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Lynn Peters v. City of Buffalo

January 30, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: William M. Skretny Chief Judge United States District Court



Plaintiff Lynn Peters, formerly known as Lynn M. Dejac, brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985, alleging violations of the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Plaintiff's claims arise out of the alleged deprivation of her civil rights during the investigation of, and her subsequent prosecution for, the murder of Crystallynn Girard. Presently before this Court is Defendant County of Erie's Motion to Dismiss (Docket No. 5), Defendants Frank J. Clark, III and Joseph J. Marusak's Motion to Dismiss (Docket No. 25), and Plaintiff's Cross-Motion to Amend the Complaint (Docket No. 38).*fn1

As an initial matter, this Court must address Plaintiff's motion to amend her complaint. The proposed amended complaint adds no new claims but does significantly expand on the factual allegations raised against Clark and Marusak, as well as clarify the capacity in which they are being sued.

District courts have broad discretion to grant a party leave to amend its pleadings and the federal rules dictate that leave to amend is freely granted when justice so requires. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 15 (a)(2). The proposed amendment adds certain factual allegations and expands on others. No defendant has filed an opposition to Plaintiff's cross-motion. Similarly, no replies have been filed pursuant to the motions to dismiss resisting Plaintiff's proposed amendments. Accordingly, Defendants have provided no grounds on which they would be prejudiced. Further, this Court finds that at this early stage of the litigation there is no undue prejudice to defendants that would preclude amendment of the complaint. Having so found, and for the sake of efficiency and expediency, this Court will grant leave to amend and resolve the two motions to dismiss as against the second amended complaint.

Having so considered the motions to dismiss, and for the following reasons, Defendants' motions are denied.


A. Facts

This case originates with the death of Crystallynn Girard, and the discovery of her body on February 14, 1993. (Second Amended Complaint ("Comp.") ¶ 21, Docket No. 39-1.) Girard was the daughter of Plaintiff, Lynn Peters, then known as Lynn M. Dejac. (Comp. ¶ 20.) Her death was investigated by police officers and investigators of Defendants, the City of Buffalo, the Buffalo Police Department, and the County of Erie (the "County" or "Erie County").

Evidence discovered in the course of this investigation implicated Dennis Donohue, a bartender who worked in an establishment co-owned by an officer in the Buffalo Police Department. (Comp. ¶ 27.) Allegedly ignoring various evidence pointing to Donohue as the true culprit, Defendants instead focused their investigation on Peters. This focus was allegedly the result of efforts by Defendants First Deputy Erie County District Attorney, and later Erie County District Attorney, Frank J. Clark, III, Assistant Erie County District Attorney Joseph J. Marusak, and Chief Charles T. Fieramusca. (Comp. ¶¶ 41, 120.) In doing so, Clark and Marusak were allegedly acting pursuant to a policy, practice, and custom of the City of Buffalo and the Buffalo Police Department to permit the Erie County District Attorney's Office to direct and control investigations, and for the District Attorney's' Office to do so. (Comp. ¶ 39.) Among the numerous ways Defendants Clark and Marusak allegedly acted improperly were ordering an incomplete polygraph test of Donahue, directing that DNA samples not be tested, relying on a non-credible witness, misrepresenting evidence concerning other witnesses, and making misleading public statements. (Comp. ¶¶ 46, 47, 53, 54, 56, 72, 80, 116.)

An indictment was issued on December 13, 1993 charging Peters with two counts of murder in the second degree and two counts of first degree manslaughter. (Comp. ¶ 28.) A jury found Peters guilty of second degree murder on April 20, 1994. (Comp. ¶ 29.) Peters was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum prison term of 25 years. (Comp. ¶ 30.) An appeal of conviction followed in 1995. (Comp. ¶ 112.) The New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division for the Fourth Department affirmed Peters' conviction on the basis of testimony that Defendants allegedly knew was fabricated and inaccurate. (Comp. ¶¶ 110, 113.)

In September 2007, a cold case investigation unit re-examined evidence admitted at trial, as well as physical evidence from the crime scene. (Comp. ¶ 32.) Clark and Marusak, as well as Defendant Detective Mark Stambach allegedly impeded this investigation by contacting one witness, Wayne Hudson, and compelling him to sign a statement reaffirming his prior statements, and threatening another witness, Keith Cramer. (Comp. ¶¶ 120, 133.) Defendants also allegedly threatened Deputy Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda and Chief of Detectives Dennis Richards into ceasing attempts to contact witnesses. (Comp. ¶¶ 123, 131.) Despite these obstacles, the cold case investigation revealed the presence of Donohue's DNA at the crime scene. (Id.) Peters' conviction was vacated on November 28, 2007, by the Honorable Michael D'Amico, New York State Supreme Court Justice. (Comp. ¶ 33.) Peters was released pending a new trial. (Id.)

An independent medical examination was conducted of Crystallynn's autopsy records, at Defendant Clark's request. (Comp. ¶ 34.) A press conference held on February 13, 2008 revealed that two independent medical examiners had determined that Girard died from an accidental cocaine overdose. (Comp. ¶ 35.) The then-pending indictment against Peters was dismissed on February 28, 2008. (Comp. ¶ 36.)

B. Procedural History

Plaintiff commenced this action on November 24, 2010 by filing a complaint in the United States District Court for the Western District of New York. (Docket No. 1.) On January 5, 2011, Plaintiff amended her complaint. (Docket No. 3.) Defendant Erie County filed its Motion to Dismiss on February 3, 2011. (Docket No. 5.) Defendants Marusak and Clark followed suit, and filed their Motion to Dismiss on March 15, 2011. (Docket No. 25.) Plaintiff responded with a Cross-Motion to Amend Complaint on April 1, 2011. (Docket No. 38.) The parties briefs were deemed submitted on April 11, 2011, at which time this Court took the parties' motions under advisement without oral argument.


A. Motion to Dismiss Standard

Rule 12 (b)(6) allows dismissal of a complaint for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Fed. R. Civ. P. 12 (b)(6). Federal pleading standards are generally not stringent: Rule 8 requires only a short and plain statement of a claim. Fed. R. Civ. P. 8 (a)(2). But the plain statement must "possess enough heft to show that the pleader is entitled to ...

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