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Harcz v. Boucher

United States District Court, W.D. Michigan, Southern Division

January 2, 2018

PAUL JOSEPH HARCZ, JR., et al., Plaintiffs,
BRODY BOUCHER, et al., Defendants.



         Plaintiffs, a group of seven individuals, most of whom are disabled, wanted to attend an event celebrating the anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) at the Michigan State Capitol Building in Lansing. Plaintiffs, however, were not pleased with certain aspects of the celebration-particularly that one event sponsor paid disabled employees less than the minimum wage and that the Michigan State Capitol was not ADA-compliant. Therefore, Plaintiffs sought “to protest, and to hand out leaflets communicating their opinions.” (ECF No. 1 at PageID.20.) Event organizers, aware of Plaintiffs' plans and concerned that Plaintiffs would disrupt the event, notified the Michigan State Police (MSP), who agreed that no suspected protestor would be admitted. The MSP personnel delivered on their assurances and physically barred Plaintiffs from entering the event. In addition, they arrested Plaintiff Paul Harcz.

         Plaintiffs have sued the event organizers, Michigan Association of Centers for Independent Living (MACIL) and Handicapper Advocacy Alliance, Inc. (HAAI), various MSP officers, and the Facilities Director for the Michigan State Capitol (State Defendants), pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Plaintiffs allege violations of their free speech and assembly rights under the First Amendment and their right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. In addition, Plaintiff Harcz alleges claims of false arrest and imprisonment and malicious prosecution under both the Fourth Amendment and state law.

         All Defendants have moved for dismissal and/or summary judgment. MACIL has filed a motion to dismiss; the State Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss, or in the alternative, for summary judgment; and HAAI has filed a motion for summary judgment. The motions are fully briefed, and the Court heard oral argument on November 2, 2017.

         The Court will grant all Defendants' motions and dismiss Plaintiffs' complaint.

         I. Background

         In the autumn of 2014, interested parties began to plan an event to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the ADA, to be held the following autumn on the grounds of the Michigan State Capitol, a public forum. The event was advertised as “free and open to the public.” (ECF No. 1 at PageID.7.) The Michigan State Capitol Committee issued a permit to Ellen Weaver to conduct the event on September 17, 2015, on the East Lawn, North and South side, and the East steps and walks of the Capitol Grounds. (Id.; ECF No. 37-6.) Plaintiff Harcz was involved in planning the event. He and other Plaintiffs had expressed concern that a private sponsor of the event paid disabled employees less than minimum wage and that the Capitol itself was not ADA-compliant. (ECF No. 1 at 8.) Plaintiffs expressed these concerns to Sara Grivetti, who represented MACIL and was the chief organizer of the event. Grivetti subsequently alerted others that there could be protests at the event. (Id.)

         Plaintiffs allege that Ellen Weaver represented HAAI in planning the event and expressed concern to an MSP officer about protestors who might arrive on a Road to Freedom bus. Plaintiffs allege that Grivetti and Weaver each made calls to the State Defendants expressing concern about protestors and that on the day of the event, “Grivetti and Weaver told Sgt. Held that they did not want protestors to disrupt the event.” (Id. at PageID.10.) Sgt. Held assured them that the MSP would exclude any suspected protestor from the event. (Id.) Plaintiffs, most of whom are disabled, allege that they simply wanted to attend the event to “pass out leaflets, have conversations with others at the event, and participate in a peaceful, open dialogue about issues facing people with disabilities.” (Id. at PageID.2.)

         On the day of the event, some Plaintiffs gathered at a nearby corner, carrying a banner for the National Federation of the Blind, signs with messages, and leaflets they intended to distribute. Sgt. Held approached and told the group that they could not go beyond the Austin Blair statue, which is located on the Capitol Grounds and within the permitted event area, because the event was private and the organizers did not want a disturbance. (Id. at PageID.11.) The situation came to a head as the group attempted to approach the event and were barred by the MSP officers. Plaintiffs told the officers that they were invited to, and wanted to, attend the event, but that the officers prevented Plaintiffs from entering both by physically blocking passage and, subsequently, placing metal barricades in front of Plaintiffs. (Id. at PageID.13.)

