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Charping v. Town of Andrews

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division

February 28, 2018

Wanda Charping and Government Accounting Solutions LLC, Plaintiffs,
v.
Town of Andrews, Sudha Patel, Christopher L. Anderson, Eddie Lee, Jr., Mauretta Dorsey, Kaynnera Capers, Rodney Giles, Angela Anderson, Patsy Greene, and Mattie McGee, Defendants.

          ORDER

          PATRICK MICHAEL DUFFY United States District Judge.

         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff Wanda Charping's objections to United States Magistrate Judge Bristow Marchant's Report and Recommendation (“R & R”) (ECF Nos. 137 & 132). For the reasons set forth herein, the Court overrules Plaintiffs' objections, grants Defendants' motion for partial summary judgment on Plaintiffs' federal claims, and denies Plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment. Accordingly, the Court remands Plaintiffs' state-law claims to the South Carolina Court of Common Pleas for Horry County, South Carolina.

         BACKGROUND

         This action arises out of Plaintiff's[1] work as an accountant for the Town of Andrews (the “Town”). Charping brings three federal claims, along with a number of state-law claims, against Defendants based on her allegations that they illegally seized and detained her during a budget workshop, that they violated her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights by asking her to leave the budget workshop, and that they violated her First Amendment right of freedom of association because she was seized during the budget meeting while other members of the public were free to attend that public meeting. The Magistrate Judge recommends granting Defendants' motion for summary judgment as to Plaintiff's federal claims. As a result, the Magistrate Judge recommends remanding the remaining state-law claims to state court. Plaintiff objects to the Magistrate Judge's recommendations on two grounds.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Magistrate Judge makes only a recommendation to this Court. The R & R has no presumptive weight, and the responsibility for making a final determination remains with the Court. Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 270-71 (1976). Parties may make written objections to the R & R within fourteen days after being served with a copy of it. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). This Court must conduct a de novo review of any portion of the R & R to which a specific objection is made, and it may accept, reject, or modify the Magistrate Judge's findings and recommendations in whole or in part. Id. Additionally, the Court may receive more evidence or recommit the matter to the Magistrate Judge with instructions. Id. A party's failure to object is taken as the party's agreement with the Magistrate Judge's conclusions. See Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140 (1985). Absent a timely, specific objection-or as to those portions of the R & R to which no specific objection is made-this Court “must ‘only satisfy itself that there is no clear error on the face of the record in order to accept the recommendation.'” Diamond v. Colonial Life & Accident Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 72 advisory committee's note).

         To grant a motion for summary judgment, a court must find that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The judge is not to weigh the evidence but rather must determine if there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). All evidence should be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Perini Corp. v. Perini Constr., Inc., 915 F.2d 121, 124 (4th Cir. 1990). “[I]t is ultimately the nonmovant's burden to persuade [the court] that there is indeed a dispute of material fact. It must provide more than a scintilla of evidence-and not merely conclusory allegations or speculation-upon which a jury could properly find in its favor.” CoreTel Va., LLC v. Verizon Va., LLC, 752 F.3d 364, 370 (4th Cir. 2014) (citations omitted). “[W]here the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, disposition by summary judgment is appropriate.” Teamsters Joint Council No. 83 v. Centra, Inc., 947 F.2d 115, 119 (4th Cir. 1991). Summary judgment is not “a disfavored procedural shortcut, ” but an important mechanism for weeding out “claims and defenses [that] have no factual basis.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 327 (1986).

