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Contreras v. Dona Ana County Board of County Commissioners

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

November 7, 2018

KATHY CONTRERAS, on behalf of her minor child A.L., Plaintiff,
DONA ANA COUNTY BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS, d/b/a Doña Ana County Detention Center, et al., Defendants.



         This matter comes before the Court on Defendants' Motion and Supporting Memorandum for Qualified Immunity and Summary Judgment. Doc. 47. Having reviewed the Motion, the attendant briefing and oral argument (docs. 52, 57, 60, 61, 64), and being otherwise fully advised regarding relevant case law, the Court will GRANT Defendants' motion.

         I. Procedural Posture

         This case stems from events surrounding an assault on Plaintiff's minor child, A.L., in the juvenile pod of the Doña Ana County Detention Center (“DACDC”). Doc. 1. Plaintiff filed suit on behalf of A.L. in this Court on February 15, 2018. Id. In her Complaint, Plaintiff brings federal and state law claims against the Doña Ana County Board of County Commissioners, doing business as DACDC, and on-duty guards Paco Luna, Jaime Casado, and Shaylene Platero (“the Individual Defendants”). Id. Particularly, Plaintiff brings (1) claims against the Individual Defendants in their individual capacities for violating A.L.'s Fourteenth Amendment due process right to reasonable safety under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, (2) a §1983 municipal liability claim against DACDC, (3) state law claims against Defendants for negligence and negligent operation of a building or equipment, and (4) claims against Defendants under the New Mexico Constitution for the alleged violation of humane conditions of confinement. Id.

         On July 13, 2018, Defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, which was fully briefed on August 21, 2018. Docs. 47, 52, 57, 60. In the Motion, Defendants seek summary judgment on Plaintiff's § 1983 claims on the basis of qualified immunity.[1] See doc. 47 at 7-17. The Court held oral argument on the Motion on August 28, 2018. Doc. 64. During the hearing, the Court permitted the parties an additional week to file supplemental case citations and parentheticals relevant to the “cross-pollination of Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment analyses” and the “delegation of policy” arguments discussed by counsel during the hearing. Id. In response, Plaintiff filed her Notice of Additional Authority on August 30, 2018. Doc. 61. Defendants similarly filed a Notice of Additional Authority on August 31, 2018. Doc. 62. Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment is now before the Court.

         II. Legal Standards

         A. Qualified Immunity & Summary Judgment

         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); see also Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324.

         Notably, however, summary judgment motions based upon the defense of qualified immunity are reviewed differently from other summary judgment motions. Martinez v. Beggs, 563 F.3d 1082, 1088 (10th Cir. 2009). “When a defendant asserts qualified immunity at summary judgment, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show that: (1) the defendant violated a constitutional right and (2) the constitutional right was clearly established.” Id. (citing Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231-32 (2009)). 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 v. Edmunds, 513 F.3d 1219, 1222 (10th Cir. 2008) (quoting Nelson v. McMullen, 207 F.3d 1202, 1205 (10th Cir. 2000)) (internal quotations omitted). The Court may address the two prongs of the test in any order. Pearson, 555 U.S. at 236.

         “Qualified immunity is applicable unless the official's conduct violated a clearly established constitutional right.” Id. at 232 (citing Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640 (1987)). “A Government official's conduct violates clearly established law when, at the time of the challenged conduct, ‘[t]he contours of [a] right [are] sufficiently clear' that 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 Creighton, 483 U.S. at 640). “We do not require a case directly on point, but existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate.” Id. (citing Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341 (1986)). “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).

         In determining whether the plaintiff has met its burden, the Court still construes the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff as the non-moving party. See Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 377 (2007). In so doing, the Court 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 Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). “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 Hunt v. Cromartie, 526 U.S. 541, 550- 55 (1999). Third, the court cannot decide any issues of credibility. See Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 255. “[T]o survive the . . . motion, [the nonmovant] need only present evidence from which a jury might return a verdict in his favor.” Id. at 257. Nonetheless, at the summary judgment stage, “a plaintiff's version of the facts must find support in the record.” Thomson v. Salt Lake County, 584 F.3d 1304, 1312 (10th Cir. 2009).

         B. Individual Liability

         The Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause governs pre-adjudication detainee suits against jails. Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 536 (1979). The Supreme Court has held the following with respect to §1983 liability in cases that allege a failure to protect inmates from other inmates, such as the one at bar.

[P]rison officials . . . must take reasonable measures to guarantee the safety of the inmates. [Particularly, ] prison officials have a duty…to protect prisoners from violence at the hands of other prisoners. . . . It is not, however, every injury suffered by one prisoner at the hands of another that translates into constitutional liability for prison officials responsible for the victim's safety. . . . First, the deprivation alleged must be, objectively, sufficiently serious, [and] the inmate must show that he is incarcerated under conditions posing a substantial risk of serious harm. [S]econd[, ] a prison official must have a sufficiently culpable state of mind. . . .that [of] deliberate indifference to inmate health or safety. . . . [A]cting or failing to act with deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm to a prisoner is the equivalent of recklessly disregarding that risk. We hold. . . that a prison official cannot be found liable. . . for denying an inmate humane conditions of confinement unless the official knows of and disregards an excessive risk to inmate health or safety; the official must both be aware of the facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of harm exists, and he must also draw the inference.

Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 832-36 (1970) (internal quotations and citations omitted).

