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D.T. v. San Diego Metropolitan Transit System

United States District Court, S.D. California

November 8, 2019

D.T. a minor, by and through his guardian Tanika Tyler, Plaintiff,


          Hon. Gonzalo P. Curiel United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff, D.T. has filed suit, by and through his guardian, alleging claims of excessive force, unlawful detention, equal protection violations, civil rights violations, negligent conduct, battery, and a violation of the Unruth Act, Cal. Civil Code § 51, against Metropolitan Transit System (“MTS”) Officer J. Torres and multiple, unidentified Doe Officers employed by MTS and the San Diego Police Department (“SDPD”). ECF No. 1 at ¶¶ 58-95, 110-24. Plaintiff D.T. also alleges claims against the City of San Diego (“Defendant” or “City”) and MTS arising under the Bane Act, Cal Civil Code §§ 52, 52.1, and Monell v. Dep't of Social Services City of New York, 436 U.S. 658, 691 (1978). Id. at ¶¶ 96-109, 127-30.

         The Defendant City has filed a motion to dismiss alleging that D.T. has not adequately pled Monell and Bane Act claims. ECF No. 3. The motion has been fully briefed and, for the reasons stated hereinbelow, the Court GRANTS the City's motion with leave to amend.

         I. Background

         a. Factual Background

         Plaintiff D.T. is a 16-year-old juvenile of African American descent. ECF No. 1 at ¶ 10. At approximately 2:00 p.m. on October 11, 2018, D.T. was waiting near the City College Trolley Station for a friend. Id. at ¶ 11. At about 3:10 p.m., various officers told D.T. and other students in the area to move “down the hill.” Id. at ¶ 12. D.T. grabbed his skateboard and obeyed that order. Id. at ¶ 13.

         As D.T. walked away, Officer J. Torres approached him, grabbed him from behind, and informed him that he “had to leave.” Id. at ¶¶ 4-5, 14-15. After D.T. responded “That's fine. I will leave, please do not touch me, ” Torres screamed “You must leave!”. Id. at ¶¶ 15-16. Torres then grabbed D.T. and detained him, threatening to “taze” him if he disobeyed. Id. at ¶ 17. With the aid of “another security guard, ” Torres “slammed” D.T. on the ground and began choking D.T. by pressing him against the transit rail. Id. at ¶¶ 21, 23. The “unidentified security guard” pressed his knee into D.T.'s ribs and D.T. lost consciousness. Id. at ¶¶ 23, 24. Torres yelled at D.T. to stop resisting, though D.T. did not resist. Id. at ¶¶ 13, 17, 20, 22.

         Once D.T. regained consciousness, he found himself tightly handcuffed and in pain. Id. at ¶ 25. D.T. overheard a female student yell at the officers, “Why are you treating him like this? Is it because he's black? Because I didn't see you treat the other Mexican kid like that.” Id. at ¶ 26. Torres then “yanked” D.T. to his feet and pulled him over to a nearby bench. Id. at ¶¶ 27, 28. As D.T. tried to comply, Torres kicked him four to five times. Id. at ¶ 29. D.T. requested to speak to a supervisor or police officer, but none came. Id. at ¶ 28. Torres then asked to search D.T., who refused. Id. at ¶¶ 30, 31.

         Officer Torres pulled D.T. to the ground behind the bench and began to kick him again. Id. at ¶¶ 32, 35. “An unknown number of other MTS officers and security guards” in the area formed a “human barricade” to prevent[] the public from witnessing” Torres kicking D.T. Id. at ¶ 33. Another bystander yelled, “He's a kid.” Id. at ¶ 34.

         At that point SDPD Officer Doe #1 arrived (“SPDP Officer 1”). Id. at ¶ 36. Plaintiff told the SDPD Officer that Officer Torres had violated his rights and was acting unlawfully. Id. at ¶ 37. The SDPD officer said, “I do not care what you learned in high school.” Id. at ¶ 38. Torres then began writing D.T. a ticket. Id. at ¶ 39. D.T. asked why he was being arrested and the officers either ignored D.T. or said they did not know. Id. at ¶¶ 40, 41. Torres then asked for D.T.'s first name, which D.T. provided. Id. at ¶ 42. When D.T. told Torres that he did not have a middle name, Torres replied, “What's your middle name, nigger?”. Id. at ¶¶ 43, 44. D.T. asked Torres “what did you say?”, and Torres smirked in response. Id. at ¶ 44-46. At some point after D.T.'s arrest, a security officer loosened D.T.'s “extremely tight handcuffs.” Id. at ¶ 47.

