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POLK v. DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA

October 26, 2000

DONNA POLK, AND CHRISTOPHER J. BELL, PLAINTIFFS,
V.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, DETECTIVE NELSON VALDES, AND LUIS APONTE, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Urbina, District Judge.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Denying in Part Defendant Nelson Valdes's Motion to Dismiss

I. INTRODUCTION

This matter comes before the court upon defendant Nelson Valdes's motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. The plaintiffs, Donna Polk and Christopher Bell, allege that Detective Valdes, individually and in his official capacity as an officer of the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia ("MPD"), deprived them of their constitutional rights in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981, 1983, and 1988, and the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. In addition to Det. Valdes, the plaintiff's name the District of Columbia, a municipal corporation, and Luis Aponte, in his individual capacity and as an alleged agent of the MPD.

Det. Valdes asks the court to dismiss the plaintiffs' claims on the grounds that he enjoys qualified immunity from suit, that the applicable District of Columbia statute of limitations bars the plaintiffs' commonlaw claims, and that the allegations of false arrest and false imprisonment fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. For the reasons that follow, the court holds that the use of an unauthorized civilian to effectuate a stop violates clearly established law, and that it was not objectively reasonable for Det. Valdes to believe he was respecting the plaintiffs' constitutional rights. The court also rules that because the facts concerning the availability of the immunity defense are in dispute as to Det. Valdes's reasonable suspicion for the stop, and because a reasonable trier of fact could find that the Det. Valdes's actions were objectively unreasonable, the court cannot grant the defendant qualified immunity at this time. Finally, the court does not rule on Det. Valdes's motion to dismiss the plaintiffs' common law claims, but instead will allow the plaintiff's additional time to oppose Det. Valdes's motion.

II. BACKGROUND

On November 21, 1997, at approximately 1:30 am., Donna Polk and Christopher Bell returned to the Washington Plaza Hotel after a late dinner with friends. See Am. Compl. ¶ 13; Plaintiffs' Opposition to Defendant Nelson Valdes [sic] Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' Complaint or in the Alternative for Summary Judgment ("Opp'n") at 8. Polk, an African-American woman, is the Executive Director of the Nebraska Urban Indian Health Coalition in Lincoln, Nebraska. Bell, who is Native American, is a law-school graduate and, at the time these claims arose, was a member of the Board of Directors of the American Indian Health and Family Services of Southeastern Michigan, Inc. The plaintiffs were staying at the Washington Plaza Hotel while attending the Indian Health Service Round Table Symposium. in Washington, D.C. See Am. Compl. ¶¶ 4, 5; Def. Det. Valdes's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' Complaint, or in the Alternative, for Summary Judgment ("Mot. to Dis."), Ex. 2, Investigation Report and Recommendation Concerning Reported Misconduct of Third District Det. Nelson Valdes ("Inves.Rep.") at 1.

As the plaintiffs walked through the hotel lobby, Det. Valdes and Aponte intercepted them. See Am. Compl. ¶ 11. According to the plaintiffs, Det. Valdes and Aponte, who were both dressed in plainclothes, identified themselves as MPD officers.*fn1 See id.; Opp'n at 9. The plaintiffs also claim that when Det. Valdes flashed a badge to identify himself, Aponte made a similar gesture with an official emblem, which the plaintiffs assumed was a police badge. See Am. Compl. ¶ 12; Inves. Rep. at 1. Det. Valdes did nothing to dissuade Aponte's conduct, although it occurred in his presence. See Opp'n at 9. To the contrary, the plaintiffs allege that when Det. Valdes later took Polk out of the hotel, he encouraged Aponte to keep Bell behind an imaginary line in the hotel, which Aponte so did. See id.

In fact, Aponte was neither an MPD officer nor employee, but rather had accompanied Det. Valdes that evening as a "civilian ride-a-long." See Opp'n at 8; Inves. Rep. at 3. During the MPD's internal investigation of the incident (prompted by a complaint filed by Bell with the MPD), Aponte admitted that in the past he had accompanied Det. Valdes on several tours of duty, though he had never completed the proper ride-a-long authorization forms. See Inves. Rep. at 3. The evening in question was no exception. Indeed, the MPD's investigation revealed both that Aponte had failed to complete the requisite paperwork, and that Det. Valdes had not attempted to verify whether Aponte was authorized to participate in the ride-a-long program — an MPD requirement.*fn2 See id. at 6-7.

Unaware that Aponte was not a police officer, Bell inquired several times as to why the officers had stopped him and Polk in the lobby of the hotel. See Am. Compl. ¶ 13. Aponte did not reply, but instead repeated his requests for Bell's identification. See id.; Mot. to Dis. at 4. Aponte then ordered Bell to remain behind an imaginary line inside the hotel. After five minutes, when Bell began to move, Aponte ordered him to "stay behind the line," see Am. Compl. ¶ 14, and held up his hands in a gesture to prevent Bell's free movement. See Opp'n at 9. At the same time, Det. Valdes "grabbed" Polk's arm and escorted her outside the hotel where he kept her "against her will," even while she insisted that she was a guest at the hotel. See Am. Compl. ¶¶ 17-18; Polk Aff. ¶ 9.

