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Tierra Blanca Ranch High Country Youth Program v. Gonzales

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

June 1, 2018




         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendant Felipe Gonzales' (Defendant's) Motion for Summary Judgment. [Doc 91] Plaintiffs Tierra Blanca Ranch High Country Youth Program (the Ranch or the Program), Scott Chandler (Scott), Colette Chandler (Colette), and Bryce Hall (Hall) (collectively, Plaintiffs) responded and requested additional discovery under Rule 56(d). [Doc. 94] After Defendant's Reply was filed [Doc. 95], Plaintiffs filed a Motion for Sur-Reply to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. [Doc. 97] This matter is further before the Court on Plaintiffs' Motion for Spoliation Sanctions against Defendant. [Doc. 101]

         The Court has considered the parties' submissions and the relevant law, and is otherwise fully informed. For the following reasons, the Court GRANTS in part and DENIES in part Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 91]. The Court DENIES Plaintiffs' Rule 56(d) Request for Time to Conduct Discovery [Doc. 94] and Plaintiffs' Motion for Sur-Reply to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 97]. The Court also DENIES without prejudice Plaintiffs' Motion for Spoliation Sanctions against Defendant. [Doc. 101]

         I. Background

         In September 2015 Plaintiffs filed a Complaint alleging deprivation of their constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[1] [Doc. 1] Plaintiffs alleged that Defendant “used deceit and intimidation to obtain consent to search their business premises and subject them, participants and staff to prolonged detention and interrogation with the intent and result of depriving Plaintiffs of rights arising under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983.” [Doc. 1] Plaintiff Hall also alleged a violation of his First Amendment right to association. [Doc. 1] An Amended Complaint was filed in December 2015. [Doc. 6 (Amended Complaint)] Defendant answered [Doc. 10] and filed a Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff Bryce Hall. [Doc. 11] Plaintiffs responded to the Motion to Dismiss [Doc. 19] and filed a Motion to File Second Amended Complaint. [Doc. 30] On March 20, 2017, this Court granted the Motion to File Second Amended Complaint and granted in part Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff Bryce Hall, dismissing Hall's First Amendment claim. [Doc. 75] Discovery was stayed pending resolution of Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. [Doc. 63]

         Plaintiffs allege in the Second Amended Complaint that the Program “is a privately funded program for troubled youths that provides a simple ranch life with the goal of helping troubled teenagers turn their lives around.” [Doc. 76, ¶ 11] They further allege that Hall was enrolled in the Program at the time of the events at issue, Scott is an owner and director of the Program and Colette owns a community property interest in some of the Program. [Doc. 76, ¶¶ 5-7] At all material times, Defendant was employed by the New Mexico State Police. [Doc. 76, ¶ 8]

         The following facts are undisputed. In either January or May, 2013, Defendant began investigating allegations of child abuse of youths enrolled in the Program. [Doc. 91, ¶ 2; Doc. 94, ¶ 2] In September 2013, a resident of the Program was killed in a car accident while riding in a vehicle driven by a Program staff member. [Doc. 94, SAMF ¶ 4; Doc. 91, ¶ 10; Doc. 95] A few days after the accident, Defendant contacted Scott to arrange to question people at the Ranch. [Doc. 91, ¶ 9; Doc. 94, ¶ 4, SAMF ¶ 5] The parties disagree over whether Defendant made clear that he would also interview youths about the child abuse allegations, but it is undisputed that Defendant arranged with the Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) for CYFD personnel to accompany him to the Ranch to interview youths there. [Doc. 91, ¶ 10; Doc. 94, SAMF ¶ 10, 13-14; Doc. 95] On September 30, 2013, Defendant arrived at the Ranch with five other state police officers as well as five staff members of CYFD. [Doc. 91, ¶ 14-15; Doc. 94, SAMF ¶ 16] Plaintiffs allege that, over objections by the Chandlers and “[u]sing threats and coercion, CYFD and the New Mexico State Police entered the property and interviewed the youths without permission or a warrant.” [Doc. 76, ¶ 47] Specifically, Plaintiffs allege, on behalf of the Program and Scott, that

