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Williamson v. Cox

United States District Court, District Circuit

July 9, 2013

OFFICER SETH COX #97 in his individual capacity, United States Park Police, Defendant. and JOSHUA MICHAEL BRANHAM, Plaintiffs,


AMY BERMAN JACKSON, United States District Judge

Plaintiff Joshua Michael Branham, a participant in the 2012 Occupy DC protest at McPherson Square (“the Square”), brings this action against United States Park Police Officer Seth Cox, in his individual capacity. Branham alleges that Officer Cox violated his Fourth Amendment rights by arresting him without probable cause. He seeks monetary damages and declaratory relief under Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971). Officer Cox has filed a motion to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment on the grounds that he is entitled to qualified immunity. Since the Court finds that a reasonable officer in Officer Cox’s position could have believed that Branham had violated the regulation prohibiting camping on national park land, 36 C.F.R. § 7.96(i), Officer Cox is protected by qualified immunity, and the Court will grant his motion for summary judgment.


The facts of this case are largely undisputed. McPherson Square is a park within the National Park System. 36 C.F.R. § 7.96(g)(2)(ii)(B). For several months in 2011 and 2012, the Occupy DC protesters physically “occupied” McPherson Square. Def.’s St. of Material Facts as to which there is no Genuine Dispute (“Def.’s St. of Facts”) [Dkt. # 11] ¶¶ 1–3;[1] see also Compl. [Dkt. # 1] ¶ 7. The aim of the participants of the Occupy DC movement was “to bring awareness to the[ir] concerns about United States economic policy, wealth disparity and the political process, through [a] peaceful, symbolic, round-the-clock occupation of the Square by a tent city.” Henke v. Dep’t of the Interior, 842 F.Supp.2d 54, 56 (D.D.C. 2012) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted) (alteration in original). On January 27, 2012, the National Park Service (“NPS”) issued a Camping Enforcement Notice indicating that it planned to begin enforcing NPS regulations that prohibited camping in national parks including McPherson Square. National Park Service Camping Enforcement Notice for McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza, Ex. 4 to Def.’s Mot. [Dkt. # 11-2]. The notice stated: “on or about noon, January 30, 2012, the United States Park Police will commence enforcement of the long-standing National Park Service (NPS) regulations prohibiting camping and the use of temporary structures for camping in McPherson Square . . . [I]f camping violations are observed, individual violators may be subject to arrest . . . .” Id. (emphasis omitted). NPS distributed this notice to individuals in the Square and told them what they needed to do to comply with the regulations. Reid Decl., Ex. 9 to Def.’s Mot. [Dkt. # 11-7] ¶¶ 2–3.[2]

On February 22, 2012, at approximately 3:40 a.m., Officer Cox observed Branham and Hunter Williamson, another participant in the Occupy DC protest, asleep in a zipped up tent in McPherson Square. Def.’s St. of Facts ¶ 17, citing Supplemental Criminal Incident R., Ex. 3 to Def.’s Mot. [Dkt. # 11-1].[3] Branham alleges that he and his tent mate were seated in chairs behind an “information table, ” but even according to the complaint they had fallen asleep. Compl. ¶ 7 (alleging that plaintiffs “were sitting upright in chairs behind an ‘information table’ when they briefly and involuntarily fell asleep”). Officer Cox asked the two men to step out of the tent and arrested them for violating the camping regulation. Supplemental Criminal Incident R.; Compl. ¶ 8. Branham was released on the same day at approximately 6:20 a.m. Def.’s St. of Facts ¶ 21. The charges against him were later dismissed. Compl. ¶ 8.

On May 3, 2012, Branham sued Officer Cox in his individual capacity alleging that Officer Cox violated his Fourth Amendment rights by arresting him without probable cause to believe he had committed a crime. Compl. ¶ 17. He seeks monetary damages and declaratory relief under Bivens. See Compl. at Prayer for Relief ¶¶ 1–2. On October 12, 2012, Officer Cox moved to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) and 56 on the grounds that he is protected by qualified immunity.[4] Def.’s Mot. to Dismiss or, in the alternative, for Summ. J. (“Def.’s Mot.”) [Dkt. # 11]; Mem. in Supp. of Def.’s Mot. (“Def.’s Mem.”) [Dkt. # 11] at 1–2. Branham opposes the motions on the basis that there was no probable cause to arrest him. Pl.’s Mem. in Opp. to Def.’s Mot. (“Pl.’s Opp.”) [Dkt. # 15] at 5.


I. Motion to Dismiss

“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, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal quotation marks omitted); accord Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). In Iqbal, the Supreme Court reiterated 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.” 556 U.S. at 678. And “[s]econd, only a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives a motion to dismiss.” Id. at 679.

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 678. “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. 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 555, and “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a 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). In ruling upon a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, a 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).

II. Summary Judgment

Summary judgment is appropriate “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The party seeking summary judgment bears the “initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (internal quotation marks omitted). To defeat summary judgment, the non-moving party must “designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 324 (internal quotation marks omitted). The existence of a factual dispute is insufficient to preclude summary judgment. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247–48 (1986). A dispute is “genuine” only if a reasonable fact-finder could find for the non-moving party; a fact is only “material” if it is capable of affecting the outcome of the litigation. Id. at 248; Laningham v. U.S. Navy, 813 F.2d 1236, 1241 (D.C. Cir. 1987). In assessing a party’s motion, the court must “view the facts and draw reasonable inferences ‘in the light most favorable to the party opposing the summary judgment motion.’” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007) (alterations omitted), quoting United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962) (per curiam).

A motion to dismiss must be treated as a motion for summary judgment if “matters outside the pleadings are presented to and not excluded by the court.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d); see also Yates v. District of Columbia, 324 F.3d 724, 725 (D.C. Cir. 2003) (holding that district court’s consideration of matters outside the pleadings converted the defendant’s Rule 12 motion into one for summary judgment). Because both parties have submitted matters outside of the pleadings, and the ...

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