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Molina v. City of St. Louis

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

April 24, 2018

SARAH MOLINA, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
CITY OF ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI, COUNTY OF ST. CLAIR, ILLINOIS, and OFFICERS JOHN DOES I-VI, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          AUDREY G. FLEISSIG, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter, brought under 42 U.SC. § 1983, is before the Court on the separate motions of Defendants City of St. Louis, Missouri, and St. Clair County, Illinois, to dismiss Plaintiffs Sarah Molina, Christina Vogel, and Peter Groce's amended complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. For the reasons set forth below, the motions will be granted.

         BACKGROUND

         This case arises out of a street protest in the City of St. Louis on August 19, 2015, protesting the shooting death of a citizen by the police. Plaintiffs Vogel and Molina allege that they participated in the protest and left the scene after officers directed the crowd to disperse. Vogel and Molina allege that they walked to Molina's neighborhood, about three blocks away. Approximately one half hour later, they saw a SWAT vehicle, “under the joint direction of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and St. Clair County Sheriff's Department, ” on Molina's street. ECF No. 1 ¶ 51. They further allege that Defendant Officers John Does I-IV were on the SWAT vehicle and shot tear gas canisters and/or smoke grenades directly at Vogel, Molina, and Molina's neighbor and friends, who were all standing and talking on the sidewalk.

         Groce alleges that he also participated in the protest and left the scene after officers directed the crowd to disperse. As he was walking home through a park, he encountered the same SWAT vehicle that shot tear gas at Molina and Vogel. Groce alleges that when he told the officers to get out of the park, the officers shot a tear gas canister and pepper spray directly at him.

         Plaintiffs claim that the Doe Defendants retaliated against them for engaging in First Amendment activity (Count I) and used excessive force against them by deploying tear gas and pepper spray (Count II). Plaintiffs name as Defendants the City of St. Louis and St. Clair County, both of which allegedly employed and supervised the officers involved in the challenged conduct; and Officers John Doe I-VI, in their individual capacity.

         Each count asserts that the City of St. Louis and St. Clair County are liable as municipalities under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 because the constitutional violations were a result of the City and County's failure to supervise the individual officers, failure to train the officers on lawful use of chemicals, and having “a custom or policy that resulted in the unconstitutional, retaliatory use of chemicals against [Plaintiffs].” ECF No. 1 ¶ 92. All Plaintiffs assert physical and emotional damages, as well as the chilling of their desire to engage in activity protected by the First Amendment. In each count, Plaintiffs seek injunctive relief, nominal damages, compensatory damages, punitive damages, and reasonable attorneys' fees and costs.

         ARGUMENTS OF THE PARTIES

         The City of St. Louis first argues that the complaint should be dismissed as to it because Plaintiffs have failed to plead any facts to support the claims of (1) failure to train and supervise the individual officers, (2) an unconstitutional policy or custom that resulted in the use of chemicals against Plaintiffs, or (3) a pattern of similar unconstitutional acts committed by City of St. Louis officers, or that the City had notice of such a pattern. In its separate motion to dismiss, St. Clair County first argues that Plaintiffs cannot maintain a claim against St. Clair County because Plaintiffs cannot identify any individual St. Clair County officer that committed any act against Plaintiffs. Next, St. Clair County contends that Plaintiffs assert an impermissible respondeat superior claim in Count I. Further, St. Clair County argues that Plaintiffs' allegations in Count I are insufficient under Monell v. Department of Social Services of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). Lastly, St. Clair County asserts that Plaintiffs' pleaded facts in Count II are insufficient to establish municipal failure-to-supervise liability.

         In response to St. Clair County, Plaintiff argues that Monell does not require that individual defendants be sued, and further, Plaintiffs did sue individual County Defendants by naming John Does I-VI. Otherwise, Plaintiffs raise essentially the same arguments in response to both Movants. Plaintiffs acknowledge that a municipality may be held liable under § 1983 only for its own illegal acts and may not be held vicariously liable for the acts of its agents. However, Plaintiffs contend that a municipality can be held liable under § 1983 without proof of a “pre-existing” pattern of violations, where the single act is so egregious. Plaintiffs argue that, based upon the factual allegations and the reasonable inferences drawn therefrom, Plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged that the Movants failed to train and supervise the officers in the SWAT vehicle, and this failure to train and supervise was the moving force behind the deprivation of Plaintiffs' constitutional rights. Plaintiffs request leave to amend the complaint if the Court finds it insufficient to defeat Movants' motions to dismiss.

         In reply, the City of St. Louis reiterates its argument that Plaintiffs have failed to adequately support the allegations that the City of St. Louis officers engaged in a pattern of unconstitutional acts, or that the City had notice of such a pattern.

         DISCUSSION

         For a plaintiff to survive a 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, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Id. The reviewing court must accept the plaintiff's factual allegations as true and construe them in the plaintiff's favor, but the court is not required to accept the legal conclusions the plaintiff draws from the facts alleged. Id.; Retro Television Network, Inc. v. Luken Commc'ns, LLC, 696 F.3d 766, 768-69 (8th Cir. 2012).

         To state a claim for municipal liability under § 1983, a Plaintiff must allege that the alleged deprivation of constitutional rights resulted from “(1) an official municipal policy, (2) an unofficial custom, or (3) a deliberately indifferent failure to train or supervise.” ...


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