Johnson v. Ferris State University Department of Public Safety et al
OPINION; signed by District Judge Paul L. Maloney (Judge Paul L. Maloney, cmc)
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF MICHIGAN
NOAH SYL JOHNSON,
Case No. 1:17-cv-473
Honorable Paul L. Maloney
FERRIS STATE UNIVERSITY DEP’T
OF PUBLIC SAFETY et al.,
This is a civil rights action brought by a state prisoner pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
The Court has granted Plaintiff leave to proceed in forma pauperis. Under the Prison Litigation
Reform Act, PUB. L. NO. 104-134, 110 STAT. 1321 (1996), the Court is required to dismiss any
prisoner action brought under federal law if the complaint is frivolous, malicious, fails to state a
claim upon which relief can be granted, or seeks monetary relief from a defendant immune from such
relief. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2), 1915A; 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(c). The Court must read Plaintiff’s pro
se complaint indulgently, see Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972), and accept Plaintiff’s
allegations as true, unless they are clearly irrational or wholly incredible. Denton v. Hernandez, 504
U.S. 25, 33 (1992). Applying these standards, the Court will dismiss Plaintiff’s complaint for failure
to state a claim against Defendants Ferris State University Department of Public Safety, Big Rapids
Department of Public Safety and Mecosta County Sheriff’s Department. The Court will serve the
complaint against Defendants Helper, Chamberlain, Hauger, Kuiawa, and Pippin.
Plaintiff Noah Syl Johnson was incarcerated at the Ingham County Jail at the time the
complaint was filed, but he has since been released on probation. The actions about which he
complains occurred during the course of his arrest. He sues the Ferris State University Department
of Public Safety, the Big Rapids Public Safety Department, and the Mecosta County Sheriff’s
Department, together with the following individual officers: FSU Department of Public Safety
Officers Diana Helper and Michael Chamberlain; Big Rapids Public Safety Department Sergeant Jeff
Hauger; Big Rapids Public Safety Officer Jason Kuiawa; and Mecosta County Sheriff’s Department
Deputy Sergeant Pippin.
According to the complaint, on January 23, 2016, Plaintiff was variously spending
time in his dorm room (1103) watching television with friends or talking to other individuals in room
807. Plaintiff left to go to the store, but found he had forgotten his wallet. He returned and was
preparing to get on the elevator, when the elevator door opened. Hall monitor Sarah Cambell was
in the elevator with Defendant Chamberlain. Hall identified Plaintiff. Chamberlain asked for
Plaintiff’s identification, which he provided. Defendant Chamberlain asked to walk with Plaintiff
toward his room and then asked if he could come into the room. Plaintiff refused. Chamberlain
opened Plaintiff’s door and sniffed and said, “It smells like marijuana in here.” (Compl., ECF No.
1, PageID.3.) Defendant Chamberlain then smelled Plaintiff and told him he smelled like marijuana,
too. Plaintiff told Chamberlain that the smell was coming from the study room, and Plaintiff opened
the door of the study to show Chamberlain. Plaintiff then stated, “It’s also coming from here,” and
he started to open the stairway door, where students often smoked marijuana. (Id.) Defendant
Chamberlain then pushed Plaintiff through the door and against the wall. Now accompanied by
Defendant Helper, Chamberlain told Plaintiff that he was not free to leave and that he could “do this
the easy way or the hard way.” (Id.) Plaintiff asked what was the hard way, and Defendant Helper
told him that it was with handcuffs on. Plaintiff then advised that he was calling his attorney. At
that point, he was rushed and tackled, leading to Plaintiff and both Defendants tumbling down the
After tumbling down the stairs, Plaintiff was no longer in the officers’ grasp. He
jumped up and ran to the seventh floor, as he believe he had done nothing wrong and was afraid of
being assaulted. On the seventh floor, he went to Kristina’s room to pick up his headphones and
calm down. When he calmed down, he walked back to talk to the officers. As soon as he opened
the door to the stair well, Defendant Chamberlain was reaching for his gun. Plaintiff turned and ran
down the hallway, down some stairs and out the door. He then laid on the ground and put his hands
behind his back. Plaintiff was afraid that he was going to be shot. Deputies Tanner and Haynes
(who are not Defendants) handcuffed Plaintiff, stood him up, searched him, and put him into
Defendant Helper’s car to be transported by Big Rapids Public Safety Officer Kuiawa and Sgt.
Hauger. Defendants Kuiawa and Hauger began to handle Plaintiff roughly and forcefully, throwing
Plaintiff against their police cruiser. Defendant Pippin kicked Plaintiff’s right leg, causing Plaintiff
to buckle to his knees from pain. Defendant Kuiawa changed Plaintiff’s handcuffs and placed him
in painful wristlock holds, before putting him into the back seat of the patrol car.
Plaintiff alleges that he was unlawfully arrested and that Defendants used excessive
force. He also alleges that he possibly was subjected to racial discrimination because, although his
roommate admitted that the marijuana was his, he was not subjected to the same treatment. Plaintiff
claims that he was not charged with a marijuana charge and his urine was negative for marijuana.
Plaintiff believes that something discriminatory happened.
For relief, Plaintiff seeks compensatory and punitive damages.
