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Gonzales v. Bernalillo County Sheriff Department

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

April 4, 2017




         This matter comes before the Court on the parties' competing Motions for Summary Judgment (docs. 23, 29). Having reviewed the Martinez Report (doc. 22) and all other pertinent briefing (docs. 14, 15, 27, 28), I recommend the Court GRANT Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (doc. 23). I further recommend the Court DENY Plaintiff's Motion to Reinstate Default Judgment (doc. 14), Motion to Remand (doc. 15), and Motion for Summary Judgment (doc. 29).

         I. Background

         Plaintiff initiated this action due to the circumstances surrounding his arrest, which took place on January 6, 2015. Doc. 1-1 at 2; doc. 22 at 1. Plaintiff was arrested following a search of his home that was conducted pursuant to a search warrant by the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office. Doc. 22 at 2.

         Plaintiff, a pro se inmate, filed suit in the Second Judicial District Court of New Mexico on October 28, 2015. Doc. 1-1. Plaintiff's Complaint states that it is a tort suit brought pursuant to the New Mexico Tort Claims Act (NMTCA). Id. at 1. Plaintiff also alleges constitutional violations arising under the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments as a result of the search of his home. Id. at 2.

         Following a complicated procedural history in state court, discussed in-depth below, Defendants removed this action on September 21, 2016. See doc. 1. Because Plaintiff is a pro se inmate, Defendants filed a Martinez Report in lieu of formal discovery on December 9, 2016. Doc. 22. Concurrently therewith, Defendants filed a motion seeking summary judgment, arguing that: (1) Plaintiff's federal claims against Defendant Detective J. Garcia in his individual capacity should be dismissed on the basis of qualified immunity; (2) Plaintiff's federal claims against Defendant Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department should be dismissed because Plaintiff failed to plead facts showing Defendants violated his constitutional rights; and (3) Plaintiff's state claim against Defendant Garcia should be dismissed because Plaintiff failed to comply with the NMTCA's notice requirements. See generally doc. 23.

         II. Plaintiff's Reconsideration and Remand Motions

         Plaintiff initially filed his Complaint in the Second Judicial District Court of New Mexico. See docs. 1-1, 7-1. On June 30, 2016, that state court granted Plaintiff's Motion for Default Judgment following Defendants' failure to file any responsive pleading to Plaintiff's Complaint or to appear at a hearing in the matter. See doc. 7-1 at 31-33. The court then set aside the default judgment upon motion by Defendants on September 2, 2016. Id. at 58-60. Because Plaintiff's Complaint asserted numerous constitutional claims, Defendants removed the action to this Court on September 21, 2016. See doc. 1. Since removal, Plaintiff has made numerous filings averring that the default judgment should not have been set aside by the state court below. See docs. 14, 15, 27, 28, 29. Specifically, on October 27, 2016, Plaintiff filed both a Motion to Remand (doc. 15) and a motion asking the Court to deny Defendants' motion to set aside the default judgment, which was already granted by the state court (doc. 14). Plaintiff reiterates the arguments underlying these motions in later filings (docs. 27, 28, 29).

         Under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, a federal court-other than the Supreme Court-has no jurisdiction to review any final judgment of a state court. See District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman, 460 U.S. 462, 476, 486 (1983); Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co., 263 U.S. 413, 415-16 (1923). Essentially, the doctrine bars “cases brought by state- court losers complaining of injuries caused by state-court judgments rendered before the district court proceedings commenced and inviting district court review and rejection of those judgments.” Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Saudi Basic Indus. Corp., 544 U.S. 280, 284 (2005). However, “the Rooker-Feldman doctrine is confined to cases brought after the state proceedings have ended.” Mann v. Boatright, 477 F.3d 1140, 1146 (10th Cir. 2007) (internal quotations omitted). Thus, the doctrine does not apply in the present matter, as the state court proceedings had only just begun when this matter was removed. Doc. 1-1. See Jenkins v. MTGLQ Investors, 218 F. App'x 719, 724 (10th Cir. 2007) (unpublished) (“[T]he Rooker-Feldman doctrine has no application to a properly removed case where . . . there is no attack on a separate and final state court judgment.”); see also Persley v. Lee, 794 F.Supp.2d 728, 732 (E.D. Ky. 2011) (finding the Rooker-Feldman doctrine inapplicable under identical procedural circumstances because there was no final state court judgment). Federalism concerns are thus not implicated by Plaintiff's request that this Court reinstate the entry of default that was made and subsequently set aside by the state court.

