Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Kuchcinski v. Box Elder County

Supreme Court of Utah

June 3, 2019

Robert Kuchcinski, Appellant,
v.
Box Elder County, and The Office of the Box Elder County Sheriff, Appellees.

          On Direct Appeal First District, Logan The Honorable Brian Cannell No. 150100424

          Phillip W. Dyer, Benjamin R. Dyer, Salt Lake City James E. Harward, W. Earl Webster, Amy L. Williamson, Cottonwood Heights, for appellant

          Frank D. Mylar, Andrew R. Hopkins, Salt Lake City, for appellees

          CHIEF JUSTICE DURRANT authored the opinion of the Court, in which JUSTICE HIMONAS, JUSTICE PEARCE, and JUDGE MORTENSEN joined.

          Due to her retirement, JUSTICE DURHAM did not participate herein; and COURT OF APPEALS JUDGE DAVID N. MORTENSEN sat

          JUSTICE PETERSEN became a member of the Court on November 17, 2017, after oral argument in this matter, and accordingly did not participate

          DURRANT CHIEF JUSTICE

         Introduction

         ¶1 Robert Kuchcinski was held in the Box Elder County Jail for seventeen days on a justice court's probable cause determination that he was driving under the influence. Neither a breathalyzer test nor a blood test showed that he was actually driving impaired. During these seventeen days in jail, he was never brought before a judge for his initial appearance and was never formally charged with any crimes. And, although a judge set bail, Mr. Kuchcinski claims that the bail amount was never communicated to him. Finally, on day sixteen, Mr. Kuchcinski was able to contact an attorney, who notified the County prosecutor of Mr. Kuchcinski's prolonged detention. The prosecutor immediately asked the court to issue an order mandating Mr. Kuchcinski's release. The court ordered his release the next day.

         ¶2 He eventually brought several claims against the County and the County Sheriff's Office, including claims of violations of his rights to due process and bail. The district court dismissed his claims on summary judgment, concluding that he had not suffered a flagrant violation of his constitutional rights and that he could not identify a specific municipal employee who had violated his rights. Mr. Kuchcinski appealed. We are asked to determine whether the district court erred in dismissing his claims under the bail and due process clauses of the Utah Constitution. We hold that the court did not err in dismissing Mr. Kuchcinski's bail clause claims, because he has failed to demonstrate that the bail clause is self-executing. But the court did err in dismissing his due process claims. It incorrectly applied the standard for determining when a municipal employee is liable for damages for a constitutional violation. Accordingly, we set forth the correct standard for reviewing constitutional claims for damages when brought solely against a municipality.[1]

         Background[2]

         ¶3 Robert Kuchcinski was driving a tractor-trailer rig when he was pulled over by Utah Highway Patrol (UHP) for failing to stay in one lane. After issuing Mr. Kuchcinski a citation for his traffic violation, the UHP trooper asked Mr. Kuchcinski to take a portable breathalyzer test. He passed the breathalyzer test, but the trooper continued with a series of field sobriety tests. Mr. Kuchcinski, who was suffering from an inner ear infection, failed the balance-related sobriety tests. The UHP trooper arrested Mr. Kuchcinski for driving under the influence.[3]

         ¶4 Mr. Kuchcinski was booked into the Box Elder County Jail (Jail) on June 16, 2012. The next day, the Box Elder County Justice Court entered its finding of probable cause based on the UHP trooper's statement. The court found that probable cause existed for the arrest without a warrant, that "the detention of [Mr. Kuchcinski] may continue," and that Mr. Kuchcinski could post bail in the amount of $1, 350. Mr. Kuchcinski was not present at the probable cause determination and alleges that he was not made aware of the bail amount.

         ¶5 Mr. Kuchcinski remained in jail for seventeen days. He was not arraigned during that time and never appeared before the justice court. It is unclear from the record if and when he learned that bail had been set, but he discussed bail in a phone call with his fiancée's brother on June 26, 2012, and in subsequent phone calls. He explained to his fiancée and her brother that he could not make bail without a co-signer, which he did not have.

         ¶6 He also told those he spoke with on the phone that he was waiting to appear before a judge to ask to be released from jail. At no point during his incarceration was he taken before a magistrate. Each Wednesday-the day justice court was held-the Jail apparently transported those detainees who had been scheduled to appear before the justice court. For some reason Mr. Kuchcinski was not taken with other inmates to the justice court on Wednesday, June 20. And because the judge who was scheduled to preside over the justice court was on vacation on the next Wednesday, June 27, Mr. Kuchcinski did not see a judge the second week of his incarceration. Then, on June 28, he was informed by a Jail employee that he would not be able to appear before the justice court the following Wednesday, because that day was July 4th, a national holiday, and court would not be held. So Mr. Kuchcinski continued to sit in jail.

