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Harris v. Mamou

United States District Court, W.D. Louisiana, Lafayette Division

November 13, 2018

EMERETTE HARRIS
v.
MAMOU ET AL

          HANNA MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

          MEMORANDUM RULING

          ROBERT R. SUMMERHAYS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Pending before the Court is a Motion to Dismiss Penalty, Punitive, or Exemplary Damages [Doc. No. 6] filed by Defendants, the Mamou Police Department and Robert McGee, Former Chief of Police of the Town of Mamou. The motion is unopposed.[1] For the following reasons, the motion is GRANTED.

         I. Background

         On August 9, 2018, Plaintiff Emerette Harris filed this lawsuit alleging Defendants are liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for the violation of his rights under the Fifth, Eighth, Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Plaintiff additionally asserts claims for wrongful arrest, wrongful detention, and malicious prosecution under Louisiana state law. Plaintiff contends his constitutional rights were violated when he was unlawfully "arrested and/or detained on or about February 7, 2015 for the crime of Aggravated Assault with a Firearm," and was thereafter detained for an unspecified period of time. [Doc. No. 1 at ¶¶ 1, 19, 23] According to the allegations set forth in the Complaint, although the charges were dismissed on August 9, 2017, "the delay from the time these alleged crimes were supposedly committed until date" caused Plaintiff to suffer damages in the form of "mental and psychological anguish." Id. at ¶¶ 1-2. The Complaint further alleges Defendants "wrongfully abused the judicial process," and that Defendants have a "policy, practice and custom of engaging in faulty investigations, false arrests and false imprisonment." Id. ¶¶ 3, 15. In light of these allegations, Plaintiff seeks an award of "compensatory damages in the amount of $100, 000.00, and attorney's fees, along with punitive damages, . .. and court costs, ..," Id. at 6.

         II. Standard of Review

         Motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim are appropriate when a defendant attacks the complaint because it fails to state a legally cognizable clam. Ramming v. United States, 281 F.3d 158, 161 (5th Cir.2001). In other words, a motion to dismiss an action for failure to state a claim "admits the facts alleged in the complaint, but challenges plaintiffs rights to relief based upon those facts." Id. at 161-62. When deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, "[t]he court accepts all well-pleaded facts as true, viewing them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." In re Katrina Canal Breaches Litig, 495 F.3d 191, 205 (5th Cir. 2007) (internal quotation marks omitted). In considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, a district court generally "must limit itself to the contents of the pleadings, including attachments thereto." Collins v. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, 224 F.3d 496, 498 (5th Cir.2000). However, "the court may permissibly refer to matters of public record." Cinel v. Connick, 15 F.3d 1338, 1343 n.6 (5thCir. 1994); see also Test Masters Educational Services, Inc. v. Singh, 428 F.3d 559, 570 n, 2 (5thCir.2005).

         III. Analysis

         Defendants contend Plaintiffs claim for punitive damages must be dismissed, arguing: (1) such damages are unavailable against a municipality in a § 1983 action; (2) such damages are unavailable against an official acting in his or her official capacity in a § 1983 action; and (3) such damages are unavailable as to either Defendant with regard to Plaintiffs state law claims. [Doc. No. 6-1 at 3-5].

         As to Plaintiffs claim for punitive damages under § 1983 against the Mamou Police Department, Defendants argue the United States Supreme Court has unequivocally held a municipality is immune from punitive damages under § 1983. [Doc. No. 6-1 at 3 (citing City of Newport v. Fact Concerts, Inc., 453 U.S. 247, 271 (1981))]. The Court agrees it is well settled that punitive damages are not available against a municipality for claims brought pursuant to § 1983. City of Newport, supra; Skyy v. City of Arlington, 712 Fed.Appx. 396, 401 (5fh Cir. 2017) ("When this circuit has had occasion to address the issue of punitive damages against a municipality we have faithfully applied City of Newport, rejecting attempts to impose punitive damages for constitutional and other violations where Congress has not expressed a clear intention to do so."). However, the Mamou Police Department is not a municipality. Rather, the Mamou Police Department appears to be "an office operated by an elected official, the chief of police, who derives his authority from statute."[2] Dugas v. City of Breaux Bridge Police Dept., 757 So.2d 741, 744 (La.App. 3 Cir. 2000) (citing La. R.S. 33:423). As such, the Mamou Police Department would seem to be an entity without the "legal capacity to be a . . . party to litigation."[3] Id. Because the Court finds from the limited materials before it that it is unlikely the Mamou Police Department is an entity capable of being sued, no punitive damages - indeed no damages of any kind - are available against it. Accordingly, to the extent Defendants seek dismissal of Plaintiffs claim for punitive damages against the Mamou Police Department under § 1983, the motion is granted, without prejudice to either parties' ability to move for reconsideration once the record is further developed.

         As to Former Chief Robert McGee, Defendants argue punitive damages are unavailable against him in his official capacity under § 1983.[4] [Doc. No. 6-1 at 5]. A suit against a public official in his or her personal capacity seeks "to impose personal liability upon a government official for actions he takes under color of state law," Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 165 (1985). In contrast, a suit against a public official in his or her official capacity "generally represent[s] only another way of pleading an action against an entity of which an officer is an agent."[5] Id. (quoting Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 690 n. 55 (1978)). As such, just as punitive damages are unavailable from a municipality, they are likewise unavailable from an official sued in his or her official capacity. Id. at 167 n.13. Accordingly, the Court finds punitive damages are unavailable against Former Chief Robert McGee, acting in his official capacity, as a matter of law. See e.g. Lopez v. Billiot, 2009 WL 1605297, *3 (W.D.La.).

         Finally, with regard to Plaintiffs claims brought pursuant to state law, Louisiana law prohibits "punitive or other 'penalty' damages . . . unless expressly authorized by statute." International Harvester Credit Corp. v. Seale, 518 So.2d 1039, 1041 (La, 1988); see also Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 501 U.S. 32, 75 (1991). As Plaintiff has identified no Louisiana statutory provision authorizing an award of punitive damages for the state law claims asserted herein, the Court finds Plaintiff cannot recover punitive damages for those claims as a matter of law.

         IV. Conclusion

         For the reasons set forth above, Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Penalty, Punitive, or Exemplary Damages [Doc. No. 6] is GRANTED as follows: Plaintiff s claim for punitive damages asserted under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Mamou Police Department is DISMISSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE; Plaintiffs claim for punitive damages under § 1983 against Former Chief of Police Robert McGee in his official capacity is DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE; and ...


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