Rosillo v. Holten

CourtUnited States District Courts. 8th Circuit. United States District Court of Minnesota
PartiesAlfredo Rosillo, Plaintiff, v. Matt Holten and Jeff Ellis, Defendants.
Docket NumberNo. 13-cv-1940 (JNE/SER),13-cv-1940 (JNE/SER)
Decision Date23 December 2014

Alfredo Rosillo, Plaintiff,
Matt Holten and Jeff Ellis, Defendants.

No. 13-cv-1940 (JNE/SER)


December 23, 2014


Plaintiff Alfredo Rosillo has brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Austin, Minnesota police officer Matt Holten and Mower County Sheriff's deputy Jeff Ellis. The matter is currently before the Court on Holten's motion for summary judgment. For the reasons discussed below, the motion is granted and Holten is dismissed from the case.


The events giving rise to this lawsuit occurred in June of 2011, following an incident at the home of Rosillo's girlfriend in Austin, Minnesota. Rosillo concedes that he was present, but admits to no wrongdoing. That position is at odds with the Minnesota criminal courts' determination that Rosillo "assaulted his girlfriend, broke into her home, assaulted her again and stole money from her purse, and fled on foot while tossing bags of methamphetamine into a neighbor's yard." State v. Rosillo, No. A13-0502, 2014 WL 1660641, at *1 (Minn. Ct. App. Apr. 28, 2014), review denied (July 15, 2014).

Nevertheless, it is undisputed here that, when the police were called, Rosillo ran away from the home and through a swampy area before stopping several blocks away and lying down in a field covered with waist-high grass.

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Austin police officer Holten and Mower County Sheriff's Deputy Ellis were dispatched to apprehend Rosillo. Accompanied by Holten's police dog, Ghost, the officers tracked Rosillo to the field where he lay and proceeded to take him into custody. Rosillo alleges that, in doing so, the officers used excessive force, which they deny.

Following his arrest, Rosillo was tried and convicted of domestic assault, first-degree burglary, first-degree aggravated robbery, and fifth-degree possession of methamphetamine, while being acquitted of several other charges. Id. at *2. He was sentenced to 240 months' imprisonment. Id.

Several months later, Rosillo filed this civil action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, asserting in a single-count Complaint that, during the arrest, Holten and Ellis "separately and in concert, under the color of state law, knowingly and willfully deprived [him] of his clearly established and well settled civil rights to due process and to be free from an unreasonable K9 attack, prolonged K9 biting, use of excessive, unreasonable force and unreasonable seizure."

Holten's motion for summary judgment has now followed.


Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), summary judgment is warranted if Holten "shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and [he] is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." In this procedural posture, the facts are viewed in the light most favorable to Rosillo, and all reasonable inferences from those facts are drawn in his favor. E.g., Chambers v. Pennycook, 641 F.3d 898, 904 (8th Cir. 2011).

With his motion, Holten argues that he should be dismissed from this case for either of two reasons: first, Rosillo has sued him only in his official capacity, but has no evidence to

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sustain such a claim; and second, even if Rosillo's Complaint is construed to include an individual capacity claim against Holten, he is entitled to qualified immunity.

The first point is determinative.

I. Official v. individual capacity.

The threshold issue presented by the motion is whether Rosillo has asserted his § 1983 claim against Holten in either his official or individual capacity (or perhaps both). Holten argues that Rosillo has sued him in his official capacity only, while Rosillo contends that he has sued Holten in his individual capacity only. Holten has the better of this dispute.

"[T]he distinction between official-capacity suits and personal-capacity suits is more than a mere pleading device." Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21, 27 (1991) (quotation omitted). A § 1983 claim against a public official in his official capacity is qualitatively different than one arising from the same set of facts and asserted against the same official in his individual capacity: the former is "functionally equivalent to a suit against the employing governmental entity," while the latter is a claim against the official personally. Veatch v. Bartels Lutheran Home, 627 F.3d 1254, 1257 (8th Cir. 2010). "For many reasons, including exposure to individual damage liability and [the availability of different] immunity [defenses], these are different causes of action." Baker v. Chisom, 501 F.3d 920, 923 (8th Cir. 2007).

As a result, the Eighth Circuit has for decades required a plaintiff intending to sue a public official in his individual capacity to say so explicitly in his pleadings:

[T]his court has often considered [whether] a plaintiff [has] properly asserted § 1983 claims against a public official acting in his individual capacity. We have repeatedly stated the general rule: "If a plaintiff's complaint is silent about the capacity in which [he] is suing the defendant, we interpret the complaint as including only official-capacity claims." Egerdahl v. Hibbing Cmty. Coll., 72 F.3d 615, 619 (8th Cir. 1995); see Nix. v. Norman, 879 F.2d 429, 431 (8th Cir.

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1989). "If the complaint does not specifically name the defendant in his individual capacity, it is presumed he is sued only in his official capacity." Artis v. Francis Howell N. Band Booster Ass'n, Inc., 161 F.3d 1178, 1182 (8th Cir. 1998). . . .

[O]ur cases require more than ambiguous pleading. See Andrus ex rel. Andrus v. Arkansas, 197 F.3d 953, 955 (8th Cir. 1999) ("specific pleading of individual capacity is required"); Johnson v. Outboard Marine Corp., 172 F.3d 531, 535 (8th Cir. 1999) ("only an express statement that [public officials] are being sued in their individual capacity will suffice"); Murphy v. State of Arkansas, 127 F.3d 750, 754 (8th Cir. 1997) ("a clear statement that officials are being sued in their personal capacities" is required). A "cryptic hint" in plaintiff's complaint is not sufficient. Egerdahl, 72 F.3d at 620.


Nowhere in his Complaint does Rosillo specifically, expressly, or clearly state that he is suing Holten in his individual capacity. Neither, for that matter, does Rosillo state in the Complaint that he is suing Holten in his official capacity. In light of the precedent above, this silence is all that need to be noted.

Nevertheless, it is worth considering that, though the Complaint lacks an express statement as to Holten's capacity, it was in other ways sufficient to put Holten on notice that Rosillo intended to sue him in his individual capacity, either solely or in conjunction with an official capacity claim. For instance, Rosillo alleges in his Complaint that "[p]unitive damages are available against [Holten]," which would be true only if he was sued in his individual capacity. See City of Newport v. Fact Concerts, Inc., 453 U.S. 247, 271 (1982) (holding "that a municipality is immune from punitive damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983"). What's more, in answering Rosillo's Complaint, Holten himself asserted the defense of qualified immunity, which would be relevant only if he were sued in his individual capacity. See Owen v. City of Independence, Mo., 445 U.S. 622, 650 (1980) (holding that, under § 1983, municipalities are not entitled to "qualified immunity based on the good faith of their officers"). And in fact, Holten has argued his qualified immunity defense here as an alternative basis...

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