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Garcia v. Harris County

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

June 2, 2017

Denise Garcia, Plaintiff,
Harris County, et al., Defendants.


          Gray H. Miller United States District Judge

         Pending before the court are (1) defendant City of Houston's motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, motion for a more definite statement (Dkt. 17); (2) defendant Harris County's motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, motion for a more definite statement (Dkt. 37); and (3) defendant Officers Timothy Huerta, Brittany Ann Jones, and M.S.'s (collectively, “individual defendant officers”) motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, motion for a more definite statement (Dkt. 58). Having considered the motions, responses, replies, and the applicable law, the court is of the opinion that (1) the City of Houston's motion to dismiss (Dkt. 17) should be GRANTED; (2) Harris County's motion to dismiss (Dkt. 37) should be DENIED and its motion for a more definite statement should be GRANTED; and (3) the individual defendant officers' motion to dismiss (Dkt. 58) should be GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART and their motion for a more definite statement should be DENIED.

         I. Background

         This case is about accusations of civil rights violations and the alleged unlawful termination of plaintiff Denise Garcia's employment at the Harris County District Attorney's Office (“HCDAO”). Dkt. 35. Garcia's allegations stem from her complaint about the police officers' behavior during a traffic stop. Id. Garcia is suing Harris County, the City of Houston, and City of Houston Police Officers Richard Leal III, Huerta, Jones, and M.S. under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and § 2000e (“Title VII”).[1] Id.

         On November 14, 2014, Garcia drove away from a relative's residence in Houston, with her toddler son and the child's father, Salvador Rodriguez, as passengers. Id. Several blocks from the residence, Garcia was pulled over by Officers Leal and Huerta. Id. at 3. Garcia alleges that she was “driving legally and committed no traffic violations.” Id. The City of Houston and the individual defendant officers counter that Garcia was stopped for failing to signal to change lanes. Dkt. 41 at 5. The City of Houston admits that the police followed Garcia after seeing her at a location they were surveilling for drug activity. Dkt. 17 at 4. Garcia claims that she was at the location to pick up her child's father to go to a doctor's appointment. Dkt. 35 at 3.

         Garcia states that she cooperated with the police through the duration of the stop and produced her driver's license and insurance information as requested. Dkt. 35 at 4. During the stop, the police officer began to question her passenger, Rodriguez. Id. Garcia says that she advised Rodriguez that he did not have to answer any questions. Id. Garcia alleges that immediately following her advice to Rodriguez, Officer Leal threatened Garcia with arrest, causing her to be frightened to speak to Rodriguez again. Id.

         After checking Rodriguez's identification, the police found outstanding warrants against him and arrested him. Id. Garcia claims that she had no knowledge of the existence of any warrants or any criminal activity on the part of Rodriguez. Id.

         Additionally, during the stop, Officers Leal and Heurta asked to search Garcia's vehicle. Id. Garcia claims that Officer M.S., who was working undercover at the residence where she picked up Rodriguez, instructed the other officers to attempt to search the vehicle. Id. at 3. Garcia claims she refused to give consent to the search. Id. Officers Leal and Heurta allegedly ordered Garcia to exit her vehicle, and searched her car, including the trunk, and Officer Jones searched Garcia's body. Id. at 4. Officer Heurta also placed Garcia in handcuffs and Garcia alleges she was held in a patrol car for approximately 45 minutes to an hour during Rodriguez's arrest. Id. Garcia alleges that during this detention, Officer Huerta seized her cell phone and erased “a section of her phone recordings of the events.” Id. Eventually, Garcia was released. Id. at 5. The individual defendant officers admit to searching the car and Garcia and detaining Garcia, claiming their actions were lawful as incident to Rodriguez's arrest. Dkts. 17, 37, 41. The individual defendant officers deny deleting the contents of the cell phone video and claim that they only entered the trunk because Garcia gave them permission to look for her child's bottle in the trunk. Id.

         On November 17, 2014, Garcia filed a complaint with the Houston Police Department Internal Affairs Division (“IAD”) regarding the traffic stop. Dkt. 35 at 5. Garcia claimed that she was racially profiled and the traffic stop was illegal. Id. Garcia alleges that, after she filed the IAD complaint, “at least” Officer M.S. contacted the HCDAO regarding the complaint and that she was questioned by her employer about the events of the traffic stop. Id.

         On November 20, 2014, the HCDAO placed Garcia on administrative leave with pay pending an investigation. Id. at 6. On December 19, 2014, the HCDAO terminated Garcia's employment. Id. Later, through an open records request, Garcia received a copy of a memo stating that she was terminated for dishonesty regarding both the traffic stop and her awareness of Rodriguez's criminal history. Id. Garcia alleges that she was honest at all times and these reasons were “pre-textual.” Id.

