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Meier v. St. Louis

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

August 19, 2019

Mary R. Meier Plaintiff- Appellant
v.
St. Louis, City of Missouri; Doc's Towing, Inc. Defendants - Appellees St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners; Richard H. Gray, Member, St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners, in his official capacity; Thomas Irwin, Member, St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners, in his official capacity; Erwin Switzer, Member, St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners, in his official capacity; Bettye Battle-Turner, Member, St. Louis Board of Police Commissioners, in her official capacity; Francis G. Slay, in his official capacity as a member ex officio of the St. Louis City Board of Police Commissioners; St. Louis P.O. House, DSN 219 Defendants

          Submitted: April 15, 2019

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri - St. Louis

          Before SMITH, Chief Judge, ARNOLD and KELLY, Circuit Judges.

          KELLY, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         Mary Meier sued the City of St. Louis and Doc's Towing, Inc., claiming that both defendants violated her rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments when her car was towed and stored without her consent or a warrant. The district court granted summary judgment in the defendants' favor, concluding that neither defendant was a party who could be held liable for any alleged constitutional violation under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Because we conclude that Meier has adduced evidence sufficient to establish both defendants' liability, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.

         I

         In December 2015, St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department (SLMPD) Officer Ashley Kelly responded to a hit-and-run accident. Based on information received from the victim, she suspected that the vehicle that left the scene was a Ford F-150 truck registered to Meier. So she asked a SLMPD clerk to report the truck as "wanted" for an ordinance violation on the Regional Justice Information Service (REJIS) network. REJIS is a computer network established by a cooperative agreement between the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County. It allows law enforcement agencies within the county to share information with each other.

         On the early morning of March 17, 2016, Maryland Heights Police Department (MHPD) Officer Cliff House saw Ben Meier (Mary Meier's son) and a companion sitting in a truck in a hotel parking lot. House looked up the truck's license plate number on REJIS and saw that it was wanted by SLMPD. He approached the truck's occupants and eventually arrested them for reasons unconnected to the wanted report. He directed dispatch to arrange for the truck to be towed because of the wanted report, among other things. MHPD dispatch arranged for Doc's Towing to pick up the truck. When a driver from Doc's Towing arrived, House indicated that the truck was wanted by the City of St. Louis. The driver wrote "Maryland Heights Police Department," "Hold," and the date on the truck's back window and then towed it to Doc's Towing, where it was stored.

         MHPD dispatch sent SLMPD a message through REJIS: "We have located this vehicle and we are towing it to Doc's Towing due to an arrest." SLMPD responded, "Please notify our First District Detective Bureau in the morning with arrest information." In the morning, SLMPD followed up with another message to MHPD: "Advise driver/owner of vehicle to respond to the First District Detective Bureau regarding release of vehicle." MHPD mailed Meier a notice that the truck had been towed to Doc's Towing.

         On March 18, Meier and her son went to Doc's Towing to get the truck back. An employee told them that MHPD had "released" the truck but that SLMPD still had a "hold" on the truck, and therefore it could not be released. Later that month, Ben Meier contacted SLMPD Detective John Russo to figure out how to remove the wanted hold on the truck. Russo explained that Ben would have to answer SLMPD's "questions relative to the accident."

         Eventually, Meier hired a lawyer, Jeff Rath, to help her get the truck back. After numerous phone calls, Rath obtained a boilerplate "release order" form from SLMPD that "rescinded" the March 17 "hold order" on the truck. Rath faxed the release order to Doc's Towing on April 29. Doc's Towing then allowed Meier to retrieve the truck after paying a tow fee and a separate storage fee based on the number of days in storage. Unfortunately, the truck had been damaged during its time in storage, and an employee who mistakenly believed that the truck had been abandoned by its owner had already applied for salvage title. Doc's Towing attempted to remedy this error, but at the time briefing was completed on this appeal, Meier still had not obtained clean title for the truck.

         II

         Meier sued various defendants under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a statute that establishes a cause of action against a person who, under color of law, causes a violation of the plaintiff's constitutional rights. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of St. Louis and Doc's Towing, concluding that these two defendants could not be held liable under § 1983 because Meier had not adduced evidence establishing that either defendant acted pursuant to an official policy or that Doc's Towing had acted under color of law. "We review the grant of a summary judgment motion de novo and examine the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Smith v. Insley's Inc., 499 F.3d 875, 879 (8th Cir. 2007). "Summary judgment is only appropriate if the evidence viewed ...


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