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Pierce v. Board of County Commissioners of The County of Valencia

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

March 4, 2019

JACK AARON PIERCE, Plaintiff,
v.
THE BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS OF THE COUNTY OF VALENCIA, NEW MEXICO, in their official capacity, LOUIS BURKHARD, Sheriff of Valencia County, SEAN LAURSEN, Deputy Sheriff, in his individual and official capacity, JAMES HARRIS, Deputy Sheriff, in his individual and official capacity, JOHN DOES 1-10, in their individual and official capacities, JANE DOES 1-10, in their individual and official capacities, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS OR ALTERNATIVELY FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT UNDER HECK V. HUMPHREY AND ON THE BASIS OF QUALIFIED IMMUNITY

         In DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS OR ALTERNATIVELY FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT UNDER HECK V. HUMPHREY AND ON THE BASIS OF QUALIFIED IMMUNITY (Doc. No. 18) (Motion) Defendants[1] ask the Court to dismiss Count 11, the one remaining count in the FIRST AMENDED COMPLAINT FOR DAMAGES FOR ASSAULT AND BATTERY, UNLAWFUL (EXCESSIVE) USE OF FORCE, VIOLATIONS OF CIVIL RIGHTS, PERSONAL INJURIES AND FOR VIOLATIONS OF THE NEW MEXICO TORT CLAIMS ACT (Doc. No. 1-2) (Complaint).[2] The Motion is fully briefed. See PLAINTIFF'S RESPONSE TO DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS OR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (Doc. No. 22) (Response); and DEFENDANTS' REPLY TO PLAINTIFF'S RESPONSE TO MOTION TO DISMISS OR ALTERNATIVELY FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT UNDER HECK V. HUMPHREY AND ON THE BASIS OF QUALIFIED IMMUNITY (Doc. No. 23) (Reply). The Court granted Plaintiff leave to file PLAINTIFF'S SURREPLY TO MOTION TO DISMISS (Doc. No. 25-1) (Surreply). In Count 11, Plaintiff asserts claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against all Defendants for violations of the Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution arising from a physical altercation during his arrest.

         In the Motion, Defendants argue that the Court should dismiss Count 11 because under Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 486-87 (1994), Plaintiff is barred from bringing a claim for excessive force arising out of the same incident that supported Plaintiff's plea of guilty to the charge of battery on a peace officer under NMSA 1978 § 30-22-24. Alternatively, Defendants Laursen and Harris ask the Court to dismiss Count 11 because they are entitled to qualified immunity from Plaintiff's claims for inadequate medical care. Defendants Laursen and Harris contend that there is no clearly established law requiring Defendants to provide Plaintiff with medical care in addition to calling an ambulance to the scene.

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under Rule 12(b)(6) a court may dismiss a claim “for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted[.]” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). “The court's function on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion is ... to assess whether the plaintiff's complaint alone is legally sufficient to state a claim for which relief may be granted.” Brokers' Choice of America, Inc. v. NBC Universal, Inc., 757 F.3d 1125, 1135 (10th Cir. 2014) (citation omitted). In evaluating a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court must “accept as true all well-pleaded facts, as distinguished from conclusory allegations, and view the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Maher v. Durango Metals, Inc., 144 F.3d 1302, 1304 (10th Cir. 1998). Even though the court must accept as true all well-pleaded facts in the complaint, the court is under no obligation to accept bare conclusory allegations. Hall v. Belmon, 935 F.2d 1106, 1110 (10th Cir. 1991). And the court is not required to accept legal conclusions without factual support. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 557 (2007); Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009). To summarize, a complaint must contain sufficient factual allegations “to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true....” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. Rule 56 allows a court to 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 doctrine of qualified immunity protects public or 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.'” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)). Once a defendant asserts qualified immunity, the plaintiff bears the heavy burden of satisfying a “strict two-part test.” McBeth v. Himes, 598 F.3d 708, 716 (10th Cir. 2010) (citation omitted). The plaintiff must establish 1) that the defendant violated a constitutional or statutory right, and 2) that the right was clearly established at the time of the defendant's conduct. Courtney v. Oklahoma ex rel., Dep't of Pub. Safety, 722 F.3d 1216, 1222 (10th Cir. 2013).

         “If the plaintiff fails to satisfy either part of this two-part inquiry, the court must grant the defendant qualified immunity.” Hesse v. Town of Jackson, Wyo., 541 F.3d 1240, 1244 (10th Cir. 2008) (quotations omitted). But, if the plaintiff succeeds in carrying his two-part burden, the burden shifts to the defendant who must show there are no remaining material issues of fact that would defeat the claim of qualified immunity. Walton v. Gomez, 745 F.3d 405, 412 (10th Cir. 2014).

