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Hernandez v. Skinner

United States District Court, D. Montana, Billings Division

May 29, 2019

DERREK SKINNER, in his individual capacity, and PEDRO HERNANDEZ, in his individual capacity, Defendants.



         Plaintiff Miguel Angel Reynaga Hernandez seeks compensatory and punitive damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 from Defendants Derrek Skinner and Pedro Hernandez. Miguel also seeks a declaratory judgment that the Defendants' actions were illegal. Before the Court are cross-motions for summary judgment on Miguel's claims.

         I. Undisputed facts

         On October 2, 2017, Miguel accompanied his wife to Yellowstone County Justice Court in Billings, Montana. (Doc. 64 at 2). His wife had a hearing on her request for an order of protection against a third party and Miguel planned to testify on her behalf. (Doc. 64 at 3). Pedro Hernandez, a Justice of the Peace at the time, presided over the hearing. (Doc. 64 at 1-3). Before the hearing began, Justice Hernandez excluded Miguel and other witnesses from the court room so they wouldn't hear the testimony. (Doc. 64 at 3).

         During the hearing, the third party against whom the order of protection was sought testified that Miguel was "not a legal citizen." (Doc. 64 at 3-4). The third party made a similar accusation against another witness. When the third party's testimony concluded, Justice Hernandez stated "What I'm hearing here are allegations about illegal immigrant [sic]." (Doc. 64 at 5). Justice Hernandez halted the hearing and told his staff to "call me a deputy. I have two illegals sitting outside. I want them picked up." (Doc. 64 at 7). On the phone a few seconds later, Justice Hernandez told the Sheriffs Office to "send me a couple of deputies. I have two illegal immigrants out in the hallway ... they are in the hall. Get them here as quickly as possible." (Doc. 64 at 8). Justice Hernandez ordered Miguel's wife to remain in the courtroom to prevent her from telling Miguel a deputy was coming to investigate his immigration status. (Doc. 64 at 9-10).

         Meanwhile, the Sheriffs Office dispatch told Derrek Skinner, a deputy sheriff at the time, that Justice Hernandez called about "two illegal immigrants outside his courtroom that he wants picked up." (Doc. 64 at 10-11). When Deputy Skinner entered Justice Hernandez's courtroom, Justice Hernandez said "the information I have from them two under oath, they are illegal aliens," to which Deputy Skinner responded "I'll take care of it." (Doc. 64 at 11-13). Justice Hernandez responded "see what happens. If you guys take them, let me know please," and suggested "you may have to call immigration ... their testimony from the witness stand is they are illegal." (Doc. 64 at 11-13).

         Deputy Skinner stepped into the hallway, detained Miguel, and asked him for identification and about his immigration status. (Doc. 64 at 14-15). Miguel gave Deputy Skinner an expired Mexican consulate ID but could not answer Deputy Skinner's questions about immigration because Miguel was not fluent in English. (Doc. 64 at 16-17). When Miguel attempted to enter the courtroom to see his wife, Deputy Skinner blocked and handcuffed him. (Doc. 64 at 18). Deputy Skinner searched Miguel's person and, finding nothing suspicious, walked Miguel outside the courthouse and placed him into a patrol car. (Doc. 64 at 18). While Miguel sat handcuffed in the patrol car, Deputy Skinner ran a warrants check. (Doc. 64 at 19). When the warrants check came back clean, Deputy Skinner asked dispatch to see if Immigration and Customs Enforcement "wanted him." (Doc. 64 at 19). An ICE agent contacted Deputy Skinner on the phone and asked Deputy Skinner to transport Miguel to the Yellowstone County Detention Facility. (Doc. 64 at 18).

         Miguel remained in ICE custody, being transported amongst various detention facilities, while a deportation proceeding was initiated. After three months, the Department of Homeland Security dismissed its deportation proceeding against Miguel. (Doc. 59). Miguel filed this § 1983 action against Justice Hernandez and Deputy Skinner, claiming they deprived him of his constitutional rights under color of state law and requesting compensatory and punitive damages and a declaratory judgment that Justice Hernandez and Deputy Skinner acted illegally.

         II. Summary judgment standard

         "The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986).

         Material facts are those which may affect the outcome of the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute as to a material fact is genuine if there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable fact-finder to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. If the moving party meets its initial responsibility, the burden then shifts to the opposing party to establish that a genuine issue of fact exists. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986).

         III. Discussion The parties moved for summary judgment on the § 1983 claims, punitive damages, and the request for declaratory judgment.

         A. § 1983 claims

         Section 1983 provides a tort remedy for persons whose constitutional or statutory rights have been violated by state officials acting "under color of law." Whalen v. McMuIlen, 907 F.3d 1139, 1145 (9th Cir. 2018) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 1983). To prove a § 1983 claim, the plaintiff must show (1) his constitutional or statutory rights were violated by (2) a person acting under color of law. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988). Overlapping these elements is the protection afforded public officials against § 1983 claims, known as qualified immunity. Qualified immunity shields public officials from suit unless the plaintiff can show (1) a violation of a constitutional right and (2) the constitutional right was clearly established at the time of the violation. Whalen, 907 F.3d at 1144-1146 (citing Person v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 232 (2009)). When, as here, the parties agree the public officials were acting under color of law, the qualified immunity determination necessarily resolves § 1983 liability because qualified immunity and § 1983 share the same first element.

         Justice Hernandez does not assert he is entitled to absolute judicial immunity. See Briscoe v. LaHue,460 U.S. 325, 334 (1983). The Court therefore only examines whether ...

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