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Bates v. Simpson

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fayetteville Division

April 15, 2019

JAMES A. BATES PLAINTIFF
v.
BENTONVILLE POLICE CHIEF JON SIMPSON; DETECTIVES JERROD WISEMAN, ANDY OLIVER, THOMAS BOYLE, KRIS MOFFIT, and JOSHUA WOODHAMS; CAPTAIN JUSTIN THOMPSON; THE CITY OF BENTONVILLE, ARKANSAS; DR. CHARLES P. KOKES; and KRISTINE COLLINS HOMAN DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Timothy L. Brooks United States District Judge

         Currently before the Court are:

• Defendant Kristine Collins Homan's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 12) and Brief in Support (Doc. 13), and Plaintiff James A. Bates's Response in Opposition (Doc. 17);
• Defendant Dr. Charles P. Kokes's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 19) and Brief in Support (Doc. 20), Mr. Bates's Response in Opposition (Doc. 33), and Dr. Kokes's Reply (Doc. 37); and
• The Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 25) and Brief in Support (Doc. 26) filed by Defendants Bentonville Police Chief Jon Simpson, Detective Jerrod Wiseman, Detective Andy Oliver, Detective Thomas Boyle, Detective Kris Moffit, Detective Joshua Woodhams, Captain Justin Thompson, and the City of Bentonville (collectively, "the Bentonville Defendants"), Mr. Bates's Response in Opposition (Doc. 34), the Bentonville Defendants' Reply (Doc. 41), Mr. Bates's Sur-Reply (Doc. 42), and the Bentonville Defendants' Supplement (Doc. 45).

         The Motions filed by Ms. Homan and Dr. Kokes are both DENIED. The Bentonville Defendants' Motion is GRANTED as to the only claim brought against the City of Bentonville in this case (Count X of Mr. Bates's Complaint), but that Motion is otherwise DENIED. The reasons for these rulings are given below.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On November 21, 2015, Mr. Bates invited three friends named Sean Henry, Owen McDonald, and Victor Collins over to his house to drink alcohol, watch football, and use his hot tub. Eventually that evening Mr. Henry and then Mr. McDonald left and went home. Mr. Collins remained at Mr. Bates's house, and at some point that night, Mr. Collins died.

         At 9:35 a.m. the next day, Mr. Bates called 911 to report that he had just found Mr. Collins dead in his hot tub. Police arrived at Mr. Bates's house soon after he placed the 911 call, and an investigation into the cause of Mr. Collins's death began. Three months later, Mr. Bates was arrested and charged in Benton County Circuit Court with murdering Mr. Collins. Circuit Judge Brad Karren presided over that criminal case, which ended roughly two years after Mr. Collins's death, when the prosecuting attorney moved on November 29, 2017 to dismiss the charges against Mr. Bates.

         Nearly a year after the criminal charges against Mr. Bates were dismissed, Mr. Collins's widow, Kristine Collins Homan, filed a wrongful-death civil lawsuit against Mr. Bates in Benton County Circuit Court, on behalf of Mr. Collins's estate. That civil case was also assigned to Judge Karren. Mr. Bates was personally served with the complaint in that case on November 6, 2018. Apparently Mr. Bates immediately reached out to the same Illinois lawyer who represented him in the criminal case, Kathleen Zellner, who sent Ms. Homan's attorney a four-page letter the very next day, on November 7, 2018. In that letter, Ms. Zellner stated that she represented Mr. Bates in the wrongful-death lawsuit, and that the complaint in that case was "frivolous and completely without merit." See Kristine Collins Homan v. James Bates, Benton County Circuit Court No. 04CV-18-3180 (hereinafter "Wrongful Death Lawsuit"), Exhibit A to Defendant's Reply filed on December 27, 2018 at 16:21:28, p. 1. Ms. Zellner threatened to file a counterclaim for malicious prosecution and a motion for sanctions under Ark. R. Civ. P. 11 if Ms. Homan would not dismiss the lawsuit with prejudice. See id.

