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Garza v. City of Donna

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

July 5, 2017

JOSE LUIS GARZA, Plaintiffs,
CITY OF DONNA, Defendant.

          ORDER & OPINION

          Micaela Alvarez United States District Judge

         The Court now considers the City of Donna's (“Defendant”) Rule 12(b)(6) motion for partial dismissal of Jose Luis Garza, Veronica Garza, and Cynthia Lopez's (“Plaintiffs”) claims based on the Fourth Amendment and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).[1]After duly considering the record and authorities, the Court GRANTS the motion, and DISMISSES these particular claims WITH PREJUDICE.

         I. Background

         This suit arose from the suicide of twenty-eight year old Jose Luis Garza, Jr. (“Decedent”).[2] Plaintiffs-Decedent's surviving relatives[3]-allege that Decedent “ha[d] a long history of substance abuse involving both alcohol and licit and illicit drugs, ” including cocaine, dating back to when Decedent was fourteen years old.[4] Plaintiffs further allege that Decedent's substance abuse “led to numerous arrests on drug and alcohol-related charges, ” and “prevented him from being regularly employed, ” limiting Decedent to “irregular jobs [such as] washing cars or cutting lawns.”[5]

         Decedent was allegedly often “argumentative towards his family members when intoxicated . . . such that he presented a threat of harming both himself and others.”[6] As a result, Plaintiffs allege that they had, “on 3 or 4 prior occasions, ”[7] “telephoned Defendant's City of Donna Police Department, and requested that Decedent be kept in a safe environment to ‘dry out', i.e. placed in protective custody until the intoxication had worn off.”[8] Plaintiffs allege that on each of these occasions they “expressly informed Defendant that they wanted to protect Decedent from harming himself and/or others.”[9] Plaintiffs further allege that the Donna Police Department would honor these requests, and “would release Decedent from protective custody when he sobered up, without filing any charges against him.”[10]

         Plaintiffs allege that at 5:00 p.m. on February 19, 2016, Decedent had once again become “intoxicated and . . . argumentative toward other family members.”[11] Plaintiffs allege that consequently, Decedent's mother called the Donna Police Department, requesting that they take Decedent into protective custody in order to “protect Decedent from the risk of harming himself and/or others . . . .”[12] Two male officers and one female officer allegedly arrived approximately thirty minutes later, and “behaved in a harsh and insulting manner in dealing with those members of Decedent's family, ”[13] and then proceeded to “deal with Decedent in an extremely aggressive fashion, handcuffing him and dragging Decedent into the police cruiser, in a manner unjustified by Decedent's own actions.”[14] Decedent was then taken to the City of Donna Jail, [15] and “was not at liberty to depart therefrom.”[16]

         Plaintiffs allege that during the intake process, the jail personnel “failed to evaluate Decedent for suicidal tendencies [using a suicide screening form made for this purpose] . . . in violation of Defendant's express policies.”[17] Once Decedent was placed in his cell, he allegedly began “engaging in bizarre and self-destructive behavior . . . including repeatedly scooping water from the toilet bowl and dumping it over himself, ”[18] as well as “pounding repeatedly on the cell door and shouting.”[19] Plaintiffs allege that thirty minutes prior to Decedent's suicide, [20] a jail employee-coincidently one of Decedent's former classmates-had a conversation with Decedent, in which Decedent “expressly communicated his intent to kill himself . . . .”[21]Plaintiffs allege that nevertheless, “no action was taken by any of Defendant's jail employees . . . .”[22] Plaintiffs allege that Defendant failed to “comply with applicable statutes, regulations, and/or guidelines”[23] in part by not “requiring in-person cell checks at regular intervals.”[24]

         Decedent's cell allegedly came equipped with a video monitoring system.[25] However, Decedent allegedly “laboriously threw numerous pieces of wet paper towel at the lens, and . . . succeeded in completely covering the camera . . . .”[26] Plaintiffs allege that “at approximately 8:46 a.m., Decedent was found hanging from the door of his cell [by federal Immigration and Custom Enforcement officers], with a noose fashioned from his clothing.”[27] It is not clear from Plaintiffs' complaint how much time expired between Decedent's covering of the camera and his suicide. Decedent was then allegedly transported to Knapp Medical Center where he was “pronounced dead at 9:12 a.m.”[28] A subsequent autopsy revealed “high levels of alcohol and benzodiazepines (ex. Valium, Xanax) in [Decedent's] bloodstream.”[29] The cause of death was “asphyxia by hanging.”[30]