         On November 4, 2016, Garcia filed her second amended complaint against the defendants. Dkt. 35. First, Garcia asserts causes of action against Harris County under Title VII for termination due to race, national origin, and/or retaliation and under § 1983 for civil rights violations. Dkt. 34 at 10-13. Second, Garcia asserts causes of action against the individual defendant officers and the City of Houston under § 1983 for violation of her rights for freedom of speech, to petition the govenmernment for redress of grievances, and to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, under the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Dkts. 35 at 15-16. The City of Houston, the individual defendant officers, and Harris County have all moved to dismiss Garcia's claims, or in the alternative, moved for a more definite statement. Dkts. 17 (City of Houston), 37 (Harris County), 58 (individual defendant officers). Garcia responded. Dkts. 36, 45, 61. The City of Houston and Harris County replied. Dkts. 41, 46.

         II. Legal Standards

         A. Motion to Dismiss

         “Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires only ‘a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.'” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1964-65 (2007). In considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss a complaint, courts generally must accept the factual allegations contained in the complaint as true. Kaiser Aluminum & Chem. Sales, Inc. v. Avondale Shipyards, Inc., 677 F.2d 1045, 1050 (5th Cir. 1982). The court does not look beyond the face of the pleadings in determining whether the plaintiff has stated a claim under Rule 12(b)(6). Spivey v. Robertson, 197 F.3d 772, 774 (5th Cir. 1999).

         “[A] complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, [but] a plaintiff's obligation to provide the ‘grounds' of his ‘entitle[ment] to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citations omitted). The “[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Id. The supporting facts must be plausible-enough to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal further supporting evidence. Id. at 556.

         B. Motion for a More Definite Statement

         “A party may move for a more definite statement of a pleading to which a responsive pleading is allowed but which is so vague or ambiguous that the party cannot reasonably prepare a response.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(e). However, motions for more definite statement are “generally disfavored.” Lehman Bros. Holding, Inc. v. Cornerstone Mortg. Co., No. 09-0672, 2009 WL 1504977, at *1 (S.D. Tex. May 29, 2009) (Rosenthal, J.) (collecting authorities). “When a defendant is complaining of matters that can be clarified and developed during discovery, not matters that impede his ability to form a responsive pleading, an order directing the plaintiff to provide a more definite statement is not warranted.” Id. (citations omitted).

         C. 42 U.S.C. § 1983

         Section 1983 prohibits “persons” acting under the color of law from depriving another of any “rights, privileges, and immunities secured by the Constitution and laws . . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 1983. For a plaintiff to state a claim under § 1983, the plaintiff “must first show a violation of the Constitution or of federal law, and then show that the violation was committed by someone acting under color of state law.” Atteberry v. Nocona Gen. Hosp., 430 F.3d 245, 252-53 (5th Cir. 2005).

         Municipalities and cities qualify as “persons” under § 1983. Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Serv., 436 U.S. 658, 690, 98 S.Ct. 2018 (1978). To state a claim for municipal liability under § 1983, a plaintiff must identify (a) a policymaker, (b) an official policy or custom or widespread practice, and (c) a violation of constitutional rights whose “moving force” is the policy or custom. Id. at 694; see also Piotrowski v. City of Hous., 237 F.3d 567, 578 (5th Cir. 2001) (“[M]unicipal liability under section 1983 requires proof of three elements: a policymaker; an official policy; and a violation of constitutional rights whose ‘moving force' is the policy or custom.”).

         III. Individual Defendant Officers' and City of Houston's Motions to Dismiss

         The City of Houston and the individual defendant officers filed motions to dismiss Garcia's second amended complaint for failure to state a claim, or alternatively, a motion for a more definite statement. Dkts. 17; 41; 58.[2] The court will consider Garcia's objection to evidence offered with the individual defendants officers' motion to dismiss, then consider the motions to dismiss the Title VII claim and the § 1983 claims, and finally turn to the alternative motions for a more definite statement.

         A. Garcia's Objection

         The individual defendant officers included the police report as an exhibit to their motion to dismiss. Dkt. 58, Ex. A. Garcia objects to the court considering the exhibit. Dkt. 61 at 3. Additionally, Garcia objects to the individual defendant officers' recitation of some of the facts that differ from her allegations in the second amended complaint. Dkt. 61 at 6. For a motion to dismiss, the court accepts all well-pled facts contained in Garcia's second amended complaint as true, despite arguments or exhibits disputing those facts offered in the defendants' motions to dismiss. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555; Avondale Shipyards, 677 F.2d at1050. Therefore, Garcia's objections (Dkt. 61 at 6) are SUSTAINED.

         B. ...

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