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Merriweather v. City of New York

United States District Court, S.D. New York

January 5, 2015

CITY OF NEW YORK, Defendant.



On March 27, 2010, between 7:00 and 7:30 a.m., police officers from the New York City Police Department (the "NYPD") kicked open the door to the bedroom of Plaintiff Ronald Merriweather, located in the second-floor apartment of 3321 Seymour Avenue in the Bronx, New York. The officers were executing a search warrant for that apartment for "crack/cocaine" and other evidence of the possession or distribution of such drugs. During the search, police recovered a jewel-handled knife and a small amount of marijuana, both of which belonged to Plaintiff. The officers arrested Plaintiff for possession of the marijuana, a controlled substance in New York, although the criminal charges were later dismissed.

Plaintiff subsequently brought suit against the City of New York and NYPD Detective Nelson Mendez, the latter of whom had obtained the search warrant upon a sworn affidavit. Detective Mendez has since been dismissed from the case. Plaintiff has alleged deprivation of his civil rights and other violations under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985 and New York State law.

Defendant City of New York ("Defendant" or the "City") now moves for summary judgment as to all of Plaintiff's claims. For the reasons set forth in the remainder of this Opinion, the Court grants Defendant's motion in its entirety.


A. Factual Background

1. Plaintiff's Residence

In March 2010, Plaintiff was renting a one-bedroom "unit" within the second-floor apartment at 3321 Seymour Avenue, Bronx, New York. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 3). The second-floor apartment consisted of a single shared bathroom, a shared kitchen, and four rooms that were rented out to various tenants. (Pl. Opp. 3).[2] Plaintiff testified that, from the outside, the property at 3321 Seymour Avenue had the appearance of a single-family, two-story home. ( Id. ). Inside the front door, there was a vestibule with two doors, the one on the left leading to the first-floor apartment, and the one on the right leading to the second-floor apartment. ( Id.; see also Yalkut Decl. Ex. 2 at 13 (transcript of search warrant application hearing)). The two doors were unmarked, and each had two locks. (Pl. Opp. 3).

At the top of the stairs for the second-floor apartment, there was another door with a lock requiring a key. (Pl. Opp. 3). This door opened into the shared kitchen, where the bathroom and the doors to some of the rented rooms were visible. ( Id. ). At least some of the doors to the rented rooms had locks. (Merriweather Dep. 46). In his room, Plaintiff had a twin bed, a computer desk, a chair, and a television. (Pl. Opp. 4). He kept his room locked; it had both a bolt and a latch. ( Id. ). Mail was delivered to the house itself and placed on top of the heating unit in the vestibule for residents to retrieve. (Merriweather Dep. 50-51).

2. The Search Warrant

Detective Nelson Mendez of the Narcotics Borough Bronx in the NYPD sought a search warrant of 3321 Seymour Avenue as part of a narcotics investigation in March 2010. In an Affidavit in Support of Search Warrant (the "Affidavit"), Detective Mendez testified that "JD D-Nice" (with "JD" signifying that the individual was an as-yet-unidentified John Doe, and "D-Nice" signifying the nickname by which the individual was known) was using the "second floor apartment of 3321 Seymour Avenue, Bronx, New York" to store and sell "crack/cocaine"[3] and to conspire to commit those crimes. (Yalkut Decl. Ex. 2 at 4 (Mendez Affidavit)). Detective Mendez stated in the Affidavit that a confidential informant (the "CI") with a proven history of reliability had made controlled purchases of crack/cocaine at the subject premises from JD D-Nice on two separate occasions. ( Id. at 5-8). On each of those occasions, the CI had knocked on the white door leading to the second-floor apartment and D-Nice had answered and instructed the CI to follow him to the second-floor apartment. ( Id. ). During both purchases, while present inside the second-floor apartment, the CI engaged in crack/cocaine-related conversations with D-Nice before buying the crack/cocaine from him. ( Id. ).

Detective Mendez further testified in the Affidavit that he had performed a reconnaissance of 3321 Seymour Avenue in order to become familiarized with the location and personally observe the entry door. (Yalkut Decl. Ex. 2 at 8). He observed a two-story brown-brick private house with a green awning, but did not enter the building because it would jeopardize the secrecy of the investigation. ( Id. ). The CI informed him of the vestibule with two white doors, and, further, that the door on the right led to the second-floor apartment. ( Id. ).

On March 18, 2010, Detective Mendez appeared before a magistrate judge in connection with his warrant application. (Yalkut Decl. Ex. 2 at 11). Describing the premises to be searched, which description he explained to the magistrate judge was based on his personal observations and information related by the CI, Detective Mendez testified, "[T]he premise[s] is clearly marked 3321. From the street, as you enter into the vestibule of that first door, there's two doors, and it would be the door on your right that will take you upstairs to the second floor apartment." ( Id. at 13). When the magistrate judge asked whether there was only one apartment on the second floor, Detective Mendez replied, "Yes, sir." ( Id. ). On the basis of this testimony and the Affidavit, Detective Mendez obtained a "no knock" search warrant[4] authorizing, inter alia, the "search of the second floor apartment of 3321 Seymour Avenue, Bronx, New York" for the following:

a. crack/cocaine, vials, caps, glassine envelopes, small ziplock-style bags, and other evidence of the possession and distribution of crack/cocaine, including but not limited to paraphernalia used to process and distribute drugs, including but not limited to dilutants and scales, counter-surveillance equipment, and records and documents reflecting drug transactions;
b. currency and other evidence of proceeds from drug trafficking, including but not limited to financial records in any format, tending to demonstrate cash transactions or financial transfers derived from the possession of cash currency, money orders, bank receipts, stocks, bonds, bills and receipts for goods and services, documents relating to real estate holdings, and any title or registration to motor vehicles;
c. evidence of ownership and use of the target premises, or the use of property located therein by any person, including but not limited to keys, telephone bills, utility bills, bank statements, leases, deeds, or rent receipts related to the target premises, identification bearing the name or photograph of any person, telephone books, address books, date books, calendars, personal papers, and videotapes and photographs of persons.