         “When a case is removed from state court, the federal court takes the case in its current posture and treats previously entered orders as its own.” Sawyer v. USAA Ins. Co., 839 F.Supp.2d 1189, 1215 (D.N.M. Mar. 8, 2012). Therefore, the state court's order setting aside default judgment (doc. 7-1 at 58-59) should be treated as the Court's own. That order does not adjudicate all of the claims in the case and is thus an interlocutory order, which “is subject to revision at any time before the entry of [final] judgment.” Raytheon Constructors, Inc. v. Asarco, Inc., 368 F.3d 1214, 1217 (10th Cir. 2003) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 54(b)). As Defendants correctly note in their briefing, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure do not recognize a motion for reconsideration of interlocutory orders. Doc. 19 at 2; see Hawkins v. Evans, 64 F.3d 543, 546 (10th Cir. 1995) (explaining that courts should construe a motion for reconsideration as either a motion to alter or amend the judgment under Rule 59(e) or a motion seeking relief from the judgment under Rule 60(b), which apply only to orders of final judgment). However, the Court has discretion to revise its interlocutory orders, untethered by the constraints governing Rules 59(e) and 60(b). Trujillo v. Bd. of Educ. of Albuquerque Pub. Schs., 212 F. App'x 760, 765 (10th Cir. 2007) (unpublished) (citing Price v. Philpot, 420 F.3d 1158, 1167 n.9 (10th Cir. 2005)); see also Wagoner v. Wagoner, 938 F.2d 1120, 1122 n.1 (10th Cir. 1991) (noting that a motion for reconsideration filed prior to final judgment “was nothing more than an interlocutory motion invoking the district court's general discretionary authority to review and revise interlocutory rulings prior to entry of final judgment”). I will therefore address whether the Court should revise the interlocutory order setting aside default judgment.

         In New Mexico, two different standards govern the setting aside of an entry of default, depending on whether a final default judgment has been entered. See DeFillippo v. Neil, 51 P.3d 1183, 1185-86 (N.M. Ct. App. 2002); N.M.R.A., Rule 1-055(C); N.M.R.A., Rule 1-060(B). In the order at issue, the state court judge correctly applied Rule 1-055(C) of the New Mexico Rules of Civil Procedure, which sets forth a “good cause” standard for setting aside an entry of default prior to entry of judgment by default. Doc. 7-1 at 39- 44, 58-59; see also N.M.R.A., Rule 1-055(C). The court's order set aside the entry of default because “New Mexico public policy clearly favors determination on the merits” and “Defendants demonstrate the existence of a valid defense, or defenses, to the Complaint.” Doc. 7-1 at 58. Even under the more stringent Rule 1-060 standard, these reasons suffice to justify setting aside the entry of default. See Sunwest Bank of Albuquerque v. Rodriguez, 770 P.2d 533, 535 (N.M. 1989) (“[B]ecause default judgments are disfavored and causes generally should be tried on their merits, we have counseled trial courts to be liberal in determining the existence of grounds that satisfy Rule 60(B)”). Moreover, the order noted that Defendants had established the existence of a valid defense, a necessary showing before relief from default judgment will be granted. Rodriguez v. Conant, 737 P.2d 527, 530 (N.M. 1987). Courts “should be liberal in determining what is a meritorious defense and whether there are grounds for setting aside a default judgment.” Id. Therefore, I recommend the Court decline to revise the previous order setting aside entry of default and deny Plaintiff's Motion for Reconsideration (doc. 14).

