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Sanchez v. Gomez

United States District Court, W.D. Texas, El Paso Division

September 1, 2017

CELIA SANCHEZ and OSCAR SALAS, statutory death beneficiaries of ERIK EMMANUEL SALAS-SANCHEZ, Plaintiffs,
v.
MANDO KENNETH GOMEZ, ALBERTO RIVERA, PAMELA SMITH, and the CITY OF EL PASO, TEXAS, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER DENYING DEFENDANT MANDO KENNETH GOMEZ'S. ALBERTO RIVERA'S. AND PAMELA SMITH'S MOTIONS TO DISMISS

          PHILIP R. MARTINEZ UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         On this day, the Court considered the following motions:

• Defendant Mando Kenneth Gomez's "First Amended Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' First Amended Complaint" (ECF No. 23) [hereinafter "Gomez Motion"], filed on June 29, 2017;
• Plaintiffs Celia Sanchez and Oscar Salas's [hereinafter collectively referred to as "Plaintiffs"] "Response to Defendant Mando Kenneth Gomez's Rule 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss" (ECF No. 32) [hereinafter "Gomez Response"], filed on July 24, 2017;
• Defendant Gomez's "Reply to Plaintiffs' Response" (ECF No. 39) [hereinafter "Gomez Reply"], filed on July 31, 2017;
• Defendant Alberto Rivera's "Rule 12(b) Motion to Dismiss" (ECF No. 20) [hereinafter "Rivera Motion"], filed on June 28, 2017;
• Plaintiffs' "Response to Defendant Alberto Rivera's Rule 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss" (ECF No. 31) [hereinafter "Rivera Response"], filed on July 24, 2017;
• Defendant Rivera's "Reply to Plaintiffs' Response in Support of His Rule 12(b) Motion to Dismiss" (ECF No. 41) [hereinafter "Rivera Reply"], filed on July 31, 2017;
• Defendant Pamela Smith's "Rule 12(b) Motion to Dismiss" (ECF No. 19) [hereinafter "Smith Motion"], filed on June 28, 2017;
• Plaintiffs' "Response to Defendant Pamela Smith's Rule 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss" (ECF No. 30) [hereinafter "Smith Response"], filed on July 24, 2017; and
• Defendant Smith's "Reply to Plaintiffs' Response to Defendant Smith's Rule 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss" (ECF No. 40) [hereinafter "Smith Reply"], filed on July 31, 2017,

in the above-captioned cause. For the foregoing reasons, the Court will deny Defendant Gomez's, Rivera's, and Smith's [hereinafter collectively referred to as "Defendants"] motions.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Courts must accept the factual allegations of the complaint as true, view them in a light most favorable to the plaintiffs, and draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiffs' favor. Ramming v. United States, 281 F.3d 158, 161-62 (5th Cir. 2001). Thus, the following facts skew in favor of Plaintiffs, and the Court presents Defendants' version of events merely for context.[1] To the extent there are discrepancies between the accounts, the Court accepts Plaintiffs' al ECF legations as true.

         Plaintiffs are the parents of decedent Erik Emmanuel Salas-Sanchez. Pl's Am. Compl., June 15, 2017, ECF No. 17 [hereinafter "Amended Complaint"]. At all times relevant to the allegations in the Amended Complaint, Defendants were employed as police officers by the City of El Paso Police Department. Am. Compl. 2. On April 29, 2015, Erik Salas-Sanchez was twenty-two-years-old, stood five-foot-seven-inches tall, weighed 117 pounds, and lived with his family in El Paso, Texas. Id. On that same day, Defendants Gomez and Rivera responded to a police call from Mr. Salas-Sanchez's neighbor, Ms. Romero, claiming that Mr. Salas-Sanchez had been "present in her home unexpectedly but left." Id. Defendants Gomez and Rivera allege they were responding to a "burglary of a habitation" in progress, Gomez Motion 2, but Plaintiffs claim that Ms. Romero never told the officers that a burglary had occurred, Amended Complaint 2-3. Plaintiffs further allege that Ms. Romero informed the officers that she did not want to pursue legal action against Mr. Salas-Sanchez claiming that he was not a threat to her or her family when he was in her home. Am. Compl. 3.

         After speaking with Ms. Romero, Defendants Gomez and Rivera went across the street to Mr. Salas-Sanchez's family's residence and began speaking with Plaintiff Celia Sanchez, Mr. Salas-Sanchez's mother. Id. During the conversation, Mrs. Sanchez informed the officers that her son had been acting strange and exhibiting signs of mental illness. Id. Around this time, Defendant Smith arrived at the scene. Id.

