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Arellano v. City of San Luis

United States District Court, D. Arizona

October 25, 2017

Javier Arellano, Plaintiff,
City of San Luis, et al., Defendants.



         Plaintiff Javier Arellano filed a complaint against numerous Defendants seeking monetary and equitable relief for an alleged violation of his rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Doc. 1. The Court granted motions to dismiss the first amended complaint against all but one Defendant. Doc. 89. Although the Court's reasoning varied for each Defendant, one finding was recurrent: Plaintiff failed to allege sufficient facts to state a plausible claim. Id.

         The Court granted leave to amend, and Plaintiff filed a second amended complaint. Doc. 92. Defendants again seek dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6). Docs. 94, 95. The motions are fully briefed, and no party requests oral argument. For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant the motions in part.

         I. Background.

         For purposes of this motion, Plaintiff's factual allegations are accepted as true. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Plaintiff was hired as a police officer for the City of San Luis Police Department in 1995. Doc. 92 ¶ 15. He received various promotions and ultimately reached the rank of Commander. Id. ¶ 17. In 2014, San Luis Police Chief Arturo Ramos took a leave of absence, and Plaintiff became the Acting Chief of Police. Id. ¶¶ 17-20. Chief Ramos had a standing order that any San Luis police officer who had on-duty contact with any person who was widely known, celebrated, or politically connected, should report the contact to the Chief. Id. ¶ 18.

         On January 21, 2014, a San Luis police officer issued a traffic citation to Luz Harper, the wife of City Council Member Joe Harper. Id. ¶ 21. Within minutes, Councilman Harper contacted on-duty police lieutenant Ernesto Lugo, allegedly to complain about the ticket. Id. ¶ 22. Lugo advised Plaintiff of the ticket, and Plaintiff retrieved the citation and kept it in his office unprocessed for several months. Id. ¶¶ 23-24. On August 4, 2014, David Lara, a private citizen, requested a copy of the citation, identifying the offender's name, ticket number, offense, and date. Id. ¶ 28. Plaintiff found the ticket in his office, noted that it was over six months old and thus legally void, and dismissed it before providing a copy to Lara. Id. ¶ 29. The City Manager and City Council commenced an administrative investigation into the incident. Id. ¶ 30. The hearing officer for employment termination appeals, Ellen Van Riper, held an administrative hearing on December 11, 2014, and issued a termination recommendation. Id. ¶¶ 33-35.

         II. Legal Standard.

         A successful motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) must show either that the complaint lacks a cognizable legal theory or fails to allege facts sufficient to support its theory. Balistreri v. Pacifica Police Dep't, 901 F.2d 696, 699 (9th Cir. 1988). A complaint that sets forth a cognizable legal theory will survive a motion to dismiss as long as it contains “sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “A claim has facial plausibility 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). “The plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement, ' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).

         III. Analysis.

         Plaintiff alleges that Defendants violated his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights by depriving him of a protected property interest in his employment without sufficient pre-termination and post-termination proceedings. Doc. 92 ¶¶ 38, 42-45. Plaintiff appears to allege that other statutory and state constitutional rights were violated, but does not state any cause of action based on these rights. Id. ¶¶ 55, 58-60.

         A. Defendant Lara's Motion.

         Defendant Lara argues that the complaint must be dismissed because it lacks specific facts showing that he conspired with state actors to deprive Plaintiff of a protected right. Doc. 94. Defendant equates his conduct with that of a complainant who triggers a prosecution, and argues that such an action does not automatically trigger conspiracy liability. Doc. 102 at 3-5.

         Plaintiff alleges Lara's participation in at least four overlapping conspiracies. See Doc. 92 ¶¶ 9-12. Lara allegedly teamed with Defendants Sanchez, Alvarez, Harper, De La Hoya, and Velez to terminate Plaintiff's employment. Id. Overt acts allegedly committed in furtherance of these conspiracies include: (1) requesting a record of the traffic ticket, (2) publicly disseminating the ticket information, (3) removing the ticket from Plaintiff's office, (4) replacing the ticket in Plaintiff's office, (5) limiting the scope of the subsequent investigation, (6) arranging a bogus termination hearing, and (7) withholding exculpatory evidence from Plaintiff. Id.

         “Section 1983 is a vehicle by which plaintiffs can bring federal constitutional and statutory challenges to actions by state and local officials.” Naffe v. Frey, 789 F.3d 1030, 1035 (9th Cir. 2015) (quotation marks and citation omitted). To state a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege two elements: (1) the violation of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States, (2) by a person acting under the color of state law. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988). Dismissal of a § 1983 claim “is proper if the complaint is devoid of factual allegations that give rise to a plausible inference of either element.” Naffe, 789 F.3d at 1036.

         A person acts under color of state law if he exercises “power possessed by virtue of state law and made possible only because the wrongdoer is clothed with the authority of state law.” West, 487 U.S. at 49 (quotation marks omitted). This requirement generally limits § 1983 suits to claims against public officials. To establish that a private individual, like Lara, acted under color of state law, a plaintiff must show that the individual “conspired or acted jointly with state actors to deprive the plaintiff[] of [his] constitutional rights.'” Radcliffe v. Rainbow Const. Co., 254 F.3d 772, 783 (9th Cir. 2001) (citing United Steelworkers v. Phelps Dodge Corp., 865 F.2d 1539, 1540 (9th Cir. 1989)). “A mere allegation of conspiracy without factual specificity is insufficient.” Karim-Panahi v. L.A. Police Dep't, 839 F.2d 621, 626 (9th Cir. 1988). Plaintiff must plead evidence of “an agreement or meeting of the minds to violate constitutional rights.” Radcliffe, 254 F.3d at 783 (quoting Phelps Dodge, 865 F.2d at 1540-41).

         The second amended complaint cures the deficiencies in the prior pleading. It describes the members, objects, and overt acts of four alleged conspiracies to terminate Plaintiff's employment. What is more, Plaintiff alleges that Lara's role in those conspiracies included an overt act: his request for a record of the traffic ticket. Doc. 92 ¶¶ 9, 11-12, 28. The fact that the record request was lawful does not prevent a finding that it was part of an illegal conspiracy to terminate Plaintiff. Plaintiff provides more than a mere allegation of the existence of a conspiracy.

         Lara's reliance on Radcliffe and Phelps Dodge is misplaced. In those cases, the Ninth Circuit considered the sufficiency of evidence for the purposes of summary judgment. Radcliffe, 254 F.3d at 777; Phelps Dodge, 865 F.2d at 1539. Plaintiff need not meet the summary judgment standard to defeat a Rule 12(b)(6) motion. What is more, the Radcliffe defendants are distinguishable from Lara. The Ninth Circuit found no evidence of a conspiracy from the mere fact of a citizen's complaint to a local prosecutor. Radcliffe, 254 F.3d at 783-84. Plaintiff pleads more than the ...

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