III. As for Plaintiff's Motion to Remand (doc. 15), Plaintiff missed the thirty-day deadline to file such a motion following Defendants' notice of removal. See 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c). I recommend that the Court deny his motion on that basis. Alternatively, I recommend the Court deny the motion its merits. Plaintiff offers no basis for remand other than Defendants' failure to appear at the June 29, 2016 state court hearing or to file any responsive pleadings to Plaintiff's Complaint in state court. See generally doc. 15. These are the same reasons the state court initially granted default judgment, which it later set aside for good cause shown. See doc. 7-1 at 31-32, 58-59. As set forth above, good cause supported the state court's decision to set aside the default judgment. In any event, the Defendants' alleged failings in state court provide no basis on which to grant Plaintiff's Motion to Remand. Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment

          A. Standard of Review

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), this Court must “grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The movant bears the initial burden of “show[ing] ‘that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.'” Bacchus Indus., Inc. v. Arvin Indus., Inc., 939 F.2d 887, 891 (10th Cir. 1991) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986)). Once the movant meets this burden, the non-moving party is required to designate specific facts showing that “there are . . . genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986); Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324.

         However, summary judgment motions based upon the defense of qualified immunity are reviewed differently from other summary judgment motions, because qualified immunity is “designed to protect public officials from spending inordinate time and money defending erroneous suits at trial.” Clark v. Edmunds, 513 F.3d 1219, 1222 (10th Cir. 2008). Therefore, when a public official is entitled to qualified immunity, the entitlement relieves the official from bearing any of the burdens of litigation, including discovery. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 672 (2009). The Supreme Court “has directed the lower federal courts to apply qualified immunity broadly, to protect from civil liability for damages all officers except ‘the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law, '” in order to avoid unduly inhibiting officers in performing their official duties. Wilson v. City of Lafayette, 510 F. App'x 775, 780 (10th Cir. 2013) (unpublished) (quoting Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341 (1986), and Medina v. Cram, 252 F.3d 1124, 1127 (10th Cir. 2001)). The qualified immunity standard allows government officials “ample room for mistaken judgments, ” shielding them from liability for reasonable error. Applewhite v. U.S. Air Force, 995 F.2d 997, 1000 (10th Cir. 1993) (quoting Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 229 (1991)). Thus, qualified immunity is “applicable unless the official's conduct violated a clearly established constitutional right.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 232 (2009).

         When a defendant moves for qualified immunity on an excessive force claim, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show (1) “that the force used was impermissible (a constitutional violation)[, ]” and (2) “that objectively reasonable officers could not have thought the force constitutionally permissible (violates clearly established law).” Cortez v. McCauley, 478 F.3d 1108, 1128 (10th Cir. 2007); see also Medina, 252 F.3d at 1128. This is a “strict two-part test” that must be met before the defendant asserting qualified immunity again “bear[s] the traditional burden of the movant for summary judgment- showing that there are no genuine issues of material fact and that he or she is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Clark, 513 F.3d at 1222. The Court may address the two prongs of the test in any order. Pearson, 555 U.S. at 236.

         Determining whether the allegedly violated right was “clearly established” depends on whether “the contours of the right [were] sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right.” Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640 (1987). “Ordinarily, in order for the law to be clearly established, there must be a Supreme Court or Tenth Circuit decision on point, or the clearly established weight of authority from other courts must have found the law to be as the plaintiff maintains.” Clark v. Wilson, 625 F.3d 686, 690 (10th Cir. 2010) (quotation omitted). While the plaintiff need not locate “a case directly on point, ” nevertheless “existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate.” Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 741 (2011).

