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Smith v. Aita

United States District Court, D. Maryland

July 12, 2016

Gary Lee Smith
v.
Officer J. Aita, et al.

          MEMORANDUM

          Catherine C. Blake United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Gary Lee Smith sues Officers Justin Aita, Jason Sander, Joseph Burt, John Dimare, and the City of Salisbury (“Salisbury”) for excessive force and false arrest. Now pending is his amended complaint, treated as a motion for leave to amend pursuant to this court’s order issued March 24, 2016, and the defendants’ motion to strike the amended complaint, or in the alternative, opposition to leave to amend. The court finds oral argument unnecessary to resolve the issues. See Local R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). For the reasons stated below, the plaintiff’s motion for leave to amend will be granted, and the defendants’ motion, construed as a motion to dismiss, will be granted in part and denied in part.

         BACKGROUND

         This action arises from an altercation between Smith and Salisbury police officers on the morning of April 28, 2014. (Am. Compl. ¶ 15, ECF No. 27.) Smith claims that he was sleeping in a car at an apartment complex in Salisbury when he awoke to Officers Aita, Dimare, Sander, and Burt surrounding the car. (Id.) Aita, Dimare, and Sander had their guns drawn and pointed at him. (Id.) The officers forced open the car, pulled Smith out of it, and pushed Smith against the side of the car. (Id.) When the officers told the plaintiff they were going to search him, Smith attempted to run away. (Id.) Dimare grabbed Smith by the shoulder and pushed him to the ground. (Id. at ¶ 16.) The defendants then beat Smith “viciously and savagely.” (Id.) After Smith “curled up in a defenseless, ‘ball-like’ position, ” the officers pepper-sprayed him and continued to punch and kick him. (Id.) Aita only stopped beating Smith when Sander told him that people were starting to watch. (Id. at ¶ 17.) Smith claims he was “beaten for no reasonable purpose for approximately 1-2 minutes, and long after any alleged, or actual, resisting arrest.” (Id.) The beating caused Smith head injuries, scarring, pain, lacerations, bruising, emotional anguish, loss of reputation, and loss of income. (Id. at ¶ 18.) Smith was convicted in state court on charges related to these events, including two counts of second-degree assault, failure to obey a reasonable and lawful order made to prevent a disturbance to the public peace, and resisting arrest, and the convictions were affirmed on appeal. (Docket, Mot. Strike Ex. C, ECF No. 28-4, Court of Special Appeals Opinion 2-3, Mot Strike Ex. D, ECF No. 28-5.) He was found not guilty of attempting to disarm a law enforcement officer. (Id.)

         The plaintiff claims that “the City of Salisbury has been on notice that Officer Aita demonstrated violent, erratic, and often racially-motivated behavior” yet continued to employ him until his resignation in May 2015. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 14 -15.) Smith cites to seven incidents that Salisbury has been informed of in which Aita used excessive force, made racial slurs, engaged in racial targeting, altered police reports, and stalked people; two excessive force incidents occurred prior to Smith’s arrest. (Id. ¶ 14.) He claims that the defendants have “consistently demonstrated a pattern of wrongfully targeting and arresting citizens for trivial or minor offenses, or offenses that did not happen at all, and then claiming to be the victim.” (Id. ¶ 27.) He says the defendant officers arrest and point guns at people for no lawful reason, and they have “demonstrated a pattern of using excessive force against citizens . . . when no such force was reasonably necessary.” (Id.)

         Smith brings claims against the officers and Salisbury under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and he seeks actual damages, punitive damages, costs, and attorney’s fees. His excessive force claim alleges violations of the Fourth Amendment, and his false arrest claim alleges violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.

         ANALYSIS

         Under Rule 15(a)(1), “[a] party may amend its pleading once as a matter of course within: (A) 21 days after serving it, or (B) if the pleading is one to which a responsive pleading is required, 21 days after service of a responsive pleading or 21 days after service of a motion under Rule 12(b), (e), or (f), whichever is earlier.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(1). “In all other cases, ” as here, “a party may amend its pleading only with the opposing party’s written consent or the court’s leave. The court should freely give leave when justice so requires.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(2). “[L]eave to amend should be denied only when the amendment would be prejudicial to the opposing party, there has been bad faith on the part of the moving party, or amendment would be futile.” Matrix Capital Mgmt. Fund, LP v. BearingPoint, Inc., 576 F.3d 172, 193 (4th Cir. 2009). Amendment would be futile when “the proposed amended complaint fails to satisfy the requirements of the federal rules, ” such as the requirements of Rule 12(b)(6). See United States ex rel. Wilson v. Kellogg Brown & Root, Inc., 525 F.3d 370, 376 (4th Cir. 2008) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

         When ruling on a motion under Rule 12(b)(6), the court must “accept the well-pled allegations of the complaint as true, ” and “construe the facts and reasonable inferences derived therefrom in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Ibarra v. United States, 120 F.3d 472, 474 (4th Cir. 1997). “Even though the requirements for pleading a proper complaint are substantially aimed at assuring that the defendant be given adequate notice of the nature of a claim being made against him, they also provide criteria for defining issues for trial and for early disposition of inappropriate complaints.” Francis v. Giacomelli, 588 F.3d 186, 192 (4th Cir. 2009). “The mere recital of elements of a cause of action, supported only by conclusory statements, is not sufficient to survive a motion made pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6).” Walters v. McMahen, 684 F.3d 435, 439 (4th Cir. 2012) (citing Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)). To survive a motion to dismiss, the factual allegations of a complaint “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact).” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (internal citations omitted). “To satisfy this standard, a plaintiff need not ‘forecast’ evidence sufficient to prove the elements of the claim. However, the complaint must allege sufficient facts to establish those elements.” Walters, 684 F.3d at 439 (citation omitted). “Thus, while a plaintiff does not need to demonstrate in a complaint that the right to relief is ‘probable, ’ the complaint must advance the plaintiff’s claim ‘across the line from conceivable to plausible.’” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). In considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court does not always have to limit its review to the pleadings. It can also take judicial notice of public records, including statutes, and can “consider documents incorporated into the complaint by reference, as well as those attached to the motion to dismiss, so long as they are integral to the complaint and authentic.” United States ex rel. Oberg v. Pennsylvania Higher Educ. Assistance Agency, 745 F.3d 131, 136 (4th Cir. 2014) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

         I. Leave to Amend

         The defendants argue that the court should not grant leave to amend the complaint because the amendment is prejudicial and would be futile. Granting leave to amend would not be unduly prejudicial to the defendants at this early stage of the proceedings. Because the court finds that Smith’s excessive force claim survives a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, as discussed more fully below, amending the complaint would not be futile. As the plaintiff’s proposed amended complaint is not prejudicial to the defendants, is not alleged to have been made in bad faith, and is not futile, the court will grant the plaintiff’s motion for leave to amend. The court will construe the defendants’ motion as a motion to dismiss the amended complaint in light of their request that the court convert the motion if the plaintiff’s leave to amend were granted.

         II. Official Capacity Claims

         To the extent that the defendants bring claims against the officers in their official capacities, those claims will be dismissed. Although the officers may be held liable under § 1983 in their individual capacities, see Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21, 31 (1991), state officials “acting in their official capacities” are not subject ...


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