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Helman v. Barnett's Bail Bonds, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

November 20, 2017



          Philip P. Simon United States Judge Northern District of Indiana

         This case concerns the actions of three bounty hunters that resulted in the death of Gary Helman, the subject of their hunt. Here's what happened according to the amended complaint, which I accept as true for present purposes. Helman was charged in Kosciusko County Superior Court with battery and resisting law enforcement, and his mom, Atta Belle Helman, paid a $2500 bail bond premium to Barnett's Bail Bonds, Inc. to arrange for a $25, 000 surety bond to secure Helman's release from custody. A Kosciusko County judge later issued a warrant for Helman's arrest, and Barnett's retained the services of Tadd Martin, Daniel Foster and Michael Thomas to assist in “recovering” him. They call themselves “bondsmen.” The more common term is bounty hunter.

         After the warrant for Helman was issued, Martin, Foster and Thomas began searching for Helman. They started working with a woman named Stacy Staley, a local journalist who had written a number of stories about Helman. It is alleged that the bounty hunters were in cahoots with Ms. Staley, using her to set up Helman to assist in his apprehension. According to the amended complaint, it was a symbiotic relationship. The bounty hunters would get their man, and Staley would get the story. On August 24, 2014, Staley went to the home of Helman's mom to interview Helman. He was present and she conducted the “interview” but it was actually a ruse. After the interview she left the home and alerted the awaiting bounty hunters that Helman was inside. The bounty hunters stormed the home, and a gunfight ensued. Both Helman and Martin were shot. Helman died on the scene; Thomas survived. Gary Helman's twin brother, Larry, was also shot, but he too survived.

         There was no law enforcement involved in the attempt to capture Helman. The bounty hunters were acting on their own and with the assistance of the journalist. In fact, according to the amended complaint, when the bounty hunters told local law enforcement of their intended plan, “law enforcement attempted to dissuade” them. See [DE 69 at 6, ¶ 27.] Law enforcement went so far as to warn the bounty hunters that their plan “would be dangerous” and instructed them to “stand down.” Id. They ignored the warning, proceeded anyway and the bloody shootout ensued.

         Gary Helman's surviving heirs, his mom, Atta Belle Helman, and Gary's twin brother, Larry Helman, are the plaintiffs in this matter. Under the first amended complaint, the Helmans bring this lawsuit against the three bounty hunters, as well as Barnett's Bail Bonds, its owners Michael and Myra Barnett, and the insurance company that acted as the surety for the $25, 000 bond on which Gary had been released. There are five causes of action remaining in the first amended complaint: the first four counts - delineated as Count I, II, III and V - are under 42 U.S.C. §1983 alleging constitutional violations. (Count IV, a claim of conspiracy to interfere with civil rights under 18 U.S.C. §1985(3), was voluntarily dismissed on May 19, 2017.) [DE 72.] . There is also one state law claim of breach of contract and violation of Indiana's Deceptive Business Practices Act (Count VI). Two of the three bounty hunters, Daniel Foster and Michael Thomas, have never pleaded in response to the complaint. The journalist, Stacy Staley, and her employer, were named as defendants in the original complaint but the Helmans have since voluntarily dismissed the claims against them. [DE 82, 83.]

         The defendants filed motions to dismiss the original complaint raising the issue of whether the Helmans adequately pleaded state action as is required in any §1983 case. [DE 27, 52.] Instead of responding to the motions to dismiss, the Helmans filed an amended complaint. In light of the amended complaint, I denied without prejudice the original motions to dismiss as moot. [DE 70.] The defendants have now renewed their motions to dismiss, this time attacking the amended complaint. But the issue remains the same: are the defendants state actors for purposes of §1983?

         Motion to Dismiss Standard

         To survive dismissal under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), a complaint must contain enough factual matter to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face. Bissessur v. Indiana Univ. Bd. of Trs., 581 F.3d 599, 602-03 (7th Cir. 2009). “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. at 603. Thus, “a plaintiff must do better than putting a few words on paper that, in the hands of an imaginative reader, might suggest that something has happened to her that might be redressed by the law.” Swanson v. Citibank, N.A., 614 F.3d 400, 403 (7th Cir. 2010) (emphasis in original). “A complaint must do more than leave open the possibility that the plaintiff might later plead some set of undisclosed facts that would warrant relief.” Bartley v. Wisc. Dept. of Corrections, 258 Fed.Appx. 1, 2 (7th Cir. 2007). See also Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 561 (2007).

