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McGinnis v. Harris County

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Houston Division

November 6, 2019

MONICA MCGINNIS, Plaintiff,
v.
HARRIS COUNTY AND KLEIN INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          LEE H. ROSENTHAL, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Monica McGinnis sued Harris County, Texas and the Klein Independent School District in state court, asserting claims for trespass to land, civil conspiracy, and violations of her Fourth Amendment rights through 42 U.S.C.§ 1983. She alleged that the defendants intentionally violated her rights and damaged her property when deputies from the Harris County Sheriff's Office executed a warrant and searched her home. (Docket Entry No. 8). Klein ISD timely removed under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1446(a). (Docket Entry No. 1). Both defendants have now filed motions to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), 12(b)(5), and 12(b)(6). (Docket Entries Nos. 10 &16). Ms. McGinnis filed her response to the defendants' motions over two weeks past the extended deadline she sought, and received, in her second motion for extension of time. (Docket Entry No. 21). Klein ISD opposes the late filing of Ms. McGinnis's response to the motions to dismiss. (Docket Entry No. 27). Without addressing the timeliness of the response, and instead considering the arguments it raises, the court grants both Harris County and Klein ISD's motions to dismiss. The reasons are set out below.

         I. Background

         Ms. McGinnis lives with a minor child, F.W.P., in Houston, Texas. (Docket Entry No. 8, ¶ 9). F.W.P. attends elementary school in the Klein Independent School District. (Id.). On February 16, 2017, F.W.P.'s principal reported that a green, leafy substance had fallen from F.W.P.'s pocket. (Id.). Based on the principal's report, Jonathan Sandel, a Harris County Deputy Sheriff, drafted an affidavit requesting a search warrant for the McGinnis home. (Id. at ¶ 10). Based on the affidavit, a Harris County district judge issued a search warrant for the home. (Id.). Ms. McGinnis alleges that during their search, the Harris County Sheriff's deputies destroyed some of her personal property. They found no drugs or other evidence of criminal activity. (Id. at ¶ 11).

         Ms. McGinnis now claims that Harris County, through the Sheriff's Office, entered the home without her permission; that Klein ISD, in conjunction with Harris County, conspired against Ms. McGinnis to commit the tort of trespass to land and to violate her Fourth Amendment Rights; and that Klein ISD, through its own police officers, communicated information to the Harris County Sheriff's Office that resulted in the unreasonable search and seizure of her personal property without probable cause. (Id. at ¶¶ 15, 18-20, 23-25).

         In their motions to dismiss, Harris County and Klein ISD argue that governmental immunity bars Ms. McGinnis's state law tort claims. (Docket Entries Nos. 10 & 16). They also argue that her amended complaint does not plead sufficient facts to state a claim for her federal conspiracy and § 1983 claims. (Docket Entries Nos. 10 &16). At the hearing on these motions, Ms. McGinnis did not argue her state-law claims.

         II. Dismissal under Rule 12(b)(1): Subject-Matter Jurisdiction

         “[W]hen, as here, ‘a Rule 12(b)(1) motion is filed in conjunction with other Rule 12 motions, the court should consider the Rule 12(b)(1) jurisdictional attack before addressing any attack on the merits.'” In re Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 624 F.3d 201, 209 (5th Cir. 2010) (quoting Ramming v. United States, 281 F.3d 158, 161 (5th Cir. 2001)). This jurisdictional approach prevents courts from issuing advisory opinions. Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Env't, 523 U.S. 83, 101, 118 S.Ct. 1003, 140 L.Ed.2d 210 (1998).

         Harris County argues that, as a governmental unit, it is immune from suit for intentional torts, including trespass to land. “In Texas, sovereign immunity deprives a trial court of subject-matter jurisdiction for lawsuits in which the state or certain governmental units have been sued unless the state consents to suit.” Texas Dept. of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 224 (Tex. 2004). While the Texas Tort Claims Act does waive governmental immunity for some tort claims, the Act does not waive immunity for most intentional torts. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 101.057(2); Id. § 101.001(3)(B) (including counties in the definition of “governmental units” for purposes of the Texas Tort Claims Act); see also Hidalgo Cty. v. Dyer, 538 S.W.3d 698, 704 (Tex. App.-Corpus Christi 2011, no pet.) (“Although Dyer attempts to characterize his trespass claim as a negligence claim, Dyer's petition alleges intentional conduct for which there is no waiver of immunity.”).

         In her pleading, Ms. McGinnis alleges that Harris County, through its Sheriff's Office, intentionally entered her property without her permission. (Docket Entry No. 8, ¶ 15). As a governmental unit, Harris County is immune from suit for intentional torts, including trespass to land. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 101.057(2); Dyer, 538 S.W.3d at 704. Governmental immunity deprives this court of subject-matter jurisdiction under Miranda. 133 S.W.3d at 224. Harris County's motion to dismiss Ms. McGinnis's trespass-to-land claim under Rule 12(b)(1) is granted.

         Ms. McGinnis's state-law civil conspiracy claim fares no better. Both Harris County and Klein ISD assert that they are immune from this claim as governmental units. (Docket Entries Nos. 10 & 16). Klein ISD, like Harris County, meets the definition of a governmental unit under the Texas Tort Claims Act. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 101.001(3)(B). Civil conspiracy, like trespass to land, is an intentional tort that governmental units cannot be held liable for under Texas law. TCI West End, Inc. v. City of Dallas, 274 S.W.3d 913, 921 (Tex. App.-Dallas 2008, no pet.) (“Assuming without deciding that a cause of action exists for a conspiracy to take claim, the Texas Tort Claims Act provides that sovereign immunity exists for intentional torts, such as conspiracy.”). Because Klein ISD and Harris County are immune from civil conspiracy suits, this court has no jurisdiction to hear this claim. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 224. Klein ISD and Harris County's motion to dismiss Ms. McGinnis's state-law civil conspiracy claim under Rule 12(b)(1) is granted.

         III. Dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6): Failure to State a Claim

         Klein ISD and Harris County further assert that Ms. McGinnis fails to state a claim for federal civil conspiracy and violation of her Fourth Amendment rights. Rule 12(b)(6) allows dismissal if a plaintiff fails “to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). Rule 12(b)(6) must be read in conjunction with Rule 8(a), which requires “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a). Claims may be dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6) if the complaint does not contain “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bel Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). Rule 8 “does not require ‘detailed factual allegations,' but it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). “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. (citing (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). “The plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement,' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).

         A court should generally give a plaintiff at least one chance to amend under Rule 15(a) before dismissing the action with prejudice for factual pleading insufficiency, unless doing so would be futile. See Pervasive Software, Inc. v. Lexware GmbH & Co. KG, 688 F.3d 214, 232 (5th Cir. 2012) (“[Rule 15(a) ] evinces a bias in favor of ...


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