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William Collington v. District of Columbia

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA


December 14, 2011

WILLIAM COLLINGTON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, DEFENDANT.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Amy Berman Jackson United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff has brought a civil suit alleging that the District of Columbia failed to return property that belongs to him and that was seized during the execution of a series of search warrants.*fn1 Plaintiff, who is proceeding pro se, neither specifies the nature of his federal claim nor identifies the grounds for this Court's jurisdiction over the property dispute. But he asks that the Court accord him "due process." In an effort to construe the complaint liberally, this Court reads it as bringing a claim against the District of Columbia under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging a violation of rights protected under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, specifically, protection against the "depriv[ation] of . . . property[] without due process of law." U.S. CONST. amend. V.

This matter is now before the Court on the District of Columbia's motion for a more definite statement [Dkt. #6], its motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment [Dkt. #10], and plaintiff's motion for summary judgment [Dkt. #12].*fn2 For the reasons discussed below, the District's motions will be granted, plaintiff's motion will be denied, and this action will be dismissed.

I. BACKGROUND

It appears that officers of the Metropolitan Police Department ("MPD") executed search warrants issued by the Superior Court of the District of Columbia at plaintiff's former residence at 1430 Saratoga Avenue N.E., Apt. #5, in Washington, DC. See Compl. at 2.

1. November 2006

MPD officers obtained the first warrant on November 22, 2006, to search plaintiff's residence for "[d]rug packaging materials, scales, cutting scales, cutting . . . tools, books, records, receipts, ledger, talley [sic] sheets, notebooks, bank statements, money drafts, proof of residence and any other violation(s) of law." Compl., Ex. A (Search Warrant 06 CRWSLD 3642) (exhibit number designated by the Court). Officers executed the warrant on the same day, and seized marijuana, a scale, currency ($310.00), and "mail matter," among other personal property. See id.

Defendant has informed the Court that the United States Attorney's Office has released the money "because it is not necessary as evidence," and that the District's Office of the Attorney General "is not seeking civil forfeiture of this money." Mem. of P. & A. in Supp. of Def. District of Columbia's Mot. to Dismiss or for Summ. J. ("Def.'s Mem.") at 4. Counsel further has stated that "plaintiff may now claim this money at the MPD property office." Id.

The Court has not been informed as to whether plaintiff has been able to avail himself of his opportunity.

2. December 2006

MPD officers obtained a second search warrant, also for evidence related to drug trafficking, on December 22, 2006. Compl., Ex. B (Search Warrant 06 CRWSLD 4029) (exhibit number designated by the Court). Upon its execution, the officers seized marijuana, a scale, and currency, among other property. Id., Ex. B. Although the search warrant return does not indicate the amount of currency seized, plaintiff has alleged that officers seized $675.00. See id. at 2. Plaintiff also referred to a "December, 2006 warrant 06 CRWLD 4027," Pl.'s Resp. to Mot. for More Definite Statement at 2, and to a "December[] 28[,] 2006 warrant," id. at 3.*fn3

The MPD appears to have no record of a seizure of $675.00 from plaintiff at any time during the month of December 2006. See Def.'s Mem., Reading Aff. ¶¶ 4-9. Rather, defendant's counsel represents that MPD officers seized only $147.00 on December 27, 2006, Def.'s Mem. at 5, and that the money had been held for civil forfeiture on the belief that the currency represented "profits from illegal sales of narcotics," id., Ex. 1 (Property Record, Property Control No. 215967). Of this amount, defendant avers that the MPD returned $125 to plaintiff in cash, id., Ex. 2 (Chain of Custody form), and initiated the process for issuing plaintiff a check for the remaining $22.00, id., Ex. 3 (Revenue Refund Voucher).

3. July 2007

Lastly, plaintiff alleges a "seizure without a search warrant" on July 19, 2007, during which MPD officers seized $175.00 from him. Compl. at 2; see Pl.'s Resp. to Mot. for More Definite Statement at 3. The complaint offers no additional factual allegations with respect to the July 19, 2007 seizure. Review of exhibits to the complaint, however, suggests that plaintiff was arrested on July 19, 2007 and charged with distribution of crack cocaine. See Compl., Ex. F (Narcotics & Special Investigations Division PD-256 Quick Booking Form). A search of plaintiff's person and the seizure of currency may have occurred incident to his arrest. It appears that the drug charge was dropped, and that plaintiff was released from custody on or about July 20, 2007. Id., Ex. G (No Paper Slip).*fn4

II. DISCUSSION

Plaintiff demands "the return of [his] money and mail matter seize[d] and $2700 as damages to help repair [his] credit card rating that was hurt due to these seizures." Compl. at 3. He asks this Court "to review this case and . . . [help him] to retrieve [his] money and give [him] 'due process.'" Id. Defendant moves to dismiss the complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure on the ground that plaintiff fails to state a constitutional claim upon which relief can be granted. See Def.'s Mem. at 5-7. *fn5

"To survive a [Rule 12(b)(6)] motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, --- U.S. ---, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). In Iqbal, the Supreme Court reiterates the two principles underlying its decision in Twombly: "First, the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions." 129 S. Ct. at 1949. And "[s]econd, only a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives a motion to dismiss." Id. at 1950.