         State Action Required for Claims under 42 U.S.C. §1983

         Barnett's Bail Bonds, Myra Barnett and Michael Barnett seek dismissal of all the federal claims on the ground that the Helmans have not alleged any facts demonstrating that the Barnetts were state actors who are subject to suit under §1983. Bounty hunter Tadd Martin's separate motion to dismiss makes the same argument. Section 1983 provides that: “Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any state...subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law.” In addition to governmental officers and employees, §1983 reaches private individuals who act “under color of” state law, that is, who “exercise government power.” Johnson v. LaRabida Children's Hospital, 372 F.3d 894, 896 (7th Cir. 2004). “When a plaintiff brings a section 1983 claim against a defendant who is not a government official or employee, the plaintiff must show that the private entity acted under the color of state law.” Rodriquez v. Plymouth Ambulance Service, 577 F.3d 816, 822 (7th Cir. 2009). The determination whether a private party acted under color of state law “is an important statutory element because it sets the line of demarcation between those matters that are properly federal and those matters that must be left to the remedies of state tort law.” Rodriquez, 577 F.3d at 823.

         In opposition to the state actor argument, the Helmans rely on cases addressing the scope of a bondsman's authority under the common law, arguing that “[t]he bail bondsmen at issue abused their legal authority by entering the home of a third party, and by abusing their legal authority have subjected themselves to liability.” [DE 86 at 3.] All the movants reply that the house, even if owned by Atta, was in fact Gary's home, as reflected in the arrest warrant issued by the Kosciusko Superior Court. [DE 89-1 at 1.] More importantly, however, the Helmans' argument overlooks entirely the state actor predicate to liability under §1983. The federal case on which the Helmans rely for this argument, McCaleb v. Peerless Ins. Co., 250 F.Supp. 512 (D.Neb. 1965), does not address whether the bounty hunter defendant is a state actor, but instead focuses (as the Helmans do) on the wrongfulness of his conduct. I must first address the threshold issue of state action.

         This is a murky area of the law and several tests have been identified by the Supreme Court to determine whether a private individual or entity has acted under color of law, including the “state command and encouragement” test, the “joint participation” doctrine, and the “public function” test. Listecki v. Official Committee of Unsecured Creditors, 780 F.3d 731, 738 (7th Cir. 2015); Rodriguez v. Plymouth Ambulance Service, 577 F.3d 816, 823-24 (7th Cir. 2009). The Seventh Circuit has listed “numerous situations when private conduct takes on the color of law, ” but ultimately concludes that every state actor analysis is fact-specific and case-specific: “[o]ver time, Supreme Court and Seventh Circuit precedent have revealed that these cases do not so much enunciate a test or series of factors, but rather demonstrate examples of outcomes in a fact-based assessment.” Hallinan v. Fraternal Order of Police of Chicago Lodge No. 7, 570 F.3d 811, 816 (7th Cir. 2009). “At its most basic level, the state action doctrine requires that a court find such a ‘close nexus between the State and the challenged action' that the challenged action ‘may be fairly treated as that of the State itself.'” Rodriguez, 577 F.3d at 823, quoting Jackson v. Metro. Edison Co., 419 U.S. 345, 351 (1974).

         To understand the specific context of this case, some background on the practice of bail bonding is helpful. The commercial bail bond system and the bounty hunters it employs appears to be a uniquely American institution. Indeed, paying for someone else's bail is actually criminalized in most western nations. See Adam Liptak, Illegal Globally, Bail for Profit Remains in U.S., New York Times, January 8, 2008. The industry got its legitimacy 150 years ago when the Supreme Court said the following:

When the bail is given, the principal is regarded as delivered to the custody of his sureties. Their domain is a continuance of the original imprisonment. Whenever they choose to do so, they may seize him and deliver him up to his discharge; and if it cannot be done at once, they may imprison him until it can be done. They may exercise their rights in person or by agent. They may pursue him into another state; may arrest him on the Sabbath; and if necessary, may break and enter his house for that purpose. The ...

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