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Hall v. County of Ontario

United States District Court, W.D. New York

March 30, 2015

TONYA M. HALL, Plaintiff,
v.
COUNTY OF ONTARIO, BRIAN D. DENNIS in his official and individual capacities, and TERENCE CORDON in his official and individual capacities, Defendants.

DECISION AND ORDER

FRANK P. GERACI, Jr., Chief District Judge.

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Tonya Hall brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Defendants County of Ontario, Assistant Ontario County District Attorney Brian D. Dennis, and Ontario County Deputy Sheriff Terence Cordon maliciously prosecuted her, and in doing so, violated her rights under the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as under the New York State Constitution. ECF No. 13. Defendants have moved to dismiss the Amended Complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), arguing that Plaintiff's allegations fail to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. ECF No. 15. For the following reasons, Defendants' Motion to Dismiss is granted in part, and denied in part.

BACKGROUND[1]

Plaintiff's claims stem from the Defendants' criminal investigation and prosecution of her, which was based on a public assistance application she submitted in May 2010. ECF No. 13. That application did not list Craig Foster, who is the father of the Plaintiff's three children, as a member of her household. Id. at 3. Foster was also the owner of 3939 Charing Cross in Canandaigua when the Plaintiff listed that address as her residence on the application in question. Id. at 1-2. Plaintiff alleges that she completed the application and submitted it to Ontario County Social Services in an effort to "apply for a referral from the Oneida Nation Health Center" in order to obtain health coverage for herself and her three children. Id. at 3. Plaintiff is a registered member of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, and her tribal membership could make her and her children eligible for certain programs funded by the Indian Health Service ("IHS"). Id. at 9-10.

In April 2011, Ontario County received a fraud referral claiming that the Plaintiff was receiving public benefits while living with Mr. Foster in an affluent Canandaigua neighborhood. Id. at 11. From this tip, the Ontario County Department of Social Services initiated an investigation into possible welfare fraud by the Plaintiff. Id. at 2-4. The purpose of the investigation was to determine whether Craig Foster lived in the home at 3939 Charing Cross between May 2010 and January 2011. Id. at 12. Ontario County Deputy Sheriff Terence Cordon ("Deputy Cordon") headed the investigation. Id. at 3. Deputy Cordon works part-time for Ontario County to investigate welfare fraud claims. Id. at 15. After conducting an investigation that spanned more than five months, involved multiple witnesses, and involved several visits to 3939 Charing Cross, Deputy Cordon arrested the Plaintiff on October 30, 2011. Id. at 16. The Ontario County District Attorney's Office filed a felony complaint against the Plaintiff on the next day, which charged her with two felony counts of offering a false instrument for filing and one felony count of welfare fraud. Id.

Assistant Ontario County District Attorney Brian D. Dennis ("ADA Dennis") prosecuted the case against the Plaintiff. Id. at 5. On March 22, 2012, an Ontario County Grand Jury indicted the Plaintiff on felony counts of offering a false instrument for filing and welfare fraud. ECF No. 15 at 5.[2]

ADA Dennis brought the case against the Plaintiff to trial, and an Ontario County jury ultimately acquitted her of all charges on February 8, 2013. ECF No. 13 at 22. After her acquittal, the Plaintiff commenced this action (and later amended her Complaint) against ADA Dennis, Deputy Cordon, and the County of Ontario, which the Defendants now seek to dismiss. ECF Nos. 1, 13, 15.

DISCUSSION

I. Generally Applicable Legal Standards

To succeed on a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a defendant must show that the facts alleged in the complaint, when taken as true, fail to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 554, 555-56 (2007). While "not akin to a probability requirement, " plausibility requires "more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). A plausible complaint is one in which the plaintiff pleads sufficient facts that allow the Court to draw reasonable inferences that the defendant is liable for the alleged misconduct. Id. A complaint need not have detailed factual allegations in order to survive a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, but a pleading that consists of "labels and conclusions" or "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders "naked assertion[s]" devoid of "further factual enhancement." Id. at 557. In considering the plausibility of a claim, the Court must accept factual allegations as true and draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. Faber v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 648 F.3d 98, 104 (2d Cir. 2011). At the same time, the Court is not required to accord "[l]egal conclusions, deductions, or opinions couched as factual allegations... a presumption of truthfulness." In re NYSE Specialists Sec. Litig., 503 F.3d 89, 95 (2d Cir. 2007). "Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, " are insufficient to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

The statute at issue in this case, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, is not itself a source of any substantive rights, but rather is a vehicle by which citizens may seek to vindicate rights conferred elsewhere. Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 271 (1994). "[T]o state a civil rights claim under § 1983, a complaint must contain specific allegations of fact which indicate a deprivation of constitutional rights." Alfaro Motors, Inc. v. Ward, 814 F.2d 883, 887 (2d Cir. 1987). Allegations that amount to "nothing more than broad, simple, and conclusory statements are insufficient to state a claim under § 1983." Id.

Regarding the cause of action for malicious prosecution, a Plaintiff must prove "(1) the initiation or continuation of a criminal proceeding against the plaintiff; (2) termination of the proceeding in plaintiff's favor; (3) lack of probable cause for the proceeding; and (4) actual malice as a motivation." Drummond v. Castro, 522 F.Supp.2d 667, 677 (S.D.N.Y. 2007) (citing Russell v. Smith, 68 F.3d 33, 36 (2d Cir. 1995)). At the same time, probable cause is a complete defense to malicious prosecution claims. Manganiello v. City of New York, 612 F.3d 149, 161-62 (2d Cir. 2010) (citing Savino v. City of New York, 331 F.3d 63, 72 (2d Cir. 2003)).

Although municipalities may be sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a local government such as the County of Ontario may not be held liable under § 1983 unless the challenged action was performed pursuant to a municipal policy or custom. Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978). Municipalities are not subject to § 1983 liability on the basis of a respondeat superior theory. Collins v. City of Harker Heights, 503 U.S. 115, 121 (1992); Monell, 436 U.S. at 694. To hold a municipality liable in a § 1983 action, a plaintiff is required to plead and prove three elements: (1) an official custom or policy that (2) causes ...


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