         Plaintiffs sued Defendant in federal court on September 15, 2016, [31] claiming, via 42 U.S.C. § 1983, that Defendant violated the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, [32] the Fourth Amendment, [33] Title II § 12132 of the ADA, [34] and also claiming wrongful death.[35] Defendant filed its Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss all of Plaintiffs' claims except wrongful death.[36]Plaintiffs responded to the motion to dismiss, but also amended their complaint as a matter of course on October 28, 2016, [37] thus vitiating Defendant's Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal motion.[38]

         Defendant then filed another Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal motion on November 7, 2016;[39] this time, Defendant only requested dismissal of Plaintiffs' Fourth Amendment and ADA claims.[40]Defendant did not move to dismiss Plaintiffs' Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment claims, or Plaintiffs' wrongful death claim.[41] It appears to the Court that Plaintiffs' ADA and Fourth Amendment claims are substantively identical in both the original and first amended complaints, except that Plaintiffs add that Decedent told the jail employee that he intended to kill himself.[42]

         Plaintiffs responded to Defendant's second dismissal motion on November 28, 2016.[43]However, Plaintiffs failed to address-and thus failed to oppose-Defendant's motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' Fourth Amendment claim. Plaintiffs' response to Defendant's second dismissal motion “request[s] that they be granted leave to amend . . . .”[44] Subsequently, on January 17, 2017, Plaintiffs filed a second amended complaint, without any accompanying motion or justification.[45] The Court struck the second amended complaint for failure to properly move for and justify leave to amend.[46] Thereafter, Plaintiffs filed a formal motion for leave to amend, attaching a proposed amended complaint.[47] The Court denied leave to amend.[48]

         With this background in mind, the Court now turns to its analysis of Defendant's most recent partial motion to dismiss, which only seeks dismissal of Plaintiffs' Fourth Amendment and ADA claims as alleged in Plaintiffs' first amended complaint.

         II. Legal Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (“Rule”) 12(b)(6) provides for dismissal of claims that are insufficiently plead.[49] To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the plaintiff must plead “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.”[50] This does not require detailed factual allegations, but it does require “more than labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action.”[51] Courts regards all such well-pleaded facts as true and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.[52] Considered in that manner, factual allegations must “raise a right to relief above the speculative level . . . .”[53]

         Rule 12(b)(6) motions require a two-step analysis. First, courts disregard any conclusory allegations because they are not entitled to the assumption of truth.[54] Next, courts undertake the “context-specific” task of determining whether the remaining well-pleaded allegations give rise to an entitlement of relief to an extent that is plausible, rather than merely possible or conceivable.[55]

         III. Analysis

         Plaintiffs' response to Defendant's dismissal motion includes a request for leave to amend any improperly pled claims.[56] This request for leave is perfunctory, stating only that in the event this Court should find “Plaintiffs' current pleadings fail to adequately state a claim, ” Plaintiffs seek leave to amend “so as to address the specific deficiency identified.”[57] However, Plaintiffs' second motion for leave, filed after the response, attached a proposed amended complaint, indicating how Plaintiffs would attempt to cure their pleading. For reasons already stated in the Court's previous order denying Plaintiffs' second motion for leave to amend, leave here is likewise unwarranted.[58] The Court now proceeds to its analysis.

         A. Fourth Amendment claim

         Plaintiffs' Fourth Amendment claim is at best cryptic, and stated in entirety as follows: “Defendant . . . has acted and omitted to act with callous disregard and deliberate indifference to the Fourth Amendment rights of [Decedent], and as a direct and proximate result of the acts and omissions of the Defendant, the Fourth Amendment rights of Plaintiff[s] have been violated.”[59] For no apparent reason, Plaintiffs plant this language in the midst of their ADA claim without explanation and do not specify which of Defendant's “acts and omissions” support Plaintiffs' Fourth Amendment claim. The Court is thus left to its own devices. After reasonable review of the factual allegations contained in Plaintiffs' entire complaint, the Court finds that Plaintiffs' Fourth Amendment claim should be dismissed with prejudice. It would seem that Plaintiffs implicitly agree because they do not oppose dismissal of their Fourth Amendment claim. The Fourth Amendment states:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.[60]

         Naturally, Fourth Amendment case law enumerates safeguards against unreasonable, government-sanctioned invasions of the body, property, and privacy, [61] and additionally prohibits false arrests[62] and the use of excessive force during an arrest.[63] The import of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence today largely centers around the admissibility of evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment.[64] In this case, the only claims potentially available to Plaintiffs under the Fourth Amendment appear to be false arrest or excessive force during arrest.

         i. The Court lacks jurisdiction to entertain Plaintiffs' false arrest claim

         Fourth Amendment rights are personal rights which “may be enforced only by the person whose rights were infringed.”[65] Consequently, a party generally has no standing to enforce another person's Fourth Amendment rights vicariously.[66] If a party lacks standing to bring a claim, then there exists no case or controversy with regards to that claim, and a federal court has no subject matter jurisdiction to entertain it.[67] At least two federal circuits nevertheless recognize an exception under 42 U.S.C. 1988(a), permitting surviving relatives suing for wrongful death under state law to also bring an excessive force claim under the Fourth Amendment via 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[68]

