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Hollingsworth v. Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency

United States District Court, W.D. Tennessee, Eastern Division

October 21, 2019




         Before the Court is Defendants Kevin Hoofman, Kyle Lock, [1] and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service's Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 34) filed August 2, 2019. Plaintiff Hunter Hollingsworth has responded in opposition, and Defendants have filed a reply. The Motion to Dismiss is now ripe for determination. For the reasons set forth below, the Motion is GRANTED.


         On November 20, 2018, Plaintiff Hunter Hollingsworth filed a Complaint for the violation of his constitutional rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 as well as violations of the Tennessee Constitution and Tennessee statutory and common law. According to the Complaint, Plaintiff owns hunting and fishing property in Benton County, Tennessee. (Compl. ¶ 7.) In January 2018, Plaintiff discovered a camera mounted to a tree on his property and installed in such a way so as to monitor Plaintiff's coming and going at the property. (Id. ¶ 12.) The camera had no markings, so Plaintiff removed it and stored it for safe keeping. (Id. ¶ 13.) An S.D. storage card in the camera contained photographs of two men whom Plaintiff believes to be Defendants Kevin Hoofman and Kyle Lock. (Id. ¶ 14.) The Complaint alleges that Hoofman is an agent of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and that Lock is an agent of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. (Id. ¶¶ 4, 6, 8.)[2] Plaintiff's property is posted and accessible only by crossing the property of two other landowners, and the tree where Defendants installed the camera is on the interior of Plaintiff's property. (Id. ¶¶ 9, 10.) The Complaint alleges that Defendants entered the property and installed the camera in violation of Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution as well as his rights under the Tennessee Constitution. (Id. ¶ 16.) Plaintiff would also hold Hoofman and Lock liable for criminal and common law trespass under Tennessee law. (Id. ¶ 17.)

         In their Motion to Dismiss, Defendants now argue that the Complaint fails to state a claim for relief and, in the alternative, that Hoofman and Lock are entitled to qualified immunity. Defendants first argue that under the “open field” doctrine, the act of placing a camera on Plaintiff's property did not actually infringe on Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment rights. The United States Supreme Court has held that an owner has no expectation of privacy in open fields, whether actual open field or a thickly wooded area, even where the property is posted and the state actor's entry upon the property constitutes a trespass. Plaintiff's hunting and fishing property falls within the ambit of the open field doctrine. As such, Defendants contend that Plaintiff has failed to allege a plausible violation of the Fourth Amendment.

         Additionally, Defendants argue that even if the Complaint has alleged such a violation, the specific contours of the right were not clearly established. Should the Court conclude that the open field doctrine does not apply to the placement of a camera on Plaintiff's property, then the Court should go on to conclude that this right or exception was not clearly established in 2017 at the time when the camera was allegedly installed. Under the circumstances, Defendants argue that they are entitled to qualified immunity. In their final argument for dismissal, Defendants contend that as a federal agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency enjoys sovereign immunity from suit. For all of these reasons, the Court should dismiss the Complaint against Defendants.

         Plaintiff has filed a response in opposition. Plaintiff begins by conceding his claims against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency based on the doctrine of sovereign immunity. As for his remaining claims against Hoofman and Lock, Plaintiff argues, apparently as a factual matter, that the tree where Defendants placed the camera does not meet the definition of an open field. Plaintiff emphasizes that Defendants had to traverse two other gated, fenced properties to reach the interior of Plaintiff's property where the tree stands. Plaintiff further argues that the Fourth Amendment is not only concerned with privacy in property but privacy in one's person, analogizing the placement of a surveillance camera on private property to placing a listening device in a public telephone booth or a tracking device underneath an automobile. And according to Plaintiff, Article I, section 7 of the Tennessee Constitution affords even greater privacy protection than the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Plaintiff argues that the Court should hold then that the use of the camera was an unreasonable search in violation of Plaintiff's constitutional rights. As for qualified immunity, Plaintiff maintains that the law against unreasonable searches and seizures was well established at the time of the search in light of the Supreme Court's decisions in Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967) and Jones v. United States, 565 U.S. 400 (2012).

