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Ramirez v. Escajeda

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

January 11, 2018

MARIA RAMIREZ and PEDRO RAMIREZ, as Representatives of the Estate and Statutory Death Beneficiaries of DANIEL ANTONIO RAMIREZ, Plaintiffs,
v.
RUBEN ESCAJEDA, JR. and CITY OF EL PASO, TEXAS, Defendants.

          ORDER

          DAVID C. GUADERRAMA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Presently before the Court are Defendant City of El Paso, Texas's (the "City of El Paso") "Rule 12 Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' Original Complaint" ("El Paso Motion") (ECF No. 8) filed on August 1, 2017, and Defendant Ruben Escajeda, Jr.'s ("Officer Escajeda") "Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' Original Complaint" ("Escajeda Motion") (ECF No. 14) filed on August 16, 2017. For the reasons that follow, the Court DENIES the City of El Paso's Motion and Officer Escajeda's Motion.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         This case arises from the circumstances surrounding the death of Daniel Antonio Ramirez ("Mr. Ramirez"). Plaintiffs are the parents of Mr. Ramirez. Compl. at 1. Officer Escajeda was employed as a police officer by the City of El Paso Police Department ("EPPD") at the time of Mr. Ramirez's death. Id. at 2. On June 23, 2015, Mr. Ramirez's mother, Maria Ramirez, called 911 to report that her son was threatening to hang himself and needed help. Id. Officer Escajeda was the first officer to respond to the call. Id. After arriving at the house, Officer Escajeda proceeded to the backyard to look for Mr. Ramirez. Id. at 3.

         After entering the backyard, Plaintiffs allege that Officer Escajeda saw that Mr. Ramirez was in the process of hanging himself from a basketball net. Id. Further, Plaintiffs assert that Officer Escajeda saw Mr. Ramirez grabbing the rope with both hands and touching the ground with his tiptoes to try and save his own life. Id. After seeing Mr. Ramirez struggling to save himself, Plaintiffs contend that Officer Escajeda deployed his taser on him, striking him in the chest and abdomen, which caused his body to go limp. Id. After deploying the taser and watching Mr. Ramirez's body go limp, Plaintiffs aver that Officer Escajeda finally removed him from the noose. Id.

         By the time Officer Escajeda removed Mr. Ramirez from the noose, other officers had arrived, and cardiopulmonary resuscitation was conducted to no avail. Id. Subsequently, Mr. Ramirez was transported to Del Sol Medical Center where efforts to resuscitate him continued, but he was eventually pronounced deceased. Id. On June 22, 2017, Plaintiffs filed a complaint before this Court alleging that Officer Escajeda and the City of El Paso are liable for the deprivation of Mr. Ramirez's constitutional rights. Id. at 18-20. By their complaint, Plaintiffs allege that Officer Escajeda used excessive force against Mr. Ramirez and further make six distinct allegations asserting that the City of El Paso was "directly responsible" for Officer Escajeda's alleged misconduct by:

A) maintaining a policy or custom of excessive force by officers that is so common and widespread as to constitute a custom that fairly represents municipal policy;
B) maintaining a policy or custom of excessive force by officers when the officer is on notice of a victim's mental health problems that is so common and widespread as to constitute a custom that fairly represents municipal policy;
C) failing to properly train, supervise, or discipline members of the [EPPD], including Defendant Escajeda, not to use intermediate force, such as a taser, against an individual who does not pose a threat to the officer or others and does not display active aggression or defensive resistance;
D) failing to properly train, supervise, or discipline members of the [EPPD], including Defendant Escajeda, on mental health issues and how to properly assess the situation and take action to de-escalate the situation and bring the crisis to a non-violent conclusion where their officers have notice and knowledge that the person for whom they are called has mental health issues;
E) failing to institute proper procedures to ensure that EPPD officers use appropriate de-escalation tactics so as to bring the crisis to a non-violent conclusion in situations in which it is known that an unarmed resident has mental health issues; and
F) failing to pursue criminal or disciplinary charges or support criminal or disciplinary action against officers, including Escajeda, who have deprived citizens and residents of El Paso of their constitutional rights.

Id. Conversely, both Officer Escajeda and the City of El Paso filed Motions to Dismiss alleging that Plaintiffs' complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Escajeda Mot. at 8; El Paso Mot. at 21-22.

         II. STANDARD

         As a threshold matter, the Court notes the tension between the holdings in Leatherman and Iqbal. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (holding that a complaint must include enough factual allegations to state a "plausible" claim for relief); Leatherman v. Tarrant Cty. Narcotics Intelligence & Coordination Unit, 507 U.S. 163, 164 (1993) (holding that plaintiffs need only state "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief and do not need to conform to any sort of "heightened pleading standard ... in civil rights cases alleging municipal liability"). Courts are split over whether to apply the "short and plain statement" standard from Leatherman or the "facial plausibility" standard from Iqbal; some courts have even adopted a hybrid approach. See Sanchez v. Gomez, No. EP-17-CV-133-PRM, 2017 WL 4479260, at *3-4 (W.D. Tex. Oct. 6, 2017) (collecting cases and providing a comprehensive discussion of the issue). Out of an abundance of caution, the Court will apply the "facial plausibility" standard from Iqbal;[2] nonetheless, the Court notes that using the less-stringent standard from Leatherman would not change the outcome here.

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) allows a party to seek dismissal of a claim for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). On a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a court generally accepts well-pleaded facts as true and construes the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Gines, 699 F.3d at 816. A viable complaint must include "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Ail. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). To meet this "facial plausibility" standard, a plaintiff must "plead[ ] factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). The Court's task, then, is "to determine whether the plaintiff has stated a legally cognizable claim that is plausible, not to evaluate the plaintiffs likelihood of success." Doe ex rel Magee, 675 F.3d at 854 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Moreover, "[m]otions to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) are viewed with disfavor and are rarely granted." Lormand v. U.S. Unwired, Inc., 565 F.3d 228, 232 (5th Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Test Masters Educ. Servs., Inc. v. Singh, 428 F.3d 559, 570 (5th Cir. 2005)).

         III. DISCUSSION

         The City of El Paso and Officer Escajeda both move to dismiss Plaintiffs' complaint on the basis that they failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. El Paso Mot. at 3; Escajeda Mot. at 2. By his Motion, Officer Escajeda alleges that the complaint fails to overcome his qualified immunity. Escajeda Mot. at 9. Moreover, the City of El Paso asserts that the complaint fails to plead facts sufficient to demonstrate municipal liability. El Paso Mot. at 22. The Court will first analyze Plaintiffs' claims against the City of El Paso before turning to their claims against Officer Escajeda.

         A. Plaintiffs' Claims against the City of El Paso

         Plaintiffs assert six specific failures on the part of the City of El Paso that allegedly caused the deprivation of Mr. Ramirez's civil rights. Compl. at 18-19. These six failures can be distilled down to four distinct customs or policies, which are the City of El Paso's failure to discipline officers who used excessive force against mentally ill persons, the City of El Paso's failure to train officers on how to handle mentally ill persons in crisis, the City of El Paso's failure to institute proper procedures for deescalating officer encounters with mentally ill persons ...


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