JOHNSON v. THOMAS et al
MEMORANDUM. SIGNED BY HONORABLE ROBERT F. KELLY ON 2/1/2017. 2/1/2017 ENTERED AND COPIES E-MAILED.(amas)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
CHRISTOPHER THOMAS, et al.,
ROBERT F. KELLY, Sr. J.
FEBRUARY 1, 2017
Presently before the Court is Defendants, Christopher Thomas (“Thomas”) and City of
Philadelphia’s (“City”) (collectively “Defendants”) Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule
of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), Plaintiff, Steven Johnson’s (“Plaintiff”) Response in Opposition
thereto, and Defendants’ Reply. For the reasons set forth below, Defendants’ Motion is denied.
This case revolves around an incident where a prisoner was erroneously discharged 124
days past the maximum term allowed by his sentence. On September 29, 2016, Plaintiff initiated
suit by filing a Complaint against Defendants. (Doc. No. 1.) Defendants moved to dismiss and,
Plaintiff, subsequently, filed an Amended Complaint on October 28, 2016. (Doc. No. 5.)
Defendants now move to dismiss Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint. (Doc. No. 6.)
The underlying facts of the case begin on April 26, 2011, when Plaintiff was sentenced in
the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas to three to six years in state prison. (Am. Compl. ¶ 6.)
If Plaintiff served the maximum term allowed under his sentence, he was to be released on April
10, 2016; however, he was not actually released from custody until August 12, 2016. (Id. ¶ 16.)
The reason for the late release had to do with Defendants not properly awarding Plaintiff
time credit for the time he spent in custody. (Id. ¶ 7.) Allegedly, Plaintiff realized the error and
notified Thomas and John Doe (“Doe”), the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, and the
Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. (Id. ¶¶ 8-9.) In addition, Plaintiff filed a pro se
motion on July 12, 2015, in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia to correct his time credit
issue, but he was not given a hearing. (Id. ¶ 10.) Eventually, Thomas and Doe recalculated
Plaintiff’s time credit and realized the error. (Id. ¶ 12.) Once Thomas and Doe alerted the
Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and/or the Pennsylvania Board of Probation of this
error, Plaintiff was immediately released from custody. (Id. ¶¶ 13-14.)
Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint is comprised of five counts. Plaintiff alleges in Count I
that all Defendants deprived him of his procedural due process rights by failing to properly
execute the sentencing court’s judgment. (Id. ¶¶ 24-32.) In Count II, Plaintiff alleges that
Thomas and Doe violated his substantive due process rights by erroneously calculating his
sentence in the course of executing the sentencing court’s judgment. (Id. ¶¶ 33-38.) Count III
contends that Thomas and Doe violated his Fourth and Fourteenth amendments by wrongly
executing his sentence and holding him without basis past the expiration of his sentence. (Id.
¶¶ 39-45.) Count IV alleges that the City was responsible for the aforementioned claims based
on municipal liability. (Id. ¶¶ 46-53.) Finally, in Count V, Plaintiff contends that Thomas and
Doe committed the state law tort of false imprisonment, related to their wrongful execution of
the sentencing court’s judgment. (Id. ¶¶ 54-58.) On November 2, 2016, Defendants filed the
Motion to Dismiss that is before us today. (Doc. 6.)
STANDARD OF REVIEW
A motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) tests the sufficiency
of a complaint. Kost v. Kozakiewicz, 1 F.3d 176, 183 (3d Cir. 1993). Pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6),
the defendant bears the burden of demonstrating that the plaintiff has failed to set forth a claim
from which relief may be granted. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6); see also Lucas v. City of Phila., No.
11-4376, 2012 WL 1555430, at *2 (E.D. Pa. May 2, 2012) (citing Hedges v. U.S., 404 F.3d 744,
750 (3d Cir. 2005)). In evaluating a motion to dismiss, the court must view any reasonable
inferences from the factual allegations in a light most favorable to the plaintiff. Buck v.
Hamilton Twp. Sch. Dist., 452 F.3d 256, 260 (3d Cir. 2002).
The United States Supreme Court (“Supreme Court”) set forth in Twombly, and further
defined in Iqbal, a two-part test to determine whether to grant or deny a motion to dismiss. See
Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009); Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555
(2007). The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (“Third Circuit”) has noted that
these cases signify the progression from liberal pleading requirements to more “exacting
scrutiny” of the complaint. Wilson v. City of Phila., 415 F. Appx. 434, 436 (3d Cir. 2011).
Initially, the court must ascertain whether the complaint is supported by well-pleaded
factual allegations. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of
action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.
Conclusions of law can serve as the foundation of a complaint, but to survive dismissal they
must be supported by factual allegations. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. These factual allegations must
be explicated sufficiently to provide a defendant the type of notice that is contemplated by Rule
8. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2) (requiring a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the
pleader is entitled to relief); see also Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir.
2008). Where there are well-pleaded facts, courts must assume their truthfulness. Iqbal, 556
U.S. at 679.
