Detroit Will Breathe v. City of Detroit

484 F. Supp. 3d 511 (2020)

Quick Summary

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Detroit Will Breathe (plaintiff) and individual protestors sued the City of Detroit (defendant) following protests against police brutality. They claimed their rights were violated due to the city’s police force’s aggressive response.

The issue revolved around whether the City could hold plaintiffs liable for civil conspiracy without an underlying tort and whether their allegations indicated a conspiracy. The court dismissed the City’s counterclaim due to lack of an actionable tort and insufficient evidence of an agreement among plaintiffs.

Facts of the Case

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Following the death of George Floyd during an arrest by Minneapolis police, protests erupted in Detroit, led by the plaintiff group Detroit Will Breathe (plaintiff) and 14 individuals. They alleged that the City of Detroit (defendant), particularly its police department and officers, violated their First and Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force during these demonstrations, including chemical agents, rubber bullets, and mass arrests without probable cause.

The plaintiffs sought a temporary restraining order to stop these tactics and later filed for injunctive and monetary relief. In response, the City of Detroit filed a counterclaim alleging civil conspiracy by the plaintiffs against the police.

Procedural Posture and History

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  1. Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the City of Detroit alleging excessive force and violation of constitutional rights.
  2. A temporary restraining order was granted against the City of Detroit’s police tactics.
  3. The City of Detroit filed a counterclaim for civil conspiracy against the plaintiffs.
  4. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan ruled on the motion to dismiss the counterclaim.

I.R.A.C. Format

Issue

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Whether the City of Detroit can maintain a civil conspiracy claim against the plaintiffs without alleging an underlying actionable tort, and whether the City has sufficiently pled facts to support a civil conspiracy claim.

Rule of Law

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To establish a civil conspiracy in Michigan, there must be a combination of two or more persons to accomplish an unlawful purpose or a lawful purpose by unlawful means, and this must be supported by an underlying actionable tort.

Reasoning and Analysis

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The court determined that the City of Detroit’s counterclaim did not allege any specific underlying tort, which is required to support a civil conspiracy claim. The alleged unlawful actions such as obstructing traffic and disorderly conduct were not actionable torts under Michigan law. Furthermore, the court found that the City’s allegations did not plausibly suggest that the plaintiffs reached an agreement to commit any form of unlawful activity.

The City’s reliance on statements made by plaintiffs during interviews or on social media was insufficient to establish a conspiratorial agreement. The court concluded that simply organizing and publicizing protests does not equate to a conspiracy to engage in unlawful acts.

Conclusion

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The motion to dismiss the counterclaim was granted, and the counterclaim was dismissed with prejudice as there was no actionable underlying tort and insufficient factual allegations to support a civil conspiracy claim.

Key Takeaways

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  1. An underlying actionable tort is necessary for a civil conspiracy claim to be maintained under Michigan law.
  2. Allegations of criminal activity are not sufficient to establish a civil conspiracy if there is no corresponding private right of action.
  3. Statements made by plaintiffs in interviews or on social media cannot alone substantiate a claim for civil conspiracy without evidence of an agreement to commit unlawful acts.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What constitutes an actionable tort in civil law?

An actionable tort in civil law is a wrongful act or infringement of a right (other than under contract) leading to legal liability. To sue for a tort, the plaintiff must prove that there was a duty owed to them by the defendant, the duty was breached, causing harm or damages as a result of the breach. There must be proof of injury for the tort to be actionable.

  • For example: If someone trespasses on your property and causes damage, you can sue for the tort of trespass to land, as it is an actionable civil wrong against your property rights.

How do courts determine if there has been a civil conspiracy?

Courts look for evidence that two or more parties colluded to commit an unlawful act or a lawful act through unlawful means which resulted in damages to the plaintiff. There must be an agreement between the conspirators and an overt act that leads to the injury.

  • For example: Two businesses may collude to rig bid prices, harming consumers by depriving them of fair market competition—a scenario meeting criteria for civil conspiracy.

In what situations can organizing and publicizing protests result in legal liability?

Legal liability can arise if the organizers incite violence or illegal actions during a protest, or if they neglect local laws regarding permits and public safety. However, mere organization and publicity of protests are generally protected under free speech rights, unless they’re linked directly to actionable harm or illegal acts.

  • For example: An organizer could face legal consequences if they promoted a protest by encouraging participants to engage in vandalism as part of their demonstration.

References

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