103 F.3d 1056 (1st Cir. 1997), 96-1024, Soto v. Flores

Docket Nº:96-1024.
Citation:103 F.3d 1056
Party Name:Flor Maria SOTO, Plaintiff, Appellant, v. Carlos FLORES, et al. Defendants, Appellees.
Case Date:January 13, 1997
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit

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103 F.3d 1056 (1st Cir. 1997)

Flor Maria SOTO, Plaintiff, Appellant,


Carlos FLORES, et al. Defendants, Appellees.

No. 96-1024.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

January 13, 1997

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Heard June 7, 1996.

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Jose Enrique Colon Santana, with whom Gary Broida, Rio Pierdas, PR, was on brief, for appellant.

Vannessa Ramirez, Assistant Solicitor General, Department of Justice, Hato Rey, PR, with whom Carlos Lugo-Fiol, Solicitor General, was on brief, for appellees.

Before TORRUELLA, Chief Judge, CAMPBELL, Senior Circuit Judge, and LYNCH, Circuit Judge.

LYNCH, Circuit Judge.

On April 21, 1991, Angel Rodriguez shot to death his two young children and then killed himself. This tragedy occurred four days after Rodriguez's wife, Flor Maria Soto, complained to the police about the physical and emotional abuse she suffered at Rodriguez's hands. The police, knowing Rodriguez had threatened to kill Soto and her family if Soto went to the police to have him jailed for his spousal abuse, nonetheless violated their obligations of confidentiality and informed Rodriguez of Soto's complaints. Having done so, the police did not jail Rodriguez or take steps to protect Soto and her family. Soto's lawsuit alleges that Rodriguez did what he had threatened to do and that the state created this danger. Rather than pursue any claims available to her under Puerto Rican law, Soto chose to bring suit in federal court alleging constitutional tort theories.

Soto brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that the actions of the defendants, Carlos Flores, a police officer, and Ismael Betancourt-Lebron, Puerto Rico's superintendent of police, violated her and her children's rights to substantive due process and to equal protection of the laws. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants. We do not reach the difficult question of whether Soto, in her capacity as a representative of her dead children, has presented a due process claim that would survive summary judgment, because we find that the defendant officers are protected by qualified immunity on that claim. As to the equal protection claim, we adopt a standard for measuring such claims in domestic violence cases. Testing the evidence against that standard, we find that Soto has not adduced sufficient evidence of discriminatory intent to survive summary judgment. Accordingly, we affirm the district court.

I. Facts

We recite the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the party opposing summary judgment. Flor Maria Soto married Angel Rodriguez, nicknamed Rafi, in 1981. Rodriguez and Soto had two children: Sally was born in 1983, and Chayanne, a boy, in 1988. Approximately a year into their marriage, Rodriguez began to abuse Soto emotionally and physically. This abuse, often connected to Rodriguez's drinking, continued throughout their marriage. The abuse was apparent to family and friends. As one neighbor put it, "anyone who visited them could tell that [Soto] was an abused wife." Despite his constant mistreatment of Soto, Rodriguez never abused the children.

Rodriguez did gardening and vehicle repair work for the police officers at Palmer Police Station, a sub-station of the Rio Grande precinct. Rodriguez was friends with several of the officers from Palmer Station, including Luis Carrasquillo-Morales

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("Carrasquillo") 1 and defendant Carlos Flores-Moreira ("Flores"). Rodriguez visited the station almost daily. Many of the officers, when on patrol in the area, would visit the Rodriguez-Soto home for coffee or a drink. Flores and Rodriguez were particularly friendly; about once a week, during his patrol rounds, Flores would stop by the house for an hour's visit.

On Wednesday, April 17, 1991, Rodriguez struck Soto about her face and neck, bruising her, and called her insulting names. When Rodriguez fell drunkenly asleep, Soto gathered the children and went to her mother's house. Soto's mother, Hipolita Vega, convinced her to go to the police and file a complaint. In nine years of beatings, some of them worse than the one on April 17, Soto had never sought help because she believed that the police would do nothing, because she had nowhere to go, and because she was afraid of Rodriguez. Rodriguez had threatened her with a gun on several occasions and told her that he would kill her and other members of her family if she went to the police. Knowing that Rodriguez was friendly with the police, Soto feared that the police would do nothing except tell Rodriguez that she had complained.

