June 25, 2019

Tenth Circuit: District Court Did Not Err in Denying Deputy’s, Sheriff’s and Warden’s Motion to Dismiss § 1983 Action Based on Qualified Immunity

The Tenth Circuit published its opinion in Wilson v. Montano on Friday,  May 3, 2013.

On December 18, 2010, Deputy Montano arrested Michael Wilson without a warrant. Montano asked Deputy Fred Torres to transport Wilson to the Valencia County Detention Center (“VCDC”). Prior to booking Wilson into the VCDC, Montano prepared a criminal complaint listing the charge against Wilson as a misdemeanor offense. Neither Montano nor Torres ever filed the criminal complaint in a court with jurisdiction or brought Wilson before a judicial officer for a probable cause determination during the time he was held at the VCDC. Eleven days after his arrest, Wilson was released from the VCDC by order of a magistrate judge. In the order, the magistrate noted no complaint had been filed. On January 4, 2010, after Wilson was released, Montano filed the misdemeanor criminal charge. The district attorney’s office dismissed the charge due to insufficient evidence.

Wilson brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Wilson alleged the deputies deliberately detained him without filing a criminal complaint or bringing him before a judicial officer for a probable cause determination. He further asserted that, prior to his detention, there were numerous incidents in which VCDC held individuals without filing criminal charges or otherwise allowing them to appear before a magistrate judge. Wilson alleged his detention was the result of a policy established by Warden Chavez in which individuals were routinely held without the filing of criminal charges. Wilson made substantially similar claims against Sheriff Rivera.

Defendants jointly filed a motion to dismiss Wilson’s claims, arguing Wilson’s complaint failed to state a claim against any of the defendants in their individual capacities and each of the defendants was entitled to qualified immunity. The district court denied the motion, and this appeal followed.

To survive a motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.  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. 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. Where a complaint pleads facts that are “merely consistent with” a defendant’s liability, it “stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). This court requires a plaintiff to allege sufficient facts that show—when taken as true—the defendant plausibly violated his constitutional rights, which were clearly established at the time of violation.

Appellants do not dispute that Wilson had a Fourth Amendment right to a prompt probable cause determination, and that such a right was clearly established at the time of Wilson’s detention.  Appellants argue they are entitled to qualified immunity because there is no clearly established law delineating which of them had the obligation to provide Wilson with a probable cause hearing.

The Tenth Circuit rejected this argument and examined the allegations in the complaint as to each individual appellant to determine whether a plausible claim for relief was stated. The Court considered  New Mexico state law insofar as it bore on the scope of each appellant’s responsibility to ensure a prompt probable cause determination.

Wilson’s complaint lacked sufficient allegations to state a plausible claim that Torres was personally involved in the violation of his right to a prompt probable cause determination. The district court therefore erred in denying the motion to dismiss as to Torres. The complaint alleged sufficient personal involvement on Montano’s part to state a plausible claim for under § 1983, and the district court correctly denied appellants’ motion to dismiss as to Montano.

New Mexico law charged Sheriff Rivera with the responsibility of running the VCDC and ensuring arrestees received a prompt probable cause determination. Under New Mexico law, both Warden Chavez and Sheriff Rivera were responsible for the policies or customs that operated and were enforced by their subordinates and for any failure to adequately train their subordinates.

The complaint alleged Warden Chavez established a policy or custom of holding citizens without pending criminal charges until the court filed orders of release sua sponte. The complaint further alleged Warden Chavez’s policy of holding citizens without court orders caused the violation of Wilson’s Fourth Amendment right to a prompt probable cause determination. That is, because Warden Chavez failed to require the filing of written complaints, detainees, including Wilson, were held at the VCDC without receiving prompt probable cause determinations. The complaint also alleged Warden Chavez inappropriately trained his employees, which led to the violation of Wilson’s right to a prompt probable cause determination. These allegations, taken as true, sufficiently established Warden Chavez promulgated policies that caused the constitutional harm of which Wilson complains, i.e., his prolonged detention without a probable cause hearing.

The complaint also alleged sufficient facts to establish Warden Chavez acted with the requisite mental state. To establish a violation of § 1983 by a defendant-supervisor, the plaintiff must establish, at minimum, a deliberate and intentional act on the part of the supervisor to violate the plaintiff’s legal rights. The complaint alleged Warden Chavez acted with deliberate indifference to routine constitutional violations occurring at the VCDC. This allegation is supported by Wilson’s assertions that there were numerous prior occasions in which individuals were subject to prolonged warrantless detention.

The allegations in the complaint as to Sheriff Rivera are similar to those against Warden Chavez. As with Warden Chavez, these allegations, if proven, are sufficient to establish Sheriff Rivera’s individual liability for Wilson’s unconstitutional detention, and the district court did not err in denying the motion to dismiss as to Sheriff Rivera.

The district court erred in denying the motion to dismiss as to Torres. The district court correctly denied the motion to dismiss as to Montano, Chavez, and Rivera.

AFFIRMED in part and REVERSED in part.

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