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Strong v. City of Syracuse

United States District Court, N.D. New York

January 13, 2020

WILLIE J. STRONG, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
THE CITY OF SYRACUSE, POLICE OFFICER GONZALEZ, and POLICE OFFICER KATELL, Defendants.

          Fred Lichtmacher Attorney for Plaintiff

          Christina F. DeJoseph Khalid Bashjawish City of Syracuse Corporation Counsel Attorneys for Defendants

          MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

          NORMAN A. MORDUE SENIOR U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Willie J. Strong, Jr. brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the City of Syracuse (“City”), Police Officer Gonzalez, and Police Officer Katell (collectively the “Defendants”), alleging constitutional violations related to his arrest by the officers in September 2013. (Dkt. No. 1). Now before the Court is the Defendants' unopposed motion for judgment on the pleadings as to Plaintiff's third cause of action. (Dkt. Nos. 57, 60). For the following reasons, the motion is granted.

         II. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff alleges that on September 2, 2013 at approximately 2:00 a.m., he was pulled over by Defendant Officers Gonzalez and Katell and ordered to get out of his vehicle. (Dkt. No. 1, ¶ 10). Plaintiff claims that he complied with the officers' orders and exited the vehicle with his hands raised, whereupon the officers charged at him, struck him in the head, put him in handcuffs, and kicked, elbowed, and punched him, all while “hurling racial slurs at him.” (Id., ¶¶ 11-12, 14). Plaintiff claims that he was taken to the hospital and received stitches for his injuries, and that “[t]here was no need to use any force much less the gratuitous, malicious force employed, before and after the handcuffs were placed on [him].” (Id., ¶¶ 15-16).

         Plaintiff's claims are as follows: (1) excessive force against the officers; (2) failure to intervene against the officers; and (3) a municipal liability claim against the City pursuant to Monell v. Dept. of Soc. Servs. of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). (Dkt. No. 1).

         The Monell claim alleges that the City “tolerates members of the [Syracuse Police Department (“SPD”)] committing acts violating the Fourth Amendment rights of members of the African American community.” (Id., ¶ 30). Plaintiff alleges that “Syracuse operates and controls a police department with numerous members, insensitive and hostile to the African American community, ” and that “SPD has had frequent instances of the use of gratuitous, unreasonable and excessive force against members of the African American community as well as other violations of that community's constitutional rights and still, Syracuse has failed to take effective action to curtail the aforementioned behavior by its officers.” (Id., ¶¶ 32-33). Plaintiff claims that the City of Syracuse, “via its de facto policy of tolerating the abuse of African Americans, caused plaintiff to sustain physical injuries, including permanent and non-permanent physical injuries . . . .” (Id., ¶ 36).

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) permits the entry of judgment as a matter of law on the basis of the pleadings alone. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c); Oneida Indian Nation v. Phillips, 397 F.Supp.3d 223, 229 (N.D.N.Y. 2019). “The standard for granting a Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings is identical to that of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion for failure to state a claim.” Patel v. Contemporary Classics of Beverly Hills, 259 F.3d 123, 126 (2d Cir. 2001) (collecting cases). “In both postures, the district court must accept all allegations in the complaint as true and draw all inferences in the non-moving party's favor.” Id. “To survive a Rule 12(c) motion, [the] ‘complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.'” Johnson v. Rowley, 569 F.3d 40, 44 (2d Cir. 2009) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Legal conclusions, however, are not afforded the same presumption of truthfulness. Id. The plausibility standard is not, however, a probability requirement: the pleading must show, not merely allege, that the pleader is entitled to relief. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556 (2007); Fed.R.Civ.P. 8 (a)(2). In other words, to survive dismissal the allegations in the complaint must nudge the claim “across the line from conceivable to plausible.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570.

         Moreover, “[i]n this District, when a non-movant fails to oppose a legal argument asserted by a movant, the movant's burden with regard to that argument is lightened, such that, in order to succeed on that argument, the movant need only show that the argument possesses facial merit, which has appropriately been characterized as a ‘modest' burden.” Thomas v. City of Troy, 293 F.Supp.3d 282, 296 (N.D.N.Y. 2018); see also McCall v. Pataki, 232 F.3d 321, 322 (2d Cir. 2000) (noting that for an unopposed motion to dismiss, courts must “assume the truth of a pleading's factual allegations and test only its legal sufficiency”) (citing De Jesus v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., Inc., 87 F.3d 65, 69 (2d Cir. 1996)). Accordingly, although Plaintiff states that he does not oppose Defendants' motion to dismiss his Monell claim (Dkt. No. 60), the Court will evaluate Defendants' arguments on the merits.

         IV. DISCUSSION

         The Defendants argue that the Court should dismiss Plaintiff's Monell claim because “Plaintiff's conclusory allegations wholly fail to plausibly allege a municipal liability claims against the city under Section 1983.” (See Dkt. No. 57, pp. 4-11). The Defendants characterize Plaintiff's allegations as asserting two theories of municipal liability: (1) that constitutional violations were widespread and tolerated by the City through an unofficial, de facto policy; and (2) that the City was deliberately indifferent to known abuses based on its failure to train and/or discipline its officers. (Id., pp. 6-7). The Defendants argue that the first theory fails because Plaintiff asserts only “boilerplate statements” that SPD officers routinely commit acts that violate the rights of African Americans without alleging any specific instances of misconduct amounting to a pattern or practice of misconduct. (Id., pp. 7-9). Similarly, the Defendants argue that the second theory fails because Plaintiff does not allege a pattern of misconduct and therefore “cannot plausibly allege an ...


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