A claim is facially plausible when the pleaded factual content "allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. at 1949. "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. "[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged - but it has not 'show[n]' 'that the pleader is entitled to relief.'" Id. (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2)). Most important for this case, the Supreme Court instructs that a pleading must offer more than "labels and conclusions" or a "formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action." Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). "Threadbare recitals of the elements of the cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Id.

When considering a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the complaint "is construed liberally in [plaintiff's] favor, and [the Court should] grant [plaintiff] the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged." Kowal v. MCI Commc'ns Corp., 16 F.3d 1271, 1276 (D.C.Cir.1994). Nevertheless, the Court need not accept inferences drawn by the plaintiff if those inferences are unsupported by facts alleged in the complaint; nor must the Court accept plaintiff's legal conclusions. See id.; Browning v. Clinton, 292 F.3d 235, 242 (D.C. Cir. 2002). The Court may ordinarily consider only "the facts alleged in the complaint, documents attached as exhibits or incorporated by reference in the complaint, and matters about which the Court may take judicial notice." Gustave-Schmidt v. Chao, 226 F. Supp. 2d 191, 196 (D.D.C. 2002) (citations omitted).

"[A] municipality can be found liable under [Section] 1983 only where the municipality itself causes the constitutional violation at issue." City of Canton, Ohio v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 385 (1989) (citing Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. of the City of New York, 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978) (emphasis in original)). The District of Columbia, then, is subject to liability under Section 1983 only "when an official policy or custom causes the [plaintiff] to suffer a deprivation of a constitutional right," Carter v. District of Columbia, 795 F.2d 116, 122 (D.C. Cir. 1986), and that policy or custom must itself be the moving force behind the alleged constitutional violation, id. (citing Monell, 436 U.S. at 694); see also Pembauer v. City of Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 483 (1986) ("[M]unicipal liability under § 1983 attaches where -- and only where -- a deliberate choice to follow a course of action is made from among various alternatives by the official or officials responsible for establishing final policy with respect to the subject matter in question."); Oklahoma City v. Tuttle, 471 U.S. 808, 817 (1985) (requiring a plaintiff to show a course deliberately pursued by the city establishing an affirmative link between the city's policy and the alleged constitutional violation).

In Baker v. District of Columbia, 326 F.3d 1302 (D.C. Cir. 2000), the Court of Appeals explained that a district court assessing a § 1983 complaint must ask two questions. First, the Court asks whether the complaint states a claim for a predicate constitutional violation. To satisfy that prong of the analysis, all that need be established is some constitutional harm suffered by the plaintiff; it is not necessary that the municipality's policy makers be implicated. Id. at 1306. In this case, it is unclear whether a seizure made pursuant to a duly authorized search warrant could be deemed to be a constitutional violation, But ven if the District's failure to return some or all of the property violated the plaintiff's constitutional rights in some way, plaintiff has failed to allege sufficient facts to establish the critical second prong of the municipal liability analysis.

The second question to be answered when assessing the sufficiency of a §1983 claim is: does the complaint state a "claim that a custom or policy of the municipality caused the violation"? Id. The law is clear that the Court must determine whether a plaintiff has alleged this "affirmative link" between the policy and the injury; the municipal policy must be alleged to be the "moving force" behind the violation. Id.

The Court liberally construes a complaint filed by a pro se litigant, and holds it to a less stringent standard than is applied to a formal pleading drafted by a lawyer. See Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972). There is no heightened pleading standard in a civil rights case alleging municipal liability for a civil rights violation, see Leatherman v. Tarrant County Narcotics Intelligence and Coordination Unit, 507 U.S. 163, 164 (1993), and a complaint "need not plead law or match facts to every element of a legal theory," Sparrow v. United Air Lines, Inc., 216 F.3d 1111, 1115 (D.C. Cir. 2000) (citations omitted). "Nevertheless, [a] Complaint must 'include some factual basis for the allegation of a municipal policy or custom.'" Hinson ex rel. N.H. v. Merritt Educ. Ctr., 521 F. Supp. 2d 22, 29 (D.D.C. 2007) (quoting Atchinson v. District of Columbia, 73 F.3d 418, 422 (D.C. Cir. 1996)). And, as other Courts in this district have concluded, the fact that the case arises under §1983 does not relieve plaintiff of his obligation to satisfy the criteria established in Iqbal and Twombly. Smith v. District of Columbia, 674 F. Supp. 2d 209, 214, n.2 (D.D.C. 2009) (sufficiency of a plaintiff's allegations of Monell liability must be tested under the standards set out in Iqbal and Twombly).*fn6

Regardless of the circumstances under which plaintiff's money was seized, the complaint sets forth no factual allegations regarding the existence and enforcement of a municipal policy, custom or practice that directly caused a violation of his Fifth Amendment right to due process. This pleading defect is fatal, and plaintiff's sole federal claim will be dismissed.*fn7 Accordingly, the District's motion to dismiss will be granted. An Order accompanies this Memorandum Opinion.


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