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Ryan v. Town of Berlin

United States District Court, D. Vermont

May 21, 2014

Bruce A. Ryan, Plaintiff,
v.
Town of Berlin, Officer Christopher L. Wade, Defendants.

OPINION AND ORDER

WILLIAM K. SESSIONS, III, District Judge.

Plaintiff Bruce Ryan, proceeding pro se, brings this § 1983 action against the Town of Berlin ("Town") and Berlin Police Officer Christopher Wade claiming that the Defendants violated his rights by issuing him a citation for trespassing on July 31, 2011. Compl. ¶¶ 16-18, ECF No. 6. Specifically, Ryan argues that his rights were violated because Officer Wade did not have probable cause to issue the citation. Id. Ryan seeks $1, 000, 000 in damages for the emotional distress he has allegedly suffered.

The Town now moves for judgment on the pleadings, arguing that Ryan has failed to allege sufficient facts to establish liability under Monell v. New York City Dep't of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 690-95 (1978). Def. Mot. J. Pleadings, ECF No. 26. For the reasons set forth below, the Town's motion is GRANTED, and Ryan is granted leave to file an Amended Complaint within 30 days.

BACKGROUND[1]

This case arises from Berlin Police Officer Wade's determination that Plaintiff Ryan had trespassed on the Montpelier Gun Club's ("Club") property in Berlin, Vermont, in July 2011, in violation of a Notice Against Trespass that the Club sent Ryan on April 14, 2009.[2]

On July 31, 2011, Ryan was "walking in or next to" the Winooski River in Berlin. Id. ¶¶ 5-6. He believed that the area was State property, not Club property, under the Vermont Constitution's Public Trust Doctrine. Id. Steven Bigras, a Club member, called the Berlin police stating that Ryan was on Club property in violation of the Notice. Pl. Second Opp'n Def. Mot. J. Pleadings, ECF No. 31, Ex. A, Affidavit of Officer Wade ("Wade Aff.") ¶ 1. Officer Wade met Ryan as he was returning to his car. Id. ¶ 2. Bigras took Officer Wade to the location that he had seen Ryan standing. Id. ¶ 3. The officer matched boot tracks in the sand with Ryan's boots as well as marks he believed had been made by the stick Ryan had been carrying. Id. Based on Bigras's representation that the area was Club property, Officer Wade issued Ryan a citation for Unlawful Trespass. Id. ¶¶ 3-4; Compl. ¶ 6.[3]

LEGAL STANDARD

In deciding a motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c), the Court uses the same standards applicable to motions to dismiss under Rule 12(b(6). Hayden v. Paterson, 594 F.3d 150, 160 (2d Cir. 2010). "To survive a Rule 12(c) motion, [the plaintiff's] complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Johnson v. Rowley, 569 F.3d 40, 44 (2d Cir. 2009) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)) (internal quotation marks omitted). A claim is facially plausible "when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556 (2007)).

The Court will accept as true all factual allegations in the Complaint and draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. See Harris v. Mills, 572 F.3d 66, 71 (2d Cir. 2009). A Court "must interpret the factual allegations of a pro se complaint to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest." Grullon v. City of New Haven, 720 F.3d 133, 139 (2d Cir. 2013) (internal quotation marks omitted). "A pro se complaint should not [be] dismiss[ed] without [the Court] granting leave to amend at least once when a liberal reading of the complaint gives any indication that a valid claim might be stated." Id. (quoting Chavis v. Chappius, 618 F.3d 162, 170 (2d Cir. 2010)).

DISCUSSION

I. Town of Berlin

The Town argues it is entitled to judgment on the pleadings because Ryan has not alleged sufficient facts to satisfy a Monell claim. Def. Mot. J. Pleadings 7. Under Monell, a local government may be liable under § 1983 if the government itself deprives a person of their rights through an official policy or custom. 436 U.S. at 690-95. "[A] municipality cannot be held liable solely because it employs a tortfeasor." Id. at 691. "[T]o hold a city liable under § 1983 for the unconstitutional actions of its employees, a plaintiff is required to plead and prove three elements: (1) an official policy or custom that (2) causes the plaintiff to be subjected to (3) a denial of a constitutional right." Wray v. City of New York, 490 F.3d 189, 195 (2d Cir. 2007) (internal citation omitted).

The Complaint alleges only that the Town was Officer Wade's employer, makes reference to "vicarious liability, " and offers no facts to support a claim of municipal liability. Compl. ¶ 3. Ryan's response to the Town's motion, however, asserts that the Town may be held liable for failure to properly train its officers about the Public Trust Doctrine. See Rodriguez v. McGinnis, 1 F.Supp.2d 244, 246-47 (S.D.N.Y. 1998) (a court may "consider allegations of a pro se plaintiff in opposition papers on a motion where... those allegations are consistent with the complaint."); Compl. ¶ 11 ("[Officer Wade] should have known he violated the Plaintiffs Civil Rights (access to the Winooski River and its tributaries) of freedom, [through] the Public Trust Doctrine' to walk the river up to the high water mark."); see also Pl. Opp'n Def. Mot. J. Pleadings ("Pl. Opp'n"), ECF No. 29, 7 ("A direct and proximate cause of the violation of the Plaintiff's constitutional rights which took place that day can only be identified as a training deficiency by [Officer Wade's] [e]mployer, the Town of Berlin."). As a result of this failure, Ryan claims, he was issued a citation without "sufficient probable cause." Compl. ¶ 18.

A Monell claim is "at its most tenuous" when based on a local government's decision not to train its employees about their duty to avoid violating certain rights. Connick v. Thompson, 131 S.Ct. 1350, 1359 (2011). A municipality's failure to train its employees is only a policy if that failure "evidences a deliberate indifference' to the rights of its inhabitants." City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 389 ...


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