(Yalkut Decl. Ex. 3 at 6; see also Def. 56.1 ¶ 5).

3. Execution of the Warrant

On March 27, 2010, between 7:00 and 7:30 a.m., Plaintiff was sleeping in his bed when police kicked in his door. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 6). The police, officers of the NYPD Narcotics Borough Bronx, were executing the search warrant Detective Mendez had obtained. ( Id. at ¶ 4). During the execution of the search warrant, and prior to the administration of any Miranda warnings, Plaintiff was asked by the police if he had anything in his room, and Plaintiff stated, "Yes, I have drugs and I have a weapon in the room." ( Id. at ¶ 7; Pl. 56.1 Opp. ¶¶ 8, 11). Plaintiff informed officers that there was marijuana located "on the side of [his] bed." (Def. 56.1 ¶ 8).[5] Plaintiff also informed the officers that he had a knife, and the officers located it on the floor in Plaintiff's room between the bed and the wall. ( Id. at ¶¶ 11-12). The knife had a jeweled handle that was two or three inches long and a blade that was approximately one inch wide and six inches long. ( Id. at ¶ 13). The police recovered both the marijuana and the knife from the same area, between the bed and the wall. ( Id. at ¶¶ 10, 14; Merriweather Dep. 87-88). Plaintiff was arrested for criminal possession of marijuana, unlawful possession of marijuana, and two counts of criminal possession of controlled substances. (Def. 56.1 ¶ 15).

B. Procedural Background

The criminal charges against Plaintiff were subsequently dismissed. Plaintiff then filed the Complaint in this action on July 6, 2012, against the City and Detective Mendez. (Dkt. #1). Plaintiff's Complaint contains seven counts, three of which - the first, fourth, and seventh - appear to implicate federal law.[6] The counts are: false imprisonment (arrest), negligent treatment, invasion of privacy, civil rights violation, negligence, prima facie tort, and municipal liability. (Compl. ¶¶ 16-62). Within the fourth count, "civil rights violation, " Plaintiff purports to bring suit pursuant to both New York State law and the New York State Constitution, as well as pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1983, 1985, 1988, 28 U.S.C. § 1343, and the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. ( Id. at ¶ 35).[7] Plaintiff's seventh count is a claim for municipal liability brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978). ( Id. at ¶¶ 48-62).

On March 24, 2014, the Court dismissed the Complaint as to Detective Mendez pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(m), leaving Defendant City as the sole defendant. (Dkt. #26). Effectively, because under federal law municipalities cannot be held liable for the acts of their employees under the doctrine of respondeat superior, see Pembaur v. City of Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 478 (1986), this means that Plaintiff's only remaining claims as to the City are a federal claim for a violation of his constitutional rights by a municipal policy or custom and his state law claims.[8] Pending before the Court is Defendant's motion for summary judgment as to Plaintiff's remaining claims, which was fully briefed as of May 30, 2014. (Dkt. #29-37).


A. The Standard for Summary Judgment Motions

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), summary judgment may be granted only if all the submissions taken together "show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986). The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating "the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. A fact is "material" if it "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law, " and is genuinely in dispute "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; see also Jeffreys v. City of New York, 426 F.3d 549, 553 (2d Cir. 2005) (citing Anderson ). The movant may discharge this burden by showing that the nonmoving party has "fail[ed] to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322; see also Selevan v. N.Y. Thruway Auth., 711 F.3d 253, 256 (2d Cir. 2014) (finding summary judgment appropriate where the non-moving party fails to "come forth with evidence sufficient to permit a reasonable juror to return a verdict in his or her favor on an essential element of a claim" (internal quotation marks omitted)).

If the moving party meets this burden, the nonmoving party must "set out specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial" using affidavits or otherwise, and cannot rely on the "mere allegations or denials" contained in the pleadings. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248, 250; see also Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323-24; Wright v. Goord, 554 F.3d 255, 266 (2d Cir. 2009). The nonmoving party "must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts, " Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986), and cannot rely on "mere speculation or conjecture as to the true nature of the facts to overcome a motion for summary judgment, " Knight v. U.S. Fire Ins. Co., 804 F.2d 9, 12 (2d Cir. 1986) (quoting Quarles v. Gen. Motors Corp., 758 F.2d 839, 840 (2d Cir. 1985)). Furthermore, "[m]ere conclusory allegations or denials cannot by themselves create a genuine issue of material fact where none would otherwise exist." Hicks v. Baines, 593 F.3d 159, 166 (2d Cir. 2010) (quoting Fletcher v. Atex, Inc., 68 F.3d 1451, 1456 (2d Cir. 1995) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted)); see also Vargas v. Transeau, 514 F.Supp.2d 439, 442 (S.D.N.Y. 2007) ...

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