         In their reply, Defendants maintain that the open field doctrine applies in this case. Defendants answer Plaintiff's argument concerning Katz and the reasonable expectation of privacy and show that even Judge Harlan in his concurrence in Katz recognized the distinction between a home and an open field. Defendants also argue that Jones and the installation of a GPS tracking device on a vehicle as an investigatory technique is distinguishable. The Supreme Court in Jones found that a vehicle is a personal “effect” and falls squarely within the zone of privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment. Jones specifically contrasted a home with an open field and explained that an open field is not one of the protected areas listed in the Constitution. In other words, nothing in these cases shows that the open field doctrine would not apply in this circumstance. Furthermore, Defendants continue to argue that they are entitled to qualified immunity. Plaintiff has cited no authority for his claim that the use of the camera amounts to a search of his person by electronic means or that such a right was clearly established at the time of the placement of the camera. Therefore, Defendants are entitled to the dismissal of Plaintiff's claims.


         A defendant may move to dismiss a complaint “for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted” under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). In order to avoid dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6), a plaintiff must include in its pleading “either direct or inferential allegations respecting all material elements necessary for recovery under a viable legal theory.” Luis v. Zang, 833 F.3d 619, 625-26 (6th Cir. 2016) (quoting Kreipke v. Wayne St. Univ., 807 F.3d 768, 774 (6th Cir. 2015)). When assessing the sufficiency of a complaint, the Court must view its factual allegations in a light most favorable to the plaintiff. Taylor v. City of Saginaw, 922 F.3d 328, 331 (6th Cir. 2019) (citing Keys v. Humana, Inc., 684 F.3d 605, 608 (6th Cir. 2012)). While the Court must accept all of the well-pleaded factual allegations of the pleading as true, the Court need not accept legal conclusions masquerading as fact claims. Wood v. Moss, 572 U.S. 744, 757 n.5 (2014) (citing Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)).

         Under Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a complaint need only contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). Although this standard does not require “detailed factual allegations, ” it does require more than “labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 681; Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). In the final analysis, the plaintiff must allege facts that, if accepted as true, are sufficient “to raise a right to relief above the speculative level” and to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 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.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         “The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials from liability for civil damages ‘unless a plaintiff pleads facts showing (1) that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that the right was “clearly established” at the time of the challenged conduct.'” Wood, 572 U.S. at 757 (quoting Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 735 (2011)). Qualified immunity shields government officials not just from liability but also the need to stand trial and shoulder “the other burdens of litigation.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 672 (citing Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526 (1985)). “The basic thrust of the qualified-immunity doctrine is to free officials from the concerns of litigation, ” particularly “disruptive discovery.” Id. at 685 (citing Siegert v. Gilley, 500 U.S. 226, 236 (1991)). So courts should resolve the defense “as early as possible, ” Crawford-El v. Britton, 523 U.S. 574, 600 (1998), even at the pleadings stage. Johnson v. Fankell, 520 U.S. 911, 915 (1997) (citing Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)).


         The primary issue presented in Defendants' Rule 12(b)(6) Motion is whether the Complaint states a plausible claim for the violation of Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment rights. Before it reaches that issue, the Court notes that in his response to the Motion to Dismiss, Plaintiff has conceded his claims against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency. The Sixth Circuit has remarked that “the plaintiff remains the master of its complaint” and that, if the plaintiff “concedes that it is not bringing a claim, ” then the district court “should take it at its word.” NicSand, Inc. v. 3M Co., 507 F.3d 442, 458 (6th Cir. 2007). In light of Plaintiff's concession about his claims against the federal agency, the Court will dismiss the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency as a party. Therefore, the Motion to Dismiss is GRANTED as to this Defendant.

         I. Fourth Amendment Claims Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983/Bivens Turning now to the merits of Plaintiff's federal constitutional claims, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 creates a “species of tort liability” for the violation of rights guaranteed in the Constitution itself. Manuel v. City of Joliet, Ill., 137 S.Ct. 911, 916 (2017) (quoting Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 417 (1976)). Section 1983 imposes liability on a “person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom or usage, of any State” subjects another to “the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution or laws.” 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In Bivens v. Six Unknown Federal Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1974), the Supreme Court recognized a right of action similar to § 1983 against federal employees who violate an individual's constitutional rights. “Under the Bivens line of cases, the Supreme Court has recognized a cause of action against federal ...

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