         Next, D.T. was placed in a police car. Id. at ¶ 48. Another Latino student, who was not “mistreated” by any MTS officer, was also in the car. Id. at ¶ 49. That student was later released. Id. at ¶ 50. Torres then informed D.T. that he was writing him a ticket “because D.T. had ridden a bike or scooter through the station, ” though D.T. only had his skateboard on him at the time. Id. at ¶¶ 51, 52. D.T. was released after Torres accused him of disobeying lawful orders and made D.T. spread his legs. Id. at ¶¶ 53, 54.

         As a result of this incident, D.T. suffered “multiple contusions, severe neck strain, and back pain.” Id. at ¶ 55. D.T. also suffered “a loss of liberty and emotional trauma.” Id. at ¶ 56.

         b. Procedural Background

         On May 13, 2019, Plaintiff D.T. filed a complaint alleging ten claims for relief, including two which name the City of San Diego - Claim No. 6 for Monell relief and Claim No. 10 for Bane Act relief - as Defendant. ECF No. 1 at ¶¶ 96-109, 127-130. In addition to the facts pertaining to D.T.'s allegedly unlawful arrest, the complaint references three excessive force cases filed against MTS and a study published in 2014 by the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) of San Diego and Imperial Counties detailing racially disparate car stops and searches conducted by SDPD. Id. at ¶¶ 100, 104; ACLU Report at 1.[1]

         On June 7, 2019, Defendant City moved to dismiss D.T.'s Monell and Bane Act Claims, ECF No. 3, on the basis that D.T. had failed to “state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 12(b)(6). On August 6, 2019, Plaintiff filed a response to the City's motion and requested leave to file it as untimely, which the Court granted for good cause on August 14, 2019. ECF Nos. 10, 10-2, 11. On August 21, 2019, the City filed a reply. ECF No. 12.

         II. Legal Standard on Motion to Dismiss

         A 12(b)(6) motion compels the Court to dismiss a complaint, or part of a complaint, that fails “to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 12(b)(6). To “survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 566 U.S. 662, 677 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 547 (2007)). “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.” Cook v. Brewer, 637 F.3d 1002, 1004 (9th Cir. 2011) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). Consequently, while “detailed factual allegations” are unnecessary, the complaint must contain more than “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         The Court must accept all factual allegations in the complaint as true and must draw all reasonable inferences from them in favor of the nonmoving party. Cahill v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 80 F.3d 336, 337-38 (9th Cir. 1996). “It is not, however, proper to assume that the [Plaintiff] can prove facts that it has not alleged.” Associated Gen. Contractors of Cal., Inc. v. Cal. State Council of Carpenters, 459 U.S. 519, 526 (1983). “[T]o be entitled to the presumption of truth, allegations in a complaint . . . may not simply recite the elements of a cause of action, but must contain sufficient allegations of underlying facts to give fair notice and to enable the opposing party to defend itself effectively.” Starr v. Baca, 652 F.3d 1202, 1216 (9th Cir. 2011). In addition, “the factual allegations that are taken as true must plausibly suggest an entitlement to relief, such that it is not unfair to require the opposing party to be subjected to the expense of discovery and continued litigation.” AE ex rel. Hernandez v. Cty. of Tulare, 666 F.3d 631, 637 (9th Cir. 2012) (citing Starr, 652 F.3d at 1216). The Court need not presume the validity of any “a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.” Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986) (quotations omitted).

         Generally, courts only consider the complaint itself on a motion to dismiss. Hal Roach Studios, Inc. v. Richard Feiner & Co., Inc., 896 F.2d 1542, 1555 n. 19 (9th Cir. 1990). “However, material which is properly submitted as part of the complaint may be considered, ” id., as long as the documents' authenticity is not questioned by the parties, Fecht v. Price Co., 70 F.3d 1078, 1080 n.1 (9th Cir. 1995), superseded by statute on other grounds; see also Branch v. Tunnell, 14 F.3d 449, 453-54 (9th Cir. 1994), overruled on other grounds by Galbraith v. Cty. of Santa Clara, 307 F.3d 1119, 1121 (9th Cir. 2002). Such documents may be considered, so long as they are referenced in the complaint, even if they are not physically attached to the pleading. See Branch, 14 F.3d at 453-54; Lee v. City of Los Angeles, 250 F.3d 668, 688 (9th Cir. 2001). Additionally, the court may consider materials which are judicially noticeable. Barron v. Reich, 13 F.3d 1370, 1377 (9th Cir. 1994).

