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McDowell v. Gonzalez

United States District Court, S.D. Florida

December 2, 2019




         THIS CAUSE is before the Court upon Defendants Jose Gonzalez and David Colon's (collectively, “Defendants”) Motion to Dismiss the Amended Complaint, ECF No. [47] (“Motion”). Plaintiff Christopher Maurice McDowell (“Plaintiff”) filed his response in opposition to the Motion, ECF No. [54] (“Response”), to which Defendants filed a Reply, ECF No. [56] (“Reply”). The Court has carefully reviewed the Motion, all opposing and supporting submissions, the record in this case, the applicable law, and is otherwise fully advised. For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' Motion is granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Pro se Plaintiff initiated this action on July 26, 2019, ECF No. [1] (“Complaint”), which he amended on October 9, 2019, ECF No. [39] (“Amended Complaint”), pursuant to this Court's Order, ECF No. [34].[1] The Amended Complaint alleges facts surrounding a false arrest, assault, and unlawful detention, against Defendants Jose Gonzalez, an officer of the Miami-Dade Police Department (“MDPD”), and David Colon, an MDPD sergeant. See ECF No. [39]. Plaintiff's Amended Complaint describes incidents that transpired on March 19, 2019, at a Dunkin' Donuts. Id. at 3-4. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that he entered the Dunkin' Donuts to purchase coffee and that, after repeatedly attempting to purchase coffee but being denied, he engaged in a verbal altercation with the cashier. The altercation ultimately resulted in Plaintiff leaving the store. Id. Plaintiff was later apprehended by MDPD officers after they received a complaint that a man had entered Dunkin' Donuts, stolen $7.00 out of the tip jar, and fled on foot. Id. at 6. Plaintiff was arrested, charged with petit theft, and held in jail overnight until he was brought to state court and released on his own recognizance. Id. at 7-11. The Amended Complaint indicates that the petit theft case against Plaintiff was ultimately dismissed. Id. at 10-11, 12.

         Plaintiff's Amended Complaint describes numerous conversations between Plaintiff and Officer Gonzalez, during which Plaintiff repeatedly stated that he had not stolen any money from the tip jar. Moreover, he alleges that there were surveillance cameras at Dunkin' Donuts and Plaintiff alleges that Officer Gonzalez indicated he had watched at the time Plaintiff was arrested. Plaintiff asserts that the video would clearly establish Plaintiff's innocence. Id. at 6-7. Plaintiff alleges that he was illegally arrested because, if Officer Gonzalez had watched the Dunkin' Donuts surveillance camera footage as he claimed, he would have known that Plaintiff had not actually stolen any money from the tip jar. Id. Additionally, Plaintiff alleges that he was illegally arrested and detained for a crime he did not commit and that, while being arrested, he was “ruffed [sic] up, assaulted, life endangerment, . . . mentally distressed, detained for hours in jail.” Id. at 12-13.

         In the instant Motion, Defendants move for dismissal with prejudice pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), arguing that Plaintiff's Amended Complaint is a shotgun pleading and that Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity based on their probable cause to arrest Plaintiff. ECF No. [47] at 1-2. Defendants include, as as an exhibit to their Motion, a copy of Officer Gonzalez's bodycam video footage from the night of the arrest, along with a certified partial translation of certain conversations in Spanish between Officer Gonzalez and a Dunkin' Donuts employee during the investigation. ECF No. [48].


         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8 requires that a pleading contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). Although a complaint “does not need detailed factual allegations, ” it must provide “more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007); see Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (explaining that Rule 8(a)(2)'s pleading standard “demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation”). In the same vein, a complaint may not rest on “‘naked assertion[s]' devoid of ‘further factual enhancement.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (alteration in original) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557). “Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. These elements are required to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, which requests dismissal for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.”

