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Mahdi v. Bush

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

November 14, 2019

LAKENIA MAHDI, Plaintiffs,
v.
JULIAN BUSH, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          STEPHEN R. CLARK UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss [7]. The Court grants the motion, in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On February 5, 2019, Plaintiff Lakenia Mahdi filed a complaint in this Court alleging Defendants Julian Bush, Lyda Krewson, and John W. Hayden, Jr. violated Mahdi's First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights when St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department officers arrested and charged Mahdi with resisting arrest and forced her to sign a civil liability release agreement for any violations of her civil rights in exchange for a reduction of the resisting-arrest charges.[1] Mahdi brings this suit on behalf of herself and as a putative class action. Mahdi asserts the following claims: (1) deprivation of rights to petition the courts in violation of the First Amendment pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against all defendants on behalf of the class; (2) declaratory judgment to void release contracts on public policy grounds against all defendants on behalf of the class; and (3) deprivation of civil rights in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments against Hayden on behalf of Mahdi individually. Mahdi's brings her claims against Bush in his individual and official capacities, and her claims against Krewson and Hayden in their official capacities.

         Mahdi asserts that Defendants have two policies and a custom that are the “moving force” behind alleged unconstitutional conduct of St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department (“SLMPD”) officers. She first alleges the two policies: (1) the “Normal” policy pursuant to which the City “normally” charges suspects on whom excessive force is used with resisting arrest in municipal court (rather than state court); and (2) the “Rec” policy under which municipal prosecutors will plea bargain and “recommend” dismissal of municipal-court-resisting-arrest-charges only if a defendant will sign a liability waiver releasing the City from any civil lawsuits. Doc. 2, ¶¶ 42-44. Mahdi then alleges SLMPD has a “custom” of “using unjustified force with impunity in any case that an offender runs, pulls away, or protest [sic].” (“YRYP”).[2] Doc. 2, ¶ 75.

         In their Motion to Dismiss, Krewson, Hayden, and Bush, in their official capacities only (collectively, “Municipal Defendants”), seek to dismiss the claims against them for failure to state a claim. Specifically, Municipal Defendants assert Mahdi fails to state a claim in Count III because the count is premised on a theory of respondeat superior liability and Mahdi has not adequately pleaded that a policy, custom, or practice directly caused officers to use excessive force during her arrest.

         II. STANDARD

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure (“FRCP”) 12(b)(6), a party may move to dismiss a claim for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” The notice pleading standard of FRCP 8(a)(2) requires a plaintiff to give “a short and plain statement . . . showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” To meet this standard and to survive a FRCP 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, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal quotations and citation omitted). This requirement of facial plausibility means the factual content of the plaintiff's allegations must “allow[] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Park Irmat Drug Corp. v. Express Scripts Holding Co., 911 F.3d 505, 512 (8th Cir. 2018) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). The Court must grant all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. Lustgraaf v. Behrens, 619 F.3d 867, 872-73 (8th Cir. 2010).

         When ruling on a motion to dismiss, a court must liberally construe a complaint in favor of the plaintiff. Huggins v. FedEx Ground Package Sys., Inc., 592 F.3d 853, 862 (8th Cir. 2010). However, if a claim fails to allege one of the elements necessary to recovery on a legal theory, the Court must dismiss that claim for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Crest Constr. II, Inc. v. Doe, 660 F.3d 346, 355 (8th Cir. 2011). Threadbare recitals of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678; Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Rule 8 does not “unlock the doors of discovery for a plaintiff armed with nothing more than conclusions.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678-79. “A pleading that merely pleads labels and conclusions or a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action, or naked assertions devoid of factual enhancement will not suffice.” Hamilton v. Palm, 621 F.3d 816, 817 (8th Cir. 2010) (internal quotations omitted). Although courts must accept all factual allegations as true, they are not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (internal quotations and citation omitted); Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 677-78.

         Only a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives a motion to dismiss. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. Therefore, a court must determine if the well-pleaded factual allegations “plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” Id. This “context-specific” task requires the court to “draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id. at 679, 682. In determining the plausibility of a plaintiff's claim, Iqbal and Twombly instruct the Court to consider whether “obvious alternative explanations” exist for the allegedly unconstitutional conduct. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 682; Twombly, 550 U.S. at 567. The Court must then determine whether the plaintiff plausibly alleges a violation of the law. Id. The well-pleaded facts must permit more than the “mere possibility of misconduct.” Id. “Where a complaint pleads facts that are ‘merely consistent with' a defendant's liability, it ‘stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.'” Id. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).

         III. ALLEGATIONS IN THE COMPLAINT

         Under Iqbal, the Court must parse out the factual allegations that it must accept as true and the conclusory allegations it can disregard. Here, the Court summarizes all of Mahdi's allegations, factual and conclusory, to provide context to the Court's analysis below.

         Mahdi alleges on January 14, 2016, SLMPD officers charged Mahdi with the municipal offenses of resisting arrest and interference with a police officer. Mahdi had no previous arrests or experience with the criminal justice system. While holding her one-month-old daughter, Mahdi used her cell phone to record three SLMPD officers while they, in Mahdi's estimation, violated the civil rights of a group of ten- to twelve-year-old African-American boys. Mahdi alleges that to recover the cell phone video, an SLMPD officer arrested Mahdi and attempted to snatch her child from her arm. Mahdi “made clear she was not resisting arrest but her child was only one-month old.” Mahdi's pleas were ignored and an SLMPD officer attempted to break her finger to gain access to her phone. According to Mahdi, eventually, the SLMPD officer “obtained Mahdi's cell phone, accessed, and deleted the video at the scene.” An SLMPD officer took Mahdi's child and refused to allow her to feed the child. She was charged with resisting arrest and interference with a police officer.