Det. Valdes explains that he noticed Polk entering the hotel because she fit the description of a prostitute whom the MPD suspected of robbery.*fn3 See Mot. to Dis. at 3. According to Det. Valdes, Polk matched the description of the prostitute in both her physical build and her attire ("a red sweater, a short skirt, high boots and black stockings").*fn4 See id. at 4. Contrary to Polk's assertion that he "physically" took her outside the hotel, see Am. Compl. ¶ 16, Det. Valdes states that he merely asked Polk to step outside, she complied, and after a brief interview, he became satisfied that she was not the suspect he was seeking.*fn5 See Mot. to Dis. at 4. Polk recalls that Det. Valdes never informed her that he was investigating a robbery, or that she fit the description of a robbery suspect. See Polk Aff. ¶ 14. He did, however, accuse her of being a prostitute, an accusation which Polk claims he made solely because of her race. See id. ¶ 16.

The plaintiffs allege that the defendant's actions — effectuated with the assistance of a civilian but without probable cause, reasonable suspicion, or a warrant — constituted an unlawful stop and seizure in violation of their constitutional rights. See Opp'n at 11-16. Defendant Valdes responds that he had a reasonable, good-faith basis on which to conduct an investigatory stop and thus enjoys qualified immunity for his actions. See Mot. to Dis. at 7-12. He further asserts that the court must dismiss the plaintiff's common-law claims of battery, false arrest, and false imprisonment as untimely and for failure to state a claim. See id. at 12-14.

III. LEGAL STANDARD

The defendant asks the court to dismiss the plaintiffs' complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), or in the alternative, to grant him summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56. See Mot. to Dis.; FED.R.CIV.P. 12(b)(6) and FED. R.CIV.P. 56. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provide that on a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, when either or both parties present matters outside the pleadings, the court shall treat the motion as one for summary judgment. See FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b); Charles A. Wright & Arthur R. Miller, 5A FED. PRAC. & PRoc.2d § 1366. In this case, both parties have submitted materials outside the pleadings. Accordingly, the court will treat the present motion as one for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56.*fn6

A court may grant summary judgment only if the pleadings and evidence "show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." FED.R.CIV.P. 56(c). The court must consider all evidence and the inferences drawn from it in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986). The movant bears the burden of demonstrating the absence of any genuine issue of material fact. See Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 157, 90 S.Ct. 1598, 26 L.Ld.2d 142 (1970). A material fact is one whose resolution would "affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law," and a dispute is genuine "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ld.2d 202 (1986); see also Borgo v. Goldin, 204 F.3d 251, 254 (D.C.Cir. 2000). Mere allegations in the pleadings do not suffice to defeat a summary judgment motion. The non-moving party "must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586, 106 S.Ct. 1348. If the moving party shows that there is an absence of evidence to support the non-moving party's case, the non-moving party must come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ld.2d 265 (1986).

IV. DISCUSSION

A. Section 1983

The plaintiffs bring this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("Section 1983"). Section 1983 creates a cause of action against any person who, acting under the color of state law, abridges rights guaranteed by the Constitution or the laws of the United States. See Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 535, 101 S.Ct. 1908, 68 L.Ld.2d 420 (1981), overruled o.g., Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 106 S.Ct. 662, 88 L.Ed.2d 662 (1986). This section does not create any new substantive rights but instead provides a remedy for the violation of federal constitutional or statutory rights.*fn7 See Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 144 n. 3, 99 S.Ct. 2689, 61 L.Ed.2d 433 (1979). Although Section 1983 speaks of liability in absolute terms — that is, it carves out no exceptions on its face — the Supreme Court has held that all officers possess some degree of immunity from liability. See, e.g., Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 87 S.Ct. 1213, 18 L.Ed.2d 288 (1967). Accordingly, the court turns to a discussion of the qualified immunity doctrine and Det. Valdes's assertion of a qualified immunity defense.

B. The Qualified Immunity Doctrine

Qualified immunity is one of the most significant and problematic defenses to Section 1983 actions. As one commentator has noted, the development of the qualified immunity doctrine "has been marked by ad hoc decisionmaking, conflicting rationales, and a high degree of doctoral manipulation." See David Rudovsky, The Quallfied Immunity Doctrine in the Supreme Court: Judicial Activism and the Restriction of Constitutional Rights, 138 U.PA. L.REV. 23, 35 (1989). Indeed, the doctrine itself finds no support in the Constitution or the common law; and on its face, the language of Section 1983 "admits of no immunities." See Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 417, 96 S.Ct. 984, 47 L.Ed.2d 128 (1976); see also Erwin Chemerinsky, Federal Jurisdiction 3d. ed. 514 (1999) ("Chemerinsky").

In fact, it was not until 1967 that the Supreme Court raised qualified immunity as a shield to Section 1983 actions. In Pierson v. Ray, Chief Justice Earl Warren, writing for the majority, concluded that a Mississippi policeman would be immune from Section 1983 liability if he arrested civil rights workers under a state law later found to be unconstitutional but which was valid at the time of his actions.*fn8 See 386 U.S. 547, 87 S.Ct. 1213, 18 L.Ed.2d 288. The Court reasoned that Section 1983 should be read as incorporating the common-law immunities that were in place in 1871, the year of its passage. See id. at 554-55, 87 S.Ct. 1213. In addition to the background of 1871 common law, however, the Court based its reasoning on a policy assessment that it would be unfair to hold individual government officials liable when they acted in good faith but were later determined to have violated constitutional rights. "A policeman's ...


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