Upon a finding of a well-pleaded complaint, the court must then determine whether these
allegations “plausibly” give rise to an entitlement to relief. Id. at 679. This is a “context specific
task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id.
Plausibility compels the pleadings to contain enough factual content to allow a court to make “a
reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (citing
Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 at 570). This is not a probability requirement; rather plausibility
necessitates “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Iqbal, 556
U.S. at 678. “Where a complaint pleads facts that are ‘merely consistent with’ a defendant’s
liability, it ‘stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility.’” Id. (quoting Twombly,
550 U.S. at 557). In other words, a complaint must not only allege entitlement to relief, but must
demonstrate such entitlement with sufficient facts to nudge the claim “across the line from
conceivable to plausible.” Id. at 683; see also Holmes v. Gates, 403 F. App’x 670, 673 (3d Cir.
Defendants argue that Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint should be dismissed on its merits
for several reasons. Defendants first argue that all of Plaintiff’s claims are barred by the decision
of the Supreme Court in Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994). (Defs.’ Mot. to Dismiss at 45.) Second, Defendants argue that if Heck does not bar Plaintiff’s claims, the claims should
nonetheless be dismissed because they cannot be liable for mere “negligence” under § 1983. (Id.
at 4.) Finally, Defendants argued that Count IV should be dismissed because the City cannot be
held liable for any claims since the facts alleged in the Amended Complaint do not “plead any
actual facts regarding a municipal policy or custom,” and also because the allegations do not
“allege conduct by a municipal policymaker.” (Id. at 5-8.)
A. Claims are Not Barred By the Decision in Heck
We disagree with Defendants that Plaintiff’s claims are barred by the favorabletermination rule articulated in Heck. 512 U.S. 477. In Heck, the Supreme Court held that “in
order to recover damages for allegedly unconstitutional conviction or imprisonment, or for other
harm caused by actions whose unlawfulness would render a conviction or sentence invalid, a
§ 1983 plaintiff must prove that the conviction or sentence has been reversed on direct appeal,
expunged by executive order, declared invalid by a state tribunal authorized to make such [a]
determination, or called into question by a federal court’s issuance of a writ of habeas corpus, 28
U.S.C. § 2254.” Id. at 486-87 (footnote omitted). The Supreme Court has explained that, under
this favorable-determination rule, a “§ 1983 action is barred (absent prior invalidation) - no
matter the relief sought (damages or equitable relief), no matter the target of the prisoner’s suit
(state conduct leading to conviction or internal prison proceedings) - if success in that action
would necessarily demonstrate the invalidity of the confinement or its duration.” Wilkinson v.
Dotson, 544 U.S. 74, 81-82 (2005).
Plaintiff argues that he is not challenging the duration of his sentence; rather, his claims
relate to the procedural deficiencies in the execution of his sentence. (Pl.’s Resp. to Mot. to
Dismiss at 2-3.) Our Court has previously held that “Heck does not foreclose a § 1983 claim in
which a plaintiff seeks damages for a defendants’ use of improper procedures, not for reaching
an incorrect result.” McBride v. Cahoone, 820 F. Supp. 2d 623, 632 (E.D. Pa. 2011) (citing
Spencer v. Kemna, 523 U.S. 1, 17 (1998)); see also Leamer v. Fauver, 288 F.3d 532, 542 (3d
Cir. 2002) (holding that “when the challenge is to a condition of confinement . . . action under
§ 1983 is appropriate.”
In McBride, the Court ruled that the plaintiff’s claims were not barred by the favorabletermination rule of Heck. 820 F. Supp. 2d at 633. The plaintiff claimed that he was entitled to
some sort of hearing before the defendants refused to let him serve his sentence on electronically
monitored home confinement. Id. at 632-33. The Court found that the plaintiff was only
challenging the procedure by which he was sent to prison and not the fact or duration of his
sentence, so a favorable result in his favor would not “necessarily imply” that his conviction was
unlawful. Id. at 633.
Here, we are persuaded by the Court’s reasoning in McBride. We agree with Plaintiff
that he is only challenging the procedural deficiencies, so a ruling in his favor would not imply
the invalidity of the duration of his sentence. Plaintiff does not contest the fact that he was
sentenced to three to six years of state custody. Essentially, he claims that he had a maximum
release date of April 10, 2016, but due to deficiencies in Defendants’ procedures, he was not
released until August 12, 2016. This is akin to the procedural arguments in McBride, as Plaintiff
is claiming that improper procedures were in place such as: he should have been given notice of
his release date; he had an inadequate opportunity to be heard regarding his release date; and
Defendants failed to put in place the proper safeguards and policies to help ensure Plaintiff was
released on time. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 21-23.) None of these accusations call into question the
actual validity of his sentence; rather, they call into question Defendants’ execution of the
sentence. The plaintiff in McBride was challenging the procedures by which he was sent to
prison, and Plaintiff, in the case before us today, is challenging the procedures by which he was
released from prison. Neither implies the invalidity of the duration of their respective sentences.
The cases that Defendants rely on are distinguishable from the case presently before us.