         Mahdi further alleges upon her release, Mahdi sent letters to her local alderman and the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”), filed an internal affairs complaint, and wrote a civil rights attorney. No. one could assist her before her court date on March 1, 2016. Mahdi could not afford legal counsel and she was not entitled to a public defender in municipal court. When Mahdi appeared at the municipal court on that date, she claims she told the prosecutor that the SLMPD officer arrested her because he wanted to delete the video footage on her cell phone. The prosecutor escorted Mahdi outside the courtroom and told her that she would go to jail if she didn't sign a document. She later learned this document was a release agreement. Mahdi continued to explain to the prosecutor that she was innocent and an officer deleted the video footage from her phone.

         Mahdi alleges, the prosecutor explained that if Mahdi did not sign the release, regardless of the facts, the prosecutor could not dismiss or recommend the reduced charge of littering on public property. Mahdi continued to protest until the prosecutor told her he would charge her with felony resisting arrest and she would lose at trial and face significant jail time. The prosecutor failed to disclose to Mahdi that he did not have the authority to charge her with a misdemeanor or felony resisting arrest. Unfamiliar with the legal system, Mahdi believed that the prosecutor could charge her with a felony crime.

         Mahdi alleges she had approximately 60-120 seconds to decide to sign a blank release form. She was visibly angry and cried as she signed the form. She entered a written contract under the threat of criminal prosecution. She claims she signed a blank release form, and the prosecutor filled out the entire form outside of Mahdi's presence. The prosecutor did not permit Mahdi to adequately review or read the documents and she did not understand the language of the release before signing, nor was she advised to obtain an attorney. With a signed release agreement, the prosecutor claimed he was now authorized to recommend the reduced charge of littering on public property.

         Mahdi alleges the municipal judge did not read the documents in open court nor did the judge ask Mahdi about the underlying facts of the arrest. After Mahdi's case was resolved, the prosecutor walked Mahdi out into the hallway and told her she could never speak of the facts of the arrest. The prosecutor told Mahdi if she made the incident public, she could still be charged with a felony resisting arrest and that, “you cannot come after us.” Mahdi believed she could never speak about the circumstances of her arrest and described the process as “getting tricked making a deal with the devil.”

         According to Mahdi, several weeks later, an ACLU representative called Mahdi regarding her complaint about the January 14, 2016, incident. Mahdi refused to pursue any claim through the ACLU because of the prosecutor's threats that she would be charged with a felony if she pursued any claims against the City of St. Louis, and her understanding of the document she signed. Mahdi was so emotionally distraught she required medical attention. She suffered severe emotional distress as she struggled nursing her newborn daughter. Mahdi did not voluntarily and knowingly sign her civil rights away. She did not understand the terms of the release and agreement and signed it under the duress of criminal prosecution.

         Mahdi alleges that an independent statistical analysis taken from data collected by the Missouri Attorney General's Office in 2015 shows that of 34, 552 stops in the City, Blacks disproportionately were 7.5 times more likely to be charged with resisting arrest over Whites/Caucasians.[3] The City ranked the second highest across the entire state of Missouri for disproportionately charging African Americans with resisting arrest. By 2016, the report noted that Black/African Americans were still disproportionately charged with resisting arrest at four times the rate of Whites/Caucasians throughout the City. Mahdi alleges these statistics demonstrate that across Defendants' police enforcement spectrum African Americans are charged with resisting arrest in the same unconstitutional patterns of unlawful stops and unlawful searches. These patterns and practices have been concealed through the charging of resisting arrest in the City's municipal courts.

         Mahdi alleges the excessive force the SLMPD used against her, and the unreasonable search and seizure of her phone, resulted from widespread custom in the SLMPD of YRYP (“you run, you pay”) that was caused by the “Rec & Normal” policies. According to Mahdi, the “Rec & Normal” policies were created in 2012, when the SLMPD updated a special order and directed officers to “normally” charge any resisting arrest charge in municipal court rather than state court when the offender did not use force or threaten to use force, i.e. the “Normal” policy.[4]Mahdi alleges the City also enforced a mandatory policy, called the “Rec Policy.” In exchange for a city prosecutor's recommendation to dismiss a municipal-court charge for resisting arrest, the defendant signs a release of any civil liability that the City may have for violating the defendant's civil rights.

         The written “Normal” policy states, in part:

Under normal circumstances, the defendant will be charged with a city ordinance violation of resisting arrest or interfering with an officer. The information application will be made at the City Counselor's Office.

         The written “Rec” policy states, in part:

Resisting arrest & Interfering [sic] with a Police Officer charges cannot be amended without first obtaining a signed release from the defendant (See Sample).

         Mahdi alleges the Rec & Normal policies directly and indirectly motivate SLMPD officers to use excessive force or make false arrests with the protection of the City's municipal court. Mahdi claims that this shield, “whether or not individually known to each SLMPD officer, was embedded in SLMPD training policies and practices.”

         According to Mahdi, prosecutors escorted unrepresented defendants into the hallway and explained that the prosecutor will dismiss or amend the charge if the defendants sign a blank form titled “Release.” Generally, the prosecutors complete the remaining lines of the form and defendants “have only seconds to decide to release his/her rights or face up to 90 days in jail.” Mahdi alleges “[w]ithout legal representation, many of the accused victims ...


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