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M.S. v. Belen Consolidated School District

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

July 18, 2017

M.S. Plaintiff,
BELEN CONSOLIDATED SCHOOL DISTRICT, CITY OF BELEN, and ESTATE OF MICHAEL ESQUIBEL, in his personal capacity acting under color of law, Defendants.


          M. CHRISTINA ARMIJO Chief United States District Judge

          THIS MATTER is before the Court on City of Belen's Amended Motion for Summary Judgment as to Counts III, IV, V, and VII on Qualified Immunity and Other Grounds, filed September 22, 2016. [Doc. 87] The Court has considered the parties' submissions, the relevant law, and the record and is otherwise fully advised. The Motion shall be denied in part, and granted in part.


         This lawsuit arises out of allegations that Michael Esquibel (now deceased), an officer of the Belen Police Department who worked as a school resource officer (SRO), sexually abused M.S., a minor student who attended Belen Middle School and Belen High School. [Doc. 14 ¶¶ 23-34] Having provided an overview of the undisputed material facts in its Memorandum Opinion and Order pertaining to Defendant City of Belen's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment That the Torts Alleged by Plaintiff Do Not Fall within the Scope of Officer Esquibel's Duties (Doc. 83), the Court provides additional facts only to the extent that that they are required to provide context for its analysis of the present Motion.

         Standard for Summary Judgment

          Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows summary judgment when the evidence submitted by the parties establishes that no genuine issue of material fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. “[A] party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of [the record] . . . which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once the movant meets this burden, the nonmovant is required to put in the record facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986); Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). An issue is “genuine” when the evidence before the Court is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict in favor of the nonmovant as to that issue. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248-52 (1986). A fact is “material” if under the substantive law it is essential to the proper disposition of the claim. Id. at 248.

         It is not the Court's role to weigh the evidence, assess the credibility of witnesses, or make factual findings in ruling on a motion for summary judgment. Daniels v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 701 F.3d 620, 627 (10th Cir. 2012). Rather, the Court assumes the admissible evidence of the nonmovant to be true, resolves all doubts against the movant, construes all admissible evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, and draws all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmovant. Hunt v. Cromartie, 526 U.S. 541, 551-52 (1999).

         The City's Motion for Summary Judgment as to Counts III and IV

         In Count III, Plaintiff claims, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, that Esquibel violated her Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights by perpetrating sexual abuse against her from the time that she was a middle school student through her senior year in high school. [Doc. 14 ¶¶ 92-98] In Count IV, Plaintiff claims, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, that Esquibel's conduct constituted a violation of her Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection. [Doc. 14 ¶¶ 99-105] As grounds for seeking summary judgment as to Counts III and IV, the City contends that Officer Esquibel is entitled to qualified immunity. [Doc. 7 p. 6');">87 p. 6]

         “The defense 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.” A.M. v. Holmes, 830 F.3d 1123, 1134 (10th Cir. 2016). The City does not challenge the notion that Esquibel's sexual abuse of M.S. (the occurrence of which it does not concede, but it assumes for the sake of argument), constituted a violation of clearly established constitutional rights. Nor, in light of precedent, could the City reasonably support such a challenge. See, e.g. Schneider v. City of Grand Junction Police Dep't, 717 F.3d 760, 769 (10th Cir. 2013) (recognizing that a woman's “right to bodily integrity, which is a substantive due process” right, was violated when she was sexually assaulted by a police officer); Abeyta ex rel. Martinez v. Chama Valley Indep. Sch. Dist. No. 19, 77 F.3d 1253, 1255 (10th Cir. 1996) (“Sexual assault or molestation by a school teacher violates a student's substantive due process rights); Maldonado v. Josey, 975 F.2d 727, 730-31 (10th Cir. 1992) (“In the . . . sexual abuse context[] a state actor directly inflicts the harm on the student and thereby implicates the Due Process Clause which . . . imposes limitations on state conduct.”); see also Doe v. Taylor Indep. Sch. Dist., 15 F.3d 443, 451-52 (5th Cir. 1994) (“It is incontrovertible that bodily integrity is necessarily violated when a state actor sexually abuses a schoolchild and that such misconduct deprives the child of rights vouchsafed by the Fourteenth Amendment.”). Instead, the City focuses on the issue whether Esquibel was a “state actor” or acting “under color of law” such that Plaintiff's Section 1983 claims are viable. [Doc. 87 p. 8-15]

         42 U.S.C. Section 1983 provides a civil action for the deprivation of rights. In relevant part, it provides that

[e]very person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State . . . subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen . . . to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law[.]

42 U.S.C. § 1983. “The purpose of [Section] 1983 is to deter state actors from using the badge of their authority to deprive individuals of their federally guaranteed rights and to provide relief to victims if such deterrence fails.” Jojola v. Chavez, 55 F.3d 488, 492 (10th Cir. 1995) (alterations & citation omitted). “Therefore, the only proper defendants in a Section 1983 claim are those who represent the state in some capacity, whether they act in accordance with their authority or misuse it.” Id. (alterations omitted).

         “The traditional definition of acting under color of state law requires that the defendant in a § 1983 action have exercised power possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because the wrongdoer is clothed with the authority of state law.” West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 49 (1988). “It is firmly established that a defendant in a [Section] 1983 suit acts under color of state law when he abuses the position given to him by the State.” Id. at 49-50. Thus, usually, “a public employee acts under color of state law while acting in his official capacity or while exercising his responsibilities pursuant to state law.” Id. at 50.

         While “state employment is generally sufficient to render the defendant a state actor[, ] . . . . an otherwise private tort is not committed under color of law simply because the tortfeasor is an employee of the state.” Jojola, 55 F.3d at 493. This proposition reflects the fact that, “in most cases” an individual employed by the state who violates another individual's federal rights does “so by virtue of the authority vested in [him] under state law” “regardless of whether the employee hews to the line of [his] authority or oversteps it.” Id. (alterations omitted). But in some circumstances, “a tort by a state employee simply may not have been committed on account of the authority vested in the employee by the state.” ...

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