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Jones v. City of Columbia

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

September 11, 2019

Aubrey Jones, Plaintiff,
v.
City of Columbia; Anthony Viehweg, in his individual capacity as an Officer for the City of Columbia, Defendants.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          PAIGE J. GOSSETT, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         The plaintiff, Aubrey Jones, filed this civil rights case alleging claims based on violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law. This matter is before the court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2) (D.S.C.) for a Report and Recommendation on Defendant City of Columbia's motion for partial judgment on the pleadings as to Jones's claims against it for false imprisonment and violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[1] The case arises out of Jones's arrest and criminal charges for resisting arrest, failure to stop on police command, and pedestrian under the influence of alcohol. Jones spent a night in jail following his arrest and ultimately was acquitted of all charges.

         The City's motion has been fully briefed and is ready for resolution. (See ECF Nos. 34, 39, & 41.) The court also heard oral argument on the City's motion on September 6, 2019. Having considered the parties' arguments and the applicable law, the court concludes that the City's motion should be granted in part and denied in part.

         DISCUSSION

         A motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) examines the legal sufficiency of the facts alleged on the face of the complaint. Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 243 (4th Cir. 1999). To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, “[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). The “complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.' ” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). A claim is facially plausible when the factual content allows the court to reasonably infer that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. Id. When considering a motion to dismiss, the court must accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). The court “may also consider documents attached to the complaint, see Fed.R.Civ.P. 10(c), as well as those attached to the motion to dismiss, so long as they are integral to the complaint and authentic.” Philips v. Pitt Cty. Mem'l Hosp., 572 F.3d 176, 180 (4th Cir. 2009) (citing Blankenship v. Manchin, 471 F.3d 523, 526 n.1 (4th Cir. 2006)). Finally, “[a] court may grant a 12(b)(6) motion on statute of limitations grounds only if the time bar is apparent on the face of the complaint.” Semenova v. Md. Transit Admin., 845 F.3d 564, 567 (4th Cir. 2017)

         Pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a party may move for judgment on the pleadings after the pleadings are closed. A motion for judgment on the pleadings should be granted when, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, there remain no genuine issues of material fact, and the case can be decided as a matter of law. Tollison v. B & J Machinery Co., 812 F.Supp. 618, 619 (D.S.C. 1993). In considering a motion for judgment on the pleadings, the court applies the same standard as for motions made pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). Independence News, Inc. v. City of Charlotte, 568 F.3d 148, 154 (4th Cir. 2009). However, the court may also consider the defendants' answers. See Massey v. Ojaniit, 759 F.3d 343, 347 (4th Cir. 2014); see also Void v. Orangeburg Cty. Disabilities & Special Needs Bd., Civil Action No. 5:14-cv-02157-JMC, 2015 WL 404247, at *2 n.1 (D.S.C. Jan. 29, 2015).

         The City's motion is based on its assertion that Jones's false imprisonment and § 1983 claims are barred by the applicable statutes of limitation. With respect to Jones's claim for false imprisonment, the court agrees. For a false imprisonment claim arising under state law, the statute of limitations is two years. S.C. Code Ann. § 15-3-550. Jones filed this action on June 28, 2018, over two years after his arrest. Thus, the City correctly argues that Jones's false imprisonment claim is untimely on the face of the pleadings. (See generally Def.'s Mot. J. on Pleadings at 4, ECF No. 34 at 4.) Indeed, Jones has made no argument to the contrary in his filings or during the hearing on the City's motion.

         The court concludes that the City has failed to carry its burden on this affirmative defense as to the § 1983 claim, however. The statute of limitations for any § 1983 claim arising in South Carolina is three years. See Owens v. Okure, 488 U.S. 235 (1989); S.C. Code Ann. § 15-3-530(5). After the defendants removed the case to federal court, Jones consented to strike Paragraph 31 of the Complaint and “any claims for relief related to Paragraph 31.” (ECF No. 9.) Paragraph 31 alleged, “Finally, the Plaintiff submits that City of Columbia Ordinance Sec. 10-36. - Refusal to stop on command of officer, is Unconstitutional.” (Compl. ¶ 31, ECF No. 1-1 at 5.) The parties' agreement was adopted by court order filed August 14, 2018. (ECF No. 12.)

         On May 24, 2019, during a conference call hearing primarily to address discovery and scheduling, Jones orally requested and obtained, with the consent of the defendants, leave to file an amended complaint. Plaintiff's counsel had previously provided a proposed amended complaint to defense counsel, who consented to its filing but reserved their right to challenge the new claim. Jones subsequently filed an Amended Complaint that added a § 1983 claim against the City based on Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), and the City filed the instant motion for judgment on the pleadings challenging its timeliness.

         Jones admits the subject § 1983 claim was brought after the expiration of the three-year statute of limitations. However, Jones argues that the claim asserted in his Amended Complaint relates back to the filing of the initial complaint under Rule 15(c)(1)(B). While acknowledging that the amendment generally would relate back under the Rule, the City argues that Jones's previous agreement to strike paragraph 31 and claims for relief related to it prevents application of this Rule. Rather, the City argues that the claim does not relate back to the original complaint and must separately satisfy the three-year statute of limitations. Essentially, the City appears to argue that the striking of the language at issue from the original complaint precludes Jones from taking advantage of the relation back provision of Rule 15.

         The City, however, has failed to identify any legal support for its position. The consent motion and order striking paragraph 31 and related claims from the original complaint are silent as to whether such claims could ever be brought again. Moreover, the language crafted by the parties in those documents states that the paragraph and claims were being stricken as “immaterial” under Rule 12(f) and, while referencing Rule 12(b)(6), does not contain any language indicating a dismissal with prejudice. (See ECF Nos. 9 & 12.) Generally stipulations of dismissal or voluntary dismissals would be governed by Rule 41(a), which presumes a dismissal is without prejudice unless the order or stipulation states otherwise. Additionally, during the hearing, the City appeared to agree that there was nothing in the motion or order that would preclude Jones from repleading or reasserting this constitutional claim; however, the City argued that Jones would have to independently meet the statute of limitations for the claim.

         Further, the court observes that when the paragraph was stricken as immaterial there was no related claim in the original complaint to accompany the allegation that the City ordinance was unconstitutional. The Monell claim in the Amended Complaint asserts in pertinent part: “The acts and omissions of the City of Columbia in enacting and enforcing Ordinance Sec. 10-36. - Refusal to stop on command of police officer, do not meet the legal thresholds under well established law requiring reasonable suspicion or probable cause for legal detention.” (Am. Compl. ¶ 55, ECF No. 30.) Thus, there is now a claim to which the previously stricken averment is material.

         The court therefore finds nothing in the consent order precluding Jones from asserting the Monell claim at this juncture, and the City largely agrees that, but for the consent order, the Monell claim relates back.[2] Accordingly, the Monell claim is not barred by the statute of limitations, and the City's motion as to this claim should be denied.

         RECO ...


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