Piotrowski v. City of Houston, 98-21032

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
Writing for the CourtEDITH H. JONES
Citation237 F.3d 567
Parties(5th Cir. 2001) BARBRA PIOTROWSKI, Plaintiff-Appellee-Cross-Appellant, v. CITY OF HOUSTON, ET AL., Defendants, CITY OF HOUSTON, Defendant-Appellant-Cross-Appellee
Docket NumberNo. 98-21032,98-21032
Decision Date17 January 2001

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237 F.3d 567 (5th Cir. 2001)
BARBRA PIOTROWSKI, Plaintiff-Appellee-Cross-Appellant,
CITY OF HOUSTON, ET AL., Defendants,

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CITY OF HOUSTON, Defendant-Appellant-Cross-Appellee.
No. 98-21032
January 17, 2001

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Appeals from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas.

Before JONES, BARKSDALE, and DENNIS, Circuit Judges.1

EDITH H. JONES, Circuit Judge:

Barbra Piotrowski ("Piotrowski") sued the City of Houston ("City") for constitutional violations arising from its failure to prevent her wealthy former boyfriend from attempting to kill her. Implicated in the boyfriend's plot was an unsavory private investigator who had cultivated police and political friendships and regularly hired off-duty officers to work for him and the boyfriend. In exchange for the detective's favors, officials in the Houston Police Department allegedly covered up his and their coworkers' misdeeds. Piotrowski persuaded a jury that the City is liable for her shooting, and she was awarded a judgment of over $20 million. The City has appealed on numerous grounds. This court finds that despite the misconduct of several City employees, the evidence does not support municipal liability or liability based on a state-created danger theory. Additionally, the statute of limitations ran on Piotrowski's equal protection claim. We reverse and render judgment in favor of the City.


This is a disturbing case -- both in terms of what happened to Piotrowski and how members of the Houston Police Department ("HPD") conducted themselves before and after the shooting. Piotrowski was shot and rendered a paraplegic by a hit man procured by her ex-boyfriend, Richard Minns. The evidence connected members of the Houston police and fire departments to Minns and his hired investigator Dudley Bell in acts that harassed and threatened Piotrowski before the shooting.

Piotrowski first met Minns while on a ski trip in Aspen, Colorado during the winter of 1976. She was then a twenty-three year old nursing student from California; Minns was a forty-six year old married Texas multi-millionaire, and was the founder of President and First Lady health clubs. Minns was in the process of divorcing his first wife. In the spring of 1977, Minns persuaded Piotrowski to move to Houston, and the two began living together. During this period, Piotrowski worked as a business consultant and model for Minns's health clubs.

During the roughly three years they lived together, their relationship deteriorated. According to Piotrowski, Minns started attending wild parties and taking drugs. He became increasingly violent toward her, physically abusing her on at least two occasions. One of his blows broke her nose and hand. In March 1980, the relationship ended. Piotrowski had become pregnant. Minns, during an argument, began to push her and told her to have an abortion or move out. Piotrowski packed up her belongings and left Minns's Houston apartment.

Minns continued to harass Piotrowski after she left him. The harassment took a variety of forms -- threatening Piotrowski and her family, filing frivolous charges against her, vandalizing her property as well as her attorney's office, and even placing a stalling device on her car. But what makes this domestic dispute especially unusual is that Minns used the services of at least two members of the HPD as well as

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one member of the Houston Fire Department to harass Piotrowski.

Initially, Minns contacted Mickey Brown, a member of the Houston Arson Department who also taught boxing to Minns's children, to concoct an arson charge against Piotrowski. Brown, in turn, contacted Detective "Spider" Fincher of the HPD to discuss possible theft charges against Piotrowski. Fincher worked off duty for Dudley Bell, the central figure in Piotrowski's case. Bell was a private investigator with his own criminal record.2 Bell arranged the murder contract on Piotrowski.

Fincher telephoned Piotrowski and told her she would be arrested for arson and for felony grand theft (relating to items Piotrowski took with her upon leaving Minns's apartment) unless she signed a document releasing Minns from all common law marriage and paternity claims. Brown threatened her with the arson charge if she did not sign such an agreement.3

Piotrowski tried to reach a settlement with Minns. But instead of waiting for her to review a proposed agreement, Minns and Bell, with help from their contacts at the HPD, decided to put more pressure on Piotrowski. Minns invited Piotrowski to meet at his hotel so that the two could work out their differences. Piotrowski agreed. Once at the hotel, though, Minns summoned the police to arrest Piotrowski on the theft charges -- based on an arrest warrant that Minns had in his possession. Minns invited the officers at the scene to contact Fincher and HPD Detective Charles Wells, who also worked part-time for Bell, if the officers doubted the warrant's authenticity. Given the unique circumstance that the complainant possessed the warrant, the surprised officers accepted Minns's offer. After receiving assurances of authenticity from either Fincher or Wells, on duty at HPD, the officers arrested Piotrowski.

