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Peprah v. Williams

United States District Court, D. Maryland

January 15, 2019

ALEX O. PEPRAH, Plaintiff,
v.
CPL. G. WILLIAMS, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          GEORGE L. RUSSELL, III UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendants CPL. G. Williams, PFC. Lux, DFC. Gregory, D/CPL. Zammillo (collectively, the “Officer Defendants”), and Howard County, Maryland's Motion to Dismiss Counts I, III, IV, and V (ECF No. 15) and Motion to Bifurcate Counts III and IV (ECF No. 16). This 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action arises from the June 2, 2015 arrest of Plaintiff Alex O. Peprah. The Motions are ripe for disposition, and no hearing is necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D.Md. 2018). For the reasons outlined below, the Court will grant in part and deny in part the Motion to Dismiss and grant in part and deny as moot in part the Motion to Bifurcate.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         Peprah is a fifty-one-year-old black man from Ghana. (Compl. ¶ 29). At the time of his June 2, 2015 arrest, he occasionally worked for Uber, [2] driving a black Volkswagen Passat. (Id. ¶¶ 18, 29). On June 2, 2015, Peprah drove a friend and frequent Uber client to Wild Lilac Lane in Laurel, Maryland. (Id. ¶ 19). After dropping off his friend, Peprah turned onto Phelps Luck Drive and proceeded southward. (Id. ¶¶ 22, 31). Shortly thereafter, three police cruisers began trailing Peprah. (Id. ¶¶ 31-33). Corporal Williams, who was driving one of the three cruisers, initiated a traffic stop of Peprah's car. (Id. ¶ 5). Corporal Williams ordered Peprah to roll down his window and stick out his hands. (Id. ¶¶ 5, 33). Peprah immediately complied. (Id. ¶¶ 5, 33). Two police officers approached the driver's side of Peprah's car. (Id. ¶ 35). Even though Peprah was still wearing his seatbelt, an unidentified uniformed officer, Defendant John Doe, grabbed both of Peprah's wrists and attempted to pull Peprah out of the car. (Id.). Another officer in plainclothes, PFC Lux, put Peprah's car in park and unbuckled Peprah's seat belt. (Id. ¶ 36). The two officers then dragged Peprah out of his car to the middle of the intersection. (Id. ¶ 38). Peprah was then forcibly struck “on the left side of his lower back by a hard object, ” which caused him to fall to his knees. (Id. ¶¶ 40-41). As he was falling, the uniformed officer jerked Peprah's hands forward, so that he fell to the ground chest-first. (Id. ¶ 41). The officers then handcuffed Peprah. (Id. ¶ 42). Neither of the arresting officers gave Peprah any verbal commands or questioned him. (Id. ¶ 37). Peprah could only hear the commands of a third officer who repeatedly told him “don't move!” (Id.).

         An unidentified officer placed Peprah in a police cruiser, and he was detained for well over an hour while his car was searched. (Id. ¶ 45). At an unspecified time, Detectives Gregory and Zammillo removed Peprah's cuffs. (Id. ¶ 47). They then interrogated Peprah for approximately forty-five minutes. (Id.). Eventually, and without explanation, Peprah was released. (Id. ¶ 50). He was not charged with any crime. (Id.). The police officers were apparently searching for a black male suspect who robbed a Verizon store earlier that day. (Id. ¶¶ 23-28).

         On April 5, 2018, Peprah sued Defendants. (ECF No. 1). Peprah's five-Count Complaint alleges: violations of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution against Officer Defendants (Count I); violations of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution against Officer Defendants (Count II); a Monell[3]claim for violations of the Fourteenth Amendment against Howard County (Count III); a Monell claim for violations of the Fourth Amendment against Howard County (Count IV); and violations of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (Count V). (Compl. ¶¶ 72-118). Peprah brings all claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2018). (Id.). Peprah seeks monetary relief. (Id. at 14, 16, 19, 20-22).

         Defendants filed their Motion to Dismiss Counts I, III, IV, and V on April 30, 2018. (ECF No. 15). On May 14, 2018, Peprah filed an Opposition. (ECF No. 19). On May 24, 2018, Defendants filed a Reply. (ECF No. 21).

         Defendants filed their Motion to Bifurcate Counts III and IV on April 30, 2018. (ECF No. 16). On May 14, 2018, Peprah filed an Opposition. (ECF No. 20). On May 29, 2018, Defendants filed a Reply. (ECF No. 22).

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Motion to Dismiss

         1. Standard of Review

         The purpose of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion is to “test[] the sufficiency of a complaint, ” not to “resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses.” King v. Rubenstein, 825 F.3d 206, 214 (4th Cir. 2016) (quoting Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 243 (4th Cir. 1999)). A complaint fails to state a claim if it does not contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), or does not “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)). A claim is facially plausible “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). Though the plaintiff is not required to forecast evidence to prove the elements of the claim, the complaint must allege sufficient facts to establish each element. Goss v. Bank of Am., N.A., 917 F.Supp.2d 445, 449 (D.Md. 2013) (quoting Walters v. McMahen, 684 F.3d 435, 439 (4th Cir. 2012)), aff'd sub nom., Goss v. Bank of Am., NA, 546 Fed.Appx. 165 (4th Cir. 2013).

