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Davis v. City of Alvarado

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

December 3, 2019

Jacob Davis, Plaintiff,
v.
City of Alvarado, et al., Defendants.

          FINDINGS, CONCLUSIONS, AND RECOMMENDATION OF THE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          RENEE HARRIS TOLIVER, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and the district judge's Order Referring Case, Doc. 37, this case has been referred to the undersigned United States magistrate judge for pretrial management. The cause is now before the Court for a recommendation on Defendants' Second Motion & Brief to Dismiss. Doc. 21. For the reasons set forth herein, it is recommended that the motion be GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In April 2019, Plaintiff filed the operative complaint - his third amended - raising a number of claims against (1) the City of Alvarado (the “City”); (2) the City Police Department (the “APD”); (3) APD Chief Brad Anderson (“Chief Anderson”); and (4) APD police officers Matthew Dill, Solomon Omotoya, and Chad Marshall. Doc. 20. Plaintiff alleges that prior to the events that underlie this dispute, he purchased a “homemade” trailer that had been issued license plates for more than ten years, but had no vehicle identification number (“VIN”). Doc. 20 at 3. After the purchase, Plaintiff conveyed the trailer to his corporation JKD Industries, Inc. (“JKD”), which registered it and then bailed it to Plaintiff at an unspecified time. Doc. 20 at 3.

         In November 2018, Plaintiff was towing the trailer through the City with his grandfather and children and stopped to refuel his truck on their way out of town. Doc. 20 at 3. While Plaintiff was pumping gas, Officers Dill and Omotoya allegedly approached him without any legal cause and asked who the owner of the trailer was and if he had any “papers” for it. Doc. 20 at 4. Plaintiff responded that he was the owner, produced a registration receipt, and informed the officers that he had purchased the trailer homemade and there was no VIN that he knew of. Doc. 20 at 4. Officer Dill informed Plaintiff that if the trailer did not have a VIN, it was presumed to be stolen and Plaintiff would have to take it to the APD. Doc. 20 at 4-5.

         Officers Dill and Omotoya then asked Plaintiff what was in the trailer and proceeded to search it for the next 30 minutes. Doc. 20 at 5. After they determined that the trailer had no VIN, they escorted Plaintiff to the APD where they informed him they were going to “seize the trailer.” Doc. 20 at 5. Plaintiff went inside to speak to Chief Anderson who informed him that he would rely on Officer Dill's decision concerning the seizure because Officer Dill was the “authority on the legalities of trailers.” Doc. 20 at 5. After some time, Plaintiff and his family continued on their trip in a borrowed trailer and left Plaintiff's trailer at the APD where it remains. Doc. 20 at 5-6.

         Plaintiff avers that his trailer has never had a VIN and was not required to because it was homemade, rather than manufactured. Doc. 20 at 3, 10-11. As such, Plaintiff contends that the trailer was not contraband subject to seizure, yet Officer Dill commenced a forfeiture proceeding in Justice of the Peace Court in Johnson County (“JP Court”). Doc. 20 at 6. Plaintiff also contends that around this time, Officer Marshall obtained an arrest warrant for Plaintiff, which was subsequently recalled, and then filed a misdemeanor charge against Plaintiff for having a fictitious license plate. Doc. 20 at 10. Plaintiff alleges, on information and belief, that (1) Defendants have a history of “bringing spurious and groundless criminal charges against persons such as Plaintiff, ” and (2) Officers Dill and Marshall “routinely file forfeiture proceedings in [JP Court] even though they are not attorneys, ” which forfeitures benefit the City or the APD. Doc. 20 at 10-12.

         In detailing his specific causes of action, Plaintiff states that (1) the fact that his trailer had no VIN did not raise a presumption that it was stolen or otherwise illegal and, because there existed no “articulable facts that create[d] some reasonable inference of criminal conduct, ” the search and seizure of the trailer violated his Fourth Amendment rights[1]; and (2) Defendants' attempts to forfeit his rights in the trailer violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against excessive fines. Doc. 20 at 7, 11-12. Plaintiff seeks actual and punitive damages, a declaratory judgment to the effect that his trailer is not stolen or contraband and that he is the legal owner thereof, and attorneys' fees and costs. Doc. 20 at 12-13. Defendants now move to dismiss Plaintiffs' complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Doc. 21.

