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Culbreath v. Smith

September 11, 2006

PAUL A. CULBREATH, PLAINTIFF,
v.
WILMA P. SMITH AND, JARED BASSHAM AND, JACK MCCANN, SHERIFF OF CRAIGHEAD CO., AND CRAIGHEAD COUNTY, ARKANSAS, DEFENDANTS.
WILMA P. SMITH, COUNTER-CLAIMANT,
v.
PAUL A. CULBREATH, COUNTER-DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Susan Webber Wright United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Plaintiff Paul A. Culbreath, who is appearing pro se, brings this action against defendants, Craighead County, Arkansas, Wilma P. Smith, a school teacher with the City of Jonesboro, Arkansas, public schools, Jared Bassham, an Investigator with the Craighead County Sheriff's Department, and Jack McCann, Sheriff of Craighead County, for allegedly allowing Smith, on May 11, 2004, to erroneously and maliciously file a falsified police report with the Craighead County Sheriff's Department alleging that plaintiff had committed criminal felony theft greater than $2,500.00 by failing to honor a contractual agreement for home repairs Smith claims to have had with plaintiff. Compl. at ¶¶ 2-3. Plaintiff states he "brings this cause of action under a [sic] 42 USC 1983 which present federal questions and jurisdiction is, therefore proper under 28 USC 1331 & 1343." Id. at ¶ 2.

By previous Order [doc.#23], this Court granted the motion of separate defendant, Wilma Smith, to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) and sua sponte dismissed without prejudice her state law breach of contract counterclaim against plaintiff. The matter is now before the Court on motion of the remaining defendants, Craighead County, Jared Bassham, and Jack McCann ("County defendants") for summary judgment [doc.#25]. Plaintiff has not responded to County defendants' motion and the time for doing so has passed. For the reasons that follow, the Court hereby grants County defendants' motion for summary judgment.*fn1

I.

On May 11, 2004, Wilma Smith, who identified herself as an employee of the Annie Camp Jr. High School, reported a theft to the Craighead County Sheriff's Department. The incident was alleged to be a theft of property greater than $2,500, namely that Smith paid plaintiff $13,750 "to build on to house" but he never did any work. Bassham prepared an Incident Report outlining Smith's allegations and advised Smith to contact the Craighead County Prosecuting Attorney's Office. Plaintiff was not arrested, detained or charged with any criminal offense arising out of Smith's complaint, and Sheriff McCann was not involved in an investigation of plaintiff and did not direct any such investigation. In addition, plaintiff does not dispute that the County defendants did not threaten to arrest plaintiff if he did not refund the money paid by Smith, did not harass plaintiff or his family, and did not direct other deputies or employees to harass plaintiff or his family. See County Def.s' St. of Indisputable Mat. Facts at ¶¶ 1-10.*fn2

II.

County defendants move for summary judgment on grounds that plaintiff did not suffer a deprivation of his constitutional rights and they are entitled to qualified immunity. County defendants argue there are no genuine issues for trial and that they are entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law.

A.

Summary judgment is appropriate when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). As a prerequisite to summary judgment, a moving party must demonstrate "an absence of evidence to support the non-moving party's case." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). Once the moving party has properly supported its motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must "do more than simply show there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio, 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). The nonmoving party may not rest on mere allegations or denials of his pleading, but must "come forward with 'specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Id. at 587 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e) and adding emphasis). See also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 256 (1986). The inferences to be drawn from the underlying facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587 (citations omitted). However, "[w]here the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no 'genuine issue for trial.'" Id. (citation omitted).

B.

As previously noted, plaintiff was not arrested, detained or charged with any criminal offense arising out of Smith's complaint, and he does not dispute that the County defendants did not threaten to arrest plaintiff if he did not refund the money paid by Smith, did not harass plaintiff or his family, and did not direct other deputies or employees to harass plaintiff or his family. See County Def.s' St. of Indisputable Mat. Facts at ¶¶ 1-10; n.2, supra.*fn3 Rather, it appears plaintiff is primarily contending that Bassham and McCann knew or with due diligence should have known Smith's allegation of theft was false but, nevertheless, prepared an Incident Report based on her allegations. Bassham and McCann, who are being sued in both their individual and official capacity, argue they are entitled to qualified immunity.*fn4

Qualified immunity shields government officials such as Bassham and McCann from suit unless their conduct violated a clearly established constitutional or statutory right of which a reasonable person would have known. Littrell v. Franklin, 388 F.3d 578, 582 (8th Cir. 2004) (citing Yowell v. Combs, 89 F.3d 542, 544 (8th Cir. 1996); Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). What this means in practice is that whether an official protected by qualified immunity may be held personally liable for an allegedly unlawful action generally turns on the objective legal reasonableness of the action, assessed in light of the legal rules that were clearly established at the time it was taken. Id. (citing Wilson v. Layne, 526 U.S. 603, 614 (1999)). "'[O]fficials are not liable for bad guesses in gray areas; they are liable for transgressing bright lines.'" Id. (quoting Maciariello v. Sumner, 973 F.2d 295, 298 (4th Cir. 1992), cert. denied, 506 U.S. 1080 (1993)).

Courts employ a two-part inquiry to determine whether a lawsuit against a public official can proceed in the face of the official's assertion of qualified immunity. Id. (citations omitted). First, courts must consider whether, taken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury, the facts alleged show the officer's conduct violated a constitutional right. Id. Second, courts must ask whether the right was clearly established. Id. For a right to be deemed clearly established, the contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right. Id.

Plaintiff has not demonstrated that Bassham and/or McCann violated his constitutional rights when an Incident Report based on Smith's allegations was prepared. There is no evidence in the record that Smith's allegations were false or that Bassham and/or McCann even suspected that Smith's allegations were false.*fn5 To the extent plaintiff is claiming Bassham and McCann violated his rights to due process when they failed to properly investigate Smith's theft allegation before preparing an Incident Report, such claim must fail as the "[n]egligent failure to investigate other leads or suspects does not violate due process." Wilson v. Lawrence County, 260 F.3d 946, 955 (8th Cir. 2001) (citations omitted). "Even allegations of gross negligence would not rise to the level of a constitutional violation." Id. Only reckless or intentional failure to investigate other leads offends a defendant's due process rights. Id. See also Whitley v. Seibel, 613 F.2d 682, 686 (7th Cir. 1980) (noting that while negligent acts in an investigation do not violate due process, intentional acts do). Here, plaintiff offers no evidence that Bassham and/or McCann acted in a reckless or intentional manner. Even if their conduct may have been negligent or even grossly negligent -- and nothing in the record indicates that it was -- such conduct does not implicate ...


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