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Estate Manolios v. Macomb County

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

June 13, 2018

ESTATE OF JONATHAN MANOLIOS, GEORGE MANOLIOS, and SUSAN MANOLIOS, Plaintiffs,
v.
MACOMB COUNTY, ANTHONY WICKERSHAM, DAVID KENNEDY, JASON ABRO, RENEE YAX, and DAVID CRABRTREE, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

         Honorable Linda V. Parker

         Introduction

         This matter is before the Court on motions for judgment on the pleadings filed by Defendants, except Macomb County, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c). (ECF Nos. 13, 15, 21, 24, 25.) Plaintiffs filed responses to the motions. (ECF Nos. 17, 19, 22, 28, 29.) No. reply briefs were filed. On April 25, 2018, the Court held a hearing with respect to the pending motions. Thereafter, Plaintiffs filed a supplemental brief regarding the issue of whether a defamation claim survives the death of a minor, to which Defendants filed a response brief. (ECF Nos. 32, 33.)

         Background[1]

         This lawsuit arises from Defendants' investigation of a May 8, 2015 accident involving a 2008 Jaguar, in which three of the five occupants died. The occupants were all teenaged boys. The accident occurred in Stoney Creek Metro Park, where the driver lost control of the vehicle, causing the vehicle to leave the roadway, flip, and land in a river. Four of the five occupants were ejected from the vehicle, including Jonathan Manolios. Three of the ejected occupants (Jonathan Manolios, Emmanual Malaj, and Michael Wells) were killed. One of the boys, Gregory Bobchick, who was wearing a seat belt, was found alive inside the vehicle. The two surviving boys, Bobchick and Joseph Narra, were transported to the hospital.

         All of the boys had consumed alcohol before the accident, with blood alcohol levels recorded after the accident ranging from .024 and .086. Jonathan Manolios had the lowest blood alcohol. However, because his name was incorrectly placed on the vial of blood that tested at .086, his level was inaccurately reported initially. Plaintiffs only obtained the documentation reflecting the correct blood alcohol level for Manolios in late May 2017. (Compl. ¶ 45, ECF No. 1 at Pg ID 17.) Marijuana also was detected in Bobchick's system and a small amount of benzodiazepine was found in Narra's system.

         Plaintiffs are the estate and parents of Jonathan Manolios, one of the ejected occupants who was killed. Defendants are Macomb County, Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham, and Macomb County police officers Jason Abro, David Kennedy, Renee Yax, and David Crabtree.

         The Macomb County Sheriff's Department concluded from their investigation that Manolios was driving the Jaguar when it crashed. Sheriff Wickersham identified Manolios as the driver during a press conference concerning the accident. He also reported the incorrect blood alcohol level for Manolios during this press conference. Plaintiffs allege that, as a result of this misinformation, they were denied the benefits of a Prudential Life Insurance policy which excludes from coverage death caused by the driving of a motor vehicle while under the influence of liquor. (Id. ¶ 46, Pg ID 18.)

         Coverage under the Prudential Life Insurance policy was the subject matter of another federal lawsuit: Brosnan v. The Prudential Life Insurance Co. of Am., Civil No. 17-10364 (E.D. Mich. filed Feb. 3, 2017) (“the insurance dispute”). In their Complaint in the present matter, Plaintiffs indicate that the insurance dispute was dismissed without prejudice to allow Plaintiffs the opportunity to present additional evidence to Prudential to prove that Jonathan Manolios was not the driver of the vehicle. (Compl. at 18 n.6, ECF No. 1 at Pg ID 18.) At the motion hearing, Plaintiffs' counsel informed the Court that Prudential ultimately concluded that Jonathan was not the driver of the Jaguar when it crashed and provided coverage under the life insurance policy.

         Plaintiffs contend that Joseph Narra was driving the Jaguar when the accident occurred. They assert that Defendants conspired to conceal this fact because Defendant Abro is, “upon information and belief”, a family friend of the Narra family. Plaintiffs allege that Defendants ignored evidence indicating that Narra was the driver, tampered with evidence that would have helped identify the driver, and refused to investigate the accident or turn the matter over to the Michigan State Police to correctly identify the driver.

         After the accident, Jonathan Manolios' parents asked Defendants where their son's body was found in relation to the crash scene. According to Plaintiffs, they sought this information because their religious beliefs required them to memorialize the location. Plaintiffs allege that Defendant Kennedy initially refused to provide this information, but then inaccurately identified the location (identifying instead where Emmanual Malaj's body was recovered).[2]

         Plaintiffs do not allege any further actions by Kennedy, specifically, in their Complaint. They do allege, however, that he and Sheriff Wickersham “were at all relevant times supervisory personnel with (or acting for) oversight responsibility for, and personal involvement in, the training, hiring, screening, instruction, supervision, and discipline of individual law enforcement Defendants.” (Compl ¶ 78, ECF No. 1 at Pg ID 26.) The only specific conduct Plaintiffs allege Wickersham engaged in is the press conference concerning the accident where Jonathan Manolios was identified as the driver and his blood alcohol level was incorrectly stated. (Id. at Pg ID 4-5.)

