By RICHARD WEATHERINGTON
It is not easy to sue and win against an agency that oversees the very business a pawnbroker depends upon. Although the constitution protects from the illegal seizure of property and provides guarantees of due process, pawnbrokers often must fight tooth and nail to try to exercise those constitutional protections.
A Louisiana pawnshop filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana against a local police chief under Unuted States Code Section 1983, alleging an illegal seizure of property and a deprivation of its rights to due process under the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United State Constitution by the actions and policies of the chief of police and others.
The complaint alleged that the chief of police individually, at all times relevant, had been the chief of police and that as an individual, he had disregarded the clear and explicit statutes of the State of Louisiana and the Constitutions of the State of Louisiana and the United States.
The pawnshop claimed that the chief was liable in his individual capacity in the following ways:
1. Disregarding the applicable clear and explicit statutes of the state of Louisiana: the chief of police was directly responsible for the development, permitting the development of, and/or acquiescence in policies, procedures, practices, and customs permitting and encouraging members of the police department to seize private property unreasonably and without due process of law and making that the official policy of the city.
2. Disregarding the applicable clear and explicit statutes of the state of Louisiana: The chief of police had developed, permitted the development of, and/or acquiesced in policies, procedures, practices, and customs that encouraged and condoned the improper seizure, retention, and disposal of property by city personnel by the following acts and omissions:
a. Hiring officers who had no qualifications or inadequate qualifications in the matter of seizure and retention of property;
b. Failing to properly train persons hired by the police department in proper techniques of seizing and retaining property so as to avoid the unconstitutional deprivation of property interests without due process of law, and
c. Failure to properly develop proper policies relating to the seizure, retention, and disposal of property that addressed the rights of those having an interest in the property.
3. By engaging in such acts and omissions, the chief of police had thereby made the unreasonable and improper seizure of property without due process of law, the official policy of the police department.
4. In engaging in and following the policy of the city to permit or condone the improper seizure and disposal of private property by employees of its police department, the chief of police violated the civil rights of the pawnshop under the color of state law, giving rise to damages, while acting both in his individual and in his official capacity as chief of police, disregarding the applicable clear and explicit statutes of the state of Louisiana and the constitutions of the State of Louisiana and the United States.
5. Further, not only should the chief of police have known that his actions were in violation of clear and explicit state statutes and the constitutions of the State of Louisiana and the United States, but he or representatives of his department were expressly informed by the pawnshop’s counsel in a meeting before the lawsuit was filed. Despite that knowledge, the chief of police continued to violate the due process rights of the pawnshop.
The chief of police, who had been named as a defendant individually and in his official capacity as chief of police, filed a “Motion to Dismiss” the pawnshop’s claims against him in his individual capacity under the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12 (b)(6). The pawnshop opposed the motion.
The District Court noted that Rule 12(b)(6) allows for dismissal of an action “for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.”
Although a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion does not need detailed factual allegations to avoid dismissal, the plaintiff’s factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above a speculative level.
A plaintiff’s obligation “requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.”
The Supreme Court explained in 2009 that a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.
“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.”
In evaluating a motion to dismiss, the court must construe the complaint liberally and accept all of the plaintiff’s factual allegations in the complaint as true.
Conclusory allegations or legal conclusions masquerading as factual conclusions, noted the court, will not suffice to prevent a motion to dismiss. In addition, the general rule that “a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions.”
Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, “will not survive a motion to dismiss.”
In this case, noted the District Court, the chief of police argued that he was entitled to qualified immunity because the pawnshop’s allegations were not made with adequate specificity.
More specifically, the chief contended that the allegations were not adequate to satisfy the heightened pleading burden applicable to a claim against a public official in his individual capacity.
The chief submitted that the pawnshop had simply added the word “individual” to general allegations and that such disguised official capacity allegations were not sufficient to escape a Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal.
The chief claimed that the allegations failed to sufficiently state “what in particular he did or failed to do, much less give the court enough information to ascertain whether his actions were objectively unreasonable and clearly established as such on the day that such actions occurred.”
More specifically, the chief sought dismissal because the pawnshop had not alleged he was personally involved in any constitutional deprivation and/or that any alleged wrongful action on his part was causally connected to the alleged constitutional deprivation.