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Trujillo v. City and County of Denver

United States District Court, D. Colorado

April 14, 2017

SERYINA TRUJILLO, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY AND COUNTY OF DENVER; ROBERT C. WHITE, in his official capacity; JAMES MEDINA, in his official and individual capacities; and CHERYL SMITH, in her official and individual capacities, Defendants.

          ORDER DENYING MOTION TO DISMISS

          William J. Martinez United States District Judge.

         Invoking 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“§ 1983"), Plaintiff Seryina Trujillo (“Trujillo”) sues the City and County of Denver; its police chief, Robert C. White; a former Denver police officer, James Medina; and a current Denver police officer, Cheryl Smith, for alleged violations of her Fourth and Fourteen Amendment rights. (ECF No. 1.) Currently before the Court is a Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 29) filed by Denver and Chief White (collectively, for purposes of this order, “Denver”). For the reasons stated below, the motion is denied.

         I. LEGAL STANDARD

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a party may move to dismiss a claim in a complaint for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” The Rule 12(b)(6) standard requires the Court to “assume the truth of the plaintiff's well-pleaded factual allegations and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Ridge at Red Hawk, LLC v. Schneider, 493 F.3d 1174, 1177 (10th Cir. 2007). In ruling on such a motion, the dispositive inquiry is “whether the complaint contains ‘enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Id. (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). Granting a motion to dismiss “is a harsh remedy which must be cautiously studied, not only to effectuate the spirit of the liberal rules of pleading but also to protect the interests of justice.” Dias v. City & Cnty. of Denver, 567 F.3d 1169, 1178 (10th Cir. 2009) (internal quotation marks omitted). “Thus, ‘a well-pleaded complaint may proceed even if it strikes a savvy judge that actual proof of those facts is improbable, and that a recovery is very remote and unlikely.'” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).

         II. FACTS

         The Court accepts the following allegations as true for purposes of resolving Denver's motion.

         A. Smith's and Medina's Treatment of Trujillo

         On July 10, 2014, Trujillo and a friend, Daniel Adams, were eating at a Burger King in Denver. (ECF No. 1 ¶ 17.) A homeless, intoxicated man was sitting outside the Burger King, and someone called an ambulance to assist him because it appeared he was having a heart attack. (Id. ¶¶ 18-20.) Officers Smith and Medina also came to provide assistance (Medina was employed by the Denver Police Department at the time). (Id. ¶¶ 10, 19.)

         Trujillo briefly exited the Burger King to ask about the homeless man's condition, but Medina told her to “back up and go back inside the Burger King, ” which Trujillo promptly did. (Id. ¶¶ 20-21.) However, Medina soon gestured through the Burger King window that Trujillo should come back outside. (Id. ¶ 22.) Trujillo complied, accompanied by her friend, Adams. (Id. ¶ 23.) “At this point, Defendant Medina and Defendant Smith attempted to handcuff Mr. Adams, who was intoxicated, in order to take him to Denver Cares, a detoxification facility in Denver.” (Id. ¶ 24.) “Not understanding why her friend was being handcuffed, [Trujillo] attempted to pull Mr. Adams away from the officers.” (Id. ¶ 25.) Smith then announced that she was arresting Trujillo, and Trujillo called Smith a “bitch.” (Id. ¶¶ 26-28.)

         A minute-by-minute narrative of what happened next is unnecessary given that nothing in Denver's motion turns on those specifics. Suffice it to say that Smith began treating Trujillo very roughly (including slamming her to the pavement) and then handed her off to Medina, who threw her into the back of the police car, punched her in the face with a closed fist twice, and called her a “whore.” Medina then took Trujillo to the District 2 station and asked her to remove her belt and shoes, apparently as an anti-suicide precaution. When Trujillo repeatedly refused, Medina attacked her in order to remove her belt, including by slamming her head against the cell walls and placing his knee on her neck as she was pinned (from her shoulders up) on the cell bench, causing her to black out and hit her head again when Medina finally backed away and her upper body slumped from the bench to the floor. An investigation by the Police Department's Internal Affairs Bureau (“IAB”) concluded that Medina had used excessive force, and Medina was eventually fired on account of this incident. (See id. ¶¶ 28-95.)

         Trujillo makes no allegation regarding whether Smith was disciplined for her part in the incident. Smith apparently had no part in Trujillo's treatment after handing her off to Medina outside the Burger King.

         B. Municipal Liability Allegations

         Trujillo seeks to hold Smith and Medina personally liable for excessive force, but also seeks to hold Denver liable under the theory that it has a custom, policy, or practice of tolerating and otherwise failing to discipline excessive force, thus emboldening officers to use such force. See Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978). To support the latter claim, Trujillo includes the following allegations.

         1. Allegations Specific to Medina

         Medina spent fifteen years with DPD. (ECF No. 1 ¶ 97.) Over that time, his disciplinary history shows six instances of oral reprimand and three instances of written reprimand. (Id.) None of these reprimands relates to use of excessive force or anything suggesting excessive force, but rather relates to matters such as “Preventable Accident, ” “Obedience to Traffic Regulations, ” and “Attendance in Court.” (Id.) There is also one reprimand for “Improper Procedure - Female Suspects and Prisoners, ” which may have some indirect relation here given that IAB found that Medina had disregarded DPD policy concerning female suspects when he entered Trujillo's holding cell alone. (Id. ¶¶ 47, 97.)

         Trujillo requested Medina's “full IAB records, ” but a Denver County judge denied that request based on Medina's “right of privacy.” (Id. ¶ 98.) The judge's order reveals, however, that “Medina's IAB record included ‘an allegation of excessive force at a nightclub, two complaints of excessive force during arrest, a police shooting, and the incident at issue.'” (Id.) Apparently putting this information together with Medina's disciplinary history, which shows no discipline based on excessive force, Trujillo alleges that DPD never disciplined Medina based on these allegations of excessive force and so Medina was “emboldened to use excessive force with impunity.” (Id. ¶ 99.)

         2. Allegations Against DPD Generally

         Medina was “further emboldened, ” says Trujillo, “because he would have been aware of numerous fellow officers who had engaged excessive force and received [according to Trujillo] at most a slap on the wrist, pursuant to defendant Denver's culture of excessive force, lack of supervision and discipline and its ratification of the use of excessive force by its officers.” (Id. ΒΆ 100.) In this regard, ...


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