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Wallace v. City of Fresno

United States District Court, E.D. California

November 19, 2019

LONDON WALLACE, by and through his guardian ad litem Lois Robinson, Plaintiff
v.
CITY OF FRESNO, FRESNO POLICE DEPARTMENT, OFFICER CHRISTOPHER MARTINEZ, OFFICER RICARDO LOZA, and DOES 2 to 25, inclusive, Defendants

          ORDER ON DEFENDANTS' RULE 12(B)(6) MOTION TO DISMISS (DOC. NO. 17)

         This case arises from a confrontation involving minor Plaintiff London Wallace (“Wallace”) and two members of the Fresno Police Department (“FPD”). Wallace alleges claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment and Monell liability, as well as state law claims for battery, negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, false imprisonment, and the Bane Act.[1] The operative complaint is the First Amended Complaint (“FAC”). Currently before the Court is Defendants' Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss the third cause of action for Monell liability. For the reasons that follow, Defendants' motion will be granted.

         RULE 12(b)(6) FRAMEWORK

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a claim may be dismissed because of the plaintiff's “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). A dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) may be based on the lack of a cognizable legal theory or on the absence of sufficient facts alleged under a cognizable legal theory. See Mollett v. Netflix, Inc., 795 F.3d 1062, 1065 (9th Cir. 2015). In reviewing a complaint under Rule 12(b)(6), all well-pleaded allegations of material fact are taken as true and construed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Kwan v. SanMedica, Int'l, 854 F.3d 1088, 1096 (9th Cir. 2017). However, complaints that offer no more than “labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); Johnson v. Federal Home Loan Mortg. Corp., 793 F.3d 1005, 1008 (9th Cir. 2015). The Court is “not required to accept as true allegations that contradict exhibits attached to the Complaint or matters properly subject to judicial notice, or allegations that are merely conclusory, unwarranted deductions of fact, or unreasonable inferences.” Seven Arts Filmed Entm't, Ltd. v. Content Media Corp. PLC, 733 F.3d 1251, 1254 (9th Cir. 2013). To avoid a Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678; Mollett, 795 F.3d at 1065. “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; Somers v. Apple, Inc., 729 F.3d 953, 959 (9th Cir. 2013). “Plausibility” means “more than a sheer possibility, ” but less than a probability, and facts that are “merely consistent” with liability fall short of “plausibility.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678; Somers, 729 F.3d at 960. The Ninth Circuit has distilled the following principles for Rule 12(b)(6) motions: (1) to be entitled to the presumption of truth, allegations in a complaint or counterclaim 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; (2) the factual allegations that are taken as true must plausibly suggest 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. Levitt v. Yelp! Inc., 765 F.3d 1123, 1135 (9th Cir. 2014). In assessing a motion to dismiss, courts may consider documents attached to the complaint, documents incorporated by reference in the complaint, or matters subject to judicial notice. In re NVIDIA Corp. Sec. Litig., 768 F.3d 1046, 1051 (9th Cir. 2014). If a motion to dismiss is granted, “[the] district court should grant leave to amend even if no request to amend the pleading was made . . . .” Ebner v. Fresh, Inc., 838 F.3d 958, 962 (9th Cir. 2016). However, leave to amend need not be granted if amendment would be futile or the plaintiff has failed to cure deficiencies despite repeated opportunities. Garmon v. County of L.A., 828 F.3d 837, 842 (9th Cir. 2016).

         BACKGROUND

         From the FAC, on January 23, 2019, City of Fresno (“the City”) police officers arrived at an apartment in order to conduct a probation search. The officers ordered and forced everyone in the apartment to go outside. Everyone who had been in the apartment, including Wallace, was forced outside, searched, and detained. Wallace was not in possession of any illegal substances, drugs, or weapons. After being searched, Wallace was told to sit along a wall until directed otherwise. Before Wallace could sit down, Defendant Officer Christopher Martinez attacked, punched, and tackled Wallace to the ground. Wallace sustained serious injuries, including a broken nose, bleeding, and emotional distress. At no point did Wallace disobey orders, pose a threat, or consent to being searched.

         DEFENDANTS' MOTION

         Defendants' Argument Defendants argue that the FAC contains no factual allegations that plausibly indicate Monell liability. Instead, there are only improper legal conclusions that amount to little more than boilerplate. Because there are insufficient factual allegations that demonstrate a constitutional violation through either a policy, custom, practice, or ratification, dismissal is proper.

         Plaintiff's Opposition

         Wallace argues that a Monell claim is properly pled if it alleges that the plaintiff was deprived of constitutional right by defendants and their employees acting under state law, that the defendants have customs or policies which amount to deliberate indifference to their constitutional rights, and the policies or customs were the moving force behind the constitutional violation. Wallace also argues that it is improper to dismiss Monell claims at the pleading stage, even where the claims are made in conclusory language. As the Ninth Circuit has acknowledge, dismissal is improper even when there is nothing more than a bare allegation that the individual officer's conduct conformed to an official policy, custom, or practice. Here, the FAC alleges a repeated practice of conditioning and tacitly encouraging abuse of authority and a disregard of constitutional rights. The FAC also alleges inadequate supervision, training, control, assignment, and discipline of officers, as well as inadequate procedures for reporting, supervising, investigating, revealing, disciplining, and controlling misconduct. Finally, the FAC alleges a longstanding history of hurried public advocacy, perpetuating, sanctioning, ratifying, fostering, and tolerating outrageous police conduct. These allegations amount to more than the bare allegations that the Ninth Circuit accepts and are sufficient to state a claim. Alternatively, Wallace requests leave to amend if the Court reaches a contrary conclusion.

         Relevant Allegations

         In relevant part, the FAC alleges:

The [City and FPD] have a long history of examples of its pattern and practice in the use of excessive force in handling issues with its citizens. There is a pattern and practice of officers not being properly disciplined for their actions involving use of excessive force. As a result of this failure to address and discipline, the [City and FPD] have fostered an environment and created a culture and belief that it is permissible to use excessive force against civilians and their property without fear of repercussion, accountability, or disciplinary action by [the City and FPD].
The actions of Defendants who were involved in this incident were taken contrary to written policies and practices of [the City and FPD]. Those actions were consistent with [FPD's] culture of deliberate indifference to the use of excessive force in encounters with civilians, when it is a grossly disproportionate response to a situation, and even when no reasonable basis exists for any use of force whatsoever, as in this case.
Despite Defendants' knowledge of these illegal policies and practices, the supervisory and policy-making employees of [the City and FPD] have maliciously and with deliberate indifference, taken no effective steps to terminate the policies and practices. The [FPD] has not effectively disciplined or otherwise properly supervised the officers who engage in these policies and practices; has not effectively trained their officers with regard to the proper constitutional and statutory limits of the exercise of their authority; and has sanctioned the policies and practices through their deliberate or grossly negligent indifference to their detrimental effect on the constitutional rights of local residents. Based upon information and belief, [the City]'s supervisory and policy making personnel have maliciously and with deliberate indifference taken no effective steps to terminate the policies and practices or change the [FPD's] culture of its illegal policies and practices in dealing with its citizens including, but not limited to, [Wallace]. [The City] routinely failed to effectively discipline and properly supervise the officers who engage in this policies, procedures, and practices of the [FPD] and have not effectively trained its officers with ...

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