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Palta v. Marshall County Indiana Sheriff’s Department

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

September 18, 2019

HARINDER PALTA and ASHA PALTA, on their own behalf and as guardians of their adult son, Rahul Palta, and RAHUL PALTA, Plaintiffs,
v.
MARSHALL COUNTY INDIANA SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT, INDIANA STATE POLICE, JONATHAN BRYANT, NICK LAFFOON, JOE GIORDANO, ANTHONY BRAGG, and JIM STRONG, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JON E. DEGUILIO JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT.

         Plaintiffs bring suit against the Indiana State Police and Jim Strong (State Defendants) and the Marshall County Indiana Sheriff’s Department, Jonathan Bryant, Nick Laffoon, Joe Giordano, and Anthony Bragg (Marshall County Defendants) based on the motor vehicle stop and arrest of Rahul Palta on September 14, 2017. Plaintiffs’ amended complaint alleges federal constitutional claims of race discrimination and excessive force, state law claims of assault and battery, state law respondeat superior, and Monell liability. The State Defendants filed a motion to dismiss all claims. The Marshall County Defendants filed a partial motion to dismiss, seeking dismissal of all claims except for the § 1983 Fourth Amendment excessive force claim against the individual county officers in Count III. Both motions are brought under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim.

         The Court grants in part and denies in part both motions, denying dismissal of the Fourth Amendment excessive force claim brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in Count III against State Trooper Jim Strong and denying dismissal of the respondeat superior claim against the Marshall County Sheriff’s Department in Count V.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         The following facts are taken from the allegations of the amended complaint. Defendant Jim Strong is an employee and officer of the Indiana State Police. Id. ¶ 13. Defendants Jonathan Bryant, Nick Laffoon, Joe Giordano, and Anthony Bragg are employees and merit officers of the Marshall County Sheriff’s Department. Id. ¶ 9–12. Collectively, the officers are referred to throughout the amended complaint as “Defendants,” “above captioned officers,” “above referenced police officers,” “Defendant officers,” or “officers.”

         Harinder Palta and Asha Palta are the parents and legal guardians of their adult son, Rahul Palta. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 4–5, ECF No. 35. Rahul Palta has a documented history of mental illness. Id. ¶ 16. His diagnoses and symptoms have included depression, paranoid thoughts, hallucinations, paranoid delusions, auditory hallucinations, disorganized thoughts, inappropriate thought processes, and bizarre agitation. Id. Rahul Palta was “incapacitated due to mental illness on September 14, 2017, [and] has been so situated until present day.” Id. ¶ 17. On September 14, 2017, Rahul Palta was living at his parents’ home. Id. ¶ 18. Rahul Palta is of South Asian descent. Id. ¶ 15.

         On September 14, 2017, Rahul Palta became agitated due to the televised reporting of hurricanes Irma and Harvey. Id. ¶ 19. In an agitated state, he left his parents’ home in Carmel, Indiana, driving north in his vehicle on U.S. Highway 31 to U.S. Highway 30 in Marshall County, Indiana. Id. ¶¶ 20–21. He was purportedly driving in excess of 70 mph exclusively in the left lane. Id. ¶ 22. Police stopped his vehicle using a “rolling roadblock” technique. Id. ¶ 23. Once the vehicle was stopped, “Defendants pulled Rahul from the car and, without cause, threw him on the ground, beat and ‘tazered’ him, causing bodily injury.” Id. ¶ 24. Plaintiffs allege that all the Defendants acted intentionally, maliciously, and with callous disregard for the rights guaranteed Rahul Palta by state and federal law. Id. ¶ 25. Rahul Palta alleges that these actions exacerbated his mental health and that his parents have incurred additional expenses due to his deteriorated mental health. Id. ¶ 26.

