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Wilcomb v. City of Houston

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

February 16, 2018

Tiffany Wilcomb, as Independent Administrator of the Estate of Jami Nicole Gaubutz, Plaintiff,
City of Houston, et al., Defendants.


          Gray H. Miller Judge

         Pending before the court is a motion to dismiss filed by defendants City of Houston (the “City”), Sergeant Paul Terry, Officer Hoang Tran, Officer Charles Farmer, Officer Kevin Tabora, and Officer Sylvia Lopez (collectively, “Defendants”).[1] Dkt. 12. Plaintiff Tiffany Wilcomb responded. Dkt. 15. Defendants replied. Dkt. 17. Having considered the motion, response, reply, and applicable law, the court is of the opinion that: (1) the motion should be GRANTED in part and DENIED in part and (2) that Wilcomb should be GRANTED leave to amend her complaint.

         I. Background

         This is a civil rights case arising out of the death of twenty-nine year old Jami Nicole Gaubatz.[2] Dkt. 1 at 3. Gaubatz's aunt, Wilcomb, brings this suit as the independent administrator of her late niece's estate. Id.

         On July 26, 2015, the officers responded to a suicide call at an apartment in Houston.[3] Id. at 8. When the officers arrived, Gaubatz seemed distressed. Id. At 1:20 p.m., the officers handcuffed Gaubatz and told her to sit down. Id. at 9; Dkt. 15 at 2 n.7. She sat outside in unobstructed sunlight for an hour and twenty minutes while the temperature averaged 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit with a heat index of 106.3 degrees Fahrenheit. Id. Later, the officers put her in a patrol car and decided to arrest and book her for public intoxication. Dkt. 1 at 9. At 2:40 p.m., the officers drove Gaubatz to a jail. Id. When they arrived there at 3:10 p.m, she was unresponsive. Id. At 3:43 p.m., an ambulance arrived. Id. at 10. At 4:10 p.m., the ambulance took her from the jail to a hospital where it arrived at 4:27 p.m. Id.

         At 4:49 p.m., before being charged with a crime, Gaubatz died from drug intoxication. Id. at 10-11. The City did not discipline the officers. Id. at 22. Additionally, it “concealed their wrongdoing.” Id.

         Between 2010 and 2015, 112 individuals died in HPD custody. Id. at 10-11. However, HPD never charged ninety-nine of those individuals (including Gaubatz) with a crime. Id. And, Gaubatz's death marked the nineteenth in-custody death due to alcohol or drug intoxication. Id. According to Wilcomb, the City “overlook[s], hid[es], and tacitly encourag[es] misconduct through other officers, the Internal Affairs Division, the Houston Police Chiefs, the Homicide Division, as well as a line of mayors . . . .” Id. at 18. Additionally, the City “was aware that it was highly predictable that its officers would encounter individuals like Jami Gaubatz . . . .” Id. at 19. And, the City requires all HPD officers to spend forty hours learning “how to deal with the mentally ill” through a Crisis Intervention Training Program. Id. at 20.

         Wilcomb sues Defendants for Fourth Amendment violations, damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, personal injuries, and wrongful death. Id. at 11-22. Defendants move to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Dkt. 12.

         II. Legal Standard

         Rule 8(a)(2) requires that the pleading contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). A party against whom claims are asserted may move to dismiss those claims when the nonmovant has failed “to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6).

         To survive a motion to dismiss, a plaintiff must plead “‘enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” In re Katrina Canal Breaches Litig., 495 F.3d 191, 205 (5th Cir. 2007) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955 (2007)). “Factual allegations 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).” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citations omitted). While the allegations need not be overly detailed, a plaintiff's pleading must still provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief, which “requires more than labels and conclusions, ” and “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Id.; see also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009). “[C]onclusory allegations or legal conclusions masquerading as factual conclusions will not suffice to prevent a motion to dismiss.” Blackburn v. City of Marshall, 42 F.3d 925, 931 (5th Cir. 1995). Instead, “[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.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Evaluating a motion to dismiss is a “context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id. at 679. “Ultimately, the question for a court to decide is whether the complaint states a valid claim when viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” NuVasive, Inc. v. Renaissance Surgical Ctr., 853 F.Supp.2d 654, 658 (S.D. Tex. 2012).

         III. Analysis

         Wilcomb alleges that Defendants violated Gaubatz's Fourth Amendment rights by: (1) using excessive force when the officers attempted to seize, arrest, search, or make an investigatory stop of Gaubatz; (2) failing to provide proper supervision to prevent such incidents of excessive force; (3) failing to provide proper training to prevent such incidents of excessive force; and (4) adopting policies that caused Gaubatz's death. Dkt. 1 at 12. Wilcomb alleges two separate § 1983 claims: one for peace-officer liability (against the officers in their individual and official capacities) and one for municipal liability. Id. at 12, 14.

         A. Applicable law

         “Section 1983 provides a claim against anyone who ‘under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State' violates another's constitutional rights.” Whitley v. Hanna, 726 F.3d 631, 638 (5th Cir. 2013) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1983)). To state a § 1983 claim, Wilcomb must: (1) allege a violation of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States and (2) demonstrate that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law. Id. Municipalities and cities qualify as “persons” under § 1983. Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 690-91, 98 S.Ct. 2018 (1978)).

         “The Fourth Amendment prohibits ‘unreasonable . . . seizures.'” Windham v. Harris County, 875 F.3d 229, 239 (5th Cir. 2017) (quoting U.S. Const. amend. IV).[4] “A seizure is generally reasonable only if justified by an individualized suspicion of wrongdoing . . . and only if carried out in a reasonable manner . . . [and] without the use of excessive force.” Id. at 239, 242 (internal citations omitted). “Officers who conduct unreasonable seizures in violation of clearly established law may be liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.”[5] Id. at 241. In addition, “local governments may be liable if their policies or customs caused the violation.” Id. (citing Monell, 436 U.S. at 690-91).

         “To prevail on an excessive force claim, a plaintiff must show (1) an injury that (2) resulted directly and only from the use of force that was excessive to the need and that (3) the force used was objectively unreasonable.” Windham, 875 F.3d at 242 (internal quotation omitted). “Whether a use of force is reasonable must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene.” Id. (internal quotation omitted).

         B. Wilcomb's claims against the officers

         Wilcomb alleges that: “the officers violated the Fourth Amendment by using excessive force in their 26 July attempts to seize, arrest, or make an investigatory stop of Ms. Gaubatz.” Dkt. 1 at 8-10; Dkt. 15 at 7. Wilcomb alleges that the violations occurred when the officers ignored signs of Gaubatz's mental distress after they responded to a suicide call. Id. Wilcomb asserts that the officers should have taken Gaubatz to get medical ...

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