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Sineni v. Cumberland County Sheriff's Office

United States District Court, D. Maine

May 8, 2018




         Because the plaintiff in this civil rights claim failed to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether a sheriff's office violated his civil rights as a matter of its policy and custom, the Court grants the sheriff's office's motion for summary judgment. The Court also denies the plaintiff's request to dismiss his complaint without prejudice instead of granting the motion for summary judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On September 27, 2016, Anthony J. Sineni, III, filed a complaint in Cumberland County Superior Court against the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office (the Sheriff's Office), alleging that the Sheriff's Office engaged in malicious prosecution when it illegally obtained a search and arrest warrant against Mr. Sineni, falsely imprisoned him, and violated his civil rights. State Court Record Attach. 1 Compl. at 1-7 (ECF No. 3). The Sheriff's Office removed the complaint to this Court on October 12, 2016. Notice of Removal (ECF No. 1).

         On September 1, 2017, the Sheriff's Office filed a motion for summary judgment together with a statement of undisputed material facts. Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. (ECF No. 55) (Def.'s Mot.); Def.'s Statement of Material Facts in Support of Mot. for Summ. J. (ECF No. 56) (DSMF). On October 10, 2017, Mr. Sineni filed his opposition to the motion for summary judgment and in the alternative, he moved for a voluntary dismissal without prejudice; he also filed a response to the Sheriff's Office's statement of facts and posited additional facts. Pl. Anthony J. Sineni's Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. or in the Alternative Mot. for Voluntary Dismissal Without Prejudice (ECF No. 60) (Pl.'s Opp'n) (Pl.'s Mot. to Dismiss); Attach 5 Pl.'s Statement of Material Facts in Support of Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. at 1-5 (PRDSMF); Attach 5 Pl.'s Additional Facts at 5-11 (PSAMF). On October 24, 2017, the Sheriff's Office filed a reply to Mr. Sineni's motion for summary judgment with a response to Mr. Sineni's statement of additional material facts as well as an objection to Mr. Sineni's motion to dismiss. Reply in Support of Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. at 1-7 (Def.'s Reply); Obj. to Mot. to Dismiss at 7-8 (Def.'s Opp'n to Mot. to Dismiss) (ECF No. 64); Resp. to Pl.'s Statement of Facts (DRPSAMF) (ECF No. 65).[1]


         A court may grant summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 if the record demonstrates that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “A ‘material' fact is a ‘contested fact [that] has the potential to change the outcome of the suit under the governing law if the dispute over it is resolved favorably to the nonmovant, ' and a ‘genuine issue' means that ‘the evidence about the fact is such that a reasonable jury could resolve the point in favor of the nonmoving party.'” McCarthy v. City of Newburyport, 252 Fed.Appx. 328, 332 (1st Cir. 2007) (quoting Navarro v. Pfizer Corp., 261 F.3d 90, 93-94 (1st Cir. 2001)) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         The Court must examine the record evidence “in the light most favorable to [the nonmovant], and [must draw] all reasonable inferences in . . . favor [of the nonmoving party].” Foley v. Town of Randolf, 598 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2010). At the same time, courts ignore “conclusory allegations, improbable inferences, and unsupported speculation.” Cortés-Rivera v. Dep't of Corr. & Rehab., 626 F.3d 21, 26 (1st Cir. 2010) (quoting Sullivan v. City of Springfield, 561 F.3d 7, 24 (1st Cir. 2009)).


         A. Anthony J. Sineni, III

         Anthony J. Sineni, III has been self-employed as an attorney practicing predominately in the Portland area and Southern Maine for twenty-six years. PSAMF ¶ 1; DRPSAMF ¶ 1. During his practice, Mr. Sineni has specialized in criminal defense law and as a result has gained detailed, specific knowledge about law enforcement practices including practices by the Sheriff's Department pertaining to all criminal matters, which include domestic violence crimes. PSAMF ¶ 2; DRPSAMF ¶ 2.

         B. The Cumberland County Sheriff's Office

         Kevin Joyce has been the Sheriff of Cumberland County since January 2011. DSMF ¶ 1; PRDSMF ¶ 1. As Sheriff of Cumberland County, Sheriff Joyce has final decision-making authority with respect to all policy and operational matters at the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office. DSMF ¶ 2; PRDSMF ¶ 2. At no time has Sheriff Joyce ever been aware of occasions where Cumberland County officers have falsified reports for the purpose of obtaining arrest or search warrants. DSMF ¶ 3; PRDSMF ¶ 3. Sheriff Joyce is not aware of any occasions when Cumberland County officers provided misleading statements in support of arrest or search warrants. DSMF ¶ 4; PRDSMF ¶ 4. Sheriff Joyce is not aware of any occasions when Cumberland County officers have intentionally or knowingly omitted relevant information from applications in support of arrest or search warrants. DSMF ¶ 5; PRDSMF ¶ 5. Sheriff Joyce is not aware of any occasions, including any complaints, claims, or allegations, that Cumberland County officers have unlawfully interfered with a parent's right to the care and custody of his or her children. DSMF ¶ 6; PRDSMF ¶ 6.

