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Scruggs v. City of St. Louis

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

November 14, 2019

TAWANA SCRUGGS, Plaintiffs,
v.
CITY OF ST. LOUIS, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          STEPHEN R. CLARK, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant D. Samuel Dotson's Motion to Dismiss [6] and Defendant City of St. Louis's Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim [8]. The Court grants the Motions, in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On April 19, 2019, Plaintiff Tawana Scruggs[1] filed a complaint in this Court alleging Defendant Ryan Murphy, a police officer with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, used excessive force against Jorevis Scruggs in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution; Scruggs alleges Murphy shot and killed Jorevis[2]when Jorevis ran away from Murphy. Scruggs asserts the following claims: (1) use of excessive force in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Murphy in his individual and official capacities; (2) failure to train and supervise in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Dotson and the City; and (3) wrongful death/assault and battery pursuant to Missouri Revised Statute §§ 537.080(1) and 516.120 against Murphy.

         Scruggs asserts that the City has two policies and a custom that are the “moving force” behind the alleged unconstitutional conduct. 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. 1, ¶¶ 20-22. Scruggs then alleges St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department (“SLMPD”) has a “custom” of “using unjustified force with impunity in any case that an offender runs, pulls away, or protest [sic].” Doc. 1, ¶ 47. Scruggs labels the “custom” as “you run, you pay” (“YRYP”). Doc. 1, ¶¶ 56, 57.

         In their Motion to Dismiss, the City and Dotson, in his official capacity only (collectively, “Municipal Defendants”), seek to dismiss the claims against them for failure to state a claim, and, for redundancy. Specifically, Municipal Defendants assert Scruggs fails to state a claim for municipal liability because Count I is premised on a theory of respondeat superior, Scruggs fails to plausibly allege Murphy used excessive force against Jorevis because of Municipal Defendants' alleged policies, that Municipal Defendants were deliberately indifferent to a widespread pattern of unconstitutional misconduct, or that Municipal Defendants failed to train its police officers. Municipal Defendants also argue Scrugg's official capacity claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Dotson is redundant of the claims against the City.

         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 Scrugg's allegations, factual and conclusory, to provide context to the Court's analysis below.

         Scruggs alleges, that on April 19, 2016, Officer Streckfuss[3] and Murphy followed a vehicle they allege was involved in an earlier criminal offense. As the vehicle came to a stop, Jorevis, a 15-year-old minor, at the time, exited the vehicle and began to run through an alley. According to Scruggs, Jorevis was not armed with any weapon and did not present a threat to Murphy or Officer Streckfuss. Before Officer Streckfuss stopped his vehicle, Murphy exited the passenger side door and started shooting at Jorevis as he ran. Officer Streckfuss allegedly yelled at Murphy to stop firing because Officer Streckfuss was in the line of fire. Scruggs alleges Officer Streckfuss observed Jorevis run across the alley along a fence. Murphy fired at the back of Jorevis and Jorevis collapsed on the ground from multiple gunshot wounds to his back.

         Scruggs alleges the excessive force Murphy used against Jorevis was the result of a widespread custom in the SLMPD of “you run, you pay” that was caused by the “Rec & Normal” policies. According to Scruggs, the “Rec & Normal” policies were created in 2012, when the SLMPD Chief of Police updated a special order and trained 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] Scruggs 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 use of excessive force against the defendant.

         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).

         Scruggs 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. Scruggs claims this shield, “whether or not individually known to each SLMPD officer, was embedded in SLMPD training policies and practices.”

         According to Scruggs, 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.” Scruggs alleges “without legal representation, many of the accused victims were pressured and forced to sign the release in exchange for their freedom, even when they were innocent of the facts.”

         Scruggs alleges she has not found a single case where a release agreement was legally enforced against a plaintiff in federal court. The release was created for its “psychological and marketing effects that resulted and continue to cause censorship and prior restraints on accused victims…to petition the courts for redress of civil rights violations… Prosecutors and legal practitioners have been aware of the psychological effects of release agreements since 1987.”

         Scruggs alleges SLMPD and Dotson learned of the release policy because executed release agreements were regularly sent to the SLMPD once completed. The release form specifically states the releasor agrees not to sue the SLMPD for injuries sustained during his/her arrest. Scruggs claims that but for the blanket policy, the SLMPD could have investigated the underlying facts precipitating the need for a release. Instead, the facts were ignored and the case considered closed because the SLMPD had an executed release agreement from the accused victim.

         Scruggs alleges the Rec & Normal policies caused and concealed a widespread pattern of civil rights abuses throughout the City that began with unlawful searches or excessive-use-of-force incidents and then escalated to illegal arrests and unjustified deadly force. Scruggs alleges if the individual runs, protests, or walks away from an officer, the officer will use excessive to deadly force as his/her primary means of detaining the individual. Therefore, Scruggs alleges the Rec & Normal policies have established widespread systematic patterns of unlawful arrests and searches as retaliation for recording or protesting an officer's misconduct.

         Scruggs “defines SLMPD's widespread police misconduct as tyrannical practices” including the “use of excessive and unjustified deadly force when the accused victim runs, pulls away, or protests[, ]” and “unlawful arrests to search and destroy evidence.” The Complaint lists 15 examples of SLMPD “pattern cases” between 2013 through the present. Scruggs alleges by 2018, the alleged pattern and practices were so pervasive and widespread that SLMPD officers beat an undercover officer and claimed the officer resisted arrest. According to Scruggs, the common denominator in all of these cases is that the accused victim allegedly pulled away, ran, protested, or walked away, i.e., resisted arrest.

         IV. DISCUSSION

         In the Motions to Dismiss, Municipal Defendants argue Scrugg's Complaint fails to state a claim for municipal liability. Specifically, Municipal Defendants claim Scruggs fails to plausibly allege that Murphy caused Jorevis's death because of the release policy, that the City was deliberately indifferent to a widespread pattern of unconstitutional misconduct, or that the City failed to train its officers on the use of excessive force. Because the claims against Murphy in his official capacity are essentially claims against the City, the City asks the Court to dismiss the claims against Murphy for the same reasons. Finally, Municipal Defendants assert Scrugg's § 1983 claim against Dotson in his official capacity is redundant of the municipal liability claims against the City.

         A. Municipal Liability

         Section 1983 of Title 42 allows individuals to bring causes of action for violations of the ...


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