         However, no case law appears to exist within the Fifth Circuit applying this exception to Fourth Amendment false arrest claims. Thus, the general rule applies, and surviving family members bringing suit for wrongful death under state law do not have standing to bring suit via 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for false arrest on behalf of the deceased. Consequently, this Court has no subject matter jurisdiction to entertain Plaintiffs' vicarious false arrest claim. A federal district court must dismiss a claim for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under these circumstances.[69]Thus, Plaintiffs' false arrest claim, insofar as it was pled at all, is DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.

         Alternatively, the Court also observes that even if it had jurisdiction, Plaintiffs asserted their Fourth Amendment claim in a conclusory fashion, and made no allegation that the arresting officers lacked probable cause to arrest Decedent. Lack of probable cause is a necessary element of any Fourth Amendment false arrest claim.[70] Thus, Plaintiffs have also inadequately pled their Fourth Amendment false arrest claim on the merits.

         ii. Plaintiffs fail to sufficiently plead an excessive force claim

         Even assuming that this court has jurisdiction to entertain Plaintiffs' excessive force claim, Plaintiffs have insufficiently pled it. The elements of a Fourth Amendment excessive force claim are: “(1) an injury, which (2) resulted directly and only from the use of force [when effectuating an arrest] that was clearly excessive to the need; and the excessiveness of which was (3) objectively unreasonable.”[71] Here, Plaintiffs do not plead any facts suggesting that Decedent suffered an injury directly resulting from any use of force during Decedent's arrest. Instead, Plaintiffs only allege that Decedent injured himself after his arrest and incarceration due to a lack of supervision, screening, and response to his suicide threat. Thus, Plaintiffs have failed to adequately plead two of the three essential elements of a Fourth Amendment excessive force claim, and as a result have failed to state an excessive force claim upon which relief may be granted. This claim is DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.

         B. Title II ADA claim

         i. Legal standard governing Title II ADA claims

         Plaintiffs allege that Defendant violated Title II of the ADA, which provides that: “no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity.”[72] Thus, the Fifth Circuit has held that a prima-facie Title II claim has the following elements: the claimant “[1] has a qualifying disability; (2) he is being denied the benefits of services, programs, or activities for which the public entity is responsible, or is otherwise discriminated against by the public entity; and (3) he is being discriminated against by reason of his disability.”[73]

         Title II imposes an affirmative obligation upon public entities, including jails and prisons, to make reasonable accommodations for the limitation(s) imposed by an inmates' disability.[74]This is because, as the Supreme Court put it, “failure to accommodate persons with disabilities will often have the same practical effect as outright exclusion.”[75] Notably, however, the language of the ADA makes clear that under an accommodation-theory claim, limitations are what must be reasonably accommodated: “[T]he term ‘discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability' includes . . . not making reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability.”[76] Thus, the Fifth Circuit has stated in rather unequivocal terms that “the ADA requires employers to reasonably accommodate limitations, not disabilities.”[77] Because an entity cannot generally be expected to divine a person's limitation, the claimant bears the burden to request the relevant accommodation, unless their disability, resulting limitations, and appropriate accommodations are open, obvious, and apparent.[78] Regardless of the Title II theory employed by a claimant, compensatory damages may not be recovered absent a showing of intentional discrimination.[79]

         The predicate question in any Title II claim is whether the claimant is a “qualified[80]individual with a disability” as defined by the ADA.[81] Prior to 2008, the ADA statute did not fully flesh out the meaning of “disability, ”[82] and thus the Supreme Court in Toyota held that the term should be strictly construed against claimants.[83] In response, Congress amended the ADA in 2008, this time more fully fleshing out the meaning of “disability, ” and making clear that the statute should be construed to provide broad coverage “to the maximum extent permitted by the . . . ADA.”[84] The Fifth Circuit has thus aptly stated that the 2008 Amendments “makes it easier to prove a disability, [however, ] it does not absolve a party from proving one.”[85]

         The ADA, as amended, authorizes the Attorney General to fully flesh out the ADA via the promulgation of supporting regulations.[86] Thus, courts look to 29 C.F.R. § 1630 for detailed guidance.[87] Section 1630.2 defines disability as “[a] physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual.”[88] A substantial impairment under the ADA is “one that limits an individual's ability to perform a major life activity as compared to most people in the general population.[89] In turn, § 1630.2(i)(1)(i) sets forth a non-exhaustive list of “major life activities, ” which includes “caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing . . . and working.”[90]

