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Ortolaza ex rel. E. v. Capitol Region Education Council

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

May 7, 2018

THAIS ORTOLAZA ex rel. E., a minor child, Plaintiff,
v.
CAPITOL REGION EDUCATION COUNCIL; ROBERT McCAIN; TIMOTHY SULLIVAN; CHRISTOPHER NOLAN; BRIAN GUSTIS; EZEKIAL M. DONNELLY; MARC DaCRUZ; CARLOS TORRES; JOSEPH BUYAK; IAN POWELL; BENJAMIN LEE; NICHOLAS TRIGILA; and THE CITY OF HARTFORD, Defendants.

          RULING ON DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS

          CHARLES S. HAIGHT, JR. SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Thais Ortolaza ("Plaintiff") has brought this action on behalf of her minor child, E., alleging civil rights violations, and seeks recovery pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiff also alleges that defendants committed several state law torts.

         At the pertinent times, E. was a 14-year-old student at the Two Rivers Magnet High School ("Two Rivers") in Hartford, Connecticut. This action arises out of an incident that occurred during the morning of November 19, 2015. E. was removed by Hartford police from a school bus carrying students to Two Rivers, arrested on a charge of sending a threatening email to the Two Rivers principal, detained for about an hour, and then released into his parents' custody. No. further action against E. has been taken.

         As a result of this incident, Plaintiff, E.'s mother, suing on his behalf, asserts claims against two groups of Defendants. The first group consists of: Capitol Region Education Council ("CREC"), a regional education service center created by Connecticut statutes and the administrator of the Two Rivers school (among other schools); Robert McCain, the Principal of Two Rivers; Timothy Sullivan, Assistant Superintendent of Operations for CREC; and Christopher Nolan, the Director of Security for CREC. I will refer to these Defendants as the "CREC Defendants."

         The second group of Defendants consists of officers, of varying ranks, in the Hartford Police Department ("HPD"), and the City of Hartford itself. I will refer to this group as the "Hartford Defendants."

         The case is now before the Court on a motion on behalf of the CREC Defendants. The Hartford Defendants, represented by separate counsel, are not involved in the CREC motion.

         Plaintiff's Complaint [Doc. 1] asserts federal constitutional claims against the CREC Defendants under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for false arrest and excessive force. The Complaint also alleges claims under the common law for negligence and infliction of emotional distress against the individual CREC Defendants (McCain, Nolan and Sullivan). The CREC Defendants now move to dismiss certain counts against them pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for failure to state a claim. [Doc. 24]. Plaintiff resists the motion. This Ruling resolves it.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         In the late evening of November 18, 2015, an anonymous email with the subject line, "Reckoning" was delivered to Robert McCain, the Principal of Two Rivers, located in Hartford Connecticut. Complaint, Doc. 1 ¶¶6, 30. Two Rivers is a part of CREC, a regional education service center created pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-66c. Id. ¶¶5-6. The email in question was sent "via a spoofed email address from Italy, " which had the effect of making the sender appear to be someone other than the actual source. Id. ¶30, n.1. The body of the email contained what appeared to be a threat of gun violence. Id. ¶31.[2] The email contained no identifying information, nor did it contain any specific information that related to Two Rivers, CREC, or the City of Hartford. Id. ¶32.

         McCain read the email at approximately 6:00 a.m. on the morning of November 19, 2015. Id. ¶33. Immediately after reading the email, McCain called Timothy Sullivan, the Assistant Superintendent of Operations for CREC. Id. ¶¶7, 34. Upon discussing the content of the email, McCain and Sullivan "concluded that it was a legitimate threat." Id. ¶34. At 6:21 a.m., McCain called 911 to report the email, stating that he believed it to be a credible threat. Id. He identified himself as the principal of one school with two campuses, one for 9th and 10th grade students, and the other for 11th and 12th grade students. Id. He did not provide any information regarding whom he suspected sent the email. Id.

