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Echavarria v. Roach

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

September 7, 2017

J. MICHAEL ROACH et al., Defendants.



         Plaintiff Angel Echavarria brings this case pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 12, § 11I, and Massachusetts state common law, alleging that Defendants, current and former officers of the Lynn Police Department and the Massachusetts State Police, and the City of Lynn, violated his civil rights by engaging in unlawful conduct during an investigation that led to his wrongful conviction for murder. Currently pending before the Court are seven motions to dismiss filed by Defendants John Hollow and the City of Lynn; Joseph Rowe; Michael Cooney; John Garvin; Norman Zuk; Russell Gokas, Raymond Guillermo, Charles Luise, and John Scannell; and J. Michael Roach [ECF Nos. 44, 51, 54, 56, 58, 71, 78]. For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants the motions in part and denies them in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The following facts are drawn from the complaint, the allegations of which are taken as true for purposes of evaluating the motions to dismiss. See Ruivo v. Wells Fargo Bank, 766 F.3d 87, 90 (1st Cir. 2014).

         In January 1994, Daniel Rodriguez was shot and killed in an apartment in Lynn, Massachusetts. Daniel[1] was a drug dealer, and the apartment where he was killed was known as a place where people could buy drugs. On the night of the murder, Daniel and his brother, Isidoro Rodriguez, arrived at the apartment where they discovered two armed men holding several people hostage inside the apartment. The men tied Isidoro up with a phone cord and put him in a bedroom; Isidoro was not harmed during the incident. The men took Daniel to the bathroom, where he was shot in the head.

         Later that night, Defendants[2] presented Isidoro with two photo arrays, and both times, Isidoro identified Mariano Bonifacio as one of the killers. Plaintiff alleges that Defendants did not record this identification in their reports and instead sought to discredit the identification. Plaintiff claims that Defendants were aware that Bonifacio could have been one of the perpetrators because, a few weeks before Daniel's murder, he was arrested for an attempted murder with a similar modus operandi that occurred within half a mile of the apartment where Daniel was murdered. Plaintiff alleges that Defendants withheld information about Bonifacio from Plaintiff which he could have used in his defense.

         More than a week after Daniel's murder, Plaintiff was at a barbershop in Lynn with his friend Juan Rodriguez when Isidoro approached Plaintiff and asked his name. Plaintiff did not know Isidoro, but the two exchanged pleasantries, and Isidoro then left the barbershop. Later that day, Plaintiff and Rodriguez were eating dinner at a restaurant in Lynn when they were approached by Defendants, who asked Plaintiff and Rodriguez to step outside. Once outside, Defendants asked Plaintiff and Rodriguez if they had been involved in Daniel's murder. They both denied any involvement in or knowledge of the crime. Defendants took down Plaintiff and Rodriguez's personal information and allowed them to leave. The next morning, Defendants arrested Plaintiff for Daniel's murder. They informed Plaintiff that Isidoro had identified him as one of Daniel's killers. Rodriguez was also accused of the crime.

         Plaintiff alleges that Defendants manufactured a false identification from Isidoro, and that they wrote false police reports intentionally misrepresenting the identification. Plaintiff also claims that the photo array and live lineup where Isidoro identified Plaintiff were unduly suggestive. Plaintiff asserts that Isidoro had previously provided a description of the perpetrator that did not match Plaintiff, and furthermore, that Isidoro had cognitive limitations, a language barrier, and was intoxicated by drugs. Plaintiff also claims that Defendants ignored evidence that Plaintiff was not involved in the crime, including that there was no evidence found at the crime scene or at Plaintiff's house that would connect Plaintiff to the murder and that Plaintiff had an alibi and multiple witnesses could verify that he was at home with family and friends in Lynn.

