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Brown v. City of Houston

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

December 20, 2019

CITY OF HOUSTON, TEXAS, et al., Defendants.


          Lee H. Rosenthal Chief United States District Judge

         Alfred Brown spent almost ten years on death row. His conviction was finally set aside after exculpatory evidence hidden from the defense for years was finally brought to light. The issue now is how to compensate for that loss of time and of rights. Brown has sued the City of Houston, Harris County, and Kim Ogg, in her official capacity as the current Harris County District Attorney, among others, for damages from his incarceration. Harris County has moved to dismiss Brown's claims against Kim Ogg because they duplicate Brown's claims against Harris County. After carefully reviewing the applicable law and the parties' arguments, the court grants Harris County's motion to dismiss those claims against Ogg. The reasons are explained below.

         I. Background

         This court's prior opinion described the background, which is only briefly summarized here, based on Brown's complaint allegations and the documents in the public record from his trial, appeal, and habeas proceedings. As noted, after over 12 years in prison, including almost 10 on death row, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals vacated Brown's conviction because of Brady v. Maryland[1] violations. (Docket Entry No. 1 at ¶¶ 142, 147). Brown was released after the District Attorney declined to reprosecute. (Id. at ¶ 144). In June 2017, Alfred Brown sued the City of Houston, Houston Police Department Detective Breck McDaniel, Houston Police Department Officers Ted Bloyd and D.L. Robertson, Harris County, Harris County Assistant District Attorney Daniel Rizzo, and Kim Ogg, in her official capacity as the current Harris County District Attorney, seeking damages under § 1983. (Docket Entry No. 1). In December 2017, the court dismissed some of Brown's claims against Harris County, allowing his municipal liability claim to proceed. (Docket Entry No. 39). The court, denying a motion for reconsideration, found that the District Attorney had acted as an agent of Harris County, rather than of the State of Texas, in prosecuting Brown. (Docket Entry No. 56 at 10). Harris County then moved to dismiss the official-capacity claims against Kim Ogg. (Docket Entry No. 67). The court stayed the case pending the outcome of the County-initiated investigation into Brown's actual innocence. (Docket Entry No. 72).

         In July 2019, that investigation produced a finding that Brown met the legal definition of actual innocence. (Docket Entry No. 76-1 at 90). The court lifted the stay, and Harris County again moved to dismiss the official-capacity claims against Ogg. (Docket Entry Nos. 87, 93). Brown responded; the County replied; and the court ordered additional briefs on Kim Ogg's dismissal or retention. (Docket Entry Nos. 98, 99, 100, 101, 102).

         II. The Applicable Legal Standards

         A. Rule 12(b)(6) [2]

         Rule 12(b)(6) allows dismissal if a plaintiff fails “to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). Rule 12(b)(6) must be read in conjunction with Rule 8(a), which requires “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). A complaint must 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). Rule 8 “does not require ‘detailed factual allegations,' but it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). If the allegations in the complaint, even if taken as true, do not entitle the plaintiff to relief, the complaint should be dismissed. Cuvillier v. Taylor, 503 F.3d 397, 401 (5th Cir. 2007) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 558).

         B. Official-Capacity Claims

         Official-capacity claims “generally represent only another way of pleading an action against an entity of which an officer is an agent.” Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 165 (1985) (quoting Monell v. New York City Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 690 n.55 (1978)). The claim is treated as one against the entity, which is the real party-in-interest. Graham, 473 U.S. at 166. When a government-official defendant is sued in her official capacity, and the governmental entity is also sued, “[t]he official-capacity claims and the claims against the governmental entity essentially merge.” Turner v. Houma Mun. Fire & Police Civil Serv. Bd., 229 F.3d 478, 485 (5th Cir. 2000). “Thus, while an award of damages against an official in his personal capacity can be executed only against the official's personal assets, a plaintiff seeking to recover on a damages judgment in an official-capacity suit must look to the government entity itself.” Graham, 473 U.S. at 166.

         III. Analysis

         Harris County seeks to dismiss the official-capacity claims against Ogg as redundant and duplicative, arguing that the County is the only real party-in-interest to the claims.[3] (Docket Entry No. 93 at 4). Brown counters that “[c]laims against an individual in her official capacity routinely proceed alongside claims against the entity employing her, ” and that the “official capacity claim against Defendant Ogg can and should proceed as a claim against the office of the Harris County District Attorney, in addition to the claim against Defendant Harris County.”[4](Docket Entry No. 98 at 8, 10-11).

         State law determines a governmental entity's capacity to sue or be sued. Fed.R.Civ.P. 17(b). Under Texas law, counties are organized as corporate entities and are capable of being sued, Tex. Loc. Gov't Code Ann. § 71.001 (West 2019), but agencies and subdivisions within a county are generally not entities capable of suit. See Darby v. Pasadena Police Dep't, 939 F.2d 311, 313 (5th Cir. 1991) (“Unless the true political entity has taken explicit steps to grant the servient agency with jural authority, the agency cannot engage in any litigation except in concert with the government itself.”).

         Under Texas law, offices within counties are not legal entities capable of being sued. In Jacobs v. Port Neches Police Department, 915 F.Supp. 842, 843 (E.D. Tex. 1996), the plaintiff sued a county sheriff's department and the county's district attorney's office for allegedly violating the plaintiff's civil rights. The district court dismissed the claims against both the sheriff's and the district attorney's offices, finding that neither was a legal entity capable of being sued under Texas law. Id. at 844; accord Thomas v. Harris Cty. Sheriff's Dep't, Civ. A. No. H-18-1800, 2019 WL 1201984, at *2 (S.D. Tex. March 14, 2019) (collecting cases). Similarly, in Barrie v. Nueces County District Attorney's Office, 753 Fed.Appx. 260, 262 (5th Cir. 2018), the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of a claim against the Nueces County District Attorney's Office. ...

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