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Cambara v. Schlote

United States District Court, D. Nebraska

September 30, 2015

KENY MEDRANO CAMBARA, et al., Plaintiff,
v.
AMBER SCHLOTE, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

JOHN M. GERRARD, District Judge.

Keny Medrano Cambara was tried for the death of Brianna Medrano, a minor child she babysat, and was ultimately acquitted. Filing 1-1 at 3; see filing 15 at 1. She, her husband, and their minor children, are suing the Omaha Police Department, the City of Omaha, individual Omaha police officers (collectively, "City Defendants"), Douglas County, the Douglas County Attorney's Office, Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine (collectively, "County Defendants"), a non-profit called Project Harmony, and Suzanne Haney, M.D., a Project Harmony employee. Filing 1-1 at 1-4. The City Defendants (filing 19), County Defendants (filing 14), Project Harmony (filing 21), and Haney (filing 17) have each filed a motion to dismiss on various grounds.

BACKGROUND

The plaintiffs bring claims of state law negligence and constitutional claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, asserting that defendants committed various wrongs in their investigation and prosecution of Keny Medrano Cambara for Brianna Medrano's death. See generally filing 1-1.

First, the plaintiffs allege that the defendants negligently failed to investigate Brianna Medrano's death, to produce exculpatory evidence, and to otherwise follow relevant policies and procedures governing criminal investigation and prosecution. Filing 1-1 at 4-7. As a result, according to the plaintiffs, Medrano Cambara was "subjected to prolonged interrogation, investigation, arrest, confinement without bail, monitoring, prosecution, and trial, " which plaintiffs allege caused physical and mental suffering, humiliation, loss of wages, and other forms of damages. Filing 1-1 at 7.

Second, the plaintiffs assert that defendants "individually and acting in concert, deliberately and with reckless disregard for the truth" falsified evidence, failed to disclose exculpatory information, failed to properly investigate, provided false testimony, and otherwise did not follow proper procedures governing criminal investigation and prosecution. Filing 1-1 at 8. This resulted, according to the plaintiffs, in violations of Medrano Cambara's Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Filing 1-1 at 9.

Third, the plaintiffs allege that Douglas County, the City of Omaha, and the Omaha Police Department had "policies, practices, and customs that deprived... Medrano Cambara of her constitutional rights." Filing 1-1 at 10. These include failure to train and supervise officers, failure to discipline officers, and other practices that allegedly "were deliberately and purposefully implemented to deprive the targets of criminal investigations of their constitutional rights." Filing 1-1 at 10.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

A complaint must set forth a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief. Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). This standard does not require detailed factual allegations, but it demands more than an unadorned accusation. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). The complaint need not contain detailed factual allegations, but must provide more than labels and conclusions; and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not suffice. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). For the purposes of a motion to dismiss a court must take all of the factual allegations in the complaint as true, but is not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation. Id.

And to survive a motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), a complaint must also contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. 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. Id. Where the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged-but it has not shown-that the pleader is entitled to relief. Id. at 679.

Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief will require the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense. Id. The facts alleged must raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence to substantiate the necessary elements of the plaintiff's claim. See Twombly, 550 U.S. at 545. The court must assume the truth of the plaintiff's factual allegations, and a well-pleaded complaint may proceed, even if it strikes a savvy judge that actual proof of those facts is improbable, and that recovery is very remote and unlikely. Id. at 556.

DISCUSSION

1. COUNTY AND CITY DEFENDANTS' MOTIONS TO DISMISS

Because the County Defendants and City Defendants raise largely the same legal issues, the Court considers their motions together.

(a) Claims against the Douglas County Attorney's Office and the Omaha Police Department

(i) Negligence claims

The plaintiffs have sued Douglas County, the City of Omaha, the Douglas County Attorney's Office, and the Omaha Police Department for negligence as political subdivisions. See filing 1-1 at 2; 14 at 8. The County Defendants move to dismiss the negligence claim as to the Douglas County Attorney's Office, arguing that the County Attorney's Office is not a political subdivision or any other entity subject to suit under Nebraska law. Filing 15 at 7-8. Similarly, the City Defendants move to dismiss the negligence claim as to the Omaha Police Department (OPD), contending it, too, is an entity not subject to suit. Filing 20 at 2. The plaintiffs counter that the defendants define "political subdivision" too narrowly, and that they should be allowed to maintain their negligence claims against the County Attorney's Office and OPD. See filing 14 at 8; 28 at 8.

According to Neb. Rev. Stat. § 23-101, "Each county, established in this state according to the laws thereof, shall be a body politic and corporate, by the name and style of The county of, and by that name may sue and be sued...." Similarly, Neb. Rev. Stat. § 14-101 states that cities have the capacity to be sued. In addition to these specific provisions for counties and cities, Nebraska law provides that any government entity may be sued in its own name if it is an independent political subdivision. Neb. Rev. Stat. § 13-903. Political subdivisions include "villages, cities of all classes, counties, school districts, learning communities, public power districts, and all other units of local government." Id. A political subdivision is characterized by "a governing body with the power and authority to appropriate funds and make expenditures." Meyer v. Lincoln Police Dept., 347 F.Supp.2d 706, 707 (D. Neb. 2004).

Departments and agencies of county or municipal governments are not political subdivisions under Nebraska law. See Holmstedt v. York County Jail Supervisor, 736 N.W.2d 449, 461 (Neb.App. 2007). A government department or agency is not a separate legal entity, but an "alter ego[] of the state itself." Catania v. Univ. of Neb., 282 N.W.2d 27, 30 (Neb. 1979). Thus, a plaintiff with a claim against-for example-a department of the county government must sue the county, rather than the department itself. Holmstedt, 736 N.W.2d at 461.

Nebraska courts have concluded that a county sheriff's department is not an independent political subdivision; rather, it is a department of the county government. Id. The Court sees no difference between a county sheriff's department and a county attorney's office or city police department. No facts before the Court lead to the inference that either the County Attorney's Office or OPD have their own governing bodies with the power to levy taxes or make expenditures. Other federal courts interpreting Nebraska law have come to the same conclusion. See Meyer, 347 F.Supp.2d at 707; White v. Smith, 2009 WL 3335967 at *10 (D. Neb. 2009). For these reasons, the Court grants the County and City Defendants' motions to dismiss the negligence claims against the County Attorney's Office and OPD.

(i) Section 1983

The County Defendants also move to dismiss the plaintiffs' § 1983 claims against the County Attorney's Office, contending that the County Attorney's Office is not subject to suit under § 1983 both because it is not subject to suit under Nebraska law, and because it is not a "person" under § 1983. The City Defendants move to dismiss the § 1983 claim against OPD for the same reasons.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 17(b)(3) states that a court must look to "the law of the state where the court is located" to determine whether the defendant has the capacity to be sued. See White, 2009 WL 3335967 at *10. As discussed above, neither the County Attorney's Office nor OPD has the capacity to be sued under Nebraska law, because neither has an independent legal identity. Thus, neither can be sued under § 1983. The Court does not reach the question of whether either the County Attorney's Office or OPD ...


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