         A year after the murder, Defendants visited Gary Sevinor in prison. Sevinor was allegedly present in the apartment at the time of Daniel's murder, but the police reports drafted near the time of the crime did not identify him as a witness. Defendants presented Sevinor with a photo array and he identified Plaintiff as one of Daniel's killers. Plaintiff alleges that Defendants used unduly suggestive techniques to convince Sevinor to falsely implicate Plaintiff. Sevinor's identification was introduced as evidence in Plaintiff's trial.

         In 1996, Plaintiff was convicted of first-degree murder and other crimes and sentenced to life in prison; Rodriguez was acquitted. Plaintiff spent more than 21 years in prison. In April 2015, a Massachusetts Superior Court ruled that Plaintiff was entitled to a new trial due to ineffective assistance of counsel.[3] In June 2015, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts entered a nolle prosequi, dropping all charges against Plaintiff.

         Plaintiff brings claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of his right to due process (Count I); malicious prosecution (Count II); conspiracy to deprive him of his constitutional rights (Count III); and failure to intervene (Count IV), and under Massachusetts state common law for malicious prosecution (Count V); negligence (Count VI); intentional infliction of emotional distress (Count VII); negligent infliction of emotional distress (Count VIII); civil conspiracy (Count X); respondeat superior (Count XI); and indemnification (Count XII). In addition, he brings a claim for a violation of Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 12, § 11I (Count IX).


         A. Standard of Review

         To evaluate a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the Court must “accept as true all well-pleaded facts alleged in the complaint and draw all reasonable inferences therefrom in the pleader's favor.” A.G. ex rel. Maddox v. v. Elsevier, Inc., 732 F.3d 77, 80 (1st Cir. 2013) (quoting Santiago v. Puerto Rico, 655 F.3d 61, 72 (1st Cir. 2011)). The complaint must set forth “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” and should “contain ‘enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Id. (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2) and Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “To cross the plausibility threshold a claim does not need to be probable, but it must give rise to more than a mere possibility of liability.” Grajales v. P.R. Ports Auth., 682 F.3d 40, 44-45 (1st Cir. 2012) (citing Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)). “A determination of plausibility is ‘a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.'” Id. at 44 (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679). “[T]he complaint should be read as a whole, not parsed piece by piece to determine whether each allegation, in isolation, is plausible.” Hernandez-Cuevas v. Taylor, 723 F.3d 91, 103 (1st Cir. 2013) (quoting Ocasio-Hernandez v. Fortuno-Burset, 640 F.3d 1, 14 (1st Cir. 2011)).

         “The plausibility standard invites a two-step pavane.” Maddox, 732 F.3d at 80. First, the Court “must separate the complaint's factual allegations (which must be accepted as true) from its conclusory legal allegations (which need not be credited).” Id. (quoting Morales-Cruz v. Univ. of Puerto Rico, 676 F.3d 220, 224 (1st Cir. 2012)). Secondly, the Court “must determine whether the remaining factual content allows a ‘reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.'” Id. (quoting Morales-Cruz, 676 F.3d at 224).

         B. Sufficiency of the Allegations

         1. Individual Defendants

         The individual defendants argue that the complaint is insufficient because it fails to state which particular defendant is alleged to have committed which specific act. Plaintiff concedes that he has not identified the role of each defendant, but argues that he has sufficiently alleged the conspiracy as a whole. Further, he contends that Defendants had an incentive to conceal their misdeeds, that they are in sole possession of relevant factual information, and that the complaint adequately puts Defendants on notice as to what misconduct is alleged.

         In a § 1983 case, “each Government official, his or her title notwithstanding, is only liable for his or her own misconduct.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 677; see also Brown v. Montoya, 662 F.3d 1152, 1163 (10th Cir. 2011) (“Personal liability ‘under § 1983 must be based on personal involvement in the alleged constitutional violation.'” (citation omitted)). “Each defendant must have personally participated in, encouraged, condoned, or acquiesced in rights-violating conduct.” Remus-Milan v. Irizarry-Pagan, 81 F.Supp.3d 174, 178 (D.P.R. 2015). While supervisory liability is available, it “lies only where an ‘affirmative link between the behavior of a subordinate and the action or inaction of his supervisor' exists such that ‘the supervisor's conduct led inexorably to the constitutional violation.'” Maldonado v. Fontanes, 568 F.3d 263, 275 (1st Cir. 2009) (quoting Pineda v. Toomey, 533 F.3d 50, 54 (1st Cir. 2008)).

