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Koller v. Wachovia Bank, N.A.

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 12, 2016

JUDITH KOLLER, Plaintiff,
v.
WACHOVIA BANK, N.A., TIMOTHY HILDERBRAND, TIMOTHY DUFF, and GARY HOFFKINS, Defendants.

          RULING GRANTING MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          Jeffrey Alker Meyer United States District Judge

         This case stems from the search and seizure by the police of plaintiff's safe deposit box at a branch of the Wachovia Bank in Greenwich, Connecticut. According to plaintiff, the police wrongfully searched her box under the mistaken impression that the items in the box belonged to someone else whom the police were investigating for criminal narcotics activity. Plaintiff further complains that the police did not notify her of the search and seizure of the box and also that they did not promptly return the items to her.

         For the reasons set forth below, I will grant the police officers' motion for summary judgment as to plaintiff's federal constitutional claims on the ground that plaintiff has not established a violation of her constitutional rights for which the police defendants would not at the least have qualified immunity.[1] I will otherwise dismiss plaintiff's state law claims against the police and the bank for lack of federal jurisdiction.

         Background

         The following allegations of facts are set forth in the light most favorable to plaintiff for purposes of my consideration of defendants' summary judgment motions. Almost twelve years ago, the police in Greenwich, Connecticut, investigated a certain target individual who is not a party to this suit but who was known to plaintiff and who was suspected to be involved in the illegal sale of narcotics.[2] Two of the investigating officers were defendants Timothy Hilderbrand and Gary Hoffkins.[3] A manager at the Wachovia Bank told Hoffkins that the target individual rented two safe deposit boxes at the bank. Hoffkins and another police detective then applied to a state court judge for a search warrant for any safe deposit boxes associated with the target individual.

         On December 23, 2004, several police officers, including defendants Hilderbrand and Hoffkins, executed the search warrant, and at one of the bank's branches they seized property from a safe deposit box that they were told by a bank branch manager was associated with the target individual. According to plaintiff, however, this box was solely accessed by plaintiff and not by the target individual. Beyond being assured by the bank manager that the safe deposit box was associated with the target individual, Hilderbrand and Hoffkins did not examine underlying bank records to verify that the target individual had the right to access or had accessed the safe deposit box.

         After being presented with the law enforcement warrant, the bank retained a third-party technician who drilled open the lock to the box in the presence of bank personnel and law enforcement officers. The officers then seized plaintiff's property, which included among other items jewelry, antique coins, plaintiff's will, and plaintiff's marriage license. In accordance with the notice requirements of state law, the officers gave a copy of the warrant to the bank on the day of the search, and they subsequently mailed to the bank a copy of the inventory of items taken.[4] Neither the bank nor the officers notified plaintiff or the target individual that the safe deposit box had been searched or that items had been seized by the police. Plaintiff did not learn that her items had been seized for nearly another five years until October 2009 when she went to the bank and learned that her property was gone.

         In the meantime, plaintiff's property remained in the Greenwich police department's evidence vault. When plaintiff initially asked the police department for the return of her items, she was refused. Only after she filed this lawsuit in May 2010 did the police department eventually return her items. The target individual ended up retrieving the property from the police department on plaintiff's behalf.

         In this lawsuit, plaintiff principally alleges constitutional causes of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, contending that the defendant police officers' seizure of her property without notice to her violated her right to be free from an unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution as well as her right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.[5] She further asserts state law claims of conversion and common law theft against the officer defendants, and she asserts state law claims against the bank for breach of contract, fraud, and violation of the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act (CUTPA), Conn. Gen. Stat. § 42-110b et seq. All the defendants have now moved for summary judgment.

         Discussion

         The principles governing a motion for summary judgment are well established. Summary judgment may be granted only if “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Tolan v. Cotton, 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1866 (2014) (per curiam). “A genuine dispute of material fact exists for summary judgment purposes where the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, is such that a reasonable jury could decide in that party's favor.” Zann Kwan v. Andalex Grp. LLC, 737 F.3d 834, 843 (2d Cir. 2013). The evidence adduced at the summary judgment stage must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and with all ambiguities and reasonable inferences drawn against the moving party. See, e.g., Tolan, 134 S.Ct. at 1866; Caronia v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., 715 F.3d 417, 427 (2d Cir. 2013). All in all, “a judge's function at summary judgment is not to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Tolan, 134 S.Ct. at 1866.

         Plaintiff's Federal Constitutional Claims and Qualified Immunity

         The Fourth Amendment protects the rights of the people “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” U.S. Const., amend. IV. The Fourth Amendment limits both searches and seizures. A “search” for purposes of the Fourth Amendment occurs either when the police intrude upon a person's reasonable expectation of privacy or, alternatively, if the police otherwise trespass upon a suspect's person, house, papers, or effects for the purpose of acquiring information. See Florida v. Jardines, 133 S.Ct. 1409, 1414 (2013); United States v. Jones, 132 S.Ct. 945, 951 n.5 (2012). A “seizure” of property for purposes of the Fourth Amendment occurs when the police meaningfully interfere with an individual's possessory interest in that property. See Soldal v. Cook County, Ill., 506 U.S. 56, 61 (1992).

         The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that a State shall not “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” U.S. Const., Amdt. 14, § 1. The Due Process Clause protects both a right to “substantive” due process and “procedural” due process. A substantive due process claim requires a plaintiff to show that government officials have deprived plaintiff of a fundamental constitutional right and that they have done so under circumstances that are no less than “arbitrary” and “outrageous, ” typically as demonstrated by conduct that “shocks the conscience.” See, e.g., United States v. Medunjanin,752 F.3d 576, 590 (2d Cir. 2014) (substantive due process has generally protected “matters relating to marriage, family, procreation, and the right to bodily integrity”); Natale v. Town of Ridgefield, 170 F.3d 258, 262-63 (2d Cir. 1999) (substantive ...


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