         Aside from identifying him as a Macomb County police officer (see Id. ¶ 4, Pg ID 8), Plaintiffs refer specifically to Defendant Abro only four times in their Complaint. First, they allege that because of his purported relationship with the Narra family, “Abro inserted himself in this matter (even though the crash was not in his bailiwick) so as to ensure that the actual driver of the automobile (Joseph Narra) … was not prosecuted for the serious crimes that were committed that evening.” (Id. ¶ 2, Pg ID 3.) Similarly, they allege that Abro appeared at the hospital the night of the accident even though he was not on duty. (Id. ¶ 29, Pg ID 12.) According to Plaintiffs, that evening, Abro had Joseph Narra's mother sign a Consent to Search form to allow the hospital to release Narra's toxicology results to the sheriff's office, even though Narra had turned 18 years of age the day before the release was signed. (Id. ¶ 2, Pg ID 3; see also Pg ID 4 at n.1) Finally, Plaintiffs allege that Defendant Abro ordered the roof of the Jaguar cut-off, “[w]ith no legitimate purpose other than to destroy the deployed air bags so that DNA testing could not be performed ….” (Id. ¶ 33, Pg ID 14.)

         With respect to Defendant Yax, aside from identifying his employment with the Macomb County Sheriff's Department (id. ¶ 7, Pg ID 9), Plaintiffs specifically allege only that he and Defendant Crabtree failed to question two individuals who last saw the occupants of the vehicle before the crash and that Yax withheld the witnesses' statements from the official case file and only turned them over in October 2016 pursuant to a show cause order. (Id. ¶ 35, Pg ID 15.) According to Plaintiffs, one of these witnesses described the driver as having a dark complexion and dark hair and of Chaldean ancestry (like Narra). (Id.) Plaintiffs further allege that the other witness described seeing “a very happy young man in the back seat wearing a white shirt (Manolios was the only occupant with a white shirt).” (Id.) The allegation concerning the failure to personally interview the two witnesses is the only specific allegation Plaintiffs assert as to Crabtree, aside from referencing his employment as a county police officer. (Id. ¶¶8, 35.)

         Plaintiffs list fifteen counts in their Complaint alleging violations of their constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C § 1983 and state law. Generally, Plaintiffs state:

It is alleged that Defendants framed the Plaintiff's [sic] decedent for causing this tragic motor vehicle accident on May 8, 2015. Although declared to be so, the decedent was not the driver of the vehicle. Defendants acted with gross negligent conduct toward Plaintiff [sic], and/or violated their rights under United States law, Michigan statutory law and common law. It is further alleged that these Defendants, while acting under color of law and in the scope of their employment as police officers, deprived Plaintiff [sic] of the right to be free from malicious prosecution, deprived Plaintiff [sic] of their right to due process, deprived Plaintiff [sic] of their right to trial, deprived Plaintiff [sic] of their right to free speech and religious practices as well as depriving Plaintiff [sic] of their access to Court; all of which thereby violates their Constitutional rights.

         (Compl. ¶ 2, ECF No. 1 at Pg ID 7.) Plaintiffs label the counts of their Complaint as follows:

(I) Violations of procedural and substantive due process under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against all individual defendants;
(II) Violation of equal protection of laws of the Fourteenth Amendment;
(III)[3] Failure to intervene under 42 U.S.C. § 1983;
(IV) Claim for supervisory liability against named supervisors under 42 U.S.C. § 1983;
(V) Conspiracy to deprive plaintiffs of constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983;
(VI) Claims against Macomb County for unconstitutional policies/ customs/practices, and/or failure to act/train under 42 U.S.C. § 1983;
(VII) Violation of Plaintiffs' access to court under the First, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendment[s];
(VIII) False light--invasion of privacy violation of constitutional right of privacy;
(IX) Violation of Plaintiffs' First Amendment right to practice their religion;
(X) Defamation/Defamation per se;
(XI) Neglect of Duty-Defendant Wickersham;
(XII) Intentional, reckless, or negligent infliction of emotional distress against all individual defendants;
(XIII) Civil conspiracy under Michigan common law;
(XIV) Abuse of process under Michigan common law; and
(XV) Negligence/gross negligence/recklessness against all individual defendants.
(ECF No. 1, capitalization removed.)

         Defendants' Motions to Dismiss & Plaintiffs' Responses

         In each of their Rule 12(c) motions, Defendants raise many of the same arguments. First, Defendants point out that the allegations in Plaintiffs' Complaint concerning each individual defendant's involvement in any conduct is limited and that Plaintiffs instead refer improperly to “Defendants” generically to set forth the basis for their claims. Second, Defendants assert that qualified immunity shields them from liability for the claims asserted against them. Third, to the extent they are sued in their official capacities, Defendants argue that they are the alter-ego of Defendant Macomb County and thus the claims are duplicitous. Finally, to the extent Plaintiffs' Complaint pleads any particularized factual basis to assert a claim against them, Defendants argue that those claims fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.

         In response, Plaintiffs first argue that Defendants' motions are untimely because they were filed after Defendants filed Answers to the Complaint. Plaintiffs next argue-presumably to excuse their failure to allege each individual's actions causing the alleged constitutional violations-that each of the defendants was part of a conspiracy to deprive Plaintiffs of their constitutionally protected rights. Plaintiffs argue that the Court must look at the Complaint in its totality and that the individual defendants would have “specific involvement or culpability in this actions” for the averments relating generally to “Defendants”. (See, e.g., ECF No. 17 at Pg ID 200.) Plaintiffs contend that their official capacity claims remain viable against the individual defendants as supervisors or official policymakers. Lastly, Plaintiffs assert arguments for why the claims attacked by Defendants have merit.

         Standard of Review

         A Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings is subject to the same standards of review as a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Grindstaff v. Green, 133 F.3d 416, 421 (6th Cir. 1998). A motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint. RMI Titanium Co. v. Westinghouse Elec. Corp., 78 F.3d 1125, 1134 (6th Cir. 1996).

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), a pleading must contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint need not contain “detailed factual allegations, ” but it must contain more than “labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action . . .” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1964-65 (2007). A complaint does not “suffice if it tenders ‘naked assertions' devoid of ...


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