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Hernandez v. City of Grand Prairie Texas

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Dallas Division

September 15, 2017

JESSICA HERNANDEZ, Individually and as Next Friend of AH, a minor child, Plaintiffs,
v.
CITY OF GRAND PRAIRIE TEXAS; C. CANELOS, Individually and in his official capacity; and DOE 1, Individually and in his official capacity, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Sam A. Lindsay United States District Judge.

         Before the court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, filed November 11, 2016. After careful consideration of the motion, and brief, response, reply, pleadings, and applicable law, the court grants in part and denies in part Defendants' Motion to Dismiss.

         I. Background

         Jessica Hernandez (“Hernandez”), individually, and as next friend of AH, a minor child (collectively, “Plaintiffs”), filed this action on August 22, 2016, against the City of Grand Prairie (the “City”), C. Canelos (“Canelos”) (collectively, “Defendants”), and Doe 1 (“Doe”). Plaintiffs sued Defendants and Doe pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for alleged violations of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution for unreasonable search and seizure, and for the use of excessive force.[1] Plaintiffs also assert state law claims of assault; negligence; intentional infliction of emotional distress (“IIED”); negligent hiring, training, and retention; gross negligence; and respondent superior. Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, and they contend that this entire action should be dismissed.

         Defendants contend that Plaintiffs' civil rights claim under section 1983 against the City fails because the allegations of Plaintiffs' Original Complaint (“Complaint”) do not allege sufficiently that Plaintiff was injured as a result of an unconstitutional policy or custom of the City; that the City has governmental immunity with respect to the state law claims and that such immunity extends to Canelos individually; that punitive damages are not recoverable against the City; that Plaintiffs' excessive force claim against Canelos fails because the allegations are too conclusory and, therefore, fail to state a claim against Canelos; that Canelos is entitled to qualified immunity on the federal claim asserted by Plaintiffs because he did not violate clearly established law of which a reasonable law enforcement officer would have known.

         Plaintiffs counter that the allegations of Plaintiff's Complaint are factually and legally sufficient to withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. They urge the court to deny the motion to dismiss.

         II. Rule 12(b)(6) Standard

         To defeat a motion to dismiss filed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a plaintiff must plead “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007); Reliable Consultants, Inc. v. Earle, 517 F.3d 738, 742 (5th Cir. 2008); Guidry v. American Pub. Life Ins. Co., 512 F.3d 177, 180 (5th Cir. 2007). A claim meets the plausibility test “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. The plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement, ' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal citations omitted). While a complaint need not contain detailed factual allegations, it must set forth “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 (citation omitted). The “[f]actual allegations of [a complaint] must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level . . . on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact).” Id. (quotation marks, citations, and footnote omitted). When the allegations of the pleading do not allow the court to infer more than the mere possibility of wrongdoing, they fall short of showing that the pleader is entitled to relief. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679.

         In reviewing a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court must accept all well-pleaded facts in the complaint as true and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Sonnier v. State Farm Mutual Auto. Ins. Co., 509 F.3d 673, 675 (5th Cir. 2007); Martin K. Eby Constr. Co. v. Dallas Area Rapid Transit, 369 F.3d 464, 467 (5th Cir. 2004); Baker v. Putnal, 75 F.3d 190, 196 (5th Cir. 1996). In ruling on such a motion, the court cannot look beyond the pleadings. Id.; Spivey v. Robertson, 197 F.3d 772, 774 (5th Cir. 1999). The pleadings include the complaint and any documents attached to it. Collins v. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, 224 F.3d 496, 498-99 (5th Cir. 2000). Likewise, “‘[d]ocuments that a defendant attaches to a motion to dismiss are considered part of the pleadings if they are referred to in the plaintiff's complaint and are central to [the plaintiff's] claims.'” Id. (quoting Venture Assocs. Corp. v. Zenith Data Sys. Corp., 987 F.2d 429, 431 (7th Cir. 1993)). In this regard, a document that is part of the record but not referred to in a plaintiff's complaint and not attached to a motion to dismiss may not be considered by the court in ruling on a 12(b)(6) motion. Gines v. D.R. Horton, Inc., 699 F.3d 812, 820 & n.9 (5th Cir. 2012) (citation omitted). Further, it is well-established and ‘“clearly proper in deciding a 12(b)(6) motion [that a court may] take judicial notice of matters of public record.”' Funk v. Stryker Corp., 631 F.3d 777, 783 (5th Cir. 2011) (quoting Norris v. Hearst Trust, 500 F.3d 454, 461 n.9 (5th Cir. 2007) (citing Cinel v. Connick, 15 F.3d 1338, 1343 n.6 (5th Cir. 1994)).[2]

         The ultimate question in a Rule 12(b)(6) motion is whether the complaint states a valid claim when it is viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Great Plains Trust Co. v. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, 313 F.3d 305, 312 (5th Cir. 2002). While well-pleaded facts of a complaint are to be accepted as true, legal conclusions are not “entitled to the assumption of truth.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (citation omitted). Further, a court is not to strain to find inferences favorable to the plaintiff and is not to accept conclusory allegations, unwarranted deductions, or legal conclusions. R2 Invs. LDC v. Phillips, 401 F.3d 638, 642 (5th Cir. 2005) (citations omitted). The court does not evaluate the plaintiff's likelihood of success; instead, it only determines whether the plaintiff has pleaded a legally cognizable claim. United States ex rel. Riley v. St. Luke's Episcopal Hosp., 355 F.3d 370, 376 (5th Cir. 2004). Stated another way, when a court deals with a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, its task is to test the sufficiency of the allegations contained in the pleadings to determine whether they are adequate enough to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Mann v. Adams Realty Co., 556 F.2d 288, 293 (5th Cir. 1977); Doe v. Hillsboro Indep. Sch. Dist., 81 F.3d 1395, 1401 (5th Cir. 1996), rev'd on other grounds, 113 F.3d 1412 (5th Cir. 1997) (en banc). Accordingly, denial of a 12(b)(6) motion has no bearing on whether a plaintiff ultimately establishes the necessary proof to prevail on a claim that withstands a 12(b)(6) challenge. Adams, 556 F.2d at 293.

