited his home, the length of sentence was discretionary and the Court cited additional factors when, in establishing the sentence, the Court determined that Plaintiff's conduct created a substantial risk to the safety of others. The Court thus conceivably could have imposed the same sentence without finding that Plaintiff raised his rifle when he exited his home.[6] In short, contrary to Defendant's contention, a finding in favor of Plaintiff would not implicate the validity of Plaintiff's sentence.

         2. Effect of the Court's ...

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