         When reviewing a motion under Rule 12(b)(6), a court generally must accept the plaintiff's allegations as true and evaluate all plausible inferences derived from those facts in plaintiff's favor. Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Fla. v. S. Everglades Restoration All., 304 F.3d 1076, 1084 (11th Cir. 2002). Nonetheless, courts “are not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555; see Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678; Thaeter v. Palm Beach Cty. Sheriff's Office, 449 F.3d 1342, 1352 (11th Cir. 2006). Moreover, “courts may infer from the factual allegations in the complaint ‘obvious alternative explanations,' which suggest lawful conduct rather than the unlawful conduct the plaintiff would ask the court to infer.” Am. Dental Ass'n v. Cigna Corp., 605 F.3d 1283, 1290 (11th Cir. 2010) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 682). On a 12(b) motion, courts are generally limited to the facts contained in the complaint and attached exhibits. Wilchombe v. TeeVee Toons, Inc., 555 F.3d 949, 959 (11th Cir. 2009); see also Maxcess, Inc. v. Lucent Techs., Inc., 433 F.3d 1337, 1340 n.3 (11th Cir. 2005) (“[A] document outside the four corners of the complaint may still be considered if it is central to the plaintiff's claims and is undisputed in terms of authenticity.” (citing Horsley v. Feldt, 304 F.3d 1125, 1135 (11th Cir. 2002))).

         “Pro se pleadings are held to a less stringent standard than pleadings drafted by attorneys and will, therefore, be liberally construed.” Tannenbaum v. United States, 148 F.3d 1262, 1263 (11th Cir. 1998). This leniency, however, does not confer on pro se litigants “a right to receive special advantages not bestowed on other litigants. [The pro se litigant] must, for example, abide by local rules governing the proper form of pleadings.” Procup v. Strickland, 760 F.2d 1107, 1115 (11th Cir. 1985). Further, courts cannot serve as de facto counsel for a party and cannot rewrite a deficient pleading for the sake of sustaining an action. Jarzynka v. St. Thomas Univ. of Law, 310 F.Supp.2d 1256, 1264 (S.D. Fla. 2004). The Court cannot simply “fill in the blanks” to infer a claim, Brinson v. Colon, 2012 WL 1028878, at *1 (S.D. Ga. Mar. 26, 2012), as “it is not the Court's duty to search through a plaintiff's filings to find or construct a pleading that satisfies Rule 8, ” Sanders v. United States, 2009 WL 1241636, at *3 (N.D.Ga. Jan. 22, 2009); see Bivens v. Roberts, 2009 WL 411527, at *3 (S.D. Ga. Feb. 18, 2009) (“[J]udges must not raise issues and arguments on plaintiffs' behalf, but may only construe pleadings liberally given the linguistic imprecision that untrained legal minds sometimes employ.” (citing Miller v. Donald, 541 F.3d 1091, 1100 (11th Cir. 2008))). In determining whether a pro se litigant has stated a claim, “the court ought not penalize the litigant for linguistic imprecision in the more plausible allegations, ” while keeping in mind that “wildly implausible allegations in the complaint should not be taken to be true.” Miller, 541 F.3d at 1100.


         A. Shotgun Pleading

         In their Motion, Defendants first argue that the Court should dismiss Plaintiff's Amended Complaint with prejudice because it is an improper shotgun pleading. Specifically, Defendants assert that the failure to correct the deficiencies in Plaintiff's original Complaint - regarding the failure to clearly set forth each individual legal claim asserted - in his Amended Complaint warrants dismissal. Plaintiff's Response does not specifically address or rebut Defendants' arguments that the Amended Complaint constitutes a shotgun pleading.

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires that a pleading contain a “short and plain statement of the claim” that shows that the pleader is entitled to relief. Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). “A party must state its claims or defenses in numbered paragraphs, each limited as far as practicable to a single set of circumstances.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 10(b). Complaints that fail to comply with these rules are sometimes referred to as “shotgun pleadings.” Weiland v. Palm Beach Cty. Sheriff's Office, 792 F.3d 1313, 1320 (11th Cir. 2015). The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has identified four categories of shotgun pleadings:

Though the groupings cannot be too finely drawn, we have identified four rough types or categories of shotgun pleadings. The most common type - by a long shot - is a complaint containing multiple counts where each count adopts the allegations of all preceding counts, causing each successive count to carry all that came before and the last count to be a combination of the entire complaint. The next most common type, at least as far as our published opinions on the subject reflect, is a complaint that does not commit the mortal sin of re-alleging all preceding counts but is guilty of the venial sin of being replete with conclusory, vague, and immaterial facts not obviously connected to any particular cause of action. The third type of shotgun pleading is one that commits the sin of not separating into a different count each cause of action or claim for relief. Fourth, and finally, there is the relatively rare sin of asserting multiple claims against multiple defendants without specifying which of the defendants are responsible for which acts or omissions, or which of the defendants the claim is brought against. The unifying characteristic of all types of shotgun pleadings is that they fail to one degree or another, and in one way or another, to give the defendants adequate notice of the claims against them and the grounds upon which each claim rests.

