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Watson v. City of Aberdeen

United States District Court, D. Maryland

May 8, 2015

CITY OF ABERDEEN et al., Defendants.


JAMES K. BREDAR, District Judge.

Plaintiff Brandon Watson filed a complaint against the City of Aberdeen, Maryland, the Aberdeen Police Department, and several officers of the Aberdeen Police Department ("APD").[1] (Compl., ECF No. 2.) Watson alleges he was wrongly arrested based on his race (African American) and held in jail for twenty days before he was released on bond, causing him to suffer lost income as well as humiliation, inconvenience, and embarrassment; he also alleges the police officers have harassed him and one pulled out his gun to order him to leave the Aberdeen Police Station when he went there to complain about the harassment. He alleges the charges against him were dropped before trial. Watson alleges Defendants are liable for a violation of his 14th Amendment due process right, for the torts of assault, battery, false arrest, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, gross negligence, and negligent retention and hiring, and for violation of his rights under the Maryland Declaration of Rights, Articles 24 and 26. (Id. )

Pending before the Court is Defendants' motion to dismiss, or in the alternative to bifurcate, the City, APD, and the officers in their official capacities and partial motion to dismiss the officers in their individual capacities. (ECF No. 7.) Plaintiff, who is represented by counsel, filed a document nominally titled as a response in opposition, but which provides no meaningful response in reality. (ECF No. 11.) The Court has considered the motion, the response, and the reply (ECF No. 12) and finds no hearing is necessary, Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2014). The motion to dismiss the City, APD, and the officers in their official capacities will be granted as to Count I (42 U.S.C. § 1983) and it and the partial motion to dismiss the officers in their individual capacities will be granted in part and denied in part as to the remaining counts. Watson will be granted leave to amend on the issue of compliance with statutory notice under Maryland's Local Government Tort Claims Act.

I. Standard of Dismissal for Failure to State a Claim

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 Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). Facial plausibility exists "when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. An inference of a mere possibility of misconduct is not sufficient to support a plausible claim. Id. at 679. As the Twombly opinion stated, "Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." 550 U.S. at 555. "A pleading that offers labels and conclusions' or a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.'... Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders naked assertion[s]' devoid of further factual enhancement.'" Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 557). Although when considering a motion to dismiss a court must accept as true all factual allegations in the complaint, this principle does not apply to legal conclusions couched as factual allegations. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

II. Analysis

A. Suability of Aberdeen Police Department

Without any opposition from Plaintiff, the Court concludes that APD is not a suable entity. In Maryland, a local police department is considered an agent of the governing locality and is not viewed as a separate legal entity. See Smith v. Aita, Civ. No. ELH-14-3074, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 175950, at *3 (D. Md. Dec. 22, 2014) (dismissing claims against Salisbury Police Department; citing Hines v. French, 852 A.2d 1047, 1068 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 2004)). See also Levy v. City of New Carrollton, Civ. No. DKC-06-2598, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 127062, at *23-24 (D. Md. Mar. 17, 2009) (dismissing claims against New Carrollton City Police Department). Thus, APD will be dismissed from the case.

B. Count I - 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (14th Amendment Due Process)

The first count cannot proceed against either the City or the officers sued in their official capacities. As to the latter, suing the officers in their official capacities is the same as suing the City. See Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 166 (1985) (noting governmental entity is "real party in interest" in official capacity suit); Nivens v. Gilchrist, 444 F.3d 237, 249 (4th Cir. 2006) (claim for monetary damages against public official in his official capacity is, in effect, one against governmental entity employing the official). As to the City, the complaint fails to state a claim for relief because the City cannot be held liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on a theory of respondeat superior and because the complaint fails to allege with particularity a policy or custom of the City that caused Watson's damages. A municipal entity may not be held liable under respondeat superior but may only be held liable for damage caused by an entity's "lawmakers or by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy." Monell v. New York City Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978); Love-Lane v. Martin, 355 F.3d 766, 782 (4th Cir. 2004) (no respondeat superior liability under § 1983). See also Spell v. McDaniel, 824 F.2d 1380, 1387 (4th Cir. 1987) ("Because municipal liability results only when the municipality itself can be directly charged with fault for a constitutional violation, it results only when policy or custom as above defined is (1) fairly attributable to the municipality as its own, ' and is (2) the moving force' behind the particular constitutional violation" (citations and footnote omitted)). After dismissal of the City and the officers in their official capacities, only the officers in their individual capacities remain as defendants in Count I.

C. Maryland Local Government Tort Claims Act

Maryland's Local Government Tort Claims Act ("LGTCA") permits suit against local governments and their employees under certain circumstances, providing a plaintiff first gives timely notice to the proper recipient of the plaintiff's claims against them. The LGTCA requires that written notice be given by the claimant or the claimant's representative within 180 days after the injury and further requires that notice be given in person or by certified mail, return receipt requested, to the corporate authorities of the defendant local government. Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 5-304(b), (c) (LexisNexis Supp. 2014).

Compliance may be "substantial compliance":

The touchstone of substantial compliance is whether the alleged notice was sufficient to fulfill the purpose of the requirement. The purpose of the notice requirement is to apprise local governments of possible liability at a time when they can conduct their own investigation into the relevant facts, while evidence and the recollection of witnesses are still fresh. Thus, substantial compliance will occur when the local government ...

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