         On October 4, 2018, Plaintiffs filed this suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Marshall County Defendants and the State Defendants. Plaintiffs subsequently filed an amended complaint, asserting claims of (1) race discrimination pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments (Count I); (2) a substantive due process violation based on race discrimination and excessive force pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments (Count II); (3) excessive force pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments (Count III); (4) assault and battery under Indiana state law (Count IV); (5) respondeat superior/vicarious liability under Indiana state law (Count V); and (6) and Monell liability against the Marshall County Sheriff’s Department and the Indiana State Police for the federal constitutional violations (Count VI).

         The State Defendants and the Marshall County Defendants each filed a motion to dismiss. Plaintiffs filed a consolidated response to both motions, and each set of Defendants filed a separate reply brief. The motions are ripe for ruling.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In reviewing a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the Court construes the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, accepts the factual allegations as true, and draws all reasonable inferences in the plaintiffs’ favor. Reynolds v. CB Sports Bar, Inc., 623 F.3d 1143, 1146 (7th Cir. 2010). A complaint must contain only a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). That statement must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face, Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009), and raise a right to relief above the speculative level, Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). However, a plaintiff’s claim need only be plausible, not probable. Indep. Trust Corp. v. Stewart Info. Servs. Corp., 665 F.3d 930, 935 (7th Cir. 2012). Evaluating whether a plaintiff’s claim is sufficiently plausible to survive a motion to dismiss is “a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” McCauley v. City of Chicago, 671 F.3d 611, 616 (7th Cir. 2011) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiffs allege that Rahul Palta’s rights were violated during the September 14, 2017 traffic stop when the officers “pulled [him] from the car” and then, without cause, “threw him on the ground, beat and ‘tazered’ him, causing bodily injury.” Am. Compl. ¶ 24. In their motions brought under Rule 12(b)(6), Defendants assert various bases for dismissal of the amended complaint, except that the Marshall County Defendants do not seek dismissal of the claim in Count III for excessive force by the individual county officers in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Plaintiffs’ response brief does not address most of the arguments raised by Defendants, as noted throughout this opinion where applicable. The longstanding “rule that a person waives an argument by failing to make it before the district court” applies “where a party fails to develop arguments related to a discrete issue” and “where a litigant effectively abandons the litigation by not responding to alleged deficiencies in a motion to dismiss.” Alioto v. Town of Lisbon, 651 F.3d 715, 721 (7th Cir. 2011). The Court considers the arguments raised in the motions to dismiss in turn.

         A. Indiana State Police and Trooper Jim Strong in his Official Capacity

         1. Federal Claims-42 U.S.C. § 1981 and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Counts I, II, III, VI)

         As an initial matter, Plaintiffs bring their claim of race discrimination in Count I under both 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. However, Section 1981 does not provide a cause of action against state actors, and “§ 1983 remains the exclusive remedy for violations of § 1981 committed by state actors.” Campbell v. Forest Preserve Dist. of Cook Cty., Ill., 752 F.3d 665, 671 (7th Cir. 2014). Thus, Plaintiffs’ § 1981 claim must be analyzed through § 1983.

         The Indiana State Police seeks dismissal of Plaintiffs’ constitutional claims brought under § 1983 in Counts I, II, III, and VI on the basis that the Indiana State Police is not a “person” within the meaning of § 1983. Section 1983 provides a cause of action against a “person” who violates a plaintiff’s rights, but the Supreme Court has held that states and their agencies do not qualify as “persons” in this context. Will v. Mich. Dep’t of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989); see also Sebesta v. Davis, 878 F.3d 226, 231 (7th Cir. 2017). The Indiana State Police is an agency of the State of Indiana. See Endres v. Ind. State Police, 349 F.3d 922, 927 (7th Cir. 2003) (“The Indiana State Police, as a unit of state government, is not a ‘person’ as § 1983 uses that term and therefore is not amenable to a suit for damages under that statute.”). Therefore, the Indiana State Police cannot be sued for money damages under § 1983, and the § 1983 claims are dismissed with prejudice. In addition, any official capacity claims against Trooper Strong under § 1983 are likewise dismissed with prejudice because state officials acting in their official capacities are not “persons” who can be sued for money damages under § 1983. See Will, 491 U.S. at 71; Endres, 349 F.3d at 927.

