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Bennett v. Antinnucci

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana

November 20, 2018

JACKIE S. BENNETT, Plaintiff,
v.
DENISE ANTINNUCCI, CHERYL FREIUMTH, JAMES CRANE, and the UNITED STATES, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          THERESA L. SPRINGMANN CHIEF JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on the Defendants' Motion to Dismiss [ECF No. 45] which is directed at all nine counts of the Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint. For the reasons set forth in this Opinion and Order, the Motion is granted in part and denied in part.

         COMPLAINT ALLEGATIONS

         Plaintiff Jackie Bennett, through a Second Amended Complaint, pursues claims against three federal employees and the United States of America. Defendants Denise Antinucci and Cheryl Freimuth are employees of the United States Postal Service. Defendant James Crane is a special agent of the United States Postal Service-Office of Inspector General. These Defendants are sued in their individual capacities for the damages the Plaintiff seeks to recover for violations of her constitutional rights as set forth in Counts I and II. These are Bivens claims, so named for the Supreme Court's decision in Bivens v. Six Unknown Federal Narcotics Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971). In Counts III, IV, V, VI, and VII, the Plaintiff relies on the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) to seek relief for violations of Indiana state law. The United States is recognized as the proper Defendant for the state law claims pursuant to the doctrine of respondeat superior. In the final count (written as Count III, but holding the place of Count IX in the Second Amended Complaint), the Plaintiff cites 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and names Crane and the United States as Defendants.

         According to the Second Amended Complaint, the Plaintiff worked as a Sales and Service/Distribution Agent at the United States Post Office in Monroeville, Indiana. She resigned her post on January 24, 2014. About a month later, the Plaintiff received a Letter from Antinnucci in her capacity as local Postmaster.[1] The “Letter of Demand for Indebtedness for Employee Financial Accountability” stated that it was notice of the “US Postal Service's intention to collect from you the sum of $848.97. This debt is based on a shortage in your office accountability.” (2/24/14 Letter, ECF No. 46-1.)[2] The Letter cited the “National Agreement” as the basis for holding employees “financially liable for the proper care and handling of U.S. Postal Service funds.” (Id.) It also noted that it was the Plaintiff's right under the National Agreement to file a grievance within fourteen days.

         “[The Plaintiff] did not agree that any funds were owed by her, and did not admit to taking any funds from the Post Office. However, she felt intimidated and under extreme pressure, and did not want to be pursued or harassed by the U.S. Postal Service, so on or about March 3, 2014, she paid the amount as demanded.” (Second Am. Compl. ¶ 21.) The Plaintiff believed that the Letter implied that criminal charges would be brought against her if she did not make the payment.

         On March 14, 2014, Special Agent Crane contacted the Plaintiff and confronted her about the missing money. The Plaintiff denied taking any money, and told Crane that she had paid the amount demanded to avoid problems. Crane indicated that he was not aware payment had been made. The Plaintiff and Crane had no further contact, and the Plaintiff believed the matter was resolved. (Id. ¶ 23-24.)

         Nine months later, on December 15, 2014, the Plaintiff was charged in the Allen Superior Court with Theft and Official Misconduct, both Class D felonies under Indiana statute. The Affidavit for Probable Cause, completed by Crane on December 4, 2014, asserted his belief that sometime during the period of time between May 4, 2013, and January 24, 2014, the Plaintiff committed the crimes. Crane wrote that he based “his belief on the fact that he has personal knowledge of the following information or has learned of it from another law enforcement officer and he also reviewed relevant business records and interviewed witnesses with personal knowledge of the events or information detailed” in the Affidavit. (Aff. for Probable Cause, ECF No. 41-1 at 14.) According to Crane's Affidavit, on January 29, 2014, the Postal Service Office of Inspector General received information from Antinnucci regarding financial discrepancies related to the Plaintiff, who had started her employment with the Postal Service on May 4, 2013, in the retail unit of the Hoagland Post Office where she conducted sales transactions. On January 24, 2014, the Plaintiff resigned from her position without prior notice and left the building before closing her cash drawer for the day. An initial audit of the Plaintiff's cash drawer disclosed a shortage of nearly $1, 000, which later investigation determined was $848.97. The Affidavit stated that a Letter of Indebtedness had been issued to the Plaintiff, and that Crane contacted the Plaintiff on March 14, 2014, by telephone to schedule an interview related to his investigation of the financial discrepancies. He noted that the Plaintiff admitted paying back the shortage and agreed to schedule an interview in the future after reviewing her current work schedule. According to the Affidavit, the Plaintiff did not contact Crane to schedule the interview, and follow-up attempts to contact her in April and July 2014 were unsuccessful. On November 12, 2014, Crane received confirmation through the U.S. Postal Service Accounting Service Center that, on March 12, 2014, the Plaintiff had paid the funds demanded in the Letter of Indebtedness.

         After a hearing, a state court judge found probable cause to issue the arrest warrant. The Plaintiff was arrested on Thursday, December 18, 2014. On December 24, she was released on $5, 000 bond. The next day, her employer, a local nursing home, called to inform the Plaintiff that her employment had been terminated, which the Plaintiff believed was a result of her arrest.