90. Neither Officer Gonzales nor CYFD had warrants or court orders allowing them to enter the Tierra Blanca Ranch property and interview the youths living there on September 30, 2013.
91. There were no exigent circumstances justifying entry onto the Tierra Blanca Ranch property and the lengthy (seven hour) detention of persons present there on September 30, 2013.
92. Officer Gonzales wrongfully obtained consent to entry [sic] onto the Tierra Blanca Ranch property by intimidation, to wit, the presence of Officer Gonzales and other members of the New Mexico State Police and their official vehicles.
93. Officer Gonzales wrongfully obtained consent to entry [sic] onto the Tierra Blanca Ranch property by deception, to wit, lying about the intended scope of the youth interviews by falsely stating he intended to investigate the car accident.
94. As a result of Officer Gonzales' failure to obtain a warrant or lawful consent to search of the premises and detention of the persons therein, Plaintiffs were subject to various actions which have shut down or severely limited the TBR Youth Program causing lost income and future earnings.
95. In addition to shutting down the program these actions permanently damaged Scott Chandler's name and reputation. This damage severely limits his future earning capacity in any field of work.

[Doc. 76]

         Count II is titled “§ 1983 Unlawful Detention in Violation of the Fourth Amendment.” [Doc. 76] Plaintiffs allege, on behalf of Hall, that Defendant “illegally entered onto the Tierra Blanca Creek Ranch property and detained Bryce Hall against his will without warrants or other legal basis, ” [Doc. 76, ¶ 102] and that “because of the actions by [Defendant, ] and/or others under his command or in the course of events instigated by him, Plaintiff Bryce Hall was forcibly sent away from the Program and deprived of his constitutional right of association, and the care and guidance of the . . . Program, which he was depending on to turn his life around and keep him out of trouble.” [Doc. 76, ¶ 110] Plaintiffs further allege that after the interviews, CYFD “directed [the parents of youths in the Program] to remove their youths from the . . . Program because the Program was going to be shut down.” [Doc. 76, ¶ 60] The Second Amended Complaint states that Scott was forced to “return the boys to their families due to the untenable situation caused by the actions of CYFD following the September 30, 2013, interviews.” [Doc. 76, ¶ 56]

         II. Discussion

         A. Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment

         Defendant now moves for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. [Doc. 91] Plaintiffs oppose the motion and move for additional discovery pursuant to Rule 56(f). [Doc. 94][2] Summary judgment is appropriate “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). Under this Rule, “the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986). Rather, “[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Id. at 248. Generally, the moving party bears the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. See Shapolia v. Los Alamos Nat'l Lab., 992 F.2d 1033, 1036 (10th Cir. 1993) (citations omitted). The moving party need not negate the nonmovant's claim, but rather must show “that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Celotex v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). Once the moving party meets its initial burden, the nonmoving party must show that genuine issues remain for trial “as to those dispositive matters for which it carries the burden of proof.” Applied Genetics Int'l Inc. v. First Affiliated Secs., Inc., 912 F.2d 1238, 1241 (10th Cir. 1990) (citation omitted). The nonmoving party cannot rely upon conclusory allegations or contentions of counsel to defeat summary judgment, see Pueblo Neighborhood Health Ctrs., Inc. v. Losavio, 847 F.2d 642, 649 (10th Cir. 1988), but rather must “go beyond the pleadings and by [its] own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Upon a motion for summary judgment, “[t]he court must consider factual inferences tending to show triable issues in the light most favorable to the existence of those issues” and “consider the record in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.” United States v. O'Block, 788 F.2d 1433, 1435 (10th Cir. 1986). If the responding party fails to properly address the movant's assertion of fact as required by Rule 56(c), a district court may “grant summary judgment if the motion and supporting materials- including the facts considered undisputed-show that the movant is entitled to it.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)(3).