         Notwithstanding these threats, as of December 6, 2018, no responsive pleading had yet been filed on Mr. Bates's behalf in that case. Mr. Bates inquired of Ms. Zellner via text message on December 6, asking whether they needed to file a response that day. See Wrongful Death Lawsuit, Exhibit C to Defendant's Reply filed on December 27, 2018 at 16:21:28, p. 1. Ms. Zellner sent a reply text to Mr. Bates, saying "We are going to get an extension." See Id. Three days earlier, Ms. Zellner had emailed Ms. Homan's attorney asking whether he would object to an anticipated motion for additional time to answer or otherwise plead. See Wrongful Death Lawsuit, Exhibit B to Defendant's Reply filed on December 27, 2018 at 16:21:28, p. 1. But apparently Ms. Collin's attorney was not agreeable to any such extension, and on December 10, there still being no responsive pleading or motion for extension on the docket, Ms. Homan moved for default judgment. Thirty-three minutes after that motion was filed, Judge Karren signed and filed an order granting it and entering default judgment. See Wrongful Death Lawsuit, Motion for Default Judgment filed on December 10, 2018 at 15:29:30, and Default Judgment filed on December 10, 2018 at 16:02:41.

         The next day, Mr. Bates filed a motion to set aside the default judgment, and a separate motion to extend time to respond to the complaint. This was but the first of several attempts Mr. Bates has made in that case to obtain such relief, and all of them have been denied. He has also filed a motion in that case asking Judge Karren to recuse, which likewise was recently denied. He is no longer being represented by Ms. Zellner in that case, but he has been represented by counsel throughout its pendency. As the default judgment was to liability only, the matter has been set for a jury trial on the issue of damages, currently scheduled to be held on November 6, 2019. See Wrongful Death Lawsuit, Scheduling Order filed on January 10, 2019 at 14:59:50.

         On January 23, 2019, Mr. Bates initiated the instant lawsuit in this Court, filing a 59-page Complaint against Ms. Homan, the Bentonville Defendants, and Dr. Kokes (an employee of the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory who performed an autopsy on Mr. Collins). The Complaint alleges that the Defendants conspired to frame Mr. Bates for Mr. Collins's murder in order to help Ms. Homan obtain life insurance proceeds that would not be available to her if Mr. Collins were responsible for his own death. It alleges that the Bentonville Defendants were motivated to help Ms. Homan because Mr. Collins was a former police officer who worked with current Bentonville police officers in his job providing security for Walmart's corporate headquarters, he and Ms. Homan were neighbors to a Bentonville police officer, and he and Ms. Homan had several friends in the Bentonville police department.

         According to the Complaint, Mr. Collins was 6'5" tall, weighed 315 pounds, had been in 103-degree water in the hot tub, and had a blood alcohol level of .318 along with Prozac and methylphenidate in his system at the time of his death. And although Dr. Kokes opined in his autopsy report that the cause of Mr. Collins's death was strangulation, Mr. Bates alleges that the autopsy was actually inconsistent with such a finding because, among other reasons, Mr. Collins's hyoid bone was not fractured, there were no ligature marks, scratches, or finger bruising on his neck, and there was no evidence of damage to his thyroid cartilage. He also alleges, among many other things, that Bentonville police officers concealed relevant audio recordings, destroyed his phone to prevent him from obtaining information from it, and falsified water meter readings, and that Ms. Homan wrote a letter to prosecutors falsely claiming that Mr. Bates was stalking her and her children in a vehicle that Mr. Bates was subsequently able to prove he no longer owned during the time period of the alleged stalking.

         Mr. Bates's Complaint brings ten counts against these Defendants. Six counts are brought against the individual Bentonville Defendants and Dr. Kokes under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for various constitutional violations, including false arrest, fabrication of evidence, reckless investigation, conspiracy to deprive constitutional rights, failure to intervene, and supervisory liability. The Complaint also brings three counts under Arkansas law against all individual Defendants (including Ms. Homan), for malicious prosecution, civil conspiracy, and outrage. The tenth count, for indemnification, is brought only against the City of Bentonville, alleging that an Arkansas statute requires the City to pay all judgments and settlements entered against the individual Bentonville Defendants for the other nine claims.