         Meanwhile, Sullivan contacted Christopher Nolan, the Director of Security for CREC, and "involved [him] in the decision making process regarding this incident." Id. ¶¶8, 36. McCain, Sullivan, and Nolan were contacted by the Hartford Police Department ("HPD"), and were "in continuous communication with HPD from approximately 6:20 a.m. onward." Id. ¶37.

         Defendants McCain, Sullivan and Nolan determined that out of the approximately 400 students that attended Two Rivers, E. was the only student who could have sent the email in question. Id. ¶38. E. was not very computer savvy. Id. ¶26. In fact, during a parent-teacher conference held at Two Rivers the evening of November 18, 2015, it was discussed with Plaintiff that E. was not complying with the requirement to electronically file his homework. Id. ¶25. E. felt more comfortable handing in his work in hard copy, instead. Id. ¶26. Issues of violence were not discussed during the parent-teacher conference, and E. had no history of violence or threatening conduct. Id. ¶27.

         Nonetheless, Sullivan and McCain considered E. highly intelligent, and based solely on the usage of the word 'reckoning, ' they used their intuition and determined that E. had sent the email in question. Id. ¶¶40-1. No. further investigation was performed by McCain, Sullivan or Nolan. Id. ¶41. However, E. did not send the email. Id. ¶42. E. did not know what the word 'reckoning' meant, he did not know how to spoof an email address, and he liked his school, its staff, and the student body. Id. ¶¶43-5. He had no reputation of making threats, or having any sort of "obsession" with weapons or violence. Id. ¶46.

         On November 19, 2015, at approximately 6:57 a.m., E. boarded the school bus to go to school. Id. ¶49. Upon arrival at Two Rivers, HPD diverted E.'s bus to another school, about a block away. Id. ¶62. Officers from HPD surrounded the bus, and one officer asked the bus driver if E. was onboard. Id. ¶64. When E. identified himself, two officers boarded the bus. Id. ¶66. At least one of the officers drew his gun, pointing it at E., causing E. to fear for his life. Id. ¶¶66-7. E. was removed from the bus and his bag was searched by the officers. Id. ¶69. Neither weapons nor contraband was recovered. Id. ¶70.

         The officers then began interrogating E. outside the bus. Id. ¶75-6. He asked for his mother, but neither HPD nor CREC complied with his request. Id. E. was threatened by an officer, handcuffed, and "perp walked" in front of a bus full of children to a police car. Id. ¶¶81-6. E. asked if he was going to be read his Miranda rights, but the officers present did not respond. E. then recited said rights out loud "to confirm for himself that he was under arrest." Id. ¶¶86, 88. He was pushed into a police cruiser, brought to Two Rivers, and "paraded" through the school in handcuffs "in front of the student body on his way to the main office." Id. ¶¶101-03. This "perp walk" humiliated E. and violated CREC policy. Id. ¶¶104-05.

         The superintendent of CREC reached out to other CREC officials, instructing them to contact E.'s parents. Id. ¶98. No. CREC or HPD officials contacted E.'s mother; instead, she was contacted by a witness and immediately drove to the school. Id. ¶¶90-6. E. was interrogated by police officers in the guidance counselor's office while handcuffed tightly to the back of his chair. Id. ¶¶106-07. McCain, who was aware that E.'s mother was not in the school, came into the room, and began to question E., in an effort to "subvert E.'s exercise of his right to remain silent." Id. ¶¶112, 142. E. felt defensive and did not want to be questioned without his mother present. Id. He informed the police that he was exercising his right to remain silent. Id.

         The officers acted on behalf of the CREC Defendants in removing E. from the bus at gunpoint, in handcuffing him, in driving him to the school, and in handcuffing him to a chair for approximately 45 minutes. Id. ¶135. E. could have been released at the discretion of CREC administrators at any time. Id. ¶139. E. was not free to leave at any point when McCain was in the room. Id. ¶141.

