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Conner v. St. Louis County

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

August 31, 2016

DORNELLA CONNER, Plaintiff,
v.
ST. LOUIS COUNTY, MISSOURI, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          JOHN A. ROSS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant St. Louis County, Missouri's (“the County”) motion to dismiss (Doc. 5). The issues are fully briefed and ready for disposition. For the following reasons, the Court will grant the motion in part, dismiss Count II in part and without prejudice, and grant Plaintiff Dornella Conner leave to amend her complaint.

         I. Background

         The facts in this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action, in the light most favorable to Conner, are as follows. On November 25, 2014, De'Angelas Lee was driving a vehicle in which Conner was a front-seat passenger (Am. Comp. (Doc. 4) ¶¶ 7-8). As the vehicle exited a gas station parking lot, a SWAT-like police vehicle (“SWAT vehicle”), bearing a St. Louis County Police Department (“SLCPD”) logo, approached the gas station and attempted to enter the parking lot (Id. ¶¶ 10-11). As Lee's vehicle exited the parking lot, a SLCPD police officer, Officer Doe I, jumped out of the passenger side of the SWAT vehicle, and “open[ed] fire” into the passenger window of Lee's vehicle (Id. ¶ 14). Unknown projectiles from Officer Doe I's weapon, as well as broken glass, struck Conner's face, causing her serious physical injuries, including permanent loss of vision in her left eye (Id. ¶¶ 16-17). The petition alleges that Officer Doe I did not order Lee to stop his vehicle, that Conner was not armed, and that she did not pose any physical threat to Officer Doe I or any other person (Id. ¶ 15, 18). Officer Doe II, a “field supervisor, ” was also in the SWAT vehicle during the incident (Id. ¶ 23). He did not intervene when Officer Doe I used force against Conner, and according to Conner, his failure to do so was the result of a SLCPD custom or practice (Id. ¶¶ 23-24).

         According to Conner, the County failed to properly supervise its police officers, failed to conduct fair investigations into previous allegations that SLCPD officers had used excessive force, and thereby fostered and supported an environment that directly led to Officer Doe I's unconstitutional use of force against her (Id. ¶¶ 26-27). Conner further alleges that the County and Officer Doe II developed and promulgated “customs, policies, and/or practices of unconstitutional conduct in violation of the Fourth Amendment, ” including (1) conducting stops or detentions without reasonable suspicion, (2) discharging weapons without probable cause, (3) using unnecessary and unreasonably excessive force against citizens, and (4) creating an atmosphere in which its officers felt free to confront citizens at their discretion and without lawful authority, i.e., for merely exiting a gas station parking lot (Id. ¶ 29).

         Conner's complaint indicates that she is suing Officer Doe I and Officer Doe II in both their individual and official capacities, and asserts three counts (Id. ¶¶ 3-4, 31-49). In Count I, Conner claims that Officer Doe I violated her clearly established rights to be free from excessive force and to not be deprived of liberty without due process of law (Id. ¶¶ 31-36). In Count II, she alleges that Officer Doe II and the County had a custom or policy of “negligently hiring and retaining officers, failing to properly train and/or supervise officers in the use of excessive force . . ., and in failing to conduct fair and impartial investigations”; and that her injuries were directly and proximately caused by “failures, negligence and/or carelessness” of Officer Doe II and the County (Id. ¶¶ 37-44). In Count III, she claims that Officer Doe II-in his individual and official capacities-“with knowledge and deliberate indifference to and/or reckless disregard for the rights of the citizens of St. Louis County, has tolerated, created, failed to correct, promoted, or ratified a custom, pattern, and practice on the part of St. Louis County police officers who engage in unjustified, unreasonable, and/or illegal use of excessive force, including deadly force.” She also claims that Officer Doe II knew or should have known that the inadequate training and supervision would result in the use of excessive force by Officer Doe I and other SLCPD officers (Id. ¶¶ 45-49).

         II. The County's Motion to Dismiss

         The County now moves to dismiss Count II, arguing that it does not state a plausible § 1983 claim against the County; that it states only a claim of negligence under Missouri law; and that the County enjoys sovereign immunity from negligence claims pursuant to Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.600 (Docs. 5-6).[1] In response, Conner contends that Count II asserts more than a state-law negligence claim. More specifically, she argues that Count II states a viable § 1983 claim against the County because it incorporates her allegations that the County failed to supervise its police officers, failed to conduct fair investigations into complaints that officers had used excessive force, and thereby fostered an environment that directly led to Officer Doe I's use of excessive force against her. She further contends that Count II states a § 1983 claim against the County because it incorporates her allegation that the County had unconstitutional policies or customs of negligently hiring and retaining SLCPD officers and failing to properly supervise them or to train them in the use of excessive force. Alternatively, Conner seeks leave to amend her complaint either to allege that the County has waived its sovereign immunity by procuring an insurance policy, see Mo. Rev. Stat. § 537.610; or to otherwise remedy any pleading defects (Doc. 8).

         III. Motion to Dismiss Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” The pleading standard of Rule 8 “does not require ‘detailed factual allegations, ' but it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must show that the pleader is entitled to relief, in order to give the defendant fair notice of what the claims are and the grounds upon which they rest. Id.

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for a motion to dismiss based on the failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to “‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S .Ct.1937, 1950 (2009). This obligation requires a plaintiff to plead “more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. A complaint must contain either direct or inferential allegations respecting all the material elements necessary to sustain recovery under some viable legal theory. Id. at 562. This standard “simply calls for enough fact to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of [the claim or element].” Id. at 556. When ruling on a motion to dismiss, this Court must take the allegations of the complaint as true and liberally construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Kottschade v. City of Rochester, 319 F.3d 1038, 1040 (8th Cir. 2003). The Court is “free to ignore legal conclusions, unsupported conclusions, unwarranted inferences and sweeping legal conclusions cast in the form of factual allegations.” Wiles v. Capitol Indem. Corp., 280 F.3d 868, 870 (8th Cir. 2002).

         IV. Analysis

         The Court will grant the County's motion to dismiss Count II in part and without prejudice. Count II states a viable § 1983 claim against the County arising out of allegedly unconstitutional policies or customs involving SLCPD officers conducting unlawful stops and detentions, discharging their weapons without probable cause, using unnecessary and unreasonably excessive force, and creating an atmosphere wherein officers felt free to confront citizens without lawful authority. However, Count II does not state a § 1983 claim arising out of Conner's allegation that the County had a custom of negligently hiring, supervising, and training SLCPD officers.

         It is well established that a municipality cannot be held liable, on a respondeat superior theory, for the unconstitutional conduct of its agents and employees. Monell v. Dep't of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 691 (1978). However, a municipality may be liable under § 1983 if the unconstitutional conduct was a result of an official municipal policy or custom. Id. at 690-91. An official policy involves “a deliberate choice to follow a course of action made from among various alternatives by an official who is determined by state law to have the final authority to establish governmental policy.” Ware v. Jackson Cty., Mo., 150 F.3d 873, 880 (8th Cir. 1998). A municipal policy may take the form of a policy statement, local ordinance, regulation, or decision officially adopted and promulgated by the municipality's officers. Id. In contrast, a municipal custom is demonstrated by (1) the existence of a continuing, widespread, persistent pattern of unconstitutional misconduct by the municipality's employees; (2) deliberate indifference to or tacit authorization of such ...


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