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         The following facts taken from the Complaint are accepted as true. On April 7, 2015 at about 6:30 pm, Plaintiff Jack Aaron Pierce (Plaintiff) was sleeping in the passenger's seat of a vehicle parked in front of a residence in Valencia County, New Mexico. (Compl. ¶ 12.) Plaintiff's friend, Sharon Hopkins, was sitting in the driver's seat of the vehicle. (Id. ¶ 13.) The Complaint alleges that suddenly and without warning, multiple Valencia County Sheriff's Department (VCSD) patrol units pulled up directly behind the vehicle and in “an aggressively violent, threatening and insolent manner block[ed] and prevent[ed] their vehicle from having any ability to move whatsoever.” (Id. ¶ 14.) Defendants Sean Laursen (Deputy Laursen) and James Harris (Deputy Harris) (together, the Deputies), “with their weapons unholstered, ” approached each side of the vehicle and ordered Plaintiff and Ms. Hopkins to raise their hands. (Id. ¶ 15.) Ms. Hopkins was ordered to exit the vehicle, which she did through the driver's window because the driver's side door was inoperable. (Id.) Plaintiff awoke and became confused upon seeing Ms. Hopkins climbing out of the window. Deputy Harris was standing by Ms. Hopkins' driver's side door with his weapon drawn when he ordered her to sit on the ground away from the vehicle. (Id. ¶ 17.)

         The Deputies ordered Plaintiff to raise his hands and remain in the vehicle. However, Plaintiff was then ordered to exit the vehicle. (Id.) Deputy Laursen, who was standing near the passenger's side of the vehicle, holstered his firearm, drew his taser, and pointed the taser at Plaintiff's face through the open window. (Id. ¶ 18.) Plaintiff's passenger's side door was blocked, and Plaintiff could not exit the vehicle. (Id.)

         Plaintiff, confused and afraid, tried to explain that he and Ms. Hopkins were just sitting in the vehicle “minding their own business and that they had not done anything wrong or illegal.” (Id. ¶ 19.) During the encounter, the Deputies never stated “they were in possession of any warrant nor did they offer a warrant number or reason whatsoever for their aggressive” actions. (Id. ¶¶ 20, 26, 30.) Plaintiff “carefully and respectfully attempted to move Defendant Laursen's taser away from his face with his right hand.” (Id. ¶ 21.) Deputy Laursen, however, “grabbed Plaintiff Pierce's right wrist injuring it as he cleared a path between Plaintiff Pierce's face and his taser weapon.” (Id.) While Deputy Laursen held Plaintiff's wrist, Plaintiff “was able to move the remainder of his body toward the center of the vehicle and away from the taser as Defendant Laursen pointed it through the window while persisting with his unlawful physical detaining of Plaintiff Pierce's right wrist.” (Id. ¶ 22.)

         Apparently, another officer yelled “taser him, ” and Deputy Laursen fired his taser at Plaintiff's face. (Id. ¶ 23.) Plaintiff was able to shield his face with his other hand “where it was met with the taser prong causing injury.” (Id.) Deputy Laursen then “moved his entire upper body into the vehicle through the passenger side window stunning Plaintiff Pierce's body multiple times with the stun option of the taser, causing additional injury.” (Id.)

         Deputy Harris “entered the back seat of the vehicle through the right rear door where he was able to apply a choke hold” on Plaintiff causing additional injury. (Id. ¶ 24.) While Plaintiff was being held in the choke hold, Deputy Laursen drew his baton and began violently swinging at Plaintiff “striking him on portions of his arms, head and body causing further serious injury.” (Id. ¶ 25.) While still in the vehicle, Plaintiff was “tasered and or body stunned (sic) at least two more times.” (Id. ¶ 27.) Plaintiff denies resisting arrest or physically battering the Deputies. (Id.)

         Plaintiff was then “violently, and without purpose, dragged out of the vehicle through the passenger side window where he was forcefully thrown to the ground bleeding and in pain[.]” (Id. ¶ 28.) While on the ground, Plaintiff was handcuffed, “kicked in the face and head by Defendants, kneeled on by Defendants and then watched from the ground while Defendants and other VCSD deputies celebrated and unlawfully searched Plaintiff's vehicle.” (Id. ¶ 29.) The Deputies did not offer to render first aid. (Id.) In a “desperate attempt to prevent further battery and injury by Defendants, … Plaintiff told the Defendants Laursen and Harris there were drugs in the house they were at.” (Id.)

         After several minutes elapsed, an ambulance arrived, and medical personnel attempted to assess and treat Plaintiff's injuries. (Id. ¶ 31.) During the medical assessment, the Deputies “continued to hurry medical personnel to finish with Plaintiff Pierce slandering him by stating he deserved everything he got, that he was a murderer and fired guns at children, that Plaintiff Pierce was fit for incarceration and that the ambulance service was simply dispatched as a procedural requirement only and for no other reason.” (Id.) Medical personnel provided “very little medical treatment … despite Plaintiff Pierce's request to go to the hospital.” (Id. ¶ 32.)

         Plaintiff was transported to the Valencia County Detention Center (VCDC), but “the Detention Center personnel refused to book Plaintiff Pierce as a result of the severity of his many bodily injuries.” (Id. ¶ 33.) Deputy Laursen took Plaintiff to Los Lunas Medical clinic “where he received just enough treatment to stop the bleeding from the injuries he ...


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