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Huertas v. City of Camden

February 14, 2007

HECTOR L. HUERTAS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CITY OF CAMDEN, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Simandle, District Judge

OPINION

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff brought this action against the City of Camden and African American Camden public officials Gwendolyn Faison, Frank Fulbrook, Ali Sloan-El, Cyrus Saxon, and Deborah Polk (collectively "Defendants"), claiming that Defendants intentionally discriminated against Hispanic voters in Camden by promoting, enacting and enforcing a majority-vote/run-off requirement for elections of the Camden Mayor and Camden City Council Members in violation of the Voting Rights Act 42 U.S.C. § 1973, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, 42 U.S.C. 1988, and the First, Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.*fn1

This matter comes before the Court upon the motions of Plaintiff Hector Huertas ("Plaintiff") for partial judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c) (Docket Items 34 and 37), to strike as insufficient certain of Defendants' affirmative defenses pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(f) (Docket Items 37 and 38), and for a preliminary injunction pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 65(a) (Docket Item 33). In these pending motions, Plaintiff makes four arguments. First, Plaintiff argues that Defendants' answers to paragraphs twenty-nine, thirty-seven, thirty-eight, thirty-nine, forty-two, and forty-three of Plaintiff's amended complaint entitle him to partial judgment on the pleadings. (Plaintiff's Mem. Supp. Mot. for Partial J. on the Pleadings at 1 [Docket Item 34].) Second, Plaintiff argues that this Court's prior Opinion and Order on this matter dated September 22, 2006 (the "September Opinion"),*fn2 provides grounds to strike Defendants' first, third, fourth, sixth, seventh, and eighth affirmative defenses ("the defenses") as insufficient. (Plaintiff's Mot. to Strike at 1 [Docket Item 38].) Third, Plaintiff argues that this Court should strike Defendants' affirmative defenses because Defendants failed to plead good faith as an affirmative defense. (Plaintiff's Mot. to Strike at 1 [Docket Item 37].) Fourth, Plaintiff argues that a preliminary injunction enjoining Defendants from using the run-off requirement is necessary to prevent immediate and irreparable injury. (Plaintiff's Mot. for Preliminary Injunction at 1.) For the following reasons, the Court shall deny these motions.

II. MOTIONS FOR PARTIAL JUDGMENT ON THE PLEADINGS

Plaintiff's motions for partial judgment on the pleadings (Docket Items 34 and 37) will be denied. To prevail on a motion for judgment on the pleadings,*fn3 the moving party must show that there is no issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Daley v. Haddonfield Lumber Inc., 943 F. Supp. 464, 466 (D.N.J. 1996) (citing Jablonski v. Pan American World Airways, Inc., 863 F.2d 289, 290 (3d Cir. 1988)). The district court must view the pleadings in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Id. (internal citation omitted).

Defendants' answers do not entitle Plaintiff to partial judgment on the pleadings. Plaintiff has not shown that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on his voting rights claims. Plaintiff alleges that Defendants, who are government officials, intentionally discriminated against Hispanic voters by implementing the run-off provision in violation of the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act. Section 1983 provides a cause of action for constitutional violations. See, e.g., Gomez v. Toldeo, 446 U.S. 635, 638 (1980). To prove a prima facie claim under § 1983, Plaintiff must show: (1) a violation of a federal right, (2) by a person acting color of state law. Huertas v. City of Camden, No. 05-5375, 2006 WL 2772033, at *1 (D.N.J. Sept. 22, 2006) (citing Groman v. Manalapan, 47 F.3d 628 (3d Cir. 1995)); Carney v. Hargrave, No. 03-1717, 2006 WL 3825130, at *3 (D.N.J. Dec. 22, 2006) (citing West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1998)). For his constitutional voting rights claims, Plaintiff's prima facie case requires him to show that race discrimination was a motivating factor underlying Defendants' decision to enact the facially race-neutral run-off requirement. See Brooks v. Miller, 158 F.3d 1230, 1241 (11th Cir. 1998) (citing Hunter v. Underwood, 471 U.S. 222, 225 (1985) for proposition that once court determines that discrimination was motivating factor underlying government decision, burden shifts to defendant to demonstrate that law would have been enacted absent discriminatory motive).

