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Diodati v. City of Little Falls

January 18, 2007

DONNA L. DIODATI PLAINTIFF
v.
CITY OF LITTLE FALLS, CITY OF LITTLE FALLS POLICE DEPARTMENT, JOSEPH SERVIDONE, MICHAEL MASI, AND KAYLA LANPHERE, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Scullin, Senior Judge

MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

On April 20, 2004, Plaintiff filed her complaint alleging the following causes of action arising from an incident involving members of the City of Little Falls Police Department: (1) false arrest/false imprisonment pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and New York State law; (2) statelaw battery; (3) state-law libel and/or slander; and (4) violation of civil rights under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Currently before the Court is Defendants' motion for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

II. BACKGROUND*fn1

On September 3, 2003, Little Falls Police Officer Karla Lanphere conducted a traffic stop involving Plaintiff's grandson, Aaron Papaleo. During the stop, Plaintiff arrived and approached Officer Lanphere's vehicle and talked with her. At that time, Officer Lanphere informed Plaintiff that her grandson was being charged with speeding, and Plaintiff asked to see the radar. Plaintiff then left the scene of the traffic stop, taking Mr. Papaleo's three passengers to school. Mr. Papaleo was subsequently arrested and taken to the police station.

Shortly after Officer Lanphere arrived at the police station with Mr. Papaleo, Plaintiff also arrived. Little Falls Police Department Sergeant Michael Masi met Plaintiff at the door and invited her in. At some point thereafter, Plaintiff attempted to leave, but Little Falls Sergeant Joseph Servidone handcuffed her on Sgt. Masi's orders, and she was placed under arrest.*fn2

Plaintiff was charged with violating New York State Penal Law § 195.05, obstruction of governmental administration in the second degree.*fn3 A report of Plaintiff's arrest appeared in a local newspaper. The charge was eventually adjourned in contemplation of dismissal for a period of six months, during which time Plaintiff was required to maintain lawful behavior.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Municipal Liability

Defendants claim that Plaintiff cannot hold the City of Little Falls or the City of Little Falls Police Department liable for their employees' actions under a theory of municipal liability because Plaintiff has not alleged a policy, custom, or practice on the part of these Defendants.*fn4

Moreover, Defendants contend that Plaintiff has not alleged that the person who decided to arrest her had final policy-making authority.

A municipality is considered a "person" for purposes of 42 U.S.C. § 1983.*fn5 Monell, 436 U.S. at 690 (footnote omitted). However, a municipality cannot be held liable based solely on its employment of a tortfeasor; in other words, there can be no liability under § 1983 on a respondeat superior basis. See id. at 691. Rather, municipal liability must be based on "execution of a government's policy or custom, whether made by its lawmakers or by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy . . . ." Id. at 694. Such policy or custom must be a "moving force of the constitutional violation . . . ." Id.

Municipal liability only attaches when a municipal policymaker consciously or deliberately chooses between various alternatives.*fn6 See City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 389 (1989) (quoting Pembauer v. Cincinnati, 473 U.S. 469, 483-84, 106 S.Ct. 1292, 1300-1301, 89 L.Ed. 2d 452 (1986) (plurality)) (other citation omitted). A policymaker is an individual whose "'decisions, at the time they are made, for practical or legal reasons constitute the municipality's final decisions.'" Anthony v. City of N.Y., 339 F.3d 129, 139 (2d Cir. 2003) (quotation omitted). An individual who merely has discretion to handle a particular situation is not a policymaker. See id. at 139-40 (citation omitted).*fn7

In addition, a court should not infer a "nebulous policy" from a single incident. See City of Oklahoma City v. Tuttle, 471 U.S. 808, 823-24 (1985) (plurality) ("Proof of a single incident of unconstitutional activity is not sufficient to impose liability under Monell, unless proof of the incident includes proof that it was caused by an existing, unconstitutional municipal policy, which policy can be attributed to a municipal policymaker."); see also Bd. of County Comm'rs v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 406-07 (1997) ("That a plaintiff has suffered a deprivation of federal rights at the hands of a municipal employee will not alone permit an inference of municipal culpability and causation; the plaintiff will simply have shown that the employee acted culpably."); City of Canton, 489 U.S. at 390-91 (stating that a single instance of inadequate training "says little about the training program or the legal basis for holding the city liable"). However, a single incident may become a policy if the municipality adopts it, so that it "represent[s] the conscious choices of the municipality itself . . . ." Amnesty Am. v. Town of W. Hartford, 361 F.3d 113, 126 (2d Cir. 2004).

In this case, Plaintiff does not allege that a municipal policy or custom exists or that Defendants were carrying out such a policy or custom. Her only allegation involves an isolated incident, from which the Court cannot infer a "nebulous" policy or custom. See Tuttle, 471 U.S. at 823-24 (plurality); see also Brown, 520 U.S. at 406-07; City of Canton, 489 U.S. at 390-91. Moreover, a municipal policymaker did not execute or adopt the challenged acts. The highest ranking city officials involved in this case were Sergeants Masi and Servidone. Although they had discretion to arrest individuals in particular situations, it is not the case that their "edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy." Monell, 436 U.S. at 694; see Anthony, 339 F.3d at 139-40. At most, they are "lower-level municipal employees to whom some authority has been delegated . . . ." Amnesty Am., 361 F.3d at 126. Therefore, the Court finds that a municipal policy was not the "moving force" in this situation, and Plaintiff's claims against the City of Little Falls and the City of Little Falls Police Department are based solely on a theory of respondeat superior.

Accordingly, the Court GRANTS Defendants City of Little Falls' and City of Little Falls Police Department's motion for summary judgment on ...


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