         III. Plaintiff's Monell Claims

         Plaintiff's claim for municipal liability incorporates multiple, distinct sub-claims arising from Monell. ECF No. 1 at 14-19. Plaintiff alleges, for example, that Defendant failed to train, supervise, discipline, and investigate its officers, and that Defendant acted with deliberate indifference to enforce its policies. ECF No. 1 at ¶¶ 99(a)-(j). As the parties' arguments do not respond to each other one-to-one, the Court will address each of Plaintiff's claims separately and consider Defendant's applicable arguments in turn.

         a. General Legal Standard for § 1983 Monell Claims

         Section 1983 prohibits any person acting “under color of [law]” from “depriv[ing]” another person of the “rights, privileges, or immunities” guaranteed by the Constitution and federal law. 18 U.S.C. § 1983. Section 1983 does not provide a substantive right and instead acts as a vehicle for “vindicating federal rights elsewhere conferred.” Doe v. City of San Diego, 35 F.Supp.3d 1233, 1238 (S.D. Cal. 2014) (citing Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 393-94 (1989)); Chapman v. Houston Welfare Rights Org., 441 U.S. 600, 617 (1979). Section 1983 exists “to deter state actors from using the badge of their authority to deprive individuals of their federally guaranteed rights.” McDade v. West, 223 F.3d 1135, 1139 (9th Cir. 2000) (citation omitted).

         In § 1983 suits, municipalities cannot be held vicariously liable for the actions of their employees. Monell, 436 U.S. at 691. Instead, Monell liability arises in three different contexts. See Rodriguez v. Cty. of Los Angeles, 891 F.3d 776, 803 (9th Cir. 2018). First, a defendant can be found liable if a municipality's “policy or custom” becomes the “moving force” for a “constitutional violation” injuring the plaintiff. Monell, 436 U.S. at 694. Second, a municipality can incur Monell liability by failing to train or supervise its employees “in a manner that amounts to ‘deliberate indifference' to a constitutional right.” Rodriguez, 891 F.3d at 802 (quoting City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 390 (1989)). Third, a municipality may also be liable if the tortfeasor “was an official with final policy-making authority or such an official ratified a subordinate [tortfeasor's] unconstitutional decision or action and the basis for it.” Id. at 802-03 (quoting Gravelet-Blondin v. Shelton, 728 F.3d 1086, 1097 (9th Cir. 2013)).

         Here, Plaintiff's claims arise under the first two theories of liability identified by Rodriguez: (a) multiple City policies or customs causing a constitutional violation and (b) the City's failure to train, supervise, and discipline its officers in a manner that would prevent constitutional violations. The Court finds that Plaintiff fails to state a claim as to each of these theories of liability under Monell.

         b. Defendant's Widespread Customs and Policies

         “[I]t is when execution of a government's policy or custom . . . inflicts the injury that the government as an entity is responsible under § 1983.” Monell, 436 U.S. at 694. A municipal “policy” exists when “a deliberate choice to follow a course of action is made from among various alternatives by the official or officials responsible for establishing final policy with respect to the subject matter in question.” Pembaur v. City of Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 483 (1986). A municipality may also be liable “if it has a policy of inaction and such inaction amounts to a failure to protect constitutional rights.” Oviatt v. Pearce, 954 F.2d 1470, 1474 (9th Cir. 1992) (citing City of Canton, 489 U.S. at 388) A custom, on the other hand, is “a widespread practice that . . . is “so permanent and well settled as to . . . [accrue] the force of law.'” City of St. Louis v. Praprotnik, 485 U.S. 112, 127 (1988) (quoting Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 167-68 (1970)).

         A “proper analysis [of municipal polices and customs] requires [the separation of] two different issues when a § 1983 claim is asserted against a municipality: (1) whether plaintiff's harm was caused by a constitutional violation, and (2) if so, whether the city is responsible for that violation.” Duenas v. Cty. of Imperial, No. 14-CV-2460-L, 2015 WL 12656291, at *2 (S.D. Cal. Mar. 9, 2015) (quoting Collins v. City of Harker Heights, Tex., 503 U.S. 115, 120 (1992)). Hence, the demonstrated policy or custom need not be unconstitutional per se; it need only cause the constitutional violation suffered by the plaintiff. Jackson v. Gates, 975 F.2d 648, 654 (9th Cir. 1992).

         Here, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant is liable for multiple “unconstitutional policies, ...

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