         In considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a court must examine the complaint as a whole, consider the factual allegations in the complaint as true, and construe the factual allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 268 (1994); Lambeth v. Bd. of Comm'rs of Davidson Cty., 407 F.3d 266, 268 (4th Cir. 2005) (citing Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974)). But, the court need not accept unsupported or conclusory factual allegations devoid of any reference to actual events, United Black Firefighters v. Hirst, 604 F.2d 844, 847 (4th Cir. 1979), or legal conclusions couched as factual allegations, Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Finally, the Court must be “especially solicitous” of wrongs alleged in § 1983 causes of action, and should not grant a motion to dismiss in a § 1983 case “unless it appears to a certainty that the plaintiff would not be entitled to relief under any legal theory [that] might plausibly be suggested by the facts alleged.” Harrison v. U.S. Postal Serv., 840 F.2d 1149, 1152 (4th Cir. 1988) (quoting Canty v. City of Richmond, Va. Police Dep't, 383 F.Supp. 1396, 1399 (E.D.Va. 1974), aff'd sub nom. Canty v. Brown, 526 F.2d 587 (4th Cir. 1975)).

         2. Analysis

         Defendants make three arguments in favor of dismissing Peprah's Complaint. First, they contend that Peprah's Fourteenth Amendment due process claim fails because he does not state a claim for violations of substantive due process or procedural due process. They also contend that he cannot state a claim for excessive force incident to arrest under the Fourteenth Amendment. Second, they maintain that Peprah fails to plausibly allege an equal protection violation. Third, they assert that Peprah fails to state Monell claims. The Court considers each argument in turn.

         a. Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Claims

         i. Substantive Due Process

         Peprah alleges that Defendants violated his Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights to be free from “summary punishment and excessive and unreasonable force” when Defendants forcibly detained him on June 2, 2015. (Compl. ¶ 75). Defendants contend that Peprah's substantive due process claims are properly brought under the Fourth Amendment, not the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court agrees with Defendants.[4]

         The U.S. Supreme Court has held that “all claims that law enforcement officers have used excessive force-deadly or not-in the course of an arrest, investigatory stop, or other ‘seizure' of a free citizen should be analyzed under the Fourth Amendment and its ‘reasonableness' standard, rather than under a ‘substantive due process' approach.” Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 395 (1989); see Estate of Armstrong ex rel. Armstrong v. Vill. of Pinehurst, 810 F.3d 892, 899 (4th Cir. 2016) (analyzing excessive force claim under Fourth Amendment). Because Peprah alleges that Defendants used excessive force in the course of his arrest, his substantive due process claim is properly brought under the Fourth Amendment, not the Fourteenth Amendment.

         Nevertheless, Peprah contends that he states substantive due process claims under the Fourth Amendment. Peprah cites to Rochin v. California, 342 U.S. 165 (1952), in support of his argument that, notwithstanding Graham, the substantive due process clause provides an independent source of protection against summary punishment by police officers in the course of arrest. (Pl.'s Opp'n Defs.' Mot. Dismiss [“Pl.'s Opp'n”] at 6, ECF No. 19). But Rochin predates Graham, and the Supreme Court has explicitly stated that under the framework set forth in Graham, Rochin would be treated under the Fourth Amendment rather than the Fourteenth Amendment. Cty. of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 849 n.9 (1998).

         The remaining cases Peprah cites-Jenkins v. Averett, 424 F.2d 1228 (4th Cir. 1970), and Johnson v. Glick, 481 F.2d 1028 (2d Cir. 1973)-are similarly inapposite. Jenkins involves a violation of the Fourth Amendment, not the Fourteenth Amendment. See Jenkins, 424 F.2d at 1231-32. Johnson deals with a purported constitutional violation that occurred after the plaintiff was already in custody, and therefore does not fit within Graham's framework for excessive force claims that occur in the course of arrest. See Johnson, 481 F.2d 1028; see also Orem v. Rephann, 523 F.3d 442, 449 (4th Cir. 2008) (Shedd, J., concurring) (explaining that under Fourth Circuit jurisprudence, the Fourth Amendment governs excessive force claims that arise from conduct occurring before and during arrest, and the Fourteenth Amendment governs excessive force claims that arise after arrest). Peprah, therefore, fails to state a summary punishment or excessive force claim under the Fourteenth Amendment.

         ii. Procedural Due Process

         Peprah alleges that Officer Defendants violated his procedural due process rights by arresting him on the basis of race and “subjecting him to physical beating and arrest” without reasonable suspicion or probable cause. (Pl.'s Opp'n at 7). But the Supreme Court and the Fourth Circuit have been clear in holding that the Fourth Amendment not only “provides an explicit textual source of constitutional protection against [unreasonable seizures and arrests], ” but also “define[s] the ‘process that is due' for seizures of persons or property in criminal cases.” Safar v. Tingle, 859 F.3d 241, 245 (4th Cir. 2017) (first quoting Graham, 490 U.S. at 395, and then quoting Gerstein v. Pugh, 420 U.S. 103, 125 n.27 (1975)). As the Gerstein Court recognized, the Supreme Court's procedural due process cases that arise in the civil context, and their progeny, which Peprah relies upon, [5] “are inapposite and irrelevant in the wholly different context of the criminal justice system.” Gerstein, 420 U.S. at 125 n.27. Peprah, therefore, fails to state a procedural due process claim under the Fourteenth Amendment.

         In sum, the Court concludes that Peprah fails to state a substantive or a procedural due process claim. Accordingly, the Court, therefore, will grant Defendants' Motion as to Count I.

         b. Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Claim

         Defendants argue that Peprah fails to state a claim for violations of the Equal Protection Clause of the ...


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