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Crow v. Village of Ruidoso

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

August 7, 2017




         THIS MATTER is before me on Defendants' Motion and Memorandum of Law to Dismiss and/or for Summary Judgment Against Plaintiffs' Complaint and for Qualified Immunity [Doc. 20], filed March 10, 2017. Plaintiffs responded on March 28, 2017.[1] [Doc. 23]. Defendants replied on April 11, 2017. [Doc. 25]. The Honorable James O. Browning, United States District Judge, referred this matter to me for analysis and a recommended disposition. [Doc. 19]. Having considered the briefing, the record, and the relevant law, I find that Defendants' motion should be GRANTED.


         The following is a statement of the facts, as supported by the record, which I will construe in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs.[2] On February 20, 2015, Plaintiff Adrienne Crow was involved in a minor traffic accident with another vehicle at a gas station in Ruidoso, New Mexico. [Doc. 20] at 3. Ms. Crow was not the owner of the truck she drove; she took the truck from someone not a party to this case, Robin Shackelford, who had allowed the truck's actual owner to park the truck at her house.[3] Id. The parties dispute who was driving the other vehicle and how the accident occurred (i.e., who was responsible).[4] Both Ms. Crow and the driver of the other vehicle left the scene without reporting the accident.[5] Id. at 3. Subsequently, Ms. Crow contacted the police and Officer Legg took a statement from her. Id. at 3-4. He completed a “Record of Minor or Private Property Accident” report based on Ms. Crow's account, which indicated that a vehicle backed into the right side of the truck she was driving. Id. at 4.

         A few weeks later, on March 5, 2015, Ms. Shackelford contacted the police to inquire about the traffic accident.[6] Id. She told Sergeant Aaron Frost that Ms. Crow had taken the truck without her permission. Id. The following day, Officer Legg prepared a “Uniform Crash Report.” Id. The report noted that “[n]o fault could be determined due to the delayed report” and that the report “was initially recorded as a private property report.” Id. Officer Legg further noted that Sgt. Frost would be submitting a supplemental report based on the new information he had received. Id. That same day, Sgt. Frost spoke with Ms. Crow at the Ruidoso Police Station in the presence of her parents. Id. He also spoke with Christopher Graff, who stated he was a passenger in the other vehicle involved in the accident.[7] Id.

         On March 13, 2015, Sgt. Frost completed a Supplemental Narrative. Id. at 5. In it, he states he informed Ms. Crow that her account of the accident did not align with that of Christopher Graff or the photos of the accident. Id. Sgt. Frost further states that Ms. Crow admitted to him that the accident occurred when she was moving forward to get around the other vehicle. Id.; [Doc. 20-1] at 2. The Supplemental Narrative also states that Ms. Crow admitted she did not have permission to drive the truck. [Doc. 20-1] at 2. Ms. Crow denies admitting that she was at fault for the accident or that she did not have permission to drive the truck. [Doc. 23] at 2-3, 18.

         Plaintiffs, proceeding pro se, initiated this lawsuit in December 2016 against the Village of Ruidoso, Village of Ruidoso Police Department, and Sgt. Frost, asserting claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. [Doc. 1] at 6-8. They allege that Sgt. Frost discriminated against Plaintiffs by falsifying the police report of the vehicle accident in order to place the fault on Ms. Crow, who is African-American, instead of Mr. Graff, who is white. Id. at 2. They allege that Sgt. Frost coerced Ms. Crow into altering her story in the course of preparing his supplemental report, including threatening financial and legal harm if she refused to cooperate. Id. at 4-5. Plaintiffs allege violations of their procedural due process, substantive due process, and equal protection rights stemming from the investigation of the accident and the filing of the supplemental police report. Id. at 6-8. They claim reputational and financial injury. Id. at 5.

         Defendants filed the instant Motion to Dismiss and/or for Summary Judgment. They argue that Plaintiffs' claims do not rise to the level of a constitutional violation. As to the due process claims, they argue that Plaintiffs fail to allege and cannot show they were deprived of a constitutionally protected property interest or that, even if they could, their substantive or procedural due process rights were violated. [Doc. 20] at 2. They contend there is no constitutionally protected interest in reputation, financial status, expectancy of insurance proceeds, or an accurate police report. Id. As to the equal protection claim, Defendants argue that Plaintiffs cannot show they were treated differently than a similarly situated person or that, even if they could, that the different treatment was on the basis of race. Id. Defendants assert that Sgt. Frost is entitled to qualified immunity because Plaintiffs cannot show that he violated their constitutional rights, much less that such rights were clearly established at the time of his alleged conduct. Id. at 3. They argue that Plaintiffs have failed to state a claim against the Village of Ruidoso because, even if Plaintiffs could show that Sgt. Frost violated their constitutional rights, they have failed to allege the existence of municipal policy or custom that caused the constitutional injury. Id. at 15-16. Finally, Defendants argue that the Ruidoso Police Department is not a proper party to this case and should be dismissed on that basis. Id. Therefore, they request that all claims be dismissed or, in the alternative, that summary judgment be entered in their favor.

