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Argote v. District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department

United States District Court, District of Columbia

January 8, 2016

NATALIA ARGOTE, Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA METROPOLITAN POLICE DEPARTMENT, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

ROSEMARY M. COLLYER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

Natalia Argote seeks redress for the actions taken by a police officer pursuant to a traffic stop. Specifically, she alleges that Officer Terrence Richardson searched her cellular telephone while another officer conducted a field sobriety test. Officer Richardson then allegedly texted himself a naked image of Ms. Argote found on her phone. Three of the four defendants have moved to dismiss Ms. Argote’s allegations for various reasons. See Mot. to Dismiss [Dkt. 4] (Mot.). The motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

I. FACTS

The facts alleged in the operative complaint must be taken as true in this procedural posture. Baird v. Gotbaum, 792 F.3d 166, 169 n.2 (D.C. Cir. 2015).

Ms. Argote resides in Virginia but was driving in the District of Columbia on March 3, 2012. At approximately 9:45 p.m., two police officers responded to a car accident. Ms. Argote was ordered to exit her car and submit to field sobriety tests. Her driver’s license and mobile phone were taken from her while she submitted to the tests.

Officer Richardson was the one who took Ms. Argote’s phone. He began perusing the images on it, until he came to “a naked photo of [Ms. Argote] that she had taken for her boyfriend.” Am. Compl. [Dkt. 3] ¶ 2. Without Ms. Argote’s knowledge or consent, Officer Richardson attached a copy of the photo to a text that he sent himself from Ms. Argote’s phone.

Ms. Argote now sues four defendants: (1) the District of Columbia; (2) the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD); (3) MPD Police Chief Cathy Lanier; and (4) Officer Richardson. The Amended Complaint has five counts, each ostensibly aimed at all four defendants. Count I alleges a violation of the Fourth Amendment, to wit, an unreasonable search and seizure of Ms. Argote’s phone. Count II alleges a deprivation of Ms. Argote’s right under the Fourteenth Amendment to due process. Count III alleges denial of Ms. Argote’s guarantee under the Fourteenth Amendment to equal protection of law. Count IV alleges common-law invasion of privacy. Count V alleges common-law conversion/civil theft.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

A motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) challenges the adequacy of a complaint on its face. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). A complaint must be sufficient “to give a defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (internal citations omitted). Although a complaint does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff=s obligation to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief “requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Id. To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim for relief that is “plausible on its face.” Id. at 570. A court must treat the complaint=s factual allegations as true, “even if doubtful in fact.” Id. at 555. But a court need not accept as true legal conclusions set forth in a complaint. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). In deciding a motion under Rule 12(b)(6), a court may consider the facts alleged in the complaint, documents attached to the complaint as exhibits or incorporated by reference, and matters about which the court may take judicial notice. Abhe & Svoboda, Inc. v. Chao, 508 F.3d 1052, 1059 (D.C. Cir. 2007).

III. ANALYSIS

Several of Ms. Argote’s claims fail to state a claim that is plausible on its face, and another is untimely. Only one will proceed to discovery.

A. The Metropolitan Police Department and Chief Lanier Will be Dismissed

No one can sue a constituent agency of the District of Columbia. See Trifax Corp. v. District of Columbia, 53 F.Supp.2d 20 (D.D.C. 1999) (holding that the Department of Human Services is non sui juris); Ray v District of Columbia, 535 A.2d 868, 869 n. 2 (D.C. 1987) (holding that the Fire Department, the Board of Police and Fire Surgeons, and the Police and Fire Clinic are not sui juris entities); Roberson v. District of Columbia Board of Higher Education, 359 A.2d 28, 31 n. 4 (D.C. 1976) (holding that the Board of Higher Education is not an entity that can be sued); Miller v. Spencer, 330 A.2d 250, 251 n. 1 (D.C. 1974) (holding that the Department of Sanitation cannot be sued). There is no question that MPD is such an entity, and thus non sui juris. See Allen-Brown v. District of Columbia, 54 F.Supp. 3d 35, 40 (D.D.C. 2014) (“[I]n light of the fact that . . . defendant MPD cannot be sued, the Court will grant defendants’ motion to dismiss MPD as a defendant.”). MPD will be dismissed as a defendant from this case.

Chief Lanier is of course not an agency, but is sued in her official capacity as the Chief of the MPD. An official capacity suit against an individual is the functional equivalent of a suit against the official’s employer-in this case, the District of Columbia. Jones v. Ottenberg’s Bakers, Inc., 999 F.Supp.2d 185, 190 (D.D.C. 2013); Brown v. Corr. Corp. of Am., 603 F.Supp.2d 73, 78 (D.D.C. 2009); Hardy v. D.C., 601 F.Supp.2d 182, 187 (D.D.C. 2009); Jenkins v. Jackson, 538 F.Supp.2d 31, 33 (D.D.C. 2008). In such cases, it is “redundant and an inefficient use of judicial resources” to maintain the official as a defendant. E.g., Ottenberg’s Bakers, 999 F.Supp.2d at 190 (quoting Cooke-Seals v. ...


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