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Parker v. City of Tulsa

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

April 18, 2017




         Now before the Court is Defendant City of Tulsa's Motion for Summary Judgment and Brief in Support (Dkt. # 88). Plaintiff alleges that defendant violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Defendant asks the Court to grant summary judgment in its favor, arguing that plaintiff has failed to show that his constitutional rights were violated, and, even if plaintiff suffered a constitutional deprivation, that plaintiff has failed to show it was pursuant to a custom or policy of defendant. Plaintiff responds that he has presented evidence sufficient to sustain his § 1983 claim. Dkt. # 94, at 27-33.


         On March 6, 1997, plaintiff was convicted in the District Court of Tulsa County, Oklahoma of sexually abusing K.S., a minor child. On March 21, 2014, the Court of Criminal Appeals of the State of Oklahoma reversed plaintiff's conviction due to ineffective assistance of trial counsel. Dkt. # 88-22, at 9-10. Plaintiff subsequently brought this suit under § 1983, alleging that the Tulsa Police Department (TPD), a department of defendant, violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process by conducting a “results oriented investigation” that failed to investigate leads that would have resulted in exculpatory evidence. Dkt. # 2, at 7. Defendant now moves for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiff has not presented evidence that his constitutional rights were violated pursuant to a custom or policy of defendant. Dkt. # 88, at 24.


         Summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 is appropriate where there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986); Kendall v. Watkins, 998 F.2d 848, 850 (10th Cir. 1993). The plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails 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 317. “Summary judgment procedure is properly regarded not as a disfavored procedural shortcut, but rather as an integral part of the Federal Rules as a whole, which are designed ‘to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action.'” Id. at 327 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 1).

         “When the moving party has carried its burden under Rule 56(c), its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no ‘genuine issue for trial.'” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986) (citations omitted). “The mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the plaintiff's position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the [trier of fact] could reasonably find for the plaintiff.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252. In essence, the inquiry for the Court is “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that the party must prevail as a matter of law.” Id. at 251-52. In its review, the Court construes the record in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment. Garratt v. Walker, 164 F.3d 1249, 1251 (10th Cir. 1998).


         Section 1983 provides a claim for relief against state actors for violation of a plaintiff's federal rights. Becker v. Kroll, 494 F.3d 904, 914 (10th Cir. 2007). To state a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege two essential elements: (1) that a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States was violated and (2) that the alleged violation was committed by a person acting under color of state law. See West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988); Anderson v. Suiters, 499 F.3d 1228, 1232-33 (10th Cir. 2007). When the defendant is a municipal entity, the “under color of state law” element requires that the constitutional deprivation occurred pursuant to official policy or custom. See Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978). Defendant argues that it is entitled to summary judgment because plaintiff has failed to establish either a constitutional violation or a custom or policy that caused the constitutional violation. The Court need not address whether plaintiff suffered a constitutional deprivation because plaintiff has failed to establish a custom or policy. Thus, for the purpose of this decision, the Court will assume that TPD's investigation violated plaintiff's constitutional right to due process.

         “A challenged practice may be deemed an official policy or custom for § 1983 municipal-liability purposes if it is a formally promulgated policy, a well-settled custom or practice, a final decision by a municipal policymaker, or deliberately indifferent training or supervision.” Schneider v. City of Grand Junction Police Dep't, 717 F.3d 760, 770 (10th Cir. 2013). Plaintiff alleges that defendant had a well-settled custom of ignoring exculpatory evidence and that defendant failed to train and/or supervise its officers. Dkt. # 94, at 31. The Court will address each allegation in turn.


         A widespread practice that is not officially authorized may constitute a custom if it is “so permanent and well settled as to constitute a ‘custom or usage' with the force of law.” City of St. Louis v. Praprotnik, 485 U.S. 112, 127 (1988) (quoting Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 167-68 (1970)). Plaintiff alleges that defendant had a pervasive, informal custom of “results oriented investigations” that ignored exculpatory evidence. Dkt. # 94, at 31. To support his claim, plaintiff relies on the deposition testimony of Rex Berry, the TPD officer who investigated his case. Berry testified that he did not follow up on several lines of investigation that could have lead to exculpatory evidence. Dkt. # 94-6, at 38-39, 56, 63. Berry also stated that he conducted the investigation pursuant to TPD's policies and procedures, and that no supervisor ever objected to Berry's conduct in this investigation. Id. at 7-10.

         In Bryson v. City of Okla. City, 627 F.3d 784 (10th Cir. 2010), the Tenth Circuit addressed issues of municipal liability similar to those in this case. Bryson was convicted of a rape and kidnapping based in part on the testimony of a forensic chemist employed by the Oklahoma City Police Department who testified that DNA evidence found at the scene of the crime implicated Bryson. Id. at 787. Later testing found that the forensic chemist's lab results indicated that the DNA found at the scene could not have come from Bryson. Id. Bryson filed a § 1983 action against the city and the forensic chemist, and the district court granted the city's motion for summary judgment, finding that the undisputed evidence did not support a finding of municipal liability. Id. Bryson argued, inter alia, that the city had a custom of encouraging forensic chemists to manipulate evidence in order to obtain convictions. Id. at 790. To support his claim, Bryson cited to the testimony of a former Oklahoma City police chief that “forensic chemists, like everybody who is on the prosecution team, [will] testif[y] in a way that is the most incriminating.” Id. (alterations in original). Bryson also cited to the statement of another forensic chemist who criticized the testimony of the chemist involved in Bryson's case and asserted that her behavior “persists and is condoned by much of the criminal justice system in Oklahoma County.” Id. The Tenth Circuit affirmed, finding that the statements were not “sufficient to give rise to an inference of a widespread City practice of fabricating results and concealing evidence that was ‘so permanent and well settled as to constitute a custom or usage with the force of law.'” Id. at 791 (quoting Praprotnik, 485 U.S. at 127).

         Here, plaintiff has presented even less evidence of a custom than the plaintiff in Bryson. Plaintiff relies entirely on the statements of Berry that he was following TPD's policies and procedures in this investigation and that no supervisor reprimanded him over this case. In Bryson, the Tenth Circuit explained that the other chemist's statement about the false testimony being condoned by the rest of the criminal justice system did not establish a custom because the statement referred to only that forensic chemist and did not suggest that other chemists were giving similarly inaccurate testimony. Id. Thus, under Bryson, a clear pattern of behavior of one employee is not enough to establish a custom. Here, at most the evidence shows that TPD condoned Berry's failure to investigate exculpatory evidence in this case. Berry's testimony does not even establish a custom within his own investigations, let alone a widespread practice across TPD that could constitute a well settled ...

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