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Martinez v. City of Albuquerque

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

December 23, 2019

CITY OF ALBUQUERQUE, and ALAN ARMIJO, in his official and individual capacities, Defendants.



         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Defendant City of Albuquerque's motion to dismiss Plaintiff Mary Martinez's complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (Doc. 3). In relevant part, the City maintains that Martinez's landlord and its employee, Defendant Alan Armijo, did not act under color of law when Armijo allegedly retaliated against Martinez in violation of the First Amendment for her opposition to financial aid for individuals seeking asylum in the United States. Martinez disagrees and argues that Armijo wielded his authority as Mayor Tim Keller's director of constituent services to threaten her and demand she vacate her residence. With the consent of the parties to conduct dispositive proceedings, see 28 U.S.C. 636(c), the Court has considered the parties' submissions. Because the complaint does not establish that Armijo acted under of color of law, the Court GRANTS in part the City's motion, DISMISSES Martinez's federal claims with prejudice, and REMANDS the matter to state court.

         I. BACKGROUND

         From about 2009 to May 2019, Martinez, disabled and a recipient of assistance under Section 8 of the Housing Act of 1937, leased residential property in Albuquerque owned by Armijo. (Doc. 1-2, Compl., ¶ 3; 10). Aside from being Martinez's landlord, Armijo is employed by the City and is Mayor Tim Keller's director of constituent services. (Id.).

         Under the terms of the parties' agreement, the lease renews on August 1 of each year unless terminated by either party or superseded by a new lease. (Id. at ¶11). The agreement prohibits Armijo from terminating the lease during a term unless Martinez “committed a serious violation of the Lease or for other good cause.” (Id. at ¶ 12). In fact, Armijo could only terminate the lease without cause by “providing . . . a written-notice [sic] that the Lease would not be renewed at least 30-days prior to the Lease renewing on August 1, 2019.” (Id. at ¶13).

         The 2018-2019 term unfolded without incident until the Albuquerque City Council held a public meeting on May 6, 2019 to discuss, among, other things “a proposal to provide $250, 000 in aid to purported asylum seekers in Albuquerque.” (Id. at ¶¶14-15). The Mayor supported the proposal, and the public was invited to comment on the proposed aid. (Id. at ¶¶16-17). Despite “the very hostile environment for those opposing the Asylum Aid, [Martinez] voiced her opposition against the Asylum Aid and expressed her opinion that the funds should be used to support the many veterans in need of those funds.” (Id. at ¶18).

         Through his employment with the Mayor's office, Armijo “became aware of [Martinez's] opposition of the Asylum Aid at the Council Meeting.” (Id. at ¶19). On May 8, 2019, en route to an official meeting, Armijo stopped at Martinez's home, which is about ten minutes away from the meeting location. (Id. at ¶¶ 20; 24; 43-44). “[I]mmediately upon [Martinez] answering the door, [Armijo] asked if she was moving out.” (Id. at ¶ 20). Armijo later demanded Martinez move out and promised “to talk to Housing” about Martinez, which Martinez took to mean Armijo would “use his authority with the Mayor's office” against her. (Id., at ¶¶ 21; 35). During this encounter, Armijo knew he could not evict Martinez without good cause and could terminate the lease by “simply sending . . . a letter, prior to July 1, 2019, advising that he was not going to renew [Martinez's] lease.” (Id. at ¶ 23). Martinez felt threatened because of Armijo's “aggressive and authoritarian nature.” (Id. at ¶ 34).

         The visit occurred during Armijo's working hours with the City. (Id. at ¶¶38-40). As his job title suggests, Armijo's duties included meeting with constituents such as Martinez. (Id. at ¶40). Prior to this encounter, however, Armijo had never visited Martinez at her home. (Id. at ¶24). Armijo claimed his request for her to vacate the rental was that HUD was not paying him enough under the Section 8 program, though Martinez had always received Section 8 benefits while living in Armijo's property. (Id. at ¶25). In a subsequent investigation, Armijo insisted he had sent Martinez a letter before May 8, 2019, informing Martinez he would not renew the lease. (Id. at ¶26). Armijo “failed to produce a copy of the Letter.” (Id. at ¶27).

         During the May 8 visit, however, Armijo did not mention the letter or otherwise inquire about Martinez's receipt of the correspondence. (Id. at ¶28). In fact, Armijo “made comments inconsistent with him having sent the letter” and never actually mailed any letter about terminating the lease. (Id. at ¶¶28-29). When Armijo realized in August 2019 “that an investigation into his retaliatory Hostile Home Visit was being conducted, Armijo continued his retaliation related to [Martinez] voicing her opinion at the Council Meeting by mailing [Martinez] a letter on or about August 5, 2019 advising that she had three days to move out for non-payment of rent since 2016.” (Id. at ¶33). The letter came despite Armijo agreeing Martinez could deduct repairs she made to the property from the amount owed. (Id.).

         On September 5, 2019, Martinez filed a single-count complaint in state court alleging Armijo and the City violated her right to free speech under the state and federal Constitutions. (Doc. 1-2). Armijo and the City removed the case to this Court on September 19, 2019. (Doc. 1).

         II. STANDARD

         A motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) tests the sufficiency of a pleading within its four corners. Mobley v. McCormick, 40 F.3d 337, 340 (10th Cir. 1994). A complaint is sufficient when it “allege[s] facts that, if true, state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Mayfield v. Bethards, 826 F.3d 1252, 1255 (10th Cir. 2014) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). “Plausibility” asks whether, under the substantive law that governs the claims alleged, the plaintiff has pleaded facts that “raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Khalik v. United Air Lines, 671 F.3d 1188, 1192 (10th Cir. 2012); Robbins v. Oklahoma, 519 F.3d 1242, 1248 (10th Cir. 2008). In determining if a complaint survives a motion to dismiss, the Court assumes the truth of the facts in the pleading, takes those facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and assesses whether they give rise to a reasonable inference that the defendant is liable. See Mayfield, 826 F.3d at 1255.


         Section 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code gives a civil remedy to individuals whose federal constitutional rights have been violated by a municipal employee. 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Liability, however, “attaches only to conduct occurring ‘under color of law.'” Gallagher v. Neil Young Freedom Concert, 49 F.3d 1442, 1447 (10th Cir. 1995). “The traditional definition of acting under color of state law requires that the [municipal employee] 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) (citation omitted). The under-color-of-state-law threshold is jurisdictional, aimed ...

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