         All of the Defendants have filed motions to dismiss the claims against them. For the most part, those motions are premised on either preclusionary or jurisdictional arguments in the vein that the ongoing Wrongful Death Lawsuit in Benton County Circuit Court is a bar either to Mr. Bates's claims in this case or to this Court's jurisdiction over them. Some of the Defendants also argue that the Complaint substantively fails to plead sufficient facts to support the claims brought against them under Arkansas law. All of these motions to dismiss are ripe for decision, as they have been fully briefed and the Court received oral argument on them at an April 9, 2019 case management hearing. The Court will discuss its rulings below, after reciting the legal standards governing motions to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) and (6).

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         To survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6), a complaint must provide "a short and plain statement of the claim that [the plaintiff] is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). The purpose of this requirement is to "give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). The Court must accept all of a complaint's factual allegations as true, and construe them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, drawing all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. See Ashley Cnty., Ark. v. Pfizer, Inc., 552 F.3d 659, 665 (8th Cir. 2009).

         However, 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 has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. "A pleading that offers 'labels and conclusions' or 'a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.' Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders 'naked assertion[s]' devoid of 'further factual enhancement.'" Id. In other words, while "the pleading standard that Rule 8 announces does not require 'detailed factual allegations, '... it demands more than an unadorned, the defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation." Id.

         As for Rule 12(b)(1) motions to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, they "may be resolved either on the face of the pleadings or upon factual determinations made in consideration of matters outside of the pleadings." Bhd. of Maint of Way Emps. Div. of Intern. Bhd. of Teamsters v. Union Pac. R.R. Co., 475 F.Supp.2d 819, 834-35 (N.D. Iowa 2007) (citing Titus v. Sullivan, 4 F.3d 590, 593 (8th Cir. 1993); Osborn v. United States, 918 F.2d 724, 729 & n.6 (8th Cir. 1990)). Here, the Court will consider the same universe of materials for Rule 12(b)(1) purposes as for Rule 12(b)(6) purposes, which includes "matters incorporated by reference or integral to the claim, items subject to judicial notice, matters of public record, orders, items appearing in the record of the case, and exhibits attached to the complaint whose authenticity is unquestioned." Miller v. Redwood Toxicology Lab., Inc., 688 F.3d 928, 931 (8th Cir. 2012) (quoting 5B Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1357 (3d ed. 2004)).

         III. DISCUSSION

         The Defendants' arguments in favor of dismissal can be grouped into four categories. The first category concerns whether Mr. Bates's claims are barred under the doctrine of res judicata. The second category concerns whether this Court should refrain from exercising jurisdiction over Mr. Bates's claims in order to avoid interfering with or undermining the Wrongful Death Lawsuit. The third category concerns the doctrine of qualified immunity as applied to the individual Bentonville Defendants. And the fourth category concerns whether Mr. Bates's Complaint alleges sufficient facts to state a claim, independently of any jurisdictional concerns. This Opinion discusses each of these categories, in the aforementioned sequence, [1] below.

         A. Res Judicata

         When the affirmative defense of res judicata is raised in a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court may dismiss a case on that basis if the doctrine's applicability "is apparent on the face of the complaint," including "public records and materials embraced by the complaint, and materials attached to the complaint." See C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc. v. Lobrano, 695 F.3d 758, 763-64 (8th Cir. 2012) (internal citations, quotation marks, and alterations omitted). "The law of the forum that rendered the first judgment controls the res judicata analysis." See Id. at 764 (quoting Laase v. Cnty. of Isanti, 638 F.3d 853, 856 (8th Cir. 2011)). Thus, this Court must apply the res judicata laws of Arkansas, which is the governing law in the Benton County Circuit Court, where the Wrongful Death Lawsuit is being adjudicated.

         Under Arkansas law, res judicata "consists of two facets, one being issue preclusion and the other claim preclusion." Baptist Health v. Murphy, 2010 Ark. 358, at *7. The first subsection below will take up the matter of claim preclusion. Then the next subsection will discuss issue preclusion.

         1. ...


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