         The doctrine of qualified immunity shields government officials performing discretionary functions from suit and liability for civil damages “unless their conduct violates clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Eaton v. Meneley, 379 F.3d 949, 954 (10th Cir. 2004). “[W]hen a defendant raises the defense of qualified immunity, the plaintiff has the initial two-part burden to show that (1) a reasonable jury could find facts supporting a violation of a constitutional right, which (2) was clearly established at the time of the defendant's conduct.” Sweat v. City of Las Cruces, No. 15-CV-0226 RB/SMV, 2016 WL 9087264, at *3 (D.N.M. Apr. 21, 2016); see Cillo v. City of Greenwood Vill., 739 F.3d 451, 461 (10th Cir. 2013). “The relevant, dispositive inquiry in determining whether a right is clearly established is whether it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation.” Cortez v. McCauley, 478 F.3d 1108, 1114 (10th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). A plaintiff ordinarily demonstrates that a law is clearly established by referencing a Supreme Court or Tenth Circuit decision on point, or showing that the clearly established weight of authority from other courts has determined the law to be as the plaintiff maintains. Medina v. City & County of Denver, 960 F.2d 1493, 1498 (10th Cir. 1992). Only if the plaintiff satisfies both elements does the defendant bear the normal burden of the summary judgment movant of “showing that no material factual issues remain to defeat his claim of qualified immunity.” Pallottino, 31 F.3d at 1026 (quoting Losavio, 847 F.2d at 646).

         Consistent with this framework, the Court will first examine whether Plaintiffs have raised a question of fact as to whether Defendant violated their constitutional rights, then address whether the law was clearly established such that a reasonable officer would have known that his conduct was unlawful under the circumstances.

         1. Whether Defendant Violated Plaintiffs' Fourth Amendment Right to be Free of Unreasonable Searches and Seizures

         Defendant asserts that he is entitled to qualified immunity because Colette and/or Scott consented to his entry to the Ranch, and, therefore, he did not violate Plaintiffs' Fourth Amendment rights. Plaintiffs argue that any consent given by Colette or Scott was coerced by Defendant's trickery or demanding and threatening behavior. Alternatively, they argue that questions of material fact preclude summary judgment as to whether Scott or Colette voluntarily consented to Defendant's entry onto the property. [Doc. 94]

         The Fourth Amendment provides:

[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no [w]arrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by [o]ath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

         “It is a basic principle of Fourth Amendment law . . . that searches and seizures inside a home without a warrant are presumptively unreasonable.” Kentucky v. King, 563 U.S. 452, 459 (2011) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “But . . . this presumption may be overcome in some circumstances because the ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is ‘reasonableness.'” Id. (alterations, internal quotation marks, and citation omitted). When the Fourth Amendment is implicated, the Government bears the burden of demonstrating that a warrant was not required because an exception applied. See United States v. Jeffers, 342 U.S. 48, 51 (1951) (stating that “the burden is on those seeking the exemption [from the warrant requirement] to show the need for it”).

         One such exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement is voluntary consent. When officers obtain voluntary consent to enter a home, a warrantless search or seizure is not unconstitutional. See United States v. Lopez, 777 F.2d 543, 548 (10th Cir. 1985). To establish that there was voluntary consent, “(1) there must be clear and positive testimony that consent was unequivoc[al] and specific and freely and intelligently given; [and] (2) the Government must prove consent was given without duress or coercion, express or implied.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “[T]he courts indulge every reasonable presumption against the waiver of fundamental constitutional rights and there must be convincing evidence that such rights were waived.” Id. (alterations, internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Consent may be demonstrated by actions, rather than communicated verbally. See United States v. Payan, 905 F.2d 1376, 1379 (10th Cir. 1990) (consent given where the officer “asked [the defendant], ‘would you mind opening the trunk, ' and [the defendant] had done so without hesitancy or comment”).