Piotrowski was interrogated at an HPD station by Fincher and Wells, who produced the settlement agreement and told her that she could avoid theft charges by signing it. She refused. As a result, she was fingerprinted, photographed and forced to spend time in jail before being released.

Shortly after being released, Piotrowski was returning to her apartment from a friend's birthday party. Upon arriving at her residence, she became alarmed that Minns, Bell, Fincher, and Wells (among others) were gathered outside. Piotrowski attempted to call her lawyer from a public phone. Officer Wells prevented her from completing the call and escorted her to her apartment, which he and Fincher and Minns then searched. Minns directed the men to remove various items that he claimed were his. Although Wells and Fincher implied that they had a search warrant, Piotrowski never saw it. Bell remained in the parking lot during the search and allegedly vandalized and slashed the tires on the cars of Piotrowski and her attorney.

Toward the end of April 1980, Piotrowski filed a formal complaint with HPD's Internal Affairs Division ("IAD") about the conduct of Fincher and Wells.4 In fact,

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Piotrowski and her family filed several complaints with the HPD about the conduct of Minns, Bell, Fincher, and Wells in the months after she moved out of Minns's apartment. The complaints identified those men as the perpetrators of harassment and intimidation, and Piotrowski stated that Minns had threatened her life on several occasions. The HPD informed Piotrowski that they had investigated the various charges and found no wrongdoing by the police officers. Thus, despite her protests, no action was taken to stop the harassment or to discipline Fincher and Wells.

In May the office of Piotrowski's attorney was burglarized and set on fire. Files pertaining to Piotrowski's case were removed. At about this time, Minns directed Bell to rent an apartment below Piotrowski's in order to keep track of her. From this apartment, Adrian Franks, who worked for Bell, tapped Piotrowski's phone and recorded her calls.5 As Franks also monitored Piotrowski's comings and goings, he knew what she looked like and what car she drove. While Franks was spying on Piotrowski, Bell offered him $10,000 to kill her. Franks agreed. Bell supplied Franks with a packet of information on Piotrowski which included a police-style mug shot of her that could have been taken when she was interrogated by Fincher and Wells.

Franks installed a kill switch on Piotrowski's car in July.6 Fortunately, the device did not function properly. Piotrowski's car stalled, but she was not hurt. The police initially thought the device was a bomb. After determining that it was a kill switch, HPD investigators turned the matter over to the burglary and theft division -- the division in which Fincher and Wells worked. Although Minns was listed as a suspect on at least one police report, Minns was never questioned about the incident. Piotrowski knew her life was in danger.

Undeterred by Franks's failure, Bell shopped the murder contract to other would-be assassins. Bell spoke to at least three other people about killing Piotrowski: James Perry Dillard, Rick Waring, and Robert Jess Anderson. Anderson ultimately hired Nathaniel Ivery, the gunman, and Patrick Steen, the driver of the getaway car, to kill Piotrowski. On October 20, 1980, Ivery shot Piotrowski four times while she was sitting in her parked car outside a doughnut shop in Houston. The shooting paralyzed Piotrowski from the chest down. Ivery, Steen, Anderson, and Bell were all eventually convicted for their roles in the shooting.

Whether HPD was forewarned of the possible shooting was disputed at trial. Approximately five weeks before the shooting, Waring told his friend John Liles, an officer in the criminal intelligence

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division of the HPD, that Bell had solicited Waring and others to murder Piotrowski. According to Waring, Liles responded that the matter was now in police hands and that Waring should not warn Piotrowski.

Liles testified that he took the tip seriously and reported it to his supervisor, Lieutenant Reece. According to Liles, Reece prevented Liles from investigating the tip on his own and told Liles to submit a report to Captain Adams, the head of the homicide division.7 Adams testified that he first became aware of the tip when Liles called him the morning after the shooting. Adams said that he never saw a report from Liles and would have acted on it had he seen it. Detective...

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