For his Voting Rights Act claim, Plaintiff must show three threshold requirements: (1) whether Hispanic voting strength would be less diluted under a different, but workable scheme, (2) whether Hispanic voters are politically cohesive, and (3) whether the African American majority is usually able to defeat Hispanic voters' preferred candidates. See Brooks, 158 F.3d at 1239-41 (applying test for Voting Rights Act claim adopted in Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30 (1986), to challenge a majority vote requirement); see also Jenkins v. Manning, 116 F.3d 685, 690 (3d Cir. 1997) (finding that Voting Rights Act challenge to at-large system of electing school board members required showing that (1) minority group is sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute majority in single-member district, (2) minority group is politically cohesive, and (3) white majority votes en bloc to usually defeat the minority's preferred candidate). Additionally, Plaintiff must ultimately show that, under the totality of the circumstances, the challenged voting scheme deprived minority voters of "an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice . . . ." Jenkins, 116 F.3d at 691.

A brief analysis of the pleadings illustrates why Plaintiff is not entitled to judgment at this stage. In Defendants' answer to paragraph twenty-nine, Defendants admitted to the number of votes certain candidates won in the 2005 elections. In Defendants' answer to paragraph thirty-seven, Defendants admitted that Defendant Sloan-El supported Defendant Faison, an African-American candidate, in the 2005 run-off election. For paragraph thirty-eight, Defendants admitted that every run-off election in 2005 resulted in a victory for an African American candidate. Similarly, for paragraph thirty-nine, Defendant admitted that the 2005 run-off elections produced only two Latinos on City Council for the first time in ten years.

Additionally, it appears that the "allegations" admitted*fn4 from paragraphs forty-two and forty-three of the Complaint contain references to irrelevant newspaper articles. Paragraph forty-three of the Complaint refers to Mayor Faison's support for the police in an unrelated tragedy, the June 2005 death of three Latino children in the trunk of a car, and paragraph forty-two refers to a dispute over Camden's allegedly wrongful failure to distribute federal grant money to the Puerto Rican Culture and Arts Center. Defendants' admissions that these articles were published have no bearing on this voting rights case and entitle Plaintiff to no relief.

Plaintiff argues that all of these admissions are evidence of racially discriminatory motive and that the run-off scheme deprived Latinos of voting power. However, these admissions do not even establish beyond dispute the prima facie elements of Plaintiff's constitutional claims because they do not show that discrimination against Hispanic voters was a motivating factor in Defendants' decision to enact and enforce the run-off scheme. In addition, these admissions do not establish Plaintiff's Voting Rights Act claim because they do not show that Hispanic voters were deprived of an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice. Indeed, the number of votes a candidate wins in any given election can be attributed to multiple reasons, such as voter preference, campaign strength, popularity, or position on issues. Additionally, the number of votes certain candidates won does not show beyond dispute how Latinos voted in the elections, nor if their voting power was diminished. Nor does the fact that African American candidates won an election establish beyond dispute that Latinos lost voting strength or that Defendants intended to discriminate against Hispanic voters. Ultimately, the demonstration of an intent to discriminate is the Plaintiff's burden, and the present state of the record does not allow this Court to make such a determination. See Brooks, 158 F.3d at 1241 (finding Plaintiff must demonstrate discriminatory purpose in constitutional challenge to majority vote requirement and citing Hunter, 471 U.S. at 225, for the same proposition).

This analysis demonstrates that there are issues of material fact. Because this Court must construe the pleadings in the light most favorable to Defendants for purposes of this motion, Plaintiff is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law and his motion for judgment on the pleadings will be denied.

III. MOTIONS TO STRIKE DEFENSES

Plaintiff's motions to strike the defenses (Docket Items 37 and 38) will also be denied. Rule 12(f) provides, in part, that "the court may order stricken from any pleading any insufficient defense . . . ." Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(f). A court should not strike a defense unless the insufficiency of the defense is "clearly apparent from the pleadings." Ryer v. Harrisburg Kohl Bros., Inc., 53 F.R.D. 404, 408 (M.D. Pa. 1971); see Cipollone v. Ligget Group, Inc., 789 F.2d 181, 188 (3d Cir. 1986), rev'd on other grounds 505 U.S. 504 (1992). Moreover, courts should avoid evaluating the merits of a defense when the facts of a case are undeveloped. Cipollone, 789 F.2d at 188 (internal citations omitted). Furthermore, motions to strike are disfavored, and will usually be denied "unless the allegations have no possible relation to the controversy and may cause prejudice to one of the parties." McInerney v. Moyer Lumber and Hardware, Inc., 244 F. Supp. 2d 393, 402 (E.D. Pa. 2002) (internal ...


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