         Plaintiffs claim that Mrs. Sanchez spoke calmly with the officers at her door while simultaneously speaking with her son and telling him "the police [were there] to talk with her, not him." Id. at 4. Despite this, Mr. Salas-Sanchez began telling the officers "to leave as he believed they had no right to be at his home." Id. Plaintiffs then claim that "[a]fter an extended period of time speaking with Mrs. Sanchez, and frustrated by [Mr. Salas-Sanchez's] insistence that they leave the home, Defendant Officers pushed Mrs. Sanchez out of the way and entered the home without consent and without a warrant." Id.

         Once inside the house, Plaintiffs claim that Defendant Gomez drew his service weapon and Defendant Rivera drew his taser and they pointed the weapons at Mr. Salas-Sanchez, at no time announcing that he was under arrest. Id. at 5. While the Defendants pointed their weapons at Mr. Salas-Sanchez, his sister stood in the living room watching the encounter with a newborn infant in her arms. Id. at 5.

         Then, although Mr. Salas-Sanchez was not resisting arrest or making threats, Defendant Rivera deployed his taser, which struck Mr. Salas-Sanchez but failed to lodge in his skin. Id. at 6. Defendant Rivera claims that he deployed his taser because Mr. Salas-Sanchez had an unidentified object in his hand and "refused to follow verbal commands to drop the object he was holding." Rivera Mot. 2. "Panicked" by Defendant Rivera's use of his taser, Mr. Salas-Sanchez "moved away" from but "did not make any aggressive movements towards Defendant Officers." Am. Compl. 5. At that point, Defendant Gomez fired five rounds from his service weapon at Mr. Salas-Sanchez, striking him twice in the back and once in the buttocks. Id. at 6. The shots proved fatal, and Mr. Salas-Sanchez was pronounced deceased upon arriving at the hospital. Id. No weapon was ever recovered at the scene. Id. Defendant Gomez claims that the officers ordered Mr. Salas-Sanchez to put down an object he was holding, but he refused to comply. Gomez Mot. 3. He further claims that, "eventually, the Decedent lunged at [him] inside the home and [he] shot the Decedent." Id. However, none of the Defendants elaborate on what this object was, and no firearms, knife, or any other weapon was ever found at the scene. Am. Compl. 5-6.

         Plaintiffs make two 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims in their Amended Complaint against Defendant Gomez, two such claims against Defendant Rivera, and one claim against Defendant Smith. First, Plaintiffs allege that all Defendants violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments by intentionally entering Plaintiffs' home without a warrant or probable cause and under no exigent circumstances [hereinafter "Unlawful Entry Claim"]. Id. at 22. They further claim that Defendant Rivera's use of a taser against Mr. Salas-Sanchez was "an objectively unreasonable and excessive amount of force" in violation of the same amendments [hereinafter "Rivera Excessive Force Claim"]. Id. at 23. Finally, they claim Defendant Gomez "shot and killed [Mr. Salas-Sanchez] when [he] posed no imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death to Defendant Gomez or others" [hereinafter "Gomez Excessive Force Claim"]. Id. at 7. Plaintiffs argue that his use of deadly force against Mr. Salas-Sanchez was "objectively unreasonable and grossly excessive" in violation of Mr. Salas-Sanchez's rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Id. at 23.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         A. Motion to Dismiss

         Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a court may dismiss an action for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." In determining whether a plaintiff states a valid claim, a court "accept[s] all well-pleaded facts as true and view[s] those facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs." Gonzalez v. Kay, 577 F.3d 600, 603 (5th Cir. 2009) (quoting Dorsey v. Portfolio Equities, Inc., 540 F.3d 333, 338 (5th Cir. 2008)).

         "To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face/" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). "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. A pleading that offers mere "labels and conclusions*. . . will not do, " especially when it simply tenders "'naked assertion[s]' devoid of'further factual enhancement.'" Id. (second alteration in original) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 557). Determining plausibility is a "context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id. at 679.

         B. Qualified Immunity

         "Qualified immunity shields federal and state officials from money damages unless a plaintiff pleads facts showing (1) that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that the right was 'clearly established* at the time of the challenged conduct." Davidson v. City of Stafford, Tex., 848 F.3d 384, 391 (5th Cir. 2017), as revised (Mar. 31, 2017) (quoting Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 735 (2011)). "A right is clearly established when 'it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted.", Ramirez v. Martinez, 716 F.3d 369, 375 (5th Cir. 2013) (citing Jones v. Lowndes Cty., Miss., 678 F.3d 344, 351 (5th Cir. 2012)). "Qualified immunity 'gives government officials breathing room to make reasonable but mistaken judgments/ and 'protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law/" Messerschmidt v. Millender, 565 U.S. 535, 546 (2012) (quoting al-Kidd, 563 U.S. at 743).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Unlawful Entry Claim

         1. Whether Plaintiffs State a Constitutional Claim

         "It is a 'basic principle of Fourth Amendment law' that searches and seizures inside a home without a warrant are presumptively unreasonable." Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 586 (1980). There exist only a '"few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions' to that general rule." City of Ontario, Cat v. Quon, 560 U.S. 746, 760 (2010) (citing Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 357 (1967)). These exceptions include the resident's consent or a combination of probable cause and exigent circumstances. Gates v. Tex. Dep't of Protective & Regulatory Servs., 537 F.3d 404, 420 (5th Cir. 2008) (citing United States v. Gomez-Moreno, 479 F.3d 350, 354 (5th Cir. 2007)). Exigent circumstances include the need to "render emergency assistance to an injured occupant or protect an occupant from imminent injury" or when there are "[i]mmediate safety risks to officers." Id. at 421. "Because it is essentially a factual determination, there is no set formula for determining when exigent circumstances may justify a warrantless entry." United States v. Jones, 239 F.3d 716, 720 (5th Cir. 2001).

