Watson v. City of Henderson, 2:20-cv-01761-APG-BNW

CourtUnited States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. District of Nevada
Writing for the CourtANDREW P. GORDON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
Docket Number2:20-cv-01761-APG-BNW
PartiesLATESHA WATSON, Plaintiff v. CITY OF HENDERSON, et al., Defendants.
Decision Date23 September 2021

LATESHA WATSON, Plaintiff
v.

CITY OF HENDERSON, et al., Defendants.

No. 2:20-cv-01761-APG-BNW

United States District Court, D. Nevada

September 23, 2021


ORDER (1) GRANTING IN PART MOTIONS TO DISMISS, (2) GRANTING IN PART MOTION FOR LEAVE TO AMEND, (3) DENYING AS MOOT ANTI-SLAPP SPECIAL MOTION TO DISMISS, AND (5) DENYING AS MOOT MOTION FOR LEAVE FOR DISCOVERY

[ECF NOS. 33, 35, 36, 49, 50]

ANDREW P. GORDON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

The City of Henderson (City) hired Dr. LaTesha Watson as Chief of Police to reform the police department's culture. But she contends that when she took steps to change that culture, union members fought back and City officials enabled them while abandoning her. Watson alleges she faced race and gender-motivated harassment, including the filing of numerous false complaints and leaks to the media designed to get her removed as Chief. She alleges that City officials investigated each complaint against her but failed to investigate her complaints. She also contends City officials undermined decisions within her purview. She maintains that these events culminated in her termination and impacted her ability to obtain future jobs.

Watson sues the City and various City officials, including Mayor Debra March, City Manager Richard Derrick, Deputy City Manager Bristol Ellington, [1] City Attorney Nick Vaskov, and Assistant City Attorney Kristina Gilmore (individual, the City defendants). ECF No. 1 at 3-4. She also sues union officials, including Kevin Abernathy, a peace officer and President of the Henderson Police Supervisors Association (HPSA); Kenneth Kerby, a peace officer and the President of the Henderson Police Officers Association (HPOA); and Richard McCann, the Executive Director and Chief Labor Representative of the Nevada Association of Public Safety Officers (NAPSO). Id. She asserts claims for disparate treatment based on race and gender, a hostile work environment, due process violations, conspiracy, intentional interference with a contractual relationship, intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED), negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED), defamation, and libel. Id. at 22-29.

Abernathy, Kerby, and McCann (the union defendants) move to dismiss because they believe Watson has failed to plausibly allege that their personal involvement gives rise to liability for the claims against them and they are entitled to qualified immunity for the § 1983 claim. ECF No. 33. The City defendants move to dismiss because they believe Watson has not established Monell liability for the City, that the individual City defendants are entitled to qualified immunity and discretionary immunity, and that Watson has not plausibly alleged her claims. ECF No. 36. In addition, Vaskov and Gilmore filed a special motion to dismiss the state law claims under Nevada's anti-Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (anti-SLAPP) statute. ECF No. 35. Watson opposes the motions and moves for leave to amend if I dismiss her claims and for leave to conduct discovery to respond to the anti-SLAPP motion. ECF Nos. 46 to 50.

I grant the motions to dismiss in part. I dismiss all claims against the individual City defendants, Kerby, and McCann. I dismiss all the claims against the City except for the hostile work environment claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1981. The hostile work environment and the IIED claims will proceed against Abernathy, but I dismiss the rest of the claims against him. I grant Watson leave to amend all the claims I dismissed, except the tortious interference claim against the City. Because I dismiss all claims against Vaskov and Gilmore, I deny as moot both the special anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss and Watson's motion for limited discovery related to it.

I. BACKGROUND[2]

Watson was hired as the City's Chief of Police in September 2017 after a nationwide search. ECF No. 1 at 5. The City Manager who hired Watson, Robert Murnane, told her that “she was hired to facilitate a cultural change in the department.” Id. at 5-6. He explained that the “police department operated as a ‘good ol' boy' system where nepotism and favoritism was rampant” and that “inappropriate personal conduct was overlooked if a police officer had the right associates.” Id. at 6. At the time Watson was hired, she was the only Black female sworn peace officer for the Henderson Police Department (HPD) and only Black department head. Id.

