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Alexander v. Hunt

United States District Court, D. Vermont

August 9, 2018

SHAMEL ALEXANDER, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW HUNT, in his individual capacity, PETER URBANOWICZ, in his individual capacity, PAUL DOUCETTE, in his individual capacity, and the TOWN OF BENNINGTON, Defendants.

          DECISION ON MOTION TO DISMISS COUNTS II AND III OF AMENDED COMPLAINT FOR FAILURE TO STATE A CLAIM (DOC. 53)

          GEOFFREY W. CRAWFORD, CHIEF JUDGE

         In this civil rights action arising from a traffic stop in 2013, Plaintiff Shamel Alexander claims that the Bennington police denied him his constitutional rights to equal protection of the law and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, and that they violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits racial discrimination.

         The Defendants moved to dismiss a previous iteration of the complaint, and in a decision issued on May 16, 2017, the court dismissed Alexander's search and seizure claims against Andrew Hunt and Paul Doucette on the basis of qualified immunity. The court also dismissed Alexander's equal protection claims against Doucette for failure to make plausible allegations supporting supervisory liability, and his equal protection claim against the Town of Bennington ("the Town") for failure to make plausible allegations that his injuries were the result of a municipal policy, practice, or custom within the meaning of Monell v. Department of Social Services of the City of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), and cases thereunder. The court also dismissed Alexander's Title VI claim against the Town for failure to make adequate allegations that any discrimination he suffered was the result of a municipal policy, practice, or custom or that the Town both had actual notice and was deliberately indifferent to its employees' unlawful discrimination. (See Doc. 35.)

         The present amended complaint contains new allegations in support of Alexander's equal protection claims against Doucette and the Town and his Title VI claim against the Town. (See Doc. 52.) The Defendants have again moved to dismiss. (See Doc. 53.) The question before the court on the present motion to dismiss is whether the additional allegations in the amended complaint make plausible the equal protection claims against Doucette and the Town (Count II) and the Title VI claim against the Town (Count III).

         FACTS

         The factual allegations in the amended complaint relating to Alexander's stop, search, and eventual conviction, and the reversal of that conviction on appeal on Fourth Amendment grounds, are unchanged from those in the original complaint, which are described in detail in the court's May 16, 2017 decision. The court need not recapitulate these facts here. The new allegations in the amended complaint relate to the developing awareness of racial bias in policing among the public and policymakers in the years leading up to and following Alexander's arrest. Those allegations are as follows.

         In 2009, four police departments in Chittenden County began voluntarily collecting statistics for traffic stops in to determine whether racial disparities existed. (Doc. 52 at ¶ 151.) In 2009, the Vermont Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights issued a report detailing the history of racial profiling by law enforcement officers in Vermont. (Id. at ¶ 152.) This report recommended race data collection. (Id. at ¶ 153.) The Vermont State Police began voluntarily collecting race data in 2010. (Id. at ¶ 154.) In 2012, the Vermont legislature mandated the adoption of bias-free policing policies and made a non-binding recommendation that all police departments in the state collect roadside stop race data. (Id. at ¶ 155.) The Bennington Police Department did not begin collecting data at this time. (Id. at ¶ 156.) In 2014, the Vermont legislature mandated data collection. (Id. at ¶ 157.)

         In January 2017, Professors Stephanie Seguino and Nancy Brooks published a report analyzing the Bennington Police Department's stop data from 2014 to 2016. (Id. at ¶ 158.) This analysis showed that the Bennington police officers stopped Black drivers at a rate almost 2.5 times higher than their share of the driving population, which was the second-highest disparity rate of the police departments included in the analysis. (Id. at ¶ 162.) The analysis showed that the racial disparity in stops was not isolated to the behavior of a few officers, but rather was observable in data for 22 of the 24 officers. (Id. at ¶ 163.) The analysis also showed that Bennington police officers searched Black drivers at more than five and a half times the rate they searched White drivers, and that a lower percentage of Black than White drivers were found to have committed arrestable offenses after being searched. (Id. at ¶ 165.)

         Doucette, who was the Bennington chief of police at all relevant times (see Id. at ¶ 10), stated publicly in 2016 that Bennington police officers do not engage in racial profiling and that there is no bias in their search practices. (Id. at ¶ 168-70.) Doucette was made aware in 2017 of the Seguino and Brooks analysis of racial disparities in Bennington police stop and search rates during the period from 2014 to 2016, and his awareness of these disparities did not cause him to believe that any changes in the policies, practices, or customs of the Bennington police were necessary. (Id. at ¶ 171.)

         ANALYSIS

         In evaluating a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the court accepts all facts as alleged in the complaint and "draw[s] all reasonable inferences in the plaintiffs favor." Doe v. Columbia Univ., 831 F.3d 46, 48 (2d Cir. 2016). "To survive a 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) (quoting Bell Art. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)).

         Count II: Municipal Liability

         "[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) (quoting Batista v. Rodriguez, 702 F.2d 393, 397 (2d Cir. 1983)).

         "The failure to train or supervise city employees may constitute an official policy or custom if the failure amounts to 'deliberate indifference' to the rights of those with whom the city employees interact." Wray, 490 F.3d at 195 (quoting City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 388 (1989)). Deliberate indifference is present when (i) the policymaker knows "to a moral certainty" that city employees will confront a particular situation; (ii) the situation either presents the employee with a "difficult choice of the sort that training or supervision will make less difficult" or "there is a history of employees mishandling the situation;" and (iii) "the wrong choice by the city employee will frequently cause the deprivation of a citizen's constitutional rights." Walker v. City of New York, 974 F.2d 293, 297-98 (2d Cir. 1992). "[D]eliberate indifference is a stringent standard of fault, requiring proof that a municipal actor disregarded a known or obvious consequence of his actions." Triano v. Town of Harrison, 895 F.Supp.2d 526, 535 (S.D.N.Y. 2012) (quoting Connick v. Thompson, 131 S.Ct. 1350, 1359 (2011)).

         The Defendants attack the sufficiency of each of the new allegations in the amended complaint to support the required inferences. They correctly note that the actions of Chittenden County police departments in 2009 have no direct bearing on any possible racial disparity in Bennington. They also correctly point out that the 2009 report consisted of anecdotal rather than objectively verifiable statistical accounts of discrimination, and discussed the state as a whole rather than Bennington in particular. They point to the inherent limitations of the Seguino and Brooks analysis, arguing that statistical correlations do not establish a definitive causal link between race and rates of stops and searches. They also note that the Seguino and Brooks analysis was based on data from 2014 to 2016, while the stop and search at issue in this case occurred in 2013.

         On a motion to dismiss, the allegations in the complaint must be considered "as a whole, rather than piecemeal." Anderson News, L.L.C. v. Am. Media, Inc., 680 F.3d 162, 190 (2d Cir. 2012) (citing Yoder v. Orthomolecular Nutrition Inst, Inc.,751 F.2d 555, 562 (2d Cir. 1985) ("It is elementary that, on a motion to dismiss, a complaint must be read as a whole, drawing all inferences favorable to the pleader.")). It is immaterial that no individual allegation is a sufficient basis for reasonably inferring deliberate indifference on the part of Doucette and the Town. The question is whether the ...


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