         Plaintiff Harcz eventually attempted to get around the barricades. Harcz, who is legally blind, claimed he used his cane and hands to feel his way around and past the barricade. The State Defendants claim that Harcz “became physical, charged the barrier, and resisted and obstructed a police officer.” (Id. at PageID.14-15; ECF No. 43 at PageID.583.) Harcz claims that “[a]t no point” did he use his cane or body as a weapon or “assault, batter, wound, resist, obstruct, oppose, or endanger the officers.” (ECF No. 1 at PageID.15.) Harcz was subsequently arrested, held in the State Capitol building for the duration of the event, and ultimately charged with a felony which alleged that Harcz “did assault, batter, wound, resist, obstruct, oppose, or endanger” the officers and “knew or had reason to know [they] were performing [their] duties.” (Id. at PageID.16.) Harcz alleges that four of the officers filed false police reports and that videos show the reports were inaccurate. (Id. at PageID.16-17.)

         Defendant Sgt. Henriquez testified at a preliminary examination in Harcz's state criminal case, and his testimony was consistent with the State Defendants' claims in their motion. The state judge found probable cause that Harcz obstructed the officers by failing to comply, but Harcz argues that there was a lack of evidence and that the judge's determination was “[in error] and based on false and misleading evidence.” (Id. at PageID.19.) Harcz further alleges that there was no crime because the police officers' commands, themselves, were unlawful, and it is not a crime to disobey unlawful orders. Ultimately, the charges against Harcz were dropped before trial. (Id. at PageID.19.)

         II. Motion Standard

         Defendants' motions invoke different standards. MACIL has filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), HAAI has filed a motion for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56, and the State Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss, or in the alternative, for summary judgment. Because the Court considers only the pleadings and materials permitted on a motion to dismiss, the Court confines its analysis of all motions to the Rule 12(b)(6) standard. See Frisch v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 553 F. App'x 477, 481 (6th Cir. 2014) (“In ruling on a motion to dismiss, this Court may consider [only] the [c]omplaint and any exhibits attached thereto, public records, items appearing in the record of the case and exhibits attached to defendant's motion to dismiss so long as they are referred to in the [c]omplaint and are central to the claims contained therein.” (internal quotation marks omitted) (alterations in original)).

         In deciding a motion to dismiss, the Court must determine whether the complaint contains “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face” when deciding whether to dismiss a case under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1974 (2007). “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.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009). Although the plausibility standard is not equivalent to a “‘probability requirement, ' . . . it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556, 127 S.Ct. at 1965). “[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged-but it has not ‘show[n]'-that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Id. at 679, 129 S.Ct. at 1950 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)).

         III. Discussion

         A. The Private Defendants, MACIL and HAAI

         A claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 “‘must satisfy two elements: 1) the deprivation of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States and 2) the deprivation was caused by a person acting under color of state law.'” Tahfs v. Proctor, 316 F.3d 584, 590 (6th Cir. 2003) (quoting Ellison v. Garbarino, 48 F.3d 192, 194 (6th Cir. 1995)). Therefore, a plaintiff cannot typically bring a § 1983 case against a private party. Id.

         There are three primary tests to determine whether a private party acts under color of state law. None of them is alleged by Plaintiffs. Id. at 591. Rather, Plaintiffs argue that MACIL and HAAI are liable via an exception to the three tests which applies when there is a conspiracy between the private party and a state actor. Cooper v. Parrish, 203 F.3d 937, 952 n.2 (6th Cir. 2000) (“If a private party has conspired with state officials to violate constitutional rights, then that party qualifies as a state actor and may be held liable pursuant to § 1983.”). There need not be an express agreement, and the alleged conspirators need not know the details of the plan: “[a]ll that must be shown is that there was a single plan, that the alleged coconspirator shared in the general conspiratorial objective, and that an overt act was committed in furtherance of the conspiracy that caused injury to the complainant.” Hooks v. Hooks, 771 F.2d 935, 944 (6th Cir. 1985); see also Memphis, Tenn. Area Local Am. Postal Workers Union v. City of Memphis, 361 F.3d 898, 905-06 (6th Cir. ...

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