Garcia v. Geier et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER by District Judge William P. Johnson GRANTING 28 Defendant City of Rio Rancho's Motion to Dismiss with prejudice. (mag)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW MEXICO
JUSTIN L. GARCIA,
No. 1:16-cv-01141 WJ-KBM
MICHAEL GEIER, individually,
and in his official capacity;
KEITH RIESBERG, individually,
and in his official capacity;
RIO RANCHO POLICE DEPARTMENT;
and GOVERNING BODY FOR THE CITY
OF RIO RANCHO.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS’ MOTION TO
DISMISS CLAIMS AGAINST DEFENDANT CITY OF RIO RANCHO, INCLUDING
THE RIO RANCHO POLICE DEPARTMENT
THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss filed on May 3,
2017 (Doc. 28). Having reviewed the relevant pleadings and the applicable law, the Court finds
Defendants’ Motion is well-taken, and is therefore GRANTED.
The relevant background facts are set forth in the Court’s Memorandum Opinion and
Order Granting Defendants Michael Geier’s And Keith Riesberg’s Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 21)
and will not be repeated here. Plaintiff Justin L. Garcia brought this lawsuit against four
defendants: former Chief of Police Michael Geier and City Manager Keith Riesberg both
individually and in their official capacities and the Rio Rancho Police Department and the City
of Rio Rancho. On February 24, 2017, the Court dismissed Defendants Geier and Riesberg with
prejudice because Plaintiff failed to state claims under the First Amendment, Procedural Due
Process Clause, Equal Protection Clause, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. See generally Doc. 21. The
only remaining claims are those asserted against the City, including the Rio Rancho Police
Defendants argue the Complaint does not allege the City acted by any means other than
through Geier and Riesberg to violate Plaintiff’s constitutional rights. Moreover, the Complaint
contains no allegations of any City policy or custom that directly caused Plaintiff’s alleged
injuries. The crux of Defendants’ argument is that a municipality may not be held liable where
there was no underlying constitutional violation by any of its officers. See Apodaca v. Rio
Arriba County Sheriff’s Dept., 905 F.2d 1445, 1447–48 (10th Cir. 1990); Watson v. City of
Kansas City, 857 F.2d 690, 697 (10th Cir. 1988); Hinton v. City of Elwood, Kan., 997 F.2d 774,
782 (10th Cir. 1993).
Plaintiff responds that “the City had several customs and policies in effect which were
directly violated in this case.” Doc. 29 at 2. But Plaintiff does not identify any of such customs
or policies. Citing a New Mexico state case, Trujillo v. City of Albuquerque, 1979-NMCA-127,
93 N.M. 564, 603 P.2d 303 (1979), Plaintiff argues where there is a direct relationship between a
victim and the police, a municipality can be liable for the victim’s injuries.
The core of
Plaintiff’s argument is that the actions of Defendants Geier and Riesberg can be “imputed to the
City for liability purposes.” Doc. 29 at 2.
For the same reasons articulated in its order dismissing Geier and Riesberg (Doc. 21), the
Court concludes Plaintiff has not alleged any specific City custom or policy that directly caused
his alleged constitutional deprivations. Plaintiff argues the alleged unconstitutional acts of City
employees may be “imputed to the City for liability purposes,” but Monell and its progeny make
it explicitly clear that a city may not be held liable for its employees’ acts under a respondeat
superior theory. Rather, in order to prevail on a claim of municipal liability, a plaintiff must, in
addition to showing a constitutional violation, prove that his or her constitutional injury was
“inflicted pursuant to government policy or custom.” Monell v. New York Dep’t of Soc. Serv.,
436 U.S. 658, 690 (1978). A municipality may be liable for acts officially sanctioned or ordered
by its final policy-making authority. Pembauer v. City of Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 480–81
(1986) (plurality opinion); see Trigalet v. City of Tulsa, Oklahoma, 239 F.3d 1150, 1154 (10th
Cir. 2001) (municipality cannot be held liable for the actions of its employees if those actions do
not constitute a violation of a plaintiff’s constitutional rights); Hinton, 997 F.2d at 782 (“A
municipality may not be held liable where there was no underlying constitutional violation by
any of its officers. Rather, to establish municipal liability, a plaintiff must show 1) the existence
of a municipal policy or custom, and 2) that there is a direct causal link between the policy or
custom and the injury alleged.”). Fatal to Plaintiff’s claims is that the actions complained are
attributed to either Geier or Riesberg, and the Court already found neither Defendant committed
any constitutional, injury to this Plaintiff. See Doc. 4 ¶¶ 32–95.
Plaintiff has not directed the Court to any allegations that describe acts by the City
through a City policy or custom as opposed to acts by the individual Defendants or other
employees. Plaintiff asks the Court to impute liability to the City because of the acts of the
individuals Defendants, but the City cannot be held liable for constitutional violations by Geier
or Riesberg, had any occurred, solely because it employed Geier and Riesberg. See Monell, 436
U.S. at 689. When a defendant’s conduct does not violate the constitution, such a finding
precludes liability against the city solely because the city employed the defendant. See Hinton,
997 F.2d at 782.
The above principals were considered in depth by the Supreme Court in City of Los
Angeles v. Heller, 475 U.S. 796, 799 (1986). There, the Court reasoned that when a city is “sued
only because [it was] thought legally responsible” for the actions of its officers, it is
“inconceivable” to hold the city liable if its officers inflict no constitutional injury, even when
the city’s policies might have “authorized” such injury. See id. In other words, when liability
against a city is derived solely from an officer, and a court finds that the officer has not violated
any of the plaintiff’s constitutional rights, the claims against the city are properly dismissed. See
id. Crucial to the Court’s reasoning in Heller was the fact that the city’s liability, if any, was
solely based on the conduct of the named individual defendant. Here, Plaintiff has not alleged
the conduct of any other officials caused his alleged injury and Plaintiff has not identified any
City custom or policy that caused the injuries he complains of.
Plaintiff’s reliance on Trujillo is inapposite. First, Trujillo is a state court decision thus
holds little persuasive value. Second, Trujillo is not relevant to the issues at hand, because it
dealt with common law claims asserted against a city rather than federal constitutional claims.
See Trujillo, 1975-NMCA-127, ¶ 3.
There, the New Mexico Court of Appeals discussed
whether the city owed the plaintiff a “special duty” of care in the context of a plaintiff who was
not an employee of the city. See id. ¶¶ 10–11. Third, the case is of no relevance factually and
may be distinguished entirely on that basis, because it involved a plaintiff’s decedent who was
shot and killed in a city park by a private person, not a city employee. See id. ¶¶ 2–3.
Finally, it is worth noting that “Monell does not require that a jury find an individual
defendant liable before it can find a local governmental body liable.” Garcia v. Salt Lake
County, 768 F.2d 303, 310 (10th Cir. 1985). But in Garcia, unlike the present matter, there was
an identified policy that itself substantially contributed to the violation of the plaintiff’s
constitutional rights. See id. 305–07. Moreover, in Garcia the plaintiff had identified specific
policies of the county jail and the plaintiff identified specific provisions from those policies. See
id. at 306. The Plaintiff here has not done so.
Therefore, Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 28) is GRANTED. Plaintiff’s claims
against Defendants the Rio Rancho Police Department and the City of Rio Rancho are
DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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