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Actions Of Off-Duty Police Officer At Fraternity Party Dismissed As Against Local Government

Morales, et al. v. Richardson, et al.
Civ. No. JFM-11-3215 (D. Md.), (January 30, 2012)

by Kevin M. Cox, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (

Plaintiffs, Steven Morales (“Steven”) and Luciano Morales (“Luciano”), brought this action against Defendants, Officer Dominique Richardson (“Richardson”) and Prince George’s County, Maryland (the “County”), in the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County, Maryland. The County removed the action to Federal court on the grounds that the claims asserted by the Moraleses presented a federal question. Pending before the Court was the County’s Motion to Dismiss the claims against it.

This case arose out of a Halloween party held by several chapters of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity at Bowie State University held in Beltsville, Maryland. The Fraternity hired Richardson, an officer with the Prince George’s County Police Department, to provide security at the party. According to Steven, he arrived at the party, and while standing in line to enter the party Richardson, unprovoked, attacked him causing Steven to suffer a fractured tooth and lacerations to his mouth. The Moraleses claimed that Richardson’s actions were committed within the scope of his employment as a Police Officer for the County.

Counts I and II of the Complaint asserted claims of excessive force and malicious prosecution under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Section 1983 imposes liability on anyone who, acting under color of state law, deprives a person of any “rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” The County argued that these claims should have been dismissed for two (2) reasons: (1) Luciano had no standing to bring a § 1983 claim; and (2) regardless of whether Luciano had standing, Plaintiffs did not allege a cognizable § 1983 claim.

Parents “generally have standing to assert the claims of their minor children.” Plaintiffs allege that Steven was a minor when the altercation with Richardson took place; although, the County disputes this point. Even in the light most favorable to Luciano, however, the Court held that he failed to state a § 1983 claim because he was not asserting a § 1983 claim on Steven’s behalf since Steven asserted a § 1983 claim individually in the suit. Instead, Luciano appeared to seek redress for expenses he incurred for Steven’s medical and dental care. Section 1983 does not provide such a remedy. Moreover, even if such a claim were available, Luciano’s § 1983 claim would also have failed for the same reasons (discussed below) that Steven’s § 1983 claims failed. Therefore, any claims by Luciano for § 1983 violations were dismissed.

To allege a legally cognizable § 1983 claim against a County, a plaintiff must allege that the action at issue was one that “execute[s] a policy statement, ordinance, regulation, or decision officially adopted and promulgated by that body’s officers” or that represents a form of governmental “custom.” Counties and other local governments cannot be held liable under § 1983 for injuries inflicted by their employees or agents based on the theory of respondent superior. There was no assertion that the § 1983 claims were based on any policy or custom of the County; therefore, Steven’s § 1983 claim was dismissed.

Steven also did not allege a cognizable § 1983 claim against Richardson because he failed to allege any facts showing that Richardson’s actions at the Fraternity party were taken under color of state law. The “under color of state law” requirement is synonymous with state action. Merely private conduct, no matter how discriminatory or wrongful, is not state action. Acts of police officers “in the ambit of their personal, private pursuits fall outside of 42 U.S.C. § 1983.” There was no indication in the Complaint that either action was anything but private conduct, and not attributable to the State. In light of the dismissal of the two (2) Federal claims asserted by the Moraleses, the only remaining claims were State law claims.

A district court generally has discretion to keep or remand a case when it has dismissed all claims over which it has original jurisdiction. Among the factors that inform this decision are convenience and fairness to the parties, the existence of any underlying issues of federal policy, comity, and considerations of judicial economy. Based on these factors, the court declined jurisdiction. The County’s Motion to Dismiss the claims was granted with respect to the § 1983 claim, and the remaining state law-based claims were remanded for decision by the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County.