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Mertes v. City of Rogers

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

July 23, 2019

Sonia Mertes, Trustee for the Heirs and Next-of-Kin of Luke Capouch, Plaintiff,
v.
City of Rogers and Joseph Zerwas, Jr., Individually, and in his Official Capacity, Defendants.[1]

          MARKUS C. YIRA, AND JULIE W. HANJANI, FOR PLAINTIFF.

          TAL A. BAKKE, JOSEPH E. FLYNN, AND PIERRE N. REGNIER, JARDINE LOGAN & O'BRIEN PLLP, FOR DEFENDANTS.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          SUSAN RICHARD NELSON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This case is about the tragic suicide of Luke Capouch, a promising young man from Elk River, Minnesota. Capouch took his own life shortly after being released from the Rogers Police Department, where he had been briefly detained following an arrest for shoplifting. Plaintiff Sonia Mertes (Capouch's mother) subsequently brought this lawsuit seeking to hold the City of Rogers accountable for Capouch's death. Specifically, Mertes alleges that certain threatening and abusive behavior exhibited by one of the City's police officers, Defendant Joseph Zerwas, Jr., during Capouch's time at the police station led Capouch to take his own life. Zerwas, along with his co-Defendant, the City of Rogers, now move for summary judgment. Mertes opposes the motion.

         The Court is deeply sympathetic to Mertes's plight. However, because there is no evidence that Zerwas, or any of the officers who encountered Capouch during his arrest, knew (or could have known) that Capouch was at risk of committing suicide after he left the police station, the law forbids holding Zerwas (and, by extension, the City of Rogers) liable for Capouch's subsequent decision to take his own life. Accordingly, the Court is dutybound to grant Defendants' motion, and to dismiss Mertes's complaint with prejudice.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background

         1. The Parties

         At the time of his death, Luke Capouch (“Capouch”) was a 19-year-old high school graduate who had just started working as a train conductor for the Canadian Pacific Railway. (See Capouch Incident Rep. [Doc. No. 50-3] at 1 (Capouch's age); J. Capouch Dep. [Doc. No. 49-4] at 33 (Capouch's graduation status); H. Mertes Dep. [Doc. No. 49-5] at 47-48 (Capouch's occupation).) He was, by all accounts, a happy, humorous, and well-liked young man. (See generally S. Mertes Dep. [Doc. No. 49-6] 22-23, 29-33 (Capouch's mother); H. Mertes Dep. at 36-37 (Capouch's father-in-law); J. Capouch Dep. at 31-33 (Capouch's biological father); Bandescu Dep. [Doc. No. 49-7] at 9-11 (Capouch's friend); Patka Dep. [Doc. No. 49-8] at 11-13 (Capouch's friend); Patterson Dep. [Doc. No. 49-13] at 12-13 (Capouch's friend).) In fact, at their depositions, Capouch's close friends and family uniformly testified that, as far as they knew, Capouch had never exhibited depressed or suicidal tendencies at any point over the course of his life. (Id.) However, it appears that, during the year or two before his death, Capouch gambled more than he should have, which occasionally left him short off money. (See, e.g., J. Capouch Dep. at 113-14; Patterson Dep. at 9-10.)

         Defendant Joseph Zerwas, Jr. worked as a police officer for Defendant City of Rogers for approximately fourteen years, from some point in 2001 through February 26, 2015. (See Zerwas Dep. II [Doc. No. 55-1] at 7.) He now works as a part-time officer for the City of Corcoran. (Id. at 8.) During his time working for the Rogers Police Department, Zerwas, like all his fellow Rogers police officers, received training in “recognizing warning signs of suicide risk.” (Id. at 28-33; see also Beahen Dep. [Doc. No. 49-3] at 31-34 (describing department-wide training).) At the time of the Capouch incident, Officer Zerwas worked alongside City of Rogers Police Chief Jeffrey Beahen and City of Rogers police officer Daniel Rose.