         ¶7 On July 2, 2012, another inmate contacted his attorney, Art Lauritzen, on behalf of Mr. Kuchcinski. Mr. Lauritzen contacted the Box Elder County prosecutor, who in turn contacted the justice court to request Mr. Kuchcinski's immediate release. Mr. Kuchcinski was released the next day, without posting any bail or bond. An information was not filed charging Mr. Kuchcinski until July 18, 2012, two weeks after his release. The DUI charge was dismissed on August 27, 2012.

         ¶8 Due to his time in jail and the allegation that he was driving under the influence, Mr. Kuchcinski lost his job as a truck driver, the only employment he has held as an adult. Since his incarceration he has also experienced post-traumatic stress disorder and "debilitating anxiety attacks whenever [he has] to drive more than a few miles."

         ¶9 Mr. Kuchcinski filed suit against Box Elder County and the Box Elder County Sheriff's Office in federal district court. He brought a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim for violations of his civil rights, as well as Utah state law claims. That court dismissed his Section 1983 claim, but declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims and instructed Mr. Kuchcinski to refile in state court.

         ¶10 In state district court, Mr. Kuchcinski brought causes of action against the County and the Jail for violations of his right to bail and his right to due process under article I, sections 7 and 8 of the Utah Constitution. He also alleged the County was negligent and had falsely imprisoned him. He later withdrew his negligence claim, and the court dismissed it. The court then entered summary judgment against Mr. Kuchcinski, concluding that the false imprisonment claim was barred by both the Governmental Immunity Act and the justice court's probable cause finding. It further concluded that Mr. Kuchcinski's bail and due process claims failed because he could not "show any flagrant violation of his Utah constitutional rights" or "identify any Box Elder County individual who ¶agrantly violated his Utah constitutional rights." Mr. Kuchcinski timely appealed to this court, challenging only the district court's determinations as to the County's alleged constitutional violations. We have jurisdiction pursuant to section 78A-3-102(3)(j) of the Utah Code.

         Standard of Review

         ¶11 Mr. Kuchcinski appeals the district court's dismissal of his state constitutional claims. He argues that the district court erred in dismissing his claims on summary judgment because he demonstrated the elements necessary to proceed with a claim for money damages under the Utah Constitution. Summary judgment is appropriate only where "there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law."[4] We "review[] a summary judgment for correctness, giving no deference to the [district] court's decision."[5]

         Analysis

         ¶12 Mr. Kuchcinski argues that his constitutional rights were violated under the bail and due process clauses of the Utah Constitution.[6] He contends that he had a right under the due process clause to be taken before a judge for a determination of probable cause. He also argues that even if he did not have a right to be present at his probable cause determination, he had a right to appear before a judge before he was detained for an extended period of time. He also asserts that he had the right to be "timely admitted to bail" under the bail clause. And he maintains that these violations warrant an award of damages under Utah law.

         ¶13 "[T]he Utah Constitution does not expressly provide damage remedies for constitutional violations."[7] So a "plaintiff's remedy for [a] state constitutional violation rests in the common law," which "gives Utah courts the authority to 'accord an appropriate remedy to one injured from the violation of a constitutional provision.'"[8]

         ¶14 Relying on our common law, we first address Mr. Kuchcinski's argument under the bail clause. We hold that because he failed to conduct the necessary "self-executing" analysis under Spackman, he failed to carry his burden of persuasion on this claim. Next, we address his claims under the due process clause. We hold that the district court erred when it dismissed Mr. Kuchcinski's due process claims for failing to identify an individual at the County who committed a flagrant violation. A plaintiff need not identify a specific government employee in order to hold a municipality liable under the Utah Constitution. We also hold that the district court applied the incorrect standard for determining when a municipality acts flagrantly. We therefore reverse and remand for the district court to make determinations in light of the new standard we articulate today.