         Importantly, substance addiction is not a per se disability under the ADA.[91] Instead, courts must employ an individual assessment to determine whether the claimant's addiction substantially limited one of his major life activities compared to most people in the general population.[92] Based upon these guiding principles, the Court now turns to its analysis of Plaintiffs' ADA claim.

         iii. Analysis of the Title II ADA claim

         Plaintiffs' ADA claim is expressly grounded in Title II, and rests upon the allegation that Defendant failed to reasonably accommodate Decedent's alleged substance addiction disability.[93]Despite this general approach, the Court observes that Plaintiffs also plead intentional discrimination[94] and request compensatory damages (presumably on the basis of intentional discrimination).[95] However, Plaintiffs do not plead any facts from which the Court can reasonably infer ill will or animus towards Decedent due to his substance addiction. Plaintiffs allege that Defendant posted signs in the jail indicating that inmates are generally not treated well, [96] but no reasonable inference of disability-based discrimination can be inferred from this, as opposed to a general dislike for all inmates. For this reason, Plaintiffs' Title II ADA claim must be dismissed insofar as compensatory damages are requested on the basis of intentional discrimination.

         Moreover, the Court cannot help but notice that Decedent's autopsy “detected high levels of alcohol and benzodiazepines (ex. Valium, Xanax).”[97] This fact is potentially relevant because, under the ADA, the illegal use of controlled substances does not constitute a disability when the claimant is “currently” using them.[98] The parties do not discuss this issue. However, it ultimately does not matter since dismissal is warranted on other grounds, and because neither alcohol nor benzodiazepines-those substances revealed by Decedent's autopsy-are considered “controlled substances” for purposes of the aforementioned disability exclusion.[99]

         This said, and with regard to Plaintiffs' reasonable-accommodation theory of liability, the predicate question remains whether Decedent was disabled under the ADA. Plaintiffs specifically allege that Decedent was disabled because he was an alcoholic and drug addict.[100]Plaintiffs further allege that these addictions (1) substantially limited his ability to work because he could only obtain irregular jobs such as washing cars or cutting lawns, [101] (2) led to numerous arrests, legal charges, and emergency room visits due to chest pain, [102] and (3) led to a heightened risk of suicide.[103]

         Defendant contends that Plaintiffs insufficiently pled any disability, [104] or any relevant relationship between the alleged disability and Defendant's alleged failure to accommodate the associated limitations.[105] The Court agrees. As previously noted, Title II only imposes an obligation to provide reasonable accommodations for specific limitations imposed by the claimant's disability.[106] Here, Plaintiffs do not allege that Defendant is liable for failing to accommodate Decedent's limited ability to work, his numerous arrests and legal charges, or his chest pains. Rather, Plaintiffs allege that Defendant is liable for failing to take reasonable steps to prevent Decedent from killing himself. Thus, insofar as Decedent's disability is grounded in non-suicide related limitations, Plaintiffs have failed to plead a relevant disability-going to the first element of a Title II claim. Moreover, and for the same reason, Plaintiffs have largely failed to establish any meaningful connection between the refused accommodation and the disability-the third element of a Title II claim. (listing schedule I-V substances, none of which include alcohol or “benzodiazepines”); see also 21 C.F.R. § 1308.11-15 (listing updated and amended list of schedule I-V substances, again not listing alcohol or “benzodiazepines”).

         The allegation that Decedent's substance addiction increased his risk of suicide[107] is also unavailing. Again, the relevant legal question is whether Decedent's alleged substance addiction substantially limited at least one of his major life activities. However, a person's “risk of suicide” is not a life activity. Thus, even if Decedent's substance addiction increased his risk of suicide, it is not at all clear what relevent major life activity is substantially limited by the substance addiction. Plaintiffs do not provide an answer to this question in their complaint. Moreover, the parties have not cited, and the Court cannot find, any binding authorities indicating that substance addiction is a disability under the ADA by virtue of its alleged tendency to increase the risk of suicide.[108] For these reasons, Plaintiff's risk-of-suicide-theory of disability fails on the pleadings.

         In sum, Plaintiffs have failed to plead sufficient facts establishing that Decedent had a relevant disability to support their Title II, reasonable accommodation claim. Accordingly, Plaintiffs have not properly pled the first or third elements of a Title II claim, and thus by extension have failed to properly plead their ADA claim altogether. Dismissal of this claim is warranted.

         IV. Holding

         The Court GRANTS Defendant's motion and DISMISSES Plaintiffs' Fourth Amendment and ADA claims WITH PREJUDICE. Plaintiffs' wrongful death, Fifth Amendment, and Fourteenth Amendment claims remain pending before this Court.

         IT IS SO ORDERED.


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