         2. The Arrest

         On October 22, 2014, at around 3:00 P.M., Officers Zerwas, Rose, and Beahen arrested Capouch for stealing clothes, including a $330 thermal jacket, from a Cabela's sporting goods store in Rogers, Minnesota. (See generally Capouch Incident Rep.) The Officers effectuated this arrest after a Cabela's security officer called 9-1-1 and informed the operator that he had personally witnessed Capouch commit the theft and then drive away in a black Honda Accord. (Id.)[2] There is no dispute that Capouch committed this crime. In fact, when the Officers stopped Capouch and asked whether the Cabela's jacket he was wearing was his, Capouch did not deny culpability and instead simply stated, “no you can take the jacket, I don't care, arrest me.” (Id. at 4.)

         After placing Capouch under arrest for gross misdemeanor theft, see Minn. Stat. § 609.52, the three officers parted ways: Chief Beahen went to the Cabela's to further investigate the theft(s), [3] Officer Zerwas stayed with Capouch's Honda Accord to assist with the vehicle's impoundment, and Officer Rose drove Capouch to the nearby Rogers police station to “book, ” i.e., make a record of, Capouch's arrest. (See generally Capouch Incident Rep.) Nothing of note occurred during Officer Rose's drive back to the police station. (See generally Officer Rose Police Squad Car Video [Doc. No. 50-1].)

         Capouch's booking process lasted approximately 45 minutes. (See generally Booking Room Video [Doc. No. 50-2].) For the most part, these 45 minutes were quiet and uneventful. That is, per the video evidence, most of Capouch's booking process consisted of either Officer Rose quietly typing information into his computer while Capouch sat nearby, or of Officer Rose taking Capouch's fingerprints while Capouch diligently followed the Officer's instructions. (Id.) However, two verbal exchanges of note took place during this time period: one brief exchange between just Capouch and Officer Rose at the beginning of the booking process, and another, more prolonged, exchange between Capouch and Officer Zerwas during the last ten minutes of Capouch's detention.[4]

         First, at an early point in the process, Officer Rose off-handedly asked Capouch (while Rose was typing on a computer), “you just short on money, or you just wanted a jacket, or you just seeing if you can get away with this type of thing, or . . . ?” (Id. at 5:08.) Capouch calmly and casually replied, “I've got a little bit of a gambling problem, man. I've lost a lot of my money gambling and I didn't go there planning to steal anything. I was just trying to pass the time until I got called to work here, and yeah, I've just gotten away with stealing so much. [Pauses] You know what I mean?” (Id. at 5:15 - 5:36.)

         Officer Rose did not further inquire into Capouch's “gambling problem” or follow up on this conversation in any substantial manner, and neither did Capouch.

         Second, and more notably, Officer Zerwas made the following, arguably threatening, remarks to Capouch about his (recently achieved) employment with the Canadian Pacific Railway. First, around 30 minutes into the booking process, while Officer Rose was still taking Capouch's fingerprints, Officer Zerwas asked Capouch, “so you work for Canadian Pacific, huh?” (Id. at 33:36.) Capouch responded, “Yes sir.” (Id.) Officer Zerwas then observed, “they're not going to like this too well, are they?” (Id.) Capouch responded, “I don't know.” (Id.) Capouch then provided a few more details about his employment to Zerwas, including the fact that he had only been working at Canadian Pacific for four months. (Id. at 34:15.)

         Second, about five minutes later, while Officer Rose was typing at his computer and Capouch was sitting on a bench nearby, Officer Zerwas and Capouch got into the following tit-for-tat, which, for ease of reference, the Court will simply reprint in script form:

Zerwas: [Out of the blue] Yeah, I know some people at Canadian Pacific. You might want to talk to somebody when you're there.
Capouch: Who do you know?
Zerwas: People you don't know.
Capouch: Yeah?
Zerwas: Believe me, yeah.
Capouch: [Laughs]
Zerwas: Seriously.
Capouch: Who do you know then?
Zerwas: That's none of your business. People, people that work there. But you'll find out. Once they find out about the charge, you won't be there any longer.
Capouch: That's too bad.
Zerwas: Yeah, they won't allow that. ...

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