         In their response brief, Plaintiffs argue that, under the doctrine of Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908), claims for prospective injunctive relief for violations of federal law against state actors in their official capacities are not barred and that Plaintiffs have asserted a valid claim for injunctive relief in the amended complaint. The prayer for relief asks for a judgment against Defendants “[f]inding that Defendants, and each of them, committed acts that constituted violations of the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteen Amendments to the United States Constitution, actionable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983” and “[f]or an order mandating procedural changes and additional training for the Department regarding the proper method to apprehend suspects.” Am. Compl. 14.

         The Ex parte Young doctrine ‘allows private parties to sue individual state officials for prospective relief to enjoin ongoing violations of federal law.’” Council 31 of the Am. Fed’n of State, Cty., & Mun. Emps., AFL-CIO v. Quinn, 680 F.3d 875, 882 (7th Cir. 2012) (quoting MCI Telecomms. Corp. v. Ill. Bell Tel. Co., 222 F.3d 323, 337 (7th Cir. 2000)). “In determining whether the doctrine of Ex parte Young avoids an Eleventh Amendment bar to suit, a court need only conduct a ‘straightforward inquiry into whether [the] complaint alleges an ongoing violation of federal law and seeks relief properly characterized as prospective.’” Verizon Md. Inc. v. Pub. Serv. Comm’n of Md., 535 U.S. 635, 645 (2002) (quoting Idaho v. Coeur d’Alene Tribe of Idaho, 521 U.S. 261, 296 (1997)); see also McDonough Assocs., Inc. v. Grunloh, 722 F.3d 1043, 1051 (7th Cir. 2013). And, when the relief sought “is tantamount to an award of damages for a past violation of federal law, even though styled as something else,” such a claim is impermissible. Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 278 (1986).

         First, the doctrine of Ex parte Young has “no application in suits against the States and their agencies, which are barred regardless of the relief sought[.]” Puerto Rico Aqueduct & Sewer Auth. v. Metcalf & Eddy, Inc., 506 U.S. 139, 146 (1993) (citing Cory v. White, 457 U.S. 85, 89 (1982)). Thus, dismissal of the § 1983 claims against the Indiana State Police is proper.

         Second, as argued by the State Defendants, notwithstanding their request for injunctive relief, Plaintiffs have not alleged an “ongoing violation of federal law.” Plaintiffs themselves recognize that, to avoid the Eleventh Amendment bar to suit against Trooper Strong in his official capacity, they must allege an ongoing violation of federal law. A straightforward inquiry into the allegations of the amended complaint demonstrates that Plaintiffs are only challenging the force used by the officers during Rahul Palta’s September 14, 2017 arrest. See, e.g., McDonough Assocs., 722 F.3d at 1051. In their response brief, Plaintiffs argue that, to their “knowledge, [the State Actors] continue to make detentions and use force pursuant to the same guidelines that were in existence at the time of Rahul Palta’s arrest, and that the same violations of due process will occur.” Mem. in Supp. of Pls.’ Opp’n to the Defs.’ Mots. to Dismiss, 8–9, ECF No. 56. But Plaintiffs cannot amend their complaint in their brief in response to the motions to dismiss. See Pirelli Armstrong Tire Corp. Retiree Med. Benefits Tr. v. Walgreen Co., 631 F.3d 436, 448 (7th Cir. 2011). Plaintiffs’ amended complaint does not allege that they are suffering from an ongoing deprivation of federal law or that they are in danger of sustaining a direct injury.

         Thus, the Ex parte Young doctrine is inapplicable. The Court grants the motion to dismiss the claims for money damages in Counts I, II, III, and VI against the Indiana State Police and against Trooper Jim Strong in his official capacity and dismisses the claims with prejudice. To the extent that Plaintiffs allege a claim for injunctive relief, the Court dismisses the claim without prejudice.

         2. State Law ...


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