         Motions to Dismiss and Motions for Summary Judgment

         A court may dismiss a complaint for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), 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, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). The factual allegations in the complaint “‘must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.'” Christy Sports, L.L.C. v. Deer Valley Resort Co., 555 F.3d 1188, 1191 (10th Cir. 2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). “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. Although a court must accept as true all of the allegations in a complaint, deference is “inapplicable to legal conclusions, ” and “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Id.

         Summary judgment will be granted “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). If the movant meets this burden, the non-movant must come forward with specific facts, supported by admissible evidence, which demonstrate the presence of a genuine issue for trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986). “A nonmovant must respond to a motion for summary judgment with evidence, and the content or substance of that evidence must be admissible.” Wall v. Boone, 1996 WL 44245, at *1 (10th Cir. 1996) (unpublished) (citing Hall v. Bellmon, 935 F.2d 1106, 1110 (10th Cir. 1991) (where motion for summary judgment is supported by affidavits or other material provided under oath, the nonmovant must respond with affidavits or other evidence to show a genuine issue of material fact)). Although the evidence can be presented in a form not admissible, e.g., an affidavit or deposition, “the content or substance of the evidence must be admissible.” Johnson v. Weld Cty., 594 F.3d 1202, 1210 (10th Cir. 2010) (emphasis omitted) (quoting Thomas v. IBM, 48 F.3d 478, 485 (10th Cir. 1995)).

         A genuine dispute exists if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party” on the issue. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Although all facts are construed in favor of the non-movant, the non-movant still has a responsibility to “go beyond the pleadings and designate specific facts so as to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to [his] case in order to survive summary judgment.” Johnson v. Mullin, 422 F.3d 1184, 1187 (10th Cir. 2005) (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted). The non-movant “cannot avoid summary judgment merely by presenting a scintilla of evidence to support his claim; he must proffer facts such that a reasonable jury could find in his favor. Turner v. Pub. Serv. Co. of Colo., 563 F.3d 1136, 1142 (10th Cir. 2009).

         Because Plaintiffs proceed pro se, [8] I construe their filings liberally. Still, a pro se non-movant must “identify specific facts that show the existence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Munoz v. St. Mary-Corwin Hosp., 221 F.3d 1160, 1164 (10th Cir. 2000) (internal quotation marks omitted). Conclusory allegations are insufficient to establish an issue of fact that would defeat the motion. Llewellyn v. Allstate Home Loans, Inc., 711 F.3d 1173, 1180 (10th Cir. 2013). And, when a defendant asserts qualified immunity, as discussed below, the plaintiffs still must meet their burden to overcome the defendants' assertion of qualified immunity. See Parks v. Zasada, 2010 WL 582353, at *1 (D. Colo. Feb. 16, 2010) (unpublished).

         Qualified Immunity

         The doctrine of qualified immunity shields 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.” Riggins v. Goodman, 572 F.3d 1101, 1107 (10th Cir. 2009) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). “When a defendant asserts a qualified immunity defense, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to satisfy a strict two-part test: first, the plaintiff must show that the defendant's actions violated a constitutional . . . right; second, the plaintiff must show that this right was clearly established at the time of the conduct at issue.” Clark v. Edmunds, 513 F.3d 1219, 1222 (10th Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks omitted). If the plaintiff satisfies this test, the defendant “then 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.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Courts have discretion to decide which of the two parts of the qualified immunity test to address first. Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009). As to the “clearly established” prong, a right is clearly established when “every ‘reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.'” Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 741 (2011) (quoting Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640 (1987)). Ordinarily, “[i]n this circuit, to show that a right is clearly established, the plaintiff must point to ‘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.'” Callahan v. Unified Gov't of Wyandotte Cty., 806 F.3d 1022, 1027 (10th Cir. 2015) (quoting Estate of Booker v. Gomez, 745 F.3d 405, 427 (10th Cir. 2014)). While there need not be a case “directly on point, ” the “existing precedent must have placed the . . . constitutional question beyond debate.” al-Kidd, 563 U.S. at 741.

         The Supreme Court has cautioned the lower courts against defining the constitutional question “at a high level of generality.” Id. at 742. The salient inquiry, rather, is “whether the violative nature of the particular conduct is clearly established.” Aldaba v. Pickens, 844 F.3d 870, 877 (10th Cir. 2016) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Mullenix v. Luna, 136 S.Ct. 305, 308 (2015) (per curiam) (the inquiry into whether a right is clearly established “must ...

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