         In this case, Plaintiff is not attempting to claim that all Defendants are liable for the actions of a few; rather, Plaintiff asserts he is unable to know, without further discovery, which Defendant committed or participated in which particular act. In similar circumstances, other courts have allowed comparable allegations to proceed to discovery. See Cuadrado v. Wall, No. CA 08-305 ML, 2010 WL 1499589, at *2 (D.R.I. Mar. 9, 2010) (holding that although “it is not clear from the Complaint which two officers allegedly gouged plaintiff's eyes . . . or which officers were included in the ‘they' in plaintiff's allegation” that the officers kicked him, “such level of specificity is not required to show that the pleader is entitled to relief or to provide Defendants fair notice of the claims against them”), report and recommendation adopted, No. CA 08-305 ML, 2010 WL 1372700 (D.R.I. Apr. 5, 2010); Mitchell v. Rappahannock Reg'l Jail Auth., 703 F.Supp.2d 549, 559 (E.D. Va. 2010) (denying motion to dismiss even though complaint referred to “all defendants” and did not specify which defendants were responsible for specific incidents); Carter v. Newland, 441 F.Supp.2d 208, 213-14 (D. Mass. 2006) (allowing complaint that described “collective actions or omissions” of defendants to go forward, “although thin on detail, ” because it provided sufficient notice to defendants).

         Similarly, courts often permit claims against John Doe defendants to proceed to discovery. See Billman v. Indiana Dep't of Corr., 56 F.3d 785, 789 (7th Cir. 1995) (holding that “[i]f a prisoner makes allegations that if true indicate a significant likelihood that someone employed by the prison system has inflicted cruel and unusual punishment on him, and if the circumstances are such as to make it infeasible for the prisoner to identify that someone before filing his complaint, his suit should not be dismissed as frivolous, ” and explaining that the principle applies “to any case in which, usually because the plaintiff has been injured as the consequence of the actions of an unknown member of a collective body, identification of the responsible party may be impossible without pretrial discovery”). In addition, where a plaintiff's inability to identify which defendants committed which specific acts is due in part to defendants' alleged misconduct, courts tend to read the complaint more generously. See Saldivar v. Racine, 818 F.3d 14, 23 (1st Cir. 2016) (“[I]n cases in which a material part of the information needed is likely to be within the defendant's control, some latitude may be appropriate in applying the plausibility standard.” (citation omitted)); Burley v. Gagacki, 729 F.3d 610, 622 (6th Cir. 2013) (upholding finding of liability even though plaintiffs were unable to identify which officers entered their home, because defendants' “intent to conceal [their identities] contributed to plaintiffs' impaired ability to identify them”).

         Here, Plaintiff is faced with the daunting prospect of obtaining evidence concerning events that occurred more than twenty years ago. Furthermore, if Plaintiff is correct that Defendants fabricated and concealed evidence, such actions by Defendants would add to Plaintiff's difficulty in acquiring the evidence necessary to prove his claims. In addition, it appears Plaintiff is correct that much of the information he seeks is in the sole possession of Defendants. Plaintiff has identified a discrete group of Defendants that he reasonably believes participated in the conduct that forms the basis of his claims. While he could have listed each Defendant by name in each claim, rather than referring to Defendants collectively, this is not enough to render his claims implausible. Further, as Plaintiff points out, notice is not a significant issue where Defendants are aware of their job responsibilities during the time in question and their individual actions as they relate to the investigation and prosecution of Plaintiff. In sum, given the facts of this case, the time that has elapsed, and the alleged misconduct by Defendants, the Court concludes that the complaint contains sufficient factual detail to indicate a plausible claim for relief and to put Defendants on notice of the claims being made against them.[4]