         Turning to the liability of supervisors in particular, to meet his or her supervisory liability burden under §1983, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the supervisor:

[P]ersonally violated [the plaintiff's] constitutional rights. To do that [the plaintiff must] show an affirmative link between [the supervisor] and [the violation.] And to demonstrate such an affirmative link, [the plaintiff must] establish (1) personal involvement, (2) causation, and (3) state of mind.
[Plaintiff] could satisfy the personal-involvement requirement by showing that [the supervisor] was responsible for but failed to create and enforce policies to protect [the plaintiff] from the [violation]. To establish causation, [the plaintiff] had to show that [the supervisor] set in motion a series of events that [the supervisor] knew or reasonably should have known would cause others to deprive [the plaintiff] of [the plaintiff's] constitutional rights. Finally, in the context of a Fourteenth Amendment claim like this one, [the plaintiff] could establish the requisite state of mind by showing that [the supervisor] acted with deliberate indifference.
In turn, the deliberate-indifference test itself has three requirements. [The plaintiff] had to show (1) that [the supervisor] was aware of facts from which the inference could be drawn that a substantial risk of serious harm existed; (2) that he actually drew that inference; and (3) that he was aware of and failed to take reasonable steps to alleviate that risk.

Perry v. Durborow, 892 F.3d 1116, 1121-22 (10th Cir. 2018) (internal quotations and citations omitted). “A supervisor's mere knowledge of his subordinate's conduct” falls short of meeting the standard. Schneider v. City of Grand Junction Police Dept., 717 F.3d 760, 767 (10th Cir. 2013) (internal citation omitted).

         C. Municipal Liability

         Municipalities cannot be held liable for the acts of their employees under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on the basis of a respondeat superior theory. Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 691-94 (1978); see also Bryson v. City of Okla. City, 627 F.3d 784, 788 (10th Cir. 2010). Instead, “[a] plaintiff suing a municipality under section 1983 for the acts of one of its employees must prove: (1) that a municipal employee committed a constitutional violation, and (2) that a municipal policy or custom was the moving force behind the constitutional violation.” Myers v. Okla. Cty. Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs, 151 F.3d 1313, 1316 (10th Cir. 1998). In order to meet this burden, a plaintiff must first “identify a government's policy or custom that caused the injury.” Schneider, 717 F.3d at 769 (internal quotations and citation omitted). The plaintiff is then required to show “that the policy was enacted or maintained with deliberate indifference to an almost inevitable constitutional injury.” Id. The Tenth Circuit has distilled these requirements into three specific elements: “(1) official policy or custom[;] (2) causation[;] and (3) state of mind.” Id.

         An official policy or custom may take different forms. See Cacioppo v. Town of Vail, Colo., 528 Fed.Appx. 929, 931-32 (10th Cir. 2013) (unpublished). Specifically, “[a] challenged practice may be deemed an official policy or custom for § 1983 municipal- liability purposes if it is a formally promulgated policy, a well-settled custom or practice, a final decision by a municipal policymaker, or deliberately indifferent training or supervision.” Schneider, 717 F.3d at 770. Proving an unlawful custom demands evidence of “a widespread practice that, although not authorized by written law or express municipal policy, is so permanent and well settled as to constitute a custom or usage with the force of law.” City of St. Louis v. Praprotnik, 485 U.S. 112, 127 (1988) (quoting Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 167-68 (1970)) (internal quotation marks omitted). For liability to attach, the plaintiff must demonstrate a “direct causal link between the custom or policy and the violation alleged.” Hollingsworth v. Hill, 110 F.3d 733, 742 (10th Cir. 1997) (internal citations omitted).

         III. Undisputed Facts

         Based on the facts presented by the movants and other facts gleaned from the record, the Court finds the following facts to be undisputed for the purposes of Defendants' Motion:

1. On May 3, 2016, A.L., a fourteen-year-old juvenile, was arrested and booked into DACDC. Doc. 47-1 at 1.
2. When A.L. was escorted to his cell, three other detainees in the pod, Joaquin Solis, Jesus Vasquez, and Adan Herrera, shouted threats at A.L., including that they planned to “fuck [A.L.] up.” Doc. 47-2 at 1.
3. DACDC officer James Espana documented the threats against A.L. in an incident report. Doc. 47-2.
4. Defendants Luna, Casado, and Platero, guards within the pod, were made aware of these threats. Doc. 47-3 at 1; doc. 47-4 at 2; doc. 47-5 at 1. In addition, Defendant Luna noted that Solis, Vasquez and Herrera had histories of assault at DACDC. Id. In fact, DACDC reported an assault involving Herrera and Vasquez as recently as April 30, 2016. Doc. 52-1, Attachment 5. Further, five previous “affrays” had been reported involving Solis, Herrera or Vasquez. Id., Attachment 6. In addition, Luna recorded on April 25, 2016, that “it is not safe to take [Herrera] out of his cell.” Id. A DACDC psychiatrist on April 29, 2016, also found that Herrera, who had been incarcerated ten times, is prone to anger and “risk taking activity, ” and suffers from auditory hallucinations. Id.
5. DACDC placed Solis, Vasquez and Herrera on pre-disciplinary status, meaning they were only allowed out of their cells to shower, use the phone, use the inmate kiosk, and participate in a one-hour recreation period. Doc. 47-3 at 1. Further, DACDC did not permit the three detainees to leave their cells during the same period as each other or A.L. Doc. 47-4 at 2.
6. On the morning of May 4, 2016, Sergeant Luna was on duty as the supervisor. Id. Officer Casado and Cadet Platero joined Defendant Luna on the shift. Prior to 9:00 a.m. Herrera showered in the shower room. Id. Simultaneously, the Individual Defendants watched television in the middle of the juvenile pod's dayroom, a first-floor rectangular common room filled with circular tables and surrounded ...

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