         I. Mr. Kuchcinski's Bail Clause Claims

         ¶15 Mr. Kuchcinski first argues on appeal that the district court erred in dismissing his claims under the bail clause of the Utah Constitution. Specifically, he claims that Box Elder County denied him his fundamental right to bail, including the right to be "timely admitted to bail," the right to be present before a magistrate when bail is set, and the right to be informed of the amount of bail. And he asserts that, under the common law, an award of damages is appropriate for this alleged constitutional violation. We decline to determine whether the County violated Mr. Kuchcinski's right to bail, because Mr. Kuchcinski failed, in his briefs to us, to provide any analysis as to whether the bail clause is self-executing-a threshold inquiry that must be made before a private right may be established under the constitution.[9] We accordingly affirm the district court on this claim.

          ¶16 In Spackman ex rel Spackman v. Board of Education of Box Elder County School District, [10] we set forth a two-prong test a plaintiff must meet when seeking a private right to sue for damages under a constitutional provision. First, we held that a "plaintiff must prove that the constitutional provision violated is 'self[-]executing.'"[11]Second, we held that "a plaintiff must establish . . . three elements: (1) the plaintiff suffered a flagrant violation of his or her constitutional rights; (2) existing remedies do not redress his or her injuries; and (3) equitable relief, such as an injunction, was and is wholly inadequate to protect the plaintiff's rights or redress his or her injuries."[12] Our concern with Mr. Kuchcinski's bail clause claim arises from the first prong.

         ¶17 We have repeatedly stated that a "constitutional provision is self-executing if it articulates a rule sufficient to give effect to the underlying rights and duties intended by the framers" of the constitution.[13] "In other words, courts may give effect to a provision without implementing legislation if the framers intended the provision to have immediate effect and if 'no ancillary legislation is necessary to the enjoyment of a right given, or the enforcement of a duty imposed.'"[14] We have also stated that "constitutional provisions are not self-executing if they merely indicate a general principle or line of policy without supplying the means for putting them into effect."[15]

         ¶18 As our caselaw suggests, the inquiry into whether a provision is self-executing "turns in large part on an originalist inquiry."[16] Accordingly, we ask "whether the 'framers intended the provision to have immediate effect' without implementing legislation or whether instead its terms would be understood as a 'general principle or line of policy' requiring a legislative act to 'put[] [it] into effect.'"[17] Answering this question requires "careful analysis of the precise terms of the Utah Constitution and its original meaning."[18]

         ¶19 But Mr. Kuchcinski has not provided us with this type of analysis. Rather, he asserts that he "has met the first hurdle in . . . Spackman" simply because, under article I, section 26 of the Utah Constitution, the bail clause is to be read as "mandatory and prohibitory," and therefore must be self-executing.[19] This assertion is not enough.[20] In addition to demonstrating that a constitutional provision is prohibitory, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the framers intended the clause to be both "judicially . . . defined and enforced" without implementing legislation.[21] This requires "careful analysis of the precise terms" in the provision and the framer's original meaning of those terms.[22] Because Mr. Kuchcinski completely failed to conduct such analysis, we are reluctant to tread into this important constitutional issue.[23] We accordingly decline to review his claims under the bail clause and affirm the district court's dismissal of such claims.

         II. Mr. Kuchcinski's Due Process Claims

         ¶20 Mr. Kuchcinski also asserts the district court erred when it dismissed his due process claims under article I, section 7 of the Utah Constitution. Specifically, he argues that the district court erred in holding that he was required to "identify a[] Box Elder County individual who flagrantly violated his Utah constitutional rights." He also contends that the court erred in its determination that he failed to "show any flagrant violation of his Utah constitutional rights by Box Elder County."[24] We address each contention below.[25]

         A. The district court erred in dismissing Mr. Kuchcinski's due process claims for failing to identify a Box Elder County employee

         ¶21 Mr. Kuchcinski first argues that the district court erred when it held that he must name a specific County employee who flagrantly violated his constitutional rights in order to find relief under the common law. Mr. Kuchcinski is right on this point. We hold that a plaintiff does not have to identify a specific municipal employee in order to demonstrate that a flagrant violation of his or her constitutional rights occurred. Rather, it suffices to plead and prove against the municipality that municipal actors committed a flagrant violation against the plaintiff and that the violation resulted from a policy or custom of the municipality.

