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Janitor can sue employer with private police force

Where a large health clinic maintained a private police force, a janitor can proceed to discovery on his $ 1983 lawsuit against the clinic, his ex-employer.

Background

The amended complaint asserts that the plaintiff was employed by Carilion Clinic as a janitor and that he was at work when he found three burned, wooden stick matches and a signed piece of paper near the Carilion Clinic dentistry lab. The amended complaint asserts that the plaintiff notified the receptionist of what he had found, and that the Carilion police then arrived to investigate the incident.

The Carilion Police and Security Services Department is a private police department maintained by Carilion Clinic and authorized by the Virginia General Assembly. The amended complaint then alleges that the Carilion police came to the plaintiff’s residence the following morning and staged a “surround and call out,” a swat-style arrest tactic, before entering the plaintiff’s home and taking him to the Carilion police station for questioning. Next, the amended complaint asserts that the Carilion police coerced the plaintiff into confessing to lighting the matches.

Lastly, the amended complaint alleges that the plaintiff was terminated from his employment at Carilion Clinic after he refused to meet with the Carilion police without counsel present. Count I of the amended complaint is a claim for the unreasonable seizure of the plaintiff’s person by the Carilion police. Count II is a claim for the unreasonable seizure of the plaintiff’s person by Carilion Clinic. Count III is a claim for false imprisonment. Count IV is a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Analysis

To state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must allege that a person acting under color of state law deprived him of his rights under the Constitution or federal law. The plaintiff asserts that Carilion police were acting under color of state law and are recognized as state actors. However, it is clear that under the Virginia code, the incidents listed particularly in paragraphs 18 to 25 of the amended complaint, alleging actions that the Carilion police took place outside the premises of Carilion Clinic, would not be considered actions under “color of state law.” Therefore, the defendant’s motion to dismiss is granted as to any liability under § 1983 based on any activities by the private police force that occurred outside of property owned, leased, or controlled by Carilion Clinic.

The Fourth Circuit has not decided the issue presented here – namely whether a private entity may be held liable for the actions of a private police force that has been provided certain power under a statute or ordinance. The test for determining whether or not a particular private entity is considered a state actor is extremely fact specific. Further discovery is needed in order to assess whether or not Carilion Clinic is considered a state actor.

Next, assuming without deciding that Carilion Clinic is a state actor for purposes of the defendant’s motion to dismiss, the  Carilion Clinic may be liable under § 1983 due to the decision, or alternatively deliberate omission, by the chief of the Carilion police force, or other designee in his chain of command, that  allegedly led to a deprivation of plaintiff’s rights. Additionally, the Carilion Clinic may be liable under § 1983 due to exercising powers that are traditionally the exclusive prerogative of the state.

Motion granted in part, denied in part.

Fuller v. Carilion Clinic, Case No. 17-cv-564, Oct. 29, 2018. WDVA at Roanoke (Stamp). VLW 018-3-468. 18 pp.

VLW 018-3-468

Virginia Lawyers Weekly