         DISCUSSION

         First, Plaintiff objects to the Magistrate Judge's recommendation that the Court grant summary judgment to Defendants on Plaintiff's unlawful seizure cause of action. Although Plaintiff's objection contains a lengthy recounting of various facts and social media posts, the gist of that objection is that there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Plaintiff was unlawfully seized and detained in the Town of Andrews' clerk's office. “Section 1983 actions premised on alleged unlawful seizure, malicious prosecution, false arrest, and/or false imprisonment are analyzed as actions claiming unreasonable seizures in violation of the Fourth Amendment.” Upchurch v. Wilkie, No. 7:10-cv-1819-JMC-JDA, 2011 WL 3652324, at *4 (D.S.C. July 29, 2011) (collecting cases).[2] In situations “[w]hen the actions of the police do not show an unambiguous intent to restrain or when an individual's submission to a show of governmental authority takes the form of passive acquiescence, ” courts must determine whether “‘in view of all the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave.'” Brendlin v. California, 551 U.S. 249, 254 (2007) (quoting United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 554 (1980)). Additionally, “when a person ‘has no desire to leave' for reasons unrelated to the police presence, the ‘coercive effect of the encounter' can be measured better by asking whether ‘a reasonable person would feel free to decline the officers' requests or otherwise terminate the encounter.'” Id. at 255 (quoting Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429, 435-36 (1991)). “In applying the totality of the circumstances test, courts look to numerous factors including the time, place and purpose of the encounter . . . .” United States v. Weaver, 282 F.3d 302, 309 (4th Cir. 2002). The Fourth Circuit has held that the following non-exhaustive list of factors is relevant to this inquiry:

the number of police officers present during the encounter, whether they were in uniform or displayed their weapons, whether they touched the [person], whether they attempted to block his departure or restrain his movement, whether the officers' questioning was non-threatening, and whether they treated the defendant as though they suspected him of “illegal activity rather than treating the encounter as ‘routine' in nature.” United States v. Jones, 678 F.3d 293, 299 (4th Cir. 2012) (quoting United States v. Gray, 883 F.2d 320, 322-23 (4th Cir. 1989)). The “‘reasonable person' standard ‘is an objective one, ' thus ‘its proper application is a question of law.'” Id. (quoting United States v. Weaver, 282 F.3d 302, 309

(4th Cir. 2002)).

         Plaintiff asserts that she was illegally seized and detained by Defendants in violation of the Fourth Amendment after the Town's mayor asked her to step out of a budget meeting. Plaintiff alleges that the Mayor, Rodney Giles, and the council members made this request so that a different accountant could give a negative report about her work to the mayor and to the town council without her knowledge.

         Plaintiff was present at the Town's budget meeting on June 17, 2015, to provide her usual financial and accounting advice in her capacity as a bookkeeper for the Town. She voluntarily left the budget meeting after the Mayor requested that she do so, and did not ask any questions. She testified that it was not unusual for her to leave when various meetings went into executive session. According to Plaintiff, as she left the meeting she was followed out by the police chief, Kaynnera Capers. Capers then escorted her past the Mayor's office, down a hallway towards the entrance to the Town's police department, and then back up the same hallway, through a door into a common area, and finally through the door of the town clerk's office. Plaintiff testified in her deposition that when she and Capers reached the end of the hallway he hesitated outside of the police department before turning around and walking Plaintiff back up the hallway to the clerk's office. He then placed her in the clerk's office, told her that someone would come and get her when she was needed in the meeting, and closed the door as he left. Plaintiff also testified that the office was not locked, that she was never told that she had to stay in the office, she never complained that she did not wish to be there, and she was certainly never told that she was under arrest.

         Plaintiff remained in the clerk's office for about an hour and a half without interruption or being summoned back to the meeting. She then had to use the restroom. She opened the clerk's office door, propped the common area door open to prevent it from closing, exited the common area into the hallway, and walked to the restroom without seeing anyone. She emerged from the restroom to find a male police officer standing outside. That police officer walked Plaintiff back to the clerk's office and also shut the door behind her, but he never told her that she could not leave or that she was under arrest. Plaintiff testified that when the police officer shut the door she wanted to run because she thought she was going to be arrested, although she did not explain what she thought she might be arrested for. She also stated that she believed the police officer was guarding her when she emerged from the restroom. She further testified that she did not feel free to leave after the police officer escorted her back to the clerk's office because she thought she would be arrested if she did so. In contrast, the police chief ...


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