         ¶22 In Spackman, we held that a plaintiff seeking money damages "must establish that he or she suffered a 'flagrant' violation of his or her constitutional rights."[26] We explained that a flagrant violation "[i]n essence . . . means that a defendant must have violated 'clearly established' constitutional rights 'of which a reasonable person would have known.'"[27] We further explained that a "clearly established" right is one in which the "contours of the right [are] sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right."[28] We also stated that the requirement that the constitutional violation be "flagrant" ensures that "a government employee is allowed the ordinary 'human frailties of forgetfulness, distractibility, or misjudgment without rendering [him or her]self liable for a constitutional violation.'"[29]

         ¶23 Relying on this language, the district court read an additional requirement into the flagrant violation element we articulated in Spackman-that the plaintiff must name a municipal employee who acted flagrantly. The court justified its reading by stating that the language in Spackman referring to human frailties "would be rendered meaningless if a constitutional offender was not specifically named." Accordingly, the court dismissed Mr. Kuchcinski's claims because he could not "identify any Box Elder County individual who flagrantly violated his Utah constitutional rights." This was error.

         ¶24 The district court incorrectly interpreted our Spackman opinion as precluding damage awards against municipal entities for constitutional violations when a plaintiff fails to name or identify a specific municipal employee. In Spackman, we were presented with a certified question of whether the Utah Constitution permits a direct cause of action for certain constitutional violations. While the Spackmans had originally brought suit against both specific municipal employees and a municipal entity in federal district court, their argument before us primarily focused on their direct cause of action against the municipal employees themselves, [30] a focus that is typical in most municipal liability cases. We accordingly set forth the flagrant violation standard for cases involving a direct cause of action against an individual municipal employee. And in articulating this standard, we relied upon cases from the United States Supreme Court and our court that involved actions against municipal employees.[31]

         ¶25 While we addressed the potential liability of individual municipal employees in Spackman, we certainly did not preclude a direct cause of action against a municipal entity. In fact, we expressly stated that a court could award damages against a government agency alone. Specifically, we urged courts to exercise caution when they make decisions "to award damages against a governmental agency and/or its employees for a constitutional violation."[32] This statement suggests that damages may be awarded against a government agency independent of whether a plaintiff has named a municipal employee as a defendant. So, contrary to the district court's holding, Spackman does not preclude a plaintiff from bringing suit for damages solely against a municipality.

         ¶26 The County contends, however, that a holding omitting the requirement that a plaintiff name a municipal employee in determining whether a flagrant violation occurred will subject government entities to "strict liability." It urges this court to adopt the federal standard of municipal liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983-a standard it believes predicates municipal liability on the naming of a municipal employee. But the County misunderstands the culpability standard of municipal liability under federal law.[33]

         ¶27 In Monell v. Department of Social Services of City of New York, [34]the Supreme Court held that, in addition to municipal employees, municipalities could be found liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. But the court expressly rejected the notion that Section 1983 would operate to impose vicarious liability, holding that "a municipality cannot be held liable solely because it employs a tortfeasor."[35] Instead, the court limited Section 1983 liability to circumstances "when execution of a government's policy or custom, whether made by its lawmakers or by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy, inflicts the injury."[36] And so municipal liability under the federal law was born.

         ¶28 After Monell, the Supreme Court continued to refine its municipal liability doctrine. No longer was it enough "to identify conduct properly attributed to the municipality."[37] Rather, a plaintiff was also required to "demonstrate that, through its deliberate conduct, the municipality was the 'moving force' behind the injury alleged. That is, a plaintiff must show that the municipal action was taken with the requisite degree of culpability and must demonstrate a direct causal link between the municipal action and the deprivation of federal rights."[38] But that is not all. A "plaintiff seeking to establish municipal liability on the theory that a facially lawful municipal action has led an employee to violate a plaintiff's rights must [also] demonstrate that the municipal action was taken with 'deliberate indifference' as to its known or obvious consequences."[39] Thus, under Section 1983 caselaw, a plaintiff now must show the existence of a policy or custom, deliberate indifference, [40] and causation.

         ¶29 While Section 1983 jurisprudence has established stringent requirements for proving municipal liability, the naming of a specific municipal employee is simply not one of them. In fact, several federal circuit courts have expressly rejected this notion. Weighing the viability of a Section 1983 claim, the Second Circuit held that "the plaintiff need not sue the individual tortfeasors at all, but may proceed solely against the municipality."[41] Similarly, the First Circuit has stated that there is "nothing to prevent a plaintiff from forgoing the naming of an individual officer as a defendant and proceeding directly to trial against the municipality."[42] While there are practical reasons to include the specific municipal employee in a lawsuit against a municipality, which explain why "plaintiffs almost never choose to proceed against the municipality directly, "[43] there is no reason a municipality cannot be held directly liable for damages for its flagrant violations of constitutional rights. So, the County's belief that the federal municipal liability standard requires the naming of a specific municipal employee is simply wrong.