         Plaintiff and her husband arrived at the school approximately a half hour later. Id. ¶113. They spoke with McCain, Sullivan and Nolan, and with one of the police officers, and asked why Plaintiff had not been contacted by HPD or CREC. Id. McCain responded that he was "not allowed to contact [her] per CREC policy." Id. ¶114. An officer and a CREC employee searched E.'s school-issued laptop for "clues" relating to the email, remarking that "there must be something on here." Id. ¶¶120-22. Nothing was found, and E. was not charged with a crime. Id. ¶¶118, 122. "Upon information and belief, " CREC and the City of Hartford performed no further investigation related to the email. Id. ¶123. E. was released to his parents' custody. Id. ¶116. He had wrist pain and red marks on his wrists from being tightly handcuffed. Id. ¶117. E. never returned to Two Rivers school. Id. ¶124. He has suffered "extreme mental trauma and anguish" as a result of the events that transpired on November 19, 2015. Id. ¶129.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         "On a motion to dismiss, the issue is 'whether the claimant is entitled to offer evidence to support the claims.'" Patane v. Clark, 508 F.3d 106, 111 (2d Cir. 2007) (quoting Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1984)). "To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) ("Iqbal") (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007) ("Twombly")). This pleading standard creates a "two-pronged approach, " Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679, based on "[t]wo working principles". Id. at 678.

         First, all factual allegations in the complaint must be accepted as true and all reasonable inferences must be drawn in the favor of the non-moving party. See id.; see also Gorman v. Consolidated Edison Corp., 488 F.3d 586, 591-92 (2d Cir. 2007) (citation omitted). The presumption of truth does not extend, however, to "legal conclusions" or "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action supported by mere conclusory statements[.]" Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Second, "a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief" will survive a motion to dismiss and "[d]etermining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief will . . . be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Harris v. Mills, 572 F.3d 66, 72 (2d Cir. 2009) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679) (quotation marks omitted). "Dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) is appropriate when 'it is clear from the face of the complaint, and matters of which the court may take judicial notice, that the plaintiff's claims are barred as a matter of law.'" Associated Fin. Corp. v. Kleckner, 480 Fed.Appx. 89, 90 (2d Cir. 2012) (quoting Conopco, Inc. v. Roll Int'l, 231 F.3d 82, 86 (2d Cir. 2000)).

         III. DISCUSSION

         The individual CREC Defendants McCain, Sullivan and Nolan move pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to dismiss the Counts brought against each of them in their individual capacity pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of E.'s Fourth Amendment right to be free from false arrest. Defendants argue that there are no allegations that indicate that they were personally involved in E.'s arrest.

         A section 1983 claim "has two essential elements: (1) the defendant acted under color of state law; and (2) as a result of the defendant's actions, the plaintiff suffered a denial of her federal statutory rights, or her constitutional rights or privileges." Annis v. Cty. of Westchester, 136 F.3d 239, 245 (2d Cir. 1998). To prevail on a claim pursuant to § 1983, the plaintiff must allege the personal involvement of the individual defendant. Wright v. Smith, 21 F.3d 496, 501 (2d Cir. 1994).

         The elements of a claim for false arrest pursuant to section 1983 are dictated by state law. See Jocks v. Tavernier, 316 F.3d 128, 134 (2d Cir. 2003). "Under Connecticut law, false imprisonment, or false arrest, is the unlawful restraint by one person of the physical liberty of another." Russo v. City of Bridgeport, 479 F.3d 196, 204 (2d Cir. 2007) (quotation marks and citation omitted). To establish a section 1983 false arrest claim based on the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures, a plaintiff must show that: "(1) the defendant intentionally arrested him or had him arrested; (2) the plaintiff was aware of the arrest; (3) there was no consent for the arrest; and (4) the arrest was not supported by probable cause." Marchand v. Simonson, 16 F.Supp.3d 97, 109 (D. Conn. 2014) (quotation marks and citation ...


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