         C. Cumberland County Arrests Anthony J. Sineni, III

         On September 26, 2014, [3] the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office arrested Mr.

         Sineni for Assault, Tampering with a Witness, and Receiving/Possessing Stolen Property. PSAMF ¶¶ 3-4; DRPSAMF ¶¶ 3-4. The arrest was a result of a combined effort by Sheriff's Department Detectives and the mother of Mr. Sineni's children, Winona Hichborn.[4] PSAMF ¶ 5; DRPSAMF ¶ 5.[5]

         Specifically, Detective John Fournier of the Sheriff's Office presented information in the affidavit in support of the arrest warrant that predominately relied on false statements made by Winona Hichborn, knowing that Ms. Hichborn was documented in several sheriff reports to be unreliable, unstable and always intoxicated when encountering the sheriffs, whether she called the Sheriff's Office to respond or whether they had responded based on other reports as to Ms. Hichborn's drunken behavior.[6] PSAMF ¶ 7; DRPSAFM ¶ 7. Detective Fournier was familiar with several recent domestic violence/disturbance reports in which Winona and Anthony (Tony) Sineni were involved.[7] PSAMF ¶ 8; DRPSAMF ¶ 8. Detective Fournier failed to inform the Judge in his arrest warrant affidavit or by any means of his knowledge that Ms. Hichborn is unreliable and has in the past been removed from the household due to violent behavior while intoxicated.[8] PSAMF ¶ 9; DRPSAMF ¶ 9.

         In paragraph five of his affidavit in support of Mr. Sineni's arrest, Detective Fournier included statements that Ms. Hichborn told him about what her then-thirteen-year-old son had told her that Mr. Sineni had said to the son about the presence of firearms in their basement; Mr. Sineni believes that the statements by Ms. Hichborn's son were false and that Detective Fournier recklessly relied upon them as true in including them in his affidavit in support of the arrest warrant.[9]PSAMF ¶ 10; DRPSAMF ¶ 10. Detective Fournier failed to inform the Judge that Ms. Hichborn was physically removed from the household in March of 2014 due to domestic violence.[10] PSAMF ¶ 11; DRPSAMF ¶ 11. Detective Fournier failed to inform the Judge that Ms. Hichborn was found at the residence on several occasions in July and August of 2014 in violation of an existing restraining order. PSAMF ¶ 12; DRPSAMF ¶ 12.

         Mr. Sineni has personally reviewed a tape recording made by Detective Jill Potvin where she is conversing with Ms. Hichborn at Mr. Sineni's residence during which Detective Potvin tells Ms. Hichborn that “[w]e are sticking our necks out” for not arresting her for being in violation of the protection order that was in place. PSAMF ¶ 13; DRPSAMF ¶ 13. In the tape, Mr. Sineni heard Detective Potvin continue to coach Ms. Hichborn with an agenda that consisted of the use of false and unethical statements to promote an agenda to color Ms. Hichborn as a victim and not a perpetrator of criminal activity. PSAMF ¶ 14; DRPSAMF ¶ 14.

         Prior to Mr. Sineni's arrest in September 2014, Ms. Hichborn informed Mr. Sineni that with the help of Detective Fournier and Detective Potvin, a plan had been formulated to arrest him so that Ms. Hichborn could take possession of his house and belongings, regain custody of his children, and be provided with financial support. PSAMF ¶ 15; DRPSAMF ¶ 15. At that time, Ms. Hichborn had been evicted from her apartment and Mr. Sineni had been awarded sole parental rights over their two children and his stepson who was Ms. Hichborn's biological child. PSAMF ¶ 16; DRPSAMF ¶ 16.