         2. City of Lynn

         Defendant City of Lynn claims that Plaintiff has not sufficiently alleged that there is a direct causal link between the alleged policies and customs of the City of Lynn and the alleged deprivation of Plaintiff's constitutional rights. Although “a municipality cannot be held liable under § 1983 on a respondeat superior theory, ” § 1983 does impose “liability on a government that, under color of some official policy, ‘causes' an employee to violate another's constitutional rights.” Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658, 691-92 (1978). “[A] plaintiff must show that the violation occurred as a result of the municipality's ‘policy or custom.'” Freeman v. Town of Hudson, 714 F.3d 29, 38 (1st Cir. 2013) (quoting Monell, 436 U.S. at 694).

         The complaint in this case alleges that the deprivations of Plaintiff's constitutional rights were caused by the official policies, practices, and customs of the City of Lynn and the Lynn Police Department, as well as by the actions of the final policymaking officials for the city and its police department [ECF No. 1 ¶ 75] (“Compl.”), and further, that the city promulgated rules, regulations, policies, and procedures related to police investigations that were implemented by its employees and agents, including the individual defendants. Id. ¶¶ 76-77. In addition, Plaintiff claims that the city had notice of widespread practices by its officers and agents under which individuals suspected of criminal activity were deprived of exculpatory evidence and were falsely implicated in crimes, including through the fabrication of evidence; that these practices were so pervasive that they constituted the de facto policy of the city; and that municipal policymakers “exhibited deliberate indifference to the problem, thereby effectively ratifying it.” Id. ¶¶ 78-80. Lastly, the complaint alleges that the policies, practices, and customs were the “moving force” behind the violations of Plaintiff's constitutional rights. Id. ¶¶ 81-83.

         The allegations above are sufficient to survive the motion to dismiss. As Plaintiff points out, similar allegations were found to be sufficient in Haley v. City of Boston, 657 F.3d 39, 51- 53 (1st Cir. 2011). In that case, the plaintiff claimed the Boston police had a standing policy “under which Boston police officers regularly kept helpful evidence from criminal defendants, ” an assertion that the defendant vigorously disputed. Id. at 52. The court allowed the claim to proceed to discovery, because the motion to dismiss stage “is neither the time nor the place to resolve the factual disputes between the parties, ” and whether the plaintiff could “prove what he has alleged is not the issue.” Id.

         The city argues that because the Massachusetts superior court granted Plaintiff's motion for a new trial due to ineffective assistance of counsel, and not for a failure to produce exculpatory evidence or for a due process violation, see Commonwealth v. Echavarria, No. 1994-2407, 2015 WL 1947741, at *5 (Mass. Super. Apr. 30, 2015), it is not reasonable to infer a causal link between any policy or practice of the City of Lynn and the alleged deprivations of Plaintiff's constitutional rights. Although the court did not grant Plaintiff a new trial based on due process violations or wrongful suppression of evidence grounds, this does not prove that these errors did not occur. Furthermore, the opinion makes it clear that the court had serious doubts about Plaintiff's conviction, describing the evidence against him as “weak, ” stating that Isidoro's testimony was “problematic in more ways than one, ” and noting that there were “significant weaknesses” in Sevinor's identification. Id. at *12.

         The city also argues that in Massachusetts, district attorneys control the investigation of homicides and bear the burden of producing exculpatory evidence, and it is thus not possible to infer a causal link between the city's policies and practices and any constitutional deprivations suffered by Plaintiff. At the motion to dismiss stage, however, the Court is required to take Plaintiff's factual allegations as true, and here, Plaintiff has alleged that Lynn police officers participated in the investigation and that policy makers acting on behalf of the city implemented rules and procedures concerning criminal investigations that resulted in the deprivation of Plaintiff's constitutional rights. Furthermore, even if it is true that the prosecution ordinarily ...

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