         On December 19, 2014, the day after the Plaintiff's arrest, Krista Carr, the Postmaster from Liberty, Indiana, conducted a thorough audit of the Monroeville Post Office. The result of Carr's audit prompted Crane to send an email to the deputy prosecuting attorney to advise that he had recently learned “through a very reliable financial source” that the shortage was the result of a records/book keeping error on the Plaintiff's part. (Crane's email, ECF NO 41-1 at 20.) Crane's email included the pertinent memorandum from Carr as an attachment.

         Carr's memorandum, which is not dated, clarified two separate “counts” that had been conducted at the Monroeville branch. The first was performed on January 29, 2014, when the Plaintiff resigned, and the second was conducted on June 28, 2014, in response to a different employee's resignation. It noted that the overage recorded on June 28, when considered against the actual overage of the two clerks on that date, was “the exact same amount of the actual shortage that Jackie Bennett had on January 29, 2014, prior to the [improper] manipulation of other individual credits added to the shortage[, ] then another individual credit overage subtracted from the total amount.” (ECF No. 41-1 at 21 (noting additionally that “you cannot give an overage amount to a shortage from another credit unless you can find a direct correlation between the two”).) Carr wrote,

My findings indicate there was never a shortage to begin with. The documentation for this financial mess is exactly that-a mess! This office is in terrible shape-not only on the financial side but also in every instance.
I spoke to Special Agent, James Crane with the office of Inspector General in regards to this case. According to Agent Crane, Jackie Bennett has paid the full amount of $848.97. The Office of Inspector General had also started the prosecution of Jackie Bennett for theft charges.
Jackie Bennett needs to be reimbursed for the full amount that she has paid back-$848.97 along with an apology.
In my opinion, the office should never have been transferred to Jackie when it was clearly in such deplorable conditions. She had only been with the Postal Service for approximately 5 months and put in an office that would take someone with years of experience and many extra hours to clean up.

(Id. at 22.)

         On January 8, 2015, the deputy prosecuting attorney filed a Motion to Dismiss the charges against the Plaintiff on grounds that the Office of Inspector General believed, based on newly discovered evidence, that the suspected shortage of funds was the result of an accounting error, and not theft. The motion was granted that same day.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         “A motion to dismiss pursuant to [Rule] 12(b)(6) challenges the viability of a complaint by arguing that it fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.” Camasta v. Jos. A. Bank Clothiers, Inc., 761 F.3d 732, 736 (7th Cir. 2014). When reviewing a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Court must accept all of the factual allegations as true and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” in order to “give the defendant fair notice of what the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (citation omitted). And while a complaint need not contain detailed facts, surviving a Rule 12(b)(6) motion “requires more than labels and conclusions . . . . Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Id. “A claim has facial plausibility when the pleaded factual content allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). Because the purpose of a motion to dismiss “is to test the factual sufficiency of the statement of the claim for relief; the motion is not a procedure for resolving a contest between the parties about the facts or the substantive merits of the plaintiff's case.” 5B Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1356 (3d ed.).

         ANALYSIS

         A. Constitutional Claims under Bivens - Counts I and II

         The Plaintiff, in Counts I and II of the operative Complaint, alleges that each of the individual Defendants violated certain constitutional guarantees, and are personally liable to her for damages pursuant to the Supreme Court's holding in Bivens. In Count I, she contends that their conduct was “an abuse of executive power so clearly unjustified by any legitimate objective of law enforcement as to be a violation of Substantive Due Process.” (Second. Am. Compl. ¶ 52.) Count II is based on the Fourth Amendment's protections against unreasonable search and seizure. The Plaintiff alleges that Antinnucci and Freimuth provided false information that resulted in criminal charges, and that Crane submitted an application for a warrant attesting that he had personal knowledge and had reviewed relevant business records to support the application, even though the records revealed that there was no probable cause for her arrest.

         In Bivens, the United States Supreme Court “recognized for the first time an implied private action for damages against federal officers alleged to have violated a citizen's constitutional rights.” Corr. Servs. Corp. v. Malesko, 534 U.S. 61, 66 (2001). It is the “federal analog to suits brought against state officials under . . . 42 U.S.C. § 1983.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 675-76 (quoting Hartman v. Moore, 547 U.S. 250, 254 n.2 (2006)). Accordingly, as with § 1983 suits, vicarious liability does not apply and a “plaintiff must plead that each Government-official defendant, through the official's own individual actions, has violated the Constitution.” Id. at 676. “The factors necessary to establish a Bivens violation will vary with the constitutional provision at issue.” Id.

         The Defendants argue that the Plaintiff has not set out facts from which the Court can infer that they violated her constitutional rights. They further assert that dismissal is appropriate because they are entitled to qualified immunity. Qualified immunity “protects government officials ‘from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). To overcome a defense of qualified immunity at the pleading stage, the complaint must contain sufficient factual allegations to show that the ...


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