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Atencio v. Arpaio

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

September 24, 2013

Ernest Joseph Atencio, et al., Plaintiffs,
Sheriff Joseph Arpaio, et al., Defendants.


PAUL G. ROSENBLATT, District Judge.

Before the Court is the Motion to Bifurcate, filed by "City Defendants" Patrick Hanlon, Nicholas French, and the City of Phoenix (Doc. 11) and joined by the "County Defendants" (Doc. 13).[1] Plaintiffs oppose the motion. (Doc. 16.) For the reasons set forth herein, the motion is granted.


On December 15, 2011, Ernest Marty Atencio ("Atencio") was arrested and transported to the Fourth Avenue Jail. Following a medical screening it was determined that Atencio would be placed in a safe cell.

Atencio was then taken to the acceptance area. Due to his erratic behavior, City Defendant Patrick Hanlon handcuffed him to a bench. Hanlon then escorted Atencio to a different area of the jail to proceed with booking. Atencio became noncompliant and physically aggressive. Hanlon and City Defendant Nicholas French, along with other detention officers, wrestled him to the ground. Defendant Jason Weiers deployed his taser. Eventually the officers subdued Atencio and took him to the safe cell where his clothes were removed. Officers re-entered the room approximately ten minutes later, concerned that Atencio was not breathing. Efforts to revive him failed.

On October 23, 2012, Plaintiffs filed a complaint in Maricopa County Superior Court.[2] The case was removed to this Court on November 6, 2012. Plaintiffs filed an amended complaint on May 3, 2013. (Doc. 50.)


The complaint raises eight counts, including civil rights violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, arising from Atencio's death. (Doc. 50.) Count Eight alleges municipal liability, see Monell v. Department of Social Services of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), against Sheriff Arpaio and Maricopa County.[3] (Doc. 50, ¶¶ 94-99.) Defendants move to bifurcate trial, with the first trial dealing with individual liability to be followed, if constitutional violations are found, by a trial on Plaintiffs' Monell claims against the sheriff and the county.

Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 42(b), the Court may order a separate trial of any separate issue in the interest of convenience, to avoid prejudice, or for judicial economy. Fed.R.Civ.P. 42. The question of whether to bifurcate a trial is committed to the court's discretion. See, e.g., Danjaq LLC v. Sony Corp., 263 F.3d 942, 961 (9th Cir. 2001).

Defendants' arguments for bifurcation are premised on the principle, announced in City of Los Angeles v. Heller, 475 U.S. 796, 799 (1986) (per curiam), that a claim of municipal liability under Monell cannot stand without a showing that the individual officers violated the plaintiff's constitutional rights. As the Court in Heller explained, "If a person has suffered no constitutional injury at the hands of the individual police officer, the fact that the departmental regulations might have authorized the use of constitutionally excessive force is quite beside the point." Id.

Defendants argue that the individual officers would be prejudiced by evidence concerning the County's customs and practices, that such evidence is irrelevant to the claims against the officers, and that judicial economy is served by bifurcation. The Court agrees.

Plaintiffs' Monell claim alleges that Maricopa County and Sheriff Arpaio are deliberately indifferent to the medical needs of pretrial detainees, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The complaint alleges that Sheriff Arpaio and the County "have a policy, practice, or custom of punishing pretrial detainees, subjecting them to the unreasonable and excessive use of force, depriving them of constitutionally required care, and/or ratifying such constitutional deprivations" and that "Sheriff Arpaio knew, or reasonably should have known, that his subordinates were engaging in conduct that would deprive [Atencio] of his constitutional rights and he failed to act to prevent these deprivations"; and that "despite the knowledge and notice set forth above, the County was deliberately and callously indifferent to the constitutional rights of those in their care, custody, and control." (Doc. 50, ¶¶ 95-98.)

The claims against City Defendants French and Hanlon are set forth in Counts Three, Four, and Five, alleging civil rights violations under § 1983 for unreasonable use of force and punishment, wrongful death, and for a violation of Plaintiffs' right to be free from interference with their right to family society and companionship of Marty Atencio. (Doc. 50, ¶¶ 51-85.) Specifically, Plaintiffs allege that French and Hanlon used excessive force in their interactions with Marty Atencio during the booking process. Plaintiffs claim that Hanlon used excessive force by "leading [Atencio] with his hands and arms bent in a position which caused [Atencio] pain. (Doc. 50, ¶ 12.) The complaint then alleges that Hanlon and French "began a physical struggle" with Atencio after he refused their request to remove his left shoe to be put through the scanner. ( Id., ¶¶ 58-60.) ...

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