Weiland, 792 F.3d at 1321-23; see also Jackson v. Bank of Am., N.A., 898 F.3d 1348 (11th Cir. 2018). Shotgun pleadings fail to make the connection between “the substantive count and the factual predicates . . . [such that] courts cannot perform their gatekeeping function with regard to the averments of [the claim].” Wagner v. First Horizon Pharm. Corp., 464 F.3d 1273, 1279-80 (11th Cir. 2006); Strategic Income Fund, LLC v. Spear, Leeds & Kellogg Corp., 205 F.3d 1293, 1295 (11th Cir. 2002) (explaining that a shotgun pleading is one that contains “several counts, each one incorporating by reference the allegations of its predecessors, leading to a situation where most of the counts (i.e., all but the first) contain irrelevant factual allegations and legal conclusions”); Pelletier v. Zweifel, 921 F.2d 1465, 1517-18 (11th Cir. 1991) (describing such pleadings as “replete with factual allegations that could not possibly be material to any of the causes of action they assert”); Osahar v. U.S. Postal Serv., 297 Fed.Appx. 863, 864 (11th Cir. 2008) (term also refers to pleadings that are “replete with factual allegations and rambling legal conclusions”); Davis v. Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consol., 516 F.3d 955, 979-80 (11th Cir. 2008) (condemning shotgun pleading that bunched together “untold causes of action” in one count).

         “Generally, when ‘a more carefully drafted complaint' might state a claim, the plaintiff must be given a chance to amend before dismissal.” Hollis v. W. Acad. Charter, Inc., 782 Fed.Appx. 951, 955 (11th Cir. 2019) (quoting Bryant v. Dupree, 252 F.3d 1161, 1163 (11th Cir. 2001)). “However, the district court need not provide such an opportunity where the plaintiff has repeatedly failed to cure deficiencies in his complaint through previous amendments or where amendment would be futile.” Id. (quoting Bryant, 252 F.3d at 1163). As such, dismissal of a shotgun pleading with prejudice for a repeated pleading defect is warranted where the plaintiff was previously given an opportunity to amend the complaint to correct the defect, but failed to do so. See Stevens v. Premier Cruises, Inc., 215 F.3d 1237, 1239 (11th Cir. 2000); Isbrandtsen Marine Servs., Inc. v. M/V INAGUA Tania, 93 F.3d 728, 734 (11th Cir. 1996).

         At the outset, the Court notes that Plaintiff's Amended Complaint once again fails to set forth his claims in accordance with federal pleading standards. In the Amended Complaint, pro se Plaintiff has fully alleged the facts of his case, but he has again failed to set forth any clearly delineated legal claims or any legal basis upon which his suit is based. See ECF No. [39]. Plaintiff's Amended Complaint falls into multiple shotgun pleading categories. First, the Amended Complaint is plagued with “conclusory, vague, and immaterial facts not obviously connected to any particular cause of action.” Weiland, 792 F.3d at 1322. Second, Plaintiff's Amended Complaint does not separate each cause of action or claim for relief into different counts or specify which claim applies to which Defendant. Id. at 1323. Nor does the Amended Complaint specify which of the Defendants are responsible for which acts or omissions. Id. Rather, Plaintiff's Amended Complaint is “replete with factual allegations that could not possibly be material to any of the causes of action [he] assert[s], ” Pelletier, 921 F.2d at 1517-18 (11th Cir. 1991), and it improperly bunches together all of Plaintiff's “untold causes of action” into one count, Davis, 516 F.3d at 979-80. Thus, the Court finds that Plaintiff's Amended Complaint constitutes a shotgun pleading warranting dismissal on its own. See Stevens, 215 F.3d at 1239; Toth v. Antonacci, No. 19-10564, 2019 WL 4926961, at *2 (11th Cir. Oct. 7, 2019) (concluding that the district court did not abuse its discretion in dismissing a pro se plaintiff's amended complaint as an improper shotgun pleading after the plaintiff failed to correct the pleading deficiencies from the original complaint).

         The Court is nonetheless mindful of the fact that Plaintiff is pro se and is therefore entitled to some leniency. Thus, the Court will consider whether the Amended Complaint, construed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, states a plausible claim against each Defendant upon which relief can be granted for what the Court believes to be a false arrest claim, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983..

         B. ...

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