         Consent may be rendered involuntary, i.e., coerced, by use of “physical mistreatment, use of violence, threats, threats of violence, promises or inducements, deception or trickery.” United States v. McCurdy, 40 F.3d 1111, 1119 (10th Cir. 1994). Other factors include the number of officers present and the physical and mental capacity of the defendant. See United States v. Jones, 701 F.3d 1300, 1318 (10th Cir. 2012). “[G]overnment actions are coercive when they imply an individual has no right to refuse consent, ” or that there will be “punitive ramifications” for refusal of consent. United States v. Harrison, 639 F.3d 1273, 1279 (10th Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). No. one factor is dispositive; rather, the Court must assess the totality of the circumstances. United States v. Gay, 774 F.2d 368, 376 (10th Cir. 1985) (“Whether a consent was voluntary or was the product of coercion or duress, express or implied, is to be determined by the totality of the circumstances.”). Whether a person gave voluntary consent is judged by an objective standard: “what would the typical reasonable person have understood by the exchange between the officer and the suspect?” United States v. Waupekenay, 973 F.2d 1533, 1535 (10th Cir. 1992) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Thus, a plaintiff's beliefs about the exchange are immaterial to the extent they differ from what a reasonable person would have understood.

         “[T]he test for existence of a ‘show of authority' is an objective one: not whether the citizen perceived that he was being ordered to restrict his movement, but whether the officer's words and actions would have conveyed that to a reasonable person.” California v. Hodari D., 499 U.S. 621, 628 (1991). For example, in United States v. Iribe, our Tenth Circuit held that there was no coercion where, although there were five officers present, the exchange between the officers and the consenting person was “cordial and spoken in low volume[, ] [n]o promises or threats were made in an attempt to extract her consent[, and she] . . . signed a consent to search form[ which] contained a clause discussing the right to refuse consent.” 11 F.3d 1553, 1557-58 (10th Cir. 1993). In Wilson, the Court held that what began as a consensual encounter evolved into a nonconsensual seizure when the officers made “statements about the legality of Wilson's refusal, and order[ed her] to go get her son or . . . they would do it for her, after persistently asking her to do so.” Wilson v. Jara, 866 F.Supp.2d 1270, 1298 (D.N.M. 2011), aff'd, 512 Fed.Appx. 841 (10th Cir. 2013).

         Finally, “when the prosecution seeks to justify a warrantless search by proof of voluntary consent, it is not limited to proof that consent was given by the defendant.” United States v. Matlock, 415 U.S. 164, 171 (1974). Instead, the prosecution “may show that permission to search was obtained from a third party who possessed common authority over or other sufficient relationship to the premises or effects sought to be inspected.” Id. “[A] third party has authority to consent to a search of property if that third party has either (1) mutual use of the property by virtue of joint access, or (2) control for most purposes over it.” United States v. Rith, 164 F.3d 1323, 1329-30 (10th Cir. 1999). The husband-wife relationship gives rise to such a presumption of authority. Id. at 1330.

         The Facts Leading to Consent

         The following facts are undisputed except as noted. On September 24, 2013, Defendant contacted Scott seeking to interview Scott and residents of the Program and to arrange a time for the interviews. While the parties agree that this call took place, they disagree on whether it was clear from the call that Defendant wished to interview all of the residents and whether Scott agreed that he could do so. [See Doc. 51-1, Gonzales affidavit, ¶ 11; Doc. 94, pg. 46, Scott affidavit, ¶¶ 5, 6, 10] The transcript of the September 24 call includes the following exchanges:

FELIPE GONZALEZ: Like I said, I would like to get everybody's side of the story as far as my investigation and their investigation because unfortunately it's [sic] all links together. They are kids at your ranch still.
SCOTT CHANDLER: I'm trying to understand. Like the guys involved in the accident, is it regarding the accident? Or [sic] it regarding all this other stuff?
FELIPE GONZALEZ: It's going to regard both, unfortunately. Hello? Are you there ...

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