         ¶30 The County also misunderstands the effect of removing a named municipal employee requirement from a municipal liability determination. Rather than imposing strict liability on the municipality, as the County suggests, the federal municipal liability standard makes it more challenging for a plaintiff to establish municipality liability than when a specific municipal employee is named. If a plaintiff cannot show the existence of a municipal policy or custom, that that policy evidences the municipality's deliberate indifference to an individual's constitutional rights, and that the policy or custom caused the harm, the plaintiff cannot prevail. And because a plaintiff has to show deliberate indifference, culpability remains a factor in showing municipal liability. Accordingly, the district court erred when it held that Mr. Kuchcinski must identify a specific County employee who committed a flagrant violation of his constitutional rights.

         B. The flagrant violation standard

         ¶31 Having concluded that Mr. Kuchcinski did not need to identify a specific Box Elder County employee to succeed on his due process claims, we next turn to the standard he must prove to establish municipal liability for a violation of the Utah Constitution. We hold that the test we articulated in Spackman applies equally to municipal liability suits. A plaintiff seeking damages for a constitutional violation must show (1) that he or she suffered a flagrant violation of his or her constitutional rights; (2) that existing remedies do not redress his or her injuries; and (3) that equitable relief, such as an injunction, was and is wholly inadequate to protect the plaintiff's rights or redress his or her injuries.[44] But, as we acknowledged above, our flagrant violation prong of this test under Spackman focused only on those instances where a plaintiff has named a specific municipal employee in its suit. We accordingly now set forth the elements a plaintiff must show when seeking to establish a flagrant violation solely against a municipality.

         ¶32 Borrowing from Section 1983 jurisprudence, [45] we hold that a plaintiff seeking to prove that a municipality committed a flagrant violation must show an "action pursuant to official municipal policy of some nature caused a constitutional tort."[46] And, in order for an action pursuant to an official municipal policy to constitute a flagrant violation, the plaintiff must show (1) the existence of a municipal policy or custom, (2) that this policy or custom "evidences a 'deliberate indifference'" to the plaintiff's constitutional rights, and (3) that this policy or custom was "closely related to the ultimate injury."[47] We address each element separately.

         ¶33 First, a plaintiff seeking to prove that a municipality has committed a flagrant violation must "identify a municipal 'policy' or 'custom' that caused the plaintiff's injury."[48] Only "deprivations visited pursuant to municipal 'custom' or 'policy' . . . lead to municipal liability."[49] In other words, "municipalities cannot be held liable . . . pursuant to the traditional tort of respondeat superior."[50] A "decision to adopt [a] particular course of action . . . by th[e] government's authorized decisionmakers . . . surely represents an act of official government 'policy.'"[51] But this is not the only instance where we will find an official policy or custom. "There is also no question that [a] decision not to take any action to alleviate [a constitutional violation] constitutes a policy for purposes of . . . municipal liability."[52] A municipality's policy of inaction, therefore, may satisfy this element.[53]

         ¶34 Second, a plaintiff seeking to prove municipal liability for inaction must show more than just the existence of a municipal policy or custom; he or she must also show that this policy or custom "evidences a 'deliberate indifference'" to his or her constitutional rights.[54] The deliberate indifference requirement is "satisfied when the municipality has actual or constructive notice that its action or failure to act is substantially certain to result in a constitutional violation, and it consciously or deliberately chooses to disregard the risk of harm."[55] In cases involving municipal inaction, deliberate indifference may be shown where the municipality has failed to act despite a pattern of repeated constitutional offenses, [56] or where there is evidence that the plaintiff complained to the municipality about a constitutional violation and the municipality did nothing.[57] It can also be established "when the need for more or different action 'is so obvious, and the inadequacy [of the current policy or procedure] so likely to result in the violation of constitutional rights, that the policymakers . . . can reasonably be said to have been deliberately indifferent to the need.'"[58] In other words, when the lack of a policy or procedure so obviously results in a constitutional violation, regardless of whether there is a known pattern or complaint of constitutional violations, deliberate indifference may be established.[59]

         ¶35 Finally, a plaintiff seeking to prove that a municipality committed a flagrant violation must show "that a particular violation was 'caused' by the municipal 'policy.'"[60] A plaintiff may do this by showing that "the identified deficiency . . . [is] closely related to the ultimate injury."[61] For example, a plaintiff meets the causation element if he or she "prove[s] that the injury would have been avoided had [the ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.