         In his affidavit in support of Mr. Sineni's arrest, Detective Fournier referred to statements of Amer[11] Radhi about allegedly stolen firearms. PSAMF ¶ 17; DRPSAMF ¶ 17. However, Detective Fournier failed to inform the Judge that Mr. Rahdi was also a known unreliable witness and that Mr. Rahdi himself had a prior conviction for possession of a firearm by a prohibited person.[12] Id. Detective Fournier failed to inform the Judge that both Mr. Rahdi and Ms. Hichborn had continued access to the residence where the guns were stolen and the location where the guns were found. PSAMF ¶ 18; DRPSAMF ¶ 18. Detective Fournier failed to inform the Judge that Amer Radhi gave false and misleading statements, and specifically failed to indicate that Mr. Radhi and Ms. Hichborn were both alternative suspects in the case.[13] PSAMF ¶ 19; DRPSAMF ¶ 19.

         Mr. Sineni had advised Mark Rankin, the owner of the firearms, to make the report to the police that his guns had been stolen. PSAMF ¶ 39; DRPSAMF ¶ 39. Detective Fournier interviewed Mark Rankin and failed to inform the Judge that Mr. Rankin stated that even if Mr. Sineni had possession of the guns, it would have been authorized with Mr. Rankin's consent.[14] PSAMF ¶¶ 20, 40; DRPSAMF ¶¶ 20, 40.

         Mr. Sineni is personally aware of other situations where Detectives from the Sheriff's Office have recklessly and/or intentionally omitted highly probative information from arrest and search warrants to effectuate their own agendas.[15]PSAMF ¶ 33; DRPSAMF ¶ 33.

         D. Events at Cumberland County Jail after the Sineni Arrest

         Once arrested, Mr. Sineni was transported to and held at the Cumberland County Jail intake. PSAMF ¶ 21; DRPSAMF ¶ 21. Mr. Sineni was asked by personnel to take two phone calls from Detective Jill Potvin. PSAMF ¶ 22; DRPSAMF ¶ 22. Detective Potvin was requesting that Mr. Sineni give her information as to the whereabouts of his stepson. PSAMF ¶ 23; DRPSAMF ¶ 23. Soon after the phone call with Detective Potvin, Mr. Sineni was informed by the Deputies that both the bail commissioner and the person posting his bail were at the jail to coordinate his release. PSAMF ¶ 24; DRPSAMF ¶ 24. At that time, Mr. Sineni saw one of the intake personnel, Jason Hendrickson, on the phone, and Mr. Hendrickson brought the phone over to the desk and asked Mr. Sineni to speak with Detective Potvin. PSAMF ¶ 25; DRPSAMF ¶ 25. Detective Potvin asked Mr. Sineni to get the phone number for the family friends that his son was with and told the Deputy to retrieve the phone. Id. Mr. Sineni cooperated and gave Detective Potvin the number. Id.

         When the phone call ended, Deputy Hendrickson informed Mr. Sineni and several other Deputies that Detective Potvin had instructed them to turn the bail commissioner away so that Mr. Sineni could not be bailed out at that time.[16] PSAMF ¶¶ 26, 42; DRPSAMF ¶¶ 26, 42. This was confirmed through a phone call to the individual who was at the jail with the cash bail and who had shown and counted out the cash to verify the amount before the bail commissioner left.[17] PSAMF ¶ 27; DRPSAMF ¶ 27. Mr. Sineni was then held at the Cumberland County Jail for six to eight hours. PSAMF ¶¶ 28, 41; DRPSAMF ¶¶ 28, 41. Mr. Sineni is personally aware of many criminal cases where the Cumberland County Jail administration illegally held inmates who were due to be released.[18] PSAMF ¶ 32; DRPSAMF ¶ 32.

         E. Anthony Sineni's “No Contact” Bail Condition

         The Sheriff's Office requested bail conditions that included a provision that Mr. Sineni could have no contact with his three children.[19] PSAMF ¶ 29; DRPSAMF ¶ 29. The basis for the no contact request was fraudulent statements that were uncorroborated and uninvestigated by any detective or deputy from the Sheriff's Office.[20] PSAMF ¶ 30; DRPSAMF ¶ 30. Mr. Sineni is personally aware of many face-to-face encounters that both Detective Fournier and Detective Potvin had with Ms. Hichborn where she was intoxicated and irrational. PSAMF ¶ 31; DRPSAMF ¶ 31. During the course of the criminal proceedings, bail was modified to allow Mr. Sineni to have contact with his children. PSAMF ¶ 37; DRPSAMF ¶ 37.

