Clinic Victory in Fifth Circuit Appeals Court

On January 12, 2018, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued a published opinion in Peña v. City of Rio Grande City, Texas, in favor of Appellant Maria Peña, a client of the William & Mary Appellate and Supreme Court Clinic. The opinion was a unanimous decision, authored by Judge Jerry E. Smith and joined by Judges Priscilla R. Owen and Stephen A. Higginson. The opinion can be read here.

According to the complaint, the case arose out of a citizen-police encounter involving Julissa Peña, an unarmed juvenile who was not suspected of any crimes. After a police officer observed a dispute between Peña and her father in the family car, the officer approached and ordered Peña to exit the vehicle. The officer then threatened Peña with tasing if she did not follow his order. In response, Peña opened the door and ran away from the car. On the first officer's orders, a second officer tased Peña in the head and back, causing her to lose control of her body and fall forward into the street. As a result, Peña suffered severe burns, cuts, and broken teeth.

Peña sued the City of Rio Grande City, Texas, and the officers in Texas state court, alleging several claims, including excessive use of force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The defendants removed the case to federal court and subsequently moved to dismiss Peña's complaint, claiming that she failed to state a claim and raising the defense of qualified immunity. Because Peña had originally filed her complaint in Texas state court, which maintains a liberal "fair notice" pleading standard, she moved to amend her complaint to satisfy the federal "plausibility" standard. Nonetheless, the district court refused to grant Peña leave to amend her complaint. The district court dismissed the claims against the officers without deciding whether the officers were entitled to qualified immunity and entered judgment on the pleadings in favor of the city.

Peña advanced three main arguments on appeal. First, she argued that she adequately stated claims for excessive force against the officers and for municipal liability against the city. Second, that the district court should have granted Peña leave to amend her complaint. Third, that the Texas "fair notice" pleading standard should apply to removed state court complaints that have not been amended. Peña's final argument raised an unanswered question of law in the Fifth Circuit.

The Fifth Circuit affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded, holding that Peña adequately stated claims against the officers for excessive force and that the district court erred in failing to grant Peña leave to amend her complaint. Further, the court answered the open legal question regarding proper pleading standards. Although the Fifth Circuit held that the federal plausibility standard applies to removed cases, the court noted that "[r]emoval from a notice-pleading jurisdiction is a natural time at which justice would call for the court to permit" parties to amend their complaints. Finally, the Fifth Circuit remanded for the district court to consider whether the officers are entitled to qualified immunity. Peña may now proceed with her lawsuit in the district court.

Third-year law student Robert Jones argued the case with the support of Perry Austin, also a third-year law student. Past Clinic members Matthew Hilderbrand, J.D. '17, and Carrie Mattingly, J.D. '17, were primarily responsible for the briefing. To prepare for the oral argument, the students received helpful guidance from several faculty members. Students in the Clinic practice under the supervision of Adjunct Professor Tillman J. Breckenridge, a partner at Bailey & Glasser LLP and director of the Appellate and Supreme Court Clinic.

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