         Whether the motion for summary judgment is based on qualified immunity or not, the Court decides the motion on the basis of the facts as construed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Consequently, it must keep in mind three principles. First, the Court's role is not to weigh the evidence, but to assess the threshold issue of whether a genuine issue exists as to material facts requiring a trial.See Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 249. “An issue is ‘genuine' if there is sufficient evidence on each side so that a rational trier of fact could resolve the issue either way. An issue of fact is ‘material' if under the substantive law it is essential to the proper disposition of the claim.” Thom v. Bristol Myers Squibb Co., 353 F.3d 848, 851 (10th Cir. 2003) (internal citation omitted). Second, the Court must resolve all reasonable inferences and doubts in favor of the non-moving party, and construe all evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Tolan v. Cotton, 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1866 (2014); see also Riggins v. Goodman, 572 F.3d 1101, 1107 (10th Cir. 2009) (noting that courts generally “accept the facts as the plaintiff alleges them” when considering whether a plaintiff has overcome defendant's assertion of qualified immunity at the summary judgment stage). However, “a plaintiff's version of the facts must find support in the record” at the summary judgment stage. Thomson v. Salt Lake Cty., 584 F.3d 1304, 1312 (10th Cir. 2009). Third, the court cannot decide any issues of credibility. See Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 255. “[T]o survive the . . . motion, [the non-movant] need only present evidence from which a jury might return a verdict in his favor.” Id. at 257.

         The Court is required to liberally construe the filings of a pro se plaintiff and to hold them to a less stringent standard than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers. Hall v. Bellmon, 935 F.2d 1106, 1110 (10th Cir. 1991). Such a requirement entails the responsibility of a court to read the pleadings to state a valid claim on which a pro se plaintiff could prevail if such a reading is reasonable, “despite the plaintiff's failure to cite proper legal authority, his confusion of various legal theories, his poor syntax and sentence construction, or his unfamiliarity with pleading requirements.” Id. However, the Court does not assume the role of advocate for a pro se plaintiff. Id. Accordingly, the Court “will not supply additional factual allegations to round out a plaintiff's complaint or construct a legal theory on a plaintiff's behalf.” Whitney v. State of N.M., 113 F.3d 1170, 1173-74 (10th Cir. 1997) (quotations and citations omitted).

         B. Undisputed Facts

         The Local Rules regarding Summary Judgment procedures require that a non- moving party's response to a Motion for Summary Judgment must contain:

. . . a concise statement of the material facts cited by the movant as to which the non-movant contends a genuine issue does exist. Each fact in dispute must be numbered, must refer with particularity to those portions of the record upon which the non-movant relies, and must state the number of the movant's fact that is disputed. All material facts set forth in the Memorandum will be deemed undisputed unless specifically controverted. The Response may set forth additional facts other than those which respond to the Memorandum which the non-movant contends are material to the resolution of the motion. Each additional fact must be lettered and must refer with particularity to those portions of the record upon which the non-movant relies.

         D.N.M.LR-Civ. 56.1(b). Plaintiff did not file a response to Defendants' summary judgment motion, but Plaintiff's own Motion for Summary Judgment contains a list of undisputed material facts and directly disputes some of the facts included in Defendants' motion. See generally doc. 29. Construing Plaintiff's pro se filings liberally, the Court has ruled that it will treat his summary judgment motion as a response to Defendants' summary judgment motion. See doc. 32. The recitation below therefore omits facts specifically controverted by Plaintiff in his motion insofar as he has pointed to particular portions of the record to support his opposition. The undersigned considers all other material facts enumerated in Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment to be undisputed. See doc. 23 at 1-3.

1. Plaintiff was arrested for the offenses of trafficking of a controlled substance and felon in possession of a firearm on January 6, 2015, at Plaintiff's residence in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Doc. 22-1 at 1, 6-9.
2. Plaintiff's arrest resulted from a narcotics investigation conducted by Defendant Detective Garcia, which was initiated approximately four weeks prior to the arrest when a confidential source informed Defendant Garcia that Plaintiff sold narcotics. Doc. 22-1 at 6; doc. 23 at 2.
3. During his investigation, Defendant Garcia personally observed Plaintiff engaging in activity consistent with trafficking in controlled substances on several occasions, including activity occurring at his residence. See doc. 22- 1 at 6-9.
4. Defendant Garcia facilitated a purchase of methamphetamine by the confidential source from Plaintiff, and personally witnessed what appeared to be a hand-to-hand ...

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