         F. The Victim's Advocates and Detective Jill Potvin

         Detective Jill Potvin has an office in the Cumberland County District Attorney's Office in a separate physical portion of the District Attorney's Office and Detective Potvin regularly conducts official Sheriff's Office business out of that office. PSAMF ¶ 34; DRPSAMF ¶ 34. Detective Potvin's office is down the hall from the Domestic Violence Victims' Advocates office. PSAMF ¶ 43; DRPSAMF ¶ 43. Due to the close proximity of open doors, Detective Potvin has access to the Cumberland County District Attorney's Office's Victims' Advocates and potentially privileged information. Id. Detective Potvin is the sister of Kevin Joyce, the Sheriff of Cumberland County. PSAMF ¶ 35; DRPSAMF ¶ 35. One of the Domestic Violence Victims' Advocates, Jill Merrick, has discussions with Detective Potvin on a daily basis. PSAMF ¶ 44; DRPSAMF ¶ 44.[21] The Victim's Advocates in the Cumberland County District Attorney's Office promote personal agendas when aiding in the prosecution of domestic violence crimes. PSAMF ¶ 36; DRPSAMF ¶ 36. This agenda includes unfounded attempts to leverage defendants by creating no contact provisions of bail with their children. Id.

         G. The Sheriff's Office's Policies

         The Sheriff's Office has a set of standard operating procedures which are the official policies and procedures of the Sheriff's Office and are available for staff to review on the computer. DSMF ¶ 13; PRDSMF ¶ 13. The Sheriff's Office's Standard Operating Procedure 2-28 is the official policy and procedure of the Sheriff's Office regarding search warrants and was in effect on the date of the incidents in this lawsuit. DSMF ¶ 14; PRDSMF ¶ 14. The Sheriff's Office Standard Operating Procedure A-9 is the official policy and procedure of the Sheriff's Office regarding Code of Conduct and was in effect on the date of the incidents in this lawsuit. DSMF ¶ 15; PRDSMF ¶ 15.

         H. The Criminal Charges

         The charges contained in the complaint that led to Mr. Sineni's arrest on September 26, 2014 were dismissed in January 2015.[22] DSMF ¶ 7; PRDSMF ¶ 7; PSAMF ¶ 38; DRPSAMF ¶ 38.

         I. The Cumberland County Sheriff's Office's Insurance Coverage and Notice of Claim

         The Maine County Commissioners Association Self-Funded Risk Management Pool (Risk Pool) is a public, self-funded pool established pursuant to 30A M.R.S. ch. 117.[23] DSMF ¶ 8; PRDSMF ¶ 8. Cumberland County is a Named Member of the Risk Pool and is provided with insurance-type coverage pursuant to a document entitled “Maine County Commissioners Association Self-Funded Risk Management Pool Coverage Document.” DSMF ¶ 9; PRDSMF ¶ 9. The Coverage Document specifically excludes any coverage for any cause of action seeking tort damages for which the County is immune pursuant to the Tort Claims Act, and limits coverage to those areas for which governmental immunity is expressly waived by the Tort Claims Act. DSMF ¶ 10; PRDSMF ¶ 10. Other than the insurance-type coverage provided to Cumberland County under the Risk Pool's Coverage Document, Cumberland County has not procured insurance against liability for any claim against the County or its employees for which immunity is not otherwise waived under the Maine Tort Claims Act. DSMF ¶ 11; PRDSMF ¶ 11. Cumberland County did not receive a Notice of Claim against the County or any County employees regarding the actions discussed in the Complaint dated September 27, 2016, until the County received a copy of the Complaint in September of 2016. DSMF ¶ 12; PRDSMF ¶ 12.


         A. The Sheriff's Office's Position

         1. The State Law Claims

         The Sheriff's Office first addresses the two state law claims in Mr. Sineni's Complaint: Count I - malicious prosecution, and Count II - false imprisonment. Def.'s Mot. at 5. The Sheriff's Office says that these claims are governed by the Maine Tort Claims Act (MTCA), and the Sheriff's Office maintains that it is entitled to summary judgment on these claims because Mr. Sineni failed to comply with the notice requirement of the MTCA and in any event the Sheriff's Office is protected by immunity from both claims. Id. at 5-6.

         Regarding the notice defense, the Sheriff's Office cites 14 M.R.S. § 8107 for the statutory requirement that a claimant under the MTCA must give written notice of the claim within 180 days of its accrual. Id. at 6. Citing Cushman v. Tilton, 652 A.2d 650, 651-52 (Me. 1995), the Sheriff's Office argues that Mr. Sineni's failure to comply with the notice provision bars his MTCA claims. Id.

         Next, citing 14 M.R.S. § 8103(1), the Sheriff's Office contends that it is immune from the state tort claims. Id. at 6-8. Acknowledging that the MTCA provides for four exceptions to governmental immunity, the Sheriff's Office argues that Mr. Sineni's claims do not fall within any of the exceptions to statutory immunity. Id. at 7-8. Noting that it is insured through the Maine County Commissioners Association ...

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