         III. Analysis

         A. Plaintiffs' Section 1983 Claim Against the City

         1. The Parties' Contentions

         Defendants, among other things, contend that the allegations of Plaintiffs' Complaint are too conclusory to state a claim for municipal liability against the City for the failure to train, discipline, or supervise its police officers with respect to the use of force. Plaintiffs discuss municipal liability in a general sense, that is, that a municipal may be sued under section 1983, which is really not in dispute; however, Plaintiffs do not address the sufficiency of their pleadings and state that discovery will prove the existence of a policy or custom adopted or ratified by the City in which it failed to train, discipline, and supervise its police officers regarding the use of force when interacting with members of the public. This approach puts the “cart before the horse, ” as Plaintiffs must first get past the pleadings stage before they argue about what the evidence will show or prove. For the reasons that follow, the court agrees with Defendants that Plaintiffs have failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted against the City.

         2. Plaintiffs' Allegations Regarding the City

         The court now sets forth the allegations Plaintiffs make regarding their section 1983 claims against the City. Plaintiffs assert as follows:

30. Defendant City of Grand Prairie, Texas is also liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for failing to supervise and train its police officers and for sanctioning officer misconduct. In addition, Defendant City of Grand Prairie, Texas has a general policy, pattern and/or practice of not disciplining police officers for their conduct, thereby sanctioning the police officers' actions, which amounts to a departmental policy of sanctioning constitutional violations. Defendant City of Grand Prairie, Texas' failure to supervise and train its police officers, and its willful sanctioning of constitutional violations by its employees, constitutes gross negligence and/or deliberate and conscious indifference to peoples' rights including the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.
31. Additionally, municipalities may be held liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for constitutional torts that are committed pursuant to a policy, procedure, practice, or custom of the municipality. Even if Defendant City of Grand Prairie, Texas' practice of sanctioning constitutional torts was not authorized by an officially adopted policy, the practice may be so common and well-settled that it fairly represents official policy. See Bd. of County Commr's of Bryan County v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 404 (1997).
32. In this matter, Defendant City of Grand Prairie, Texas' formal and informal actions in sanctioning, overlooking, hiding and/or tacitly encouraging police misconduct by its officers, the IAD Department, the Grand Prairie police chief, as well as its Mayor and City Council reflect a policy, practice custom and procedure authorizing and allowing the use of excessive force that violated the civil rights of Plaintiff Jessica Hernandez. Consequently, Defendant City of Grand Prairie, Texas is liable for the harm caused to Plaintiff Jessica Hernandez as a result of its policies, practices customs and procedures.
33. Defendant City of Grand Prairie, Texas is liable for the constitutional torts of Defendants C. Canelos and Doe 1 because it sanctioned the following customs, practices, and policies:
(A) Using excessive force to carry out an otherwise routine detainment;
(B) Using excessive force when such force is not necessary or permitted by law;
(C) Ignoring the serious need for training and supervision of its officers in regards to the use of force;
(D) Failing to discipline those persons who are found to have engaged in the use of excessive force upon those entrusted to their care and/or under their control;
(E) Failing to adequately supervise and/or observe its officers;
(F) Failing to adequately train officers regarding the availability of alternative means of detaining persons other than the use of force.
(G) Failing to discharge officers who have shown a pattern or practice of using excessive force; and
(H) Adopting a practice whereby officers who are unfit for peace officer duties, as shown by prior actions in the line of duty, are allowed to retain their positions.
34. At the time Plaintiff Jessica Hernandez was slammed into the wall, Defendants C. Canelos and Doe 1 were acting pursuant to an official city policy, practice, custom and procedure that sanctions, overlooks and/or authorizes police officers' excessive use of force. See Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 659 (1978).
35. Thus, Defendant City of Grand Prairie, Texas' policy of sanctioning, overlooking and/or authorizing police brutality was a direct cause of Plaintiff Jessica Hernandez's injuries; in particular, its policy caused Plaintiff Jessica Hernandez to be deprived of her constitutional rights to be free from unlawful seizure and objectively unreasonable force under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and constitutes gross negligence and/or deliberate and conscious indifference to the rights, safety, and welfare of others, including Plaintiff Jessica Hernandez.

Pls.' Original Compl. ¶¶ 30-35.

         3. Municipal Liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983

         A governmental entity can be sued and subjected to monetary damages and injunctive relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 only if its official policy or custom causes a person to be deprived of a federally protected right. Board of the Cty. Comm'rs of Bryan Cty. v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 403 (1997); Monell v. New York City Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978). A governmental entity cannot be liable for civil rights violations under a theory of respondeat superior or vicarious liability. Id.; see also Baskin v. Parker, 602 F.2d 1205, 1208 (5th Cir. 1979). Official policy is defined as:

1. A policy statement, ordinance, regulation, or decision that is officially adopted and promulgated by the [city] lawmaking officers or by an official to whom the lawmakers have delegated policy-making authority; or
2. A persistent, widespread practice of [city] officials or employees which, although not authorized by officially adopted and promulgated policy, is so common and well-settled as to constitute a custom that fairly represents [city] policy. Actual or constructive knowledge of such custom must be attributable to the governing body of the ...

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