         II. APPLICABLE LAW

         A plaintiff fails to state a claim for relief under Rule 12(b)(6) when the complaint does not contain “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). In order to overcome a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a plaintiff's complaint should “contain either direct allegations on every material point necessary to sustain a recovery . . . or contain allegations from which an inference may fairly be drawn that evidence on these material points will be introduced at trial.” Campbell v. City of San Antonio, 43 F.3d 973, 975 (5th Cir. 1995) (quotation omitted). The complaint should not simply contain conclusory allegations, but must be pled with a certain level of factual specificity, and the district court cannot “accept as true conclusory allegations or unwarranted deductions of fact.” Collins v. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, 224 F.3d 496, 498 (5th Cir. 2000) (quotation omitted).

         Section 1983 “provides a federal cause of action for the deprivation, under color of law, of a citizen's ‘rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws' of the United States.” Livadas v. Bradshaw, 512 U.S. 107, 132 (1994). To state a claim under section 1983, Plaintiff must allege facts that show that he has been deprived of a right secured by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, and the defendants were acting under color of state law. See Flagg Bros., Inc. v. Brooks, 436 U.S. 149, 155 (1978).

         “The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials ‘from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009) (citation omitted). The qualified immunity inquiry involves two prongs that the Court must answer affirmatively before an official is subject to liability: (1) whether the facts that a plaintiff has alleged make out a violation of a constitutional right and (2) whether the right at issue was “clearly established” at the time of defendant's alleged misconduct. Id. at 232. A court may begin its assessment with either prong. Id. at 236 (overruling in part Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194 (2001)).

         A municipality does not automatically incur section 1983 liability for injuries caused solely by its employees, and it cannot be held liable under section 1983 on a respondeat superior theory. Monell v. Dept. of Social Services of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658, 691, 694 (1978); Johnson v. Deep East Tex. Reg'l Narcotics, 379 F.3d 293, 308 (5th Cir. 2004). Rather, to establish municipal liability, a plaintiff must show that (1) an official policy (2) promulgated by a municipal policymaker (3) was the moving force behind the violation of a constitutional right. Hicks-Fields v. Harris Cty., 860 F.3d 803, 808 (5th Cir. 2017) (citations omitted).

         A policy or custom can be either (1) a policy statement or rule that is officially promulgated by the county's lawmaking officers or a delegated official; or (2) a persistent, widespread practice of county officials or employees, which is so common and well settled as to constitute a custom that fairly represents county policy. Bennett v. City of Slidell, 735 F.2d 861, 862 (5th Cir. 1984). In describing the term “custom, ” the Supreme Court has used such phrases as “persistent and widespread . . . practices, ” “systematic maladministration” of the laws, practices that are “permanent and well settled, ” and “deeply embedded traditional ways of carrying out . . . policy.” Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 167-68 (1970). A municipality is almost never liable for an isolated unconstitutional act on the part of an employee. Piotrowski v. City of Houston, 237 F.3d 567, 578 (5th Cir. 2001).

         Knowledge on the part of a policymaker that a constitutional violation will most likely result from a given policy or custom is an essential condition underlying section 1983 municipal liability. Burge v. St. Tammany Parish, 336 F.3d 363, 370 (5th Cir. 2003). A plaintiff thus must demonstrate either actual or constructive knowledge of the custom, which is attributable either to the governing body of the municipality or to an official who has been designated as a policymaker. Bennett, 735 F.2d at 862. Where an official policy or practice is unconstitutional on its face, it is assumed that a policymaker is aware of both the policy and that a constitutional violation will most likely occur. Burge, 336 F.3d 370. Where, however, an alleged policy or custom is facially innocuous, a plaintiff is required to show that “it was promulgated with deliberate indifference to the known or obvious consequences that constitutional violations would result.” Piotrowski, 237 F.3d at 579 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Finally, to show that the policy at issue was the moving force behind the ...


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