Failure to state a claim
A complaint may be dismissed for failure to state a claim if it fails “‘to give the
defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.’” Bell Atl. Corp.
v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). While
a complaint need not contain detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff’s allegations must include more
than labels and conclusions. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555; Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)
(“Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements,
do not suffice.”). The court must determine whether the complaint contains “enough facts to state
a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. “A claim has facial
plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable
inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. Although
the plausibility standard is not equivalent to a “‘probability requirement,’ . . . it asks for more than
a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly,
550 U.S. at 556). “[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the
mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged – but it has not ‘show[n]’ – that the
pleader is entitled to relief.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (quoting FED. R. CIV. P. 8(a)(2)); see also Hill
v. Lappin, 630 F.3d 468, 470-71 (6th Cir. 2010) (holding that the Twombly/Iqbal plausibility
standard applies to dismissals of prisoner cases on initial review under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915A(b)(1)
To state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must allege the violation of a right
secured by the federal Constitution or laws and must show that the deprivation was committed by
a person acting under color of state law. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988); Street v. Corr.
Corp. of Am., 102 F.3d 810, 814 (6th Cir. 1996). Because § 1983 is a method for vindicating federal
rights, not a source of substantive rights itself, the first step in an action under § 1983 is to identify
the specific constitutional right allegedly infringed. Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 271 (1994).
Plaintiff sues the Ferris State University Department of Public Safety which is a part
of Ferris State University. Ferris State University is a division of the State of Michigan. Regardless
of the form of relief requested, the states and their departments are immune under the Eleventh
Amendment from suit in the federal courts, unless the state has waived immunity or Congress has
expressly abrogated Eleventh Amendment immunity by statute. See Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp.
v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 98-101 (1984); Alabama v. Pugh, 438 U.S. 781, 782 (1978); O’Hara
v. Wigginton, 24 F.3d 823, 826 (6th Cir. 1993). Congress has not expressly abrogated Eleventh
Amendment immunity by statute, Quern v. Jordan, 440 U.S. 332, 341 (1979), and the State of
Michigan has not consented to civil rights suits in federal court. Abick v. Michigan, 803 F.2d 874,
877 (6th Cir. 1986). The Sixth Circuit long ago recognized that Michigan state universities are
immune from suit. See, e.g., Estate of Ritter by Ritter v. Univ. of Mich., 851 F.2d 846, 848-50 (6th
Cir. 1988). In addition, the State of Michigan (acting through the Ferris State University) is not a
“person” who may be sued under § 1983 for money damages. See Lapides v. Bd. of Regents, 535
U.S. 613 (2002) (citing Will v. Mich. Dep’t of State Police, 491 U.S. 58 (1989)). Therefore, the
Court dismisses the Ferris State University Department of Public Safety.
Plaintiff sues the Big Rapids Public Safety Department and the Mecosta County
Sheriff’s Department. Neither the Big Rapids Public Safety Department nor the Mecosta County
Sheriff’s Department exists as a separate legal entity. The former is a division of the City of Big
Rapids. See MICH.COMP.LAWS § 92.1; Haverstick Enter., Inc. v. Fin. Fed. Credit, Inc., 32 F.3d 989,
992 n.1 (6th Cir. 1994). The latter is a division of Mecosta County. See, e.g., Vine v. Cnty. of
Ingham, 884 F. Supp. 1153, 1158 (W.D. Mich. 1995) (citing Hughson v. Cnty. of Antrim, 707 F.
Supp. 304, 306 (W.D. Mich. 1988), and Bayer v. Almstadt, 185 N.W.2d 40, 44 (Mich. Ct. App.
1970)). Accordingly, the Court will dismiss both the Big Rapids Public Safety Department and the
Mecosta County Sheriff’s Department.
However, construing Plaintiff’s pro se complaint with all required liberality, Haines,
404 U.S. at 520, the Court assumes that Plaintiff intended to sue the City of Big Rapids and Mecosta
County. Neither the city nor the county may not be held vicariously liable for the actions of its
employees under § 1983. See Connick v. Thompson, 563 U.S. 51, 60 (2011); City of Canton v.
Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 392 (1989); Monell v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978). Instead,
a county is liable only when its official policy or custom causes the injury. Id.
Plaintiff’s allegations against the city and county essentially rest on a theory of
vicarious liability and therefore do not state a claim. Id. To the extent that Plaintiff suggests the
existence of a custom of unlawful arrest and excessive force, his suggestion is wholly conclusory.
As the Supreme Court has instructed, to demonstrate that a municipality had an unlawful custom,
a plaintiff must show that the municipality was deliberately indifferent to “practices so persistent and
widespread as to practically have the force of law.” Connick, 563 U.S. at 60. Plaintiff cites no prior
incidents demonstrating a widespread pattern. He merely implies that such a pattern exists.
Conclusory allegations of unconstitutional conduct without specific factual allegations fail to state
a claim under § 1983. See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678; Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (2007). Plaintiff
therefore fails to state a claim against either the City of Big Rapids or Mecosta County. Accordingly,
the Court will dismiss both Defendants.
Having evaluated Plaintiff’s allegations against the remaining Defendants, the Court
concludes that Plaintiff has adequately stated at least one claim against them. The Court therefore
will order service of the complaint on the remaining Defendants.
Having conducted the review required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, the Court
determines that Defendants Ferris State University Department of Public Safety, Big Rapids
Department of Public Safety and Mecosta County Sheriff’s Department will be dismissed for failure
to state a claim pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2) and 1915A(b), and 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(c). The
Court will serve the complaint against Defendants Helper, Chamberlain, Hauger, Kuiawa, and
An Order consistent with this Opinion will be entered.
Dated: July 14, 2017
/s/ Paul L. Maloney
Paul L. Maloney
United States District Judge
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