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Escobar v. City of New York

June 24, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: VITALIANO, D.J.


Plaintiff Victor Escobar ("Plaintiff") brought this action on June 23, 2005, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1983, claiming that defendants violated his rights under the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, by unlawfully searching him, falsely arresting him, and maliciously prosecuting him. Defendants City of New York, New York City Police Department, Raymond W. Kelly, and Richard Brown now move, pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, for judgment on the pleadings. For the reasons set forth, the motion is granted with regard to defendants New York City Police Department, Raymond W. Kelly, and Richard Brown, and denied with regard to the City of New York.


Plaintiff alleges that he was illegally seized on August 20, 2003, while he was lawfully parked in a car in Queens County, New York, engaged in no illegal conduct whatsoever. Compl. ¶ 16. He claims the defendant New York City police officers, who were wholly unable to communicate with him due to a language barrier, conducted a warrantless search of the car and discovered a sum of United States currency, which they seized without reason. Id. ¶¶ 17-18. Plaintiff was arrested and later charged with money laundering in the second degree. N.Y. Penal Law § 470.15. Prosecutors offered to drop criminal charges if plaintiff would waive his claim to the seized funds, but plaintiff refused, and his incarceration continued because he could not afford to post bail in the amount of $500,000. Id. ¶¶ 20-22. Plaintiff was indicted by a grand jury sitting in Queens County, and thereafter, Justice Sheri S. Roman of the New York Supreme Court, Queens County, determined, after holding a suppression hearing, that police officers had no probable cause to arrest plaintiff or to seize funds contained within the car. Id. ¶¶ 25, 30. The indictment was dismissed on April 21, 2004. Id. ¶ 31.

Plaintiff claims that his prosecution "was an unfounded ruse, maliciously tailored for the distinct purpose of creating leverage by which the Defendants intended to impel Plaintiff to waive any claims to the seized currency, so that the same would be forfeited to the Government." Id. ¶ 43. He claims that the police officers' conduct resulted from a de facto policy of the City of New York and New York City Police Department which permitted officers to make false arrests, file false charges in court, and commit perjury regarding the false charges. Id. ¶ 50. Specifically, he claims that the Police Department has a policy of "seize first, ask questions later" when it comes to large sums of cash. Id. ¶¶ 14-15. Plaintiff further alleges that the City and its Police Department are deliberately indifferent to such behavior and fail to train and supervise police officers with regard to warrantless arrests and seizures of currency. Id. ¶ 52.

As a result of his encounter with the police and its prosecutorial aftermath, plaintiff claims that he was the victim of an unlawful search and seizure, malicious prosecution, and abuse of process, in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Plaintiff also invokes the First Amendment, Fifth Amendment, and Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.


When deciding a motion for judgment on the pleadings, Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c), a court applies the same standard used in deciding a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim brought pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Greco v. Trauner, Cohen & Thomas, L.L.P., 412 F.3d 360, 363 (2d Cir. 2005). "The issue is not whether a plaintiff will ultimately prevail but whether the claimant is entitled to offer evidence to support the claims . . . ." Todd v. Exxon Corp., 275 F.3d 191, 198 (2d Cir. 2001). Accordingly, the complaint is construed in a light most favorable to the plaintiff, and all of its allegations are assumed to be true. Tindall v. Poultney High Sch. Dist., 414 F.3d 281, 283 (2d Cir. 2005); Desiano v. Warner-Lambert Co., 326 F.3d 339, 347 (2d Cir. 2003); Rivera v. Heyman, 157 F.3d 101, 103 (2d Cir. 1998). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires only a "short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2). Still, the complaint must present "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face"; it must be "above the speculative level." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, ___ U.S. ___, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1965, 1974 (May 21, 2007).

I. The Complaint States a Claim Against The City of New York

A municipality may not be held liable for its employees' constitutional violations under a general respondeat superior theory. Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 694, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978). "[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." Batista v. Rodriguez, 702 F.2d 393, 397 (2d Cir. 1983). In Leatherman v. Tarrant County Narcotics Intelligence & Coordination Unit, 507 U.S. 163, 113 S.Ct. 1160, 122 L.Ed.2d 517 (1993), the Supreme Court rejected application of a heightened pleading standard to municipal liability claims brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Id. at 168; see also Hall v. Marshall, 479 F. Supp. 2d 304, 316 (E.D.N.Y. 2007); Nesbitt v. County of Nassau, No. 05-cv-5513, 2006 WL 3511377, at *3-4 (E.D.N.Y. Dec. 6, 2006).

The complaint alleges that the City of New York fails to properly train, supervise, and discipline its police officers, thus leading to unlawful seizures and the imposition of false charges against private citizens -- as in plaintiff's case. Plaintiff further claims that the City has a policy of "seize first, ask questions later" when it comes to large sums of money. Given the relaxed pleading standard of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), plaintiff alleges enough to survive the City's motion for judgment on the pleadings.

Defense counsel has presented materials outside of the pleadings in attempting to show that the individually-named police officers did not violate plaintiff's constitutional rights -- a finding that would preclude imposition of municipal liability. However, since discovery is not yet complete -- plaintiff has not, for example, deposed the police officers -- this Court will not accept the City's invitation to convert the motion for judgment on the pleadings into a motion for summary judgment. Plaintiff's reference to qualified immunity is completely misplaced, as: (i) the individually named defendants are not before the Court, therefore obviating the need to resolve qualified immunity altogether, let alone at an early point in the litigation, see Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201, 121 S.Ct. 2151, 150 L.Ed.2d 272 (2001); and (ii) if a constitutional violation occurred, then the individual officers' qualified immunity is irrelevant to the City's municipal liability, i.e., the City may still be liable "even if the arresting officers are not held responsible because of some good faith belief." Kuha v. City of Minnetonka, 365 F.3d 590, 603 (8th Cir. 2003) (citation omitted), abrogated on other grounds by Szabla v. City of Brooklyn Park, ___ F.3d ___, 2007 WL 1452595 (8th Cir. May 18, 2007).

II. The Complaint Fails to State a Claim Against District Attorney Brown

Plaintiff has named Richard Brown, District Attorney of Queens ...

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