         Defendant Gomez offers a one-paragraph argument in his Motion explaining the law regarding warrantless entry and why the probable-cause-plus-exigent-circumstances exception should apply in this case. Gomez Mot. 12-13. Specifically, Defendant Gomez's argument consists of a defense-friendly exposition of the facts followed by a conclusory statement that"[i]t is clear" that the Unlawful Entry Claim should be dismissed due to the presence of probable cause and exigent circumstances. Id. at 13. Notably, Defendant Gomez provides scant analysis of what constitutes exigent circumstances or probable cause.

         Defendants Rivera and Smith offer no legal argument in their Motions regarding this issue. See generally Rivera Mot.; Smith Mot. Defendants Rivera and Smith appear to rest entirely on various iterations of their assertion that "there is no 'well-pleaded' factual allegation that Officer Rivera did not have probable cause or explaining how Plaintiffs conclude exigent circumstances did not exist." Rivera Mot. 4 (emphasis added); Smith Mot. 4 (emphasis added). Defendant Gomez makes similar assertions. Gomez Mot. 12. These assertions evince a misunderstanding of both the Fourth Amendment and federal pleading standards.

         First, the Supreme Court has deemed it "presumptively unreasonable"-and therefore a violation of the Fourth Amendment- for an officer to enter a residence uninvited and without a warrant. See Payton, 445 U.S. at 586. Thus, to state a plausible claim for relief, a plaintiff must plead little more than the following facts: (1) the officer entered the home; (2) there was no warrant; and (3) there was no emergency or other justification for entering the home. Plaintiffs have unquestionably pleaded those facts here. See Am. Compl. 4 ("Defendant Officers pushed Mrs. Sanchez out of the way and entered the home without consent and without a warrant" when there was no "indication that [Mr. Salas-Sanchez] posed a substantial risk of harm or an immediate threat to the Defendant Officers, himself, Mrs. Sanchez, or others.").

         Second, Defendants criticize Plaintiffs for pleading only "labels and conclusions" because Plaintiffs allege that "all Defendant officers lacked probable cause . . . and no exigent circumstances existed."[2]Smith Mot. 4; Rivera Mot. 4. However, this takes Plaintiffs' statements out of context. Before making these conclusions, Plaintiffs describe numerous other allegations in order to support their conclusions. See Am. Compl. 3 (Mrs. Sanchez "informed [the officers] that her son was not under the influence of any illicit drugs"; "Mrs. Sanchez was cooperative in answering the officers' questions"; "[a]t no point in the conversation did the officers inform Mrs. Sanchez that they were interested in arresting or questioning [Mr. Salas-Sanchez]"; Mrs. Sanchez did not "indicate that [Mr. Salas-Sanchez]'s mental health issues posed a threat"; all of the officers knew that "Mrs. Sanchez did not believe her son posed a threat to anyone"; Mr. Salas-Sanchez "did not have any weapons and did not threaten the police or anyone else"). Thus, Defendants' accusation that Plaintiffs' statements are merely "conclusions masquerading as facts" (Smith Mot. 3; Rivera Mot. 3) is without merit.

         Conversely, Plaintiffs proffer a convincing argument that the warrantless entry was not justified. First, Defendants do not dispute that they did not have consent. Second, the facts as pleaded by Plaintiffs provide only weak support for probable cause to arrest Mr. Salas-Sanchez for his unauthorized presence in a neighbor's home. The officers were responding to an uncorroborated allegation by a single individual-who did not claim to be threatened or in fear for her or her family's safety-that Mr. Salas-Sanchez was present in her home.

         Third, even if the Court assumes probable cause, there were no exigencies present here to justify the officers' uninvited entry into Plaintiffs' home.[3] At no point did Mrs. Sanchez, who was talking calmly with officers on her front porch, ever indicate that she or anyone in the house was in danger. Mr. Salas-Sanchez did not have any weapons, did not threaten officers, and posed no apparent threat to the infant or other occupants in the house. Despite Defendants' characterization of Mr. Salas-Sanchez's alleged crime as a "home invasion, " see, e.g., Gomez Motion 5, [4] Mr. Salas-Sanchez was only accused of committing a non-violent trespass by being present in his neighbor's ...


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