On that night, despite her fear, Soto went with her mother and her children to the Palmer Police Station. When she arrived, she was met by Flores, who was the desk officer on duty. Flores could see that Soto was crying and marked with bruises, "pretty ugly hematomas." Soto explained that Rodriguez had beaten her. Flores then radioed for the patrol officers to come in and take her complaint, referring to Soto on the radio as "Rafi's wife" and saying that it was a Law 54 case. During the fifteen to twenty minutes that Soto and Flores waited for the patrol officers to arrive, Flores told Soto that he himself had domestic violence problems, and that his wife wanted him to be put in jail. He urged Soto to patch things up with Rodriguez. Soto responded by telling Flores that Rodriguez's beatings were too much to stand and that, as Flores knew, Rodriguez was a heavy drinker, who became violent when drunk. Soto told Flores about everything that Rodriguez had done and what he would do to her. Flores offered Soto the opportunity to stay overnight at the station.

Sergeant Orta, 2 the supervisor, arrived, and Flores told him that Soto was "the lady with the Law 54 complaint." When the patrol officers, Carrasquillo and Jose Serrano, arrived, Flores said, "This is Rafi's wife," and told them that she was there on a Law 54 complaint. Carrasquillo took Soto into an interview room, three steps away from the desk at which Flores sat. Soto was nervous and crying. The door to the interview room remained open, and Flores listened to everything that was said in Soto's conversation with Carrasquillo.

In the interview room, Soto told Carrasquillo about Rodriguez's behavior, and showed him her bruises. Carrasquillo asked Soto whether she wanted Rodriguez jailed. Soto replied by explaining her situation to the officers. Specifically, she told Carrasquillo that Rodriguez had told her that if she put him in jail, he would get out quickly because his family had money and that he would then kill her. She told Carrasquillo that Rodriguez had told her that if she attempted to put him in jail, he would kill her mother and sisters so that she would go to the wake and he would then kill her there.

Having told the police officers about Rodriguez's threats, Soto asked them to do what was appropriate. Although Soto did not use the words "domestic violence complaint," she believed that by describing her situation to the officers she was initiating the complaint process. Carrasquillo wrote down everything she said during the interview, and Soto assumed that he was drafting a complaint against Rodriguez.

Soto's effort to get police assistance came a year and a half after a new law aimed at

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curbing domestic violence had gone into effect. In November 1989, the Puerto Rican legislature enacted one of the nation's most comprehensive domestic violence laws, the Domestic Abuse Prevention and Intervention Act, known popularly as "Law 54." In addition to defining criminal domestic violence broadly, Law 54 makes arrest of an abuser mandatory whenever an officer has grounds to believe that Law 54 has been violated. P.R. Laws Ann. tit. 8, §§ 631-635, 638 (Supp.1995). Police officers are required to take all steps necessary to prevent abuse from recurring, including providing the complainant with information about social services and, if she expresses concern for her safety, with transportation to a safe place. Id. § 640. Law 54 also requires that police officers file a written report on all domestic violence incidents, whether or not any charges are ever filed. Id. § 641. The police superintendent is charged with establishing "norms to guarantee confidentiality with regard to the identity of the persons involved in incidents of domestic violence." Id. Implementing regulations issued by the superintendent of police detail the officer's responsibilities, and instruct that arrest determinations are not to be affected by irrelevant factors, including victim reluctance. Rules and Procedures to Attend to Domestic Violence Incidents, Puerto Rico Police General Order No. 86-26m (Rev.1). The regulations explicitly state that police attempts at mediation or reconciliation shall not substitute for arrest. Id. at 4. The regulations require that domestic violence reports be kept confidential, in separate files, and that copies only be issued upon a court order. Id. at 19. These regulations explicitly recognize that:

Domestic violence ... frequently ends in intra-family homicide and it affects all the components of the family, including the children.

Id. at 1.

Despite this legal framework, at the conclusion of his interview with Soto, Carrasquillo took no action. Carrasquillo did not tell Soto about the availability of battered women's shelters or about procedures for obtaining an order of protection. Nor did he prepare a domestic violence report. Instead, Carrasquillo wrote up an "Other Services Report," which falsely indicated that Soto had visited the police solely for advice relating to child custody. 3 Soto returned to Vega's house.

Carrasquillo discussed Soto's complaint with his supervisor, Sergeant Orta, that evening. When Sergeant Orta signed...

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