Prior to her arrival, Watson received an email from a former HPD employee who warned her of HPD members “already discussing her inability to make changes to the agency, looking for her to fail and openly discussing their disgust with her hiring.” Id. at 7. The email described how administrative staff undermined a prior Chief of Police that had been hired outside the organization by filing a multitude of complaints to “bully him out of office.” Id. at 7-8. During receptions held for Watson when she arrived in Henderson, multiple people made comments to her including: “you are going to have a hard time, they don't want you, ” “they don't accept outsiders and they're definitely not going to accept a woman, ” and “they don't think women belong in policing, especially command over White males.” Id. at 8.

From the start, Watson enforced the existing Code of Conduct to discipline police officers for improper personal conduct, which City officials approved initially. Id. at 7. About three months after Watson started, Murnane retired and defendant Derrick became City Manager. Id. at 6. Watson asked Derrick if he wanted to select a new Chief of Police to pursue his own goals, but he said he wanted her to “move forward with the planned cultural changes.” Id. About six months later, Watson was instructed to report directly to defendant Ellington. Id. at 7.

As Watson began making changes, she “became a target of systematic discrimination based upon her race and gender.” Id. at 8. Watson's changes “received push-back, insubordination or other inappropriate negative reactions.” Id. HPD officers posted “disparaging comments” about Watson on a racist website, but the City never investigated. Id. at 13. Watson personally reported it to defendant March, who told her to “stay strong” but did nothing further. Id. Watson contends that beginning in the summer of 2018, Abernathy encouraged HPD members to file false complaints about her. Id. Abernathy told officers, “I want this black bitch out of here and we need to find complaints against her, ” but the City did not investigate it. Id. Numerous false complaints were filed against Watson, including that she created an environment of fear, violated ethics by accepting hockey tickets, cheated on an exam, hired a friend to evaluate HPD policies, discriminated against an officer, and made religious references. Id. at 13-14. An outside law firm investigated the false complaints but found no violations. Id. at 14. Notwithstanding that, Watson contends that the false complaints were “eventually used against [her] as if they were valid.” Id.

In a meeting discussing the false complaints, defendant Vaskov insisted that all the complaints had to be investigated despite their falsity and that an outside law firm investigated all complaints against City executives to ensure impartiality. Id. Watson noted that the same process was not used to investigate her own complaints nor to investigate similar complaints made against a white female HPD employee. Id. at 14-15. Watson later learned that defendant Gilmore had been present in a meeting investigating a complaint against Watson and that Gilmore had been identified as the complainant's representative. Id. Vaskov told Watson that Gilmore was in those meetings only to take notes. Id. at 15.

On September 26, 2018, Watson, Derrick, and Ellington called a meeting to discuss false information that Kerby and Abernathy reported about Watson. Id. at 11. During that meeting, Kerby and Abernathy complained about Watson sometimes wearing business attire and having her hair down and curled. Id. Derrick and Ellington did not address these “obviously sexist comments, ” telling Watson it was her responsibility. Id. Ellington also directed Watson to handle reprimanding Kerby and Abernathy for the false information. Id.

Two days after the meeting, Ellington informed Watson that a member of the police union told him, “[s]ince we can't get anything on the Chief, we are going to target her daughter and her husband now.” Id. Ellington did not investigate the comment and refused to disclose to Watson the identity of the person who made it. Id. Watson contends that his inaction “impliedly sanction[ed] the conduct and sen[t] a message to the offenders that [Watson] would not be protected.” Id. at 11-12.

The following week, defendant McCann filed an open records request for body camera footage involving Watson's 16-year-old daughter in a minor car accident. Id. at 12. McCann was not a supervisor for any of the officers at the scene, nor did he have authority over Watson, and Watson alleges on information and belief that he had never requested records of police officer family members before. Id. McCann reviewed the footage and requested two copies even though he had verified Watson's daughter had done nothing wrong. Id. Her daughter's accident was subsequently reported by the media, and a reporter from the Las Vegas Review Journal newspaper requested the footage after a “source” told the reporter that the video involved wrongdoing. Id. Retired Police Chief Pat Moers also requested a copy of the footage. Id. In April 2019, a reporter from Channel 13 requested the footage after she had been “tipped off” about the incident and asked Watson why her daughter had not been charged with a hit and run. Id. After this happened, Watson asked Derrick if Ellington had told him about the threat against her family. Id. He indicated that Ellington had not but that the behavior was “unacceptable and children...

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