The first case Defendants rely on is Royal v. Durison, 254 F.App’x 163 (3d Cir. 2007). In
Royal, the plaintiff filed a § 1983 claim against county officials claiming that the defendants
violated his Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights by failing to recalculate his sentence and
credit him with time served prior to his original sentence. Id. at 164.
The Court in Royal held that all his claims were barred by Heck. Id. at 165-66. The
Court reasoned that if it held that the defendants did, in fact, incarcerate the plaintiff beyond the
statutory maximum, it “would necessarily be holding that the ‘confinement or its duration’ was
invalid in violation of the favorable termination requirement announced in Heck.” Id. at 165.
Although the facts of Royal sound similar to those before us today, there are vital
differences. The plaintiff in Royal was lodging an attack on his initial sentence by challenging
the calculation of time credit prior to his sentencing. Id. at 164 (emphasis added). Thus, the
plaintiff was making a substantive attack on his sentence since if his time credit was indeed
miscalculated prior to his sentencing, he would have been subject to a shorter sentence than the
one imposed. Id. at 165-66. This would have resulted in the validity of the judge’s sentence
being called into question if the Court was to rule in his favor. Id.
Here, unlike in Royal, Plaintiff agrees that the duration of his sentence was valid, and the
sentencing judge did not err in any way. (Pl.’s Resp. to Mot. to Dismiss at 4-5.) He lodges no
attack on his initial sentence, in whole or in part. (Id.) Plaintiff is simply contending that an
administrative error resulted in a miscalculation of his time credit after his sentencing that lead
him to over-serve the valid sentence imposed. (Id.) Thus, if we were to rule in Plaintiff’s favor,
it would not call into question the validity of his sentence; rather, it would just establish that he
was not released at its proper conclusion.
The second case Defendants rely on, Gause v. Haile, 559 F. App’x 196 (3d Cir. 2014),
can be distinguished for similar reasons. In Gause, a prisoner filed numerous claims including a
§ 1983 action alleging that the defendants failed to credit him with the time he was incarcerated
between his vacated, initial sentence, and his re-imposed sentence, thus resulting in an
unlawfully long period of detention. Id. at 198. The Court concluded that “a ruling that [the
plaintiff] was held in excess of the maximum sentence would necessarily imply the invalidity of
his ‘confinement or its duration,’ and would therefore violate Heck.” Id. Just like in Royal, the
plaintiff in Gause was attacking the substantive imposition of his sentence, i.e., the sentence
imposed should have been shorter. Here, Plaintiff makes no such substantive attack on his initial
A ruling in Plaintiff’s favor would not infer the invalidity of his confinement or duration.
Plaintiff agrees that the duration of his sentence was correct; therefore, Heck has no application
here as Plaintiff is alleging that procedural deficiencies led to an improper execution of his
sentence, which resulted in him over-serving his valid sentence. With no such substantive attack
on his sentence, Defendants’ argument that the claims are barred by Heck is denied. See
Wilkinson, 544 U.S. at 83 (“Heck uses the word ‘sentence’ to refer not to prison procedures, but
to substantive determinations as to the length of confinement.”) (citations omitted).
B. Plaintiff’s Claims are Not Based in Negligence
We disagree with Defendants that all of Plaintiff’s claims should be dismissed because
they are not cognizable under § 1983 since they are based in negligence. Defendants are correct
in stating that “negligence claims are not encompassed within § 1983.” Davidson v. O’Lone,
752 F.2d 817, 826 (3d Cir. 1984). However, Defendants’ argument fails because Plaintiff
alleges a much higher degree of culpability than mere negligence.
Counts I, II, and III all allege that Defendants acted willfully, intentionally, or recklessly
when they violated Plaintiff’s rights. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 30, 34, 43.) With regard to Count IV,
Plaintiff alleges that the City “deliberately, knowingly and intentionally failed” to remedy an
unlawful policy, custom or practice and was “deliberately indifferent” to the related
constitutional violations. (Id. ¶¶ 50-51.) Therefore, nothing in Plaintiff’s Compliant is premised
on mere negligence, so Defendants’ Motion is denied in this respect.
C. Plaintiff has Stated a Claim in Count IV
Defendants contend that Count IV alleging that the City is liable under Monell v. Dept. of
Soc. Serv., 436 U.S. 658 (1978) 1 should be dismissed for a couple reasons. First, Defendants
argue that Plaintiff fails to plead facts regarding a specific municipal policy or custom. (Defs.’
Mot. to Dismiss at 6-7.) Second, Defendants argue that the claim should be dismissed for failure
to allege conduct by a specific policymaker involved in the formation of a custom or policy. (Id.
Under § 1983 “a municipality cannot be held liable solely because it employs a tortfeasor
- or, in other words, a municipality cannot be held liable . . . on a respondeat superior theory.”
Monell, 436 U.S. at 691. Rather, liability under § 1983 attaches to a municipality only where the
“government’s policy or custom, whether made by its lawmakers or by those whose edicts or
acts may fairly be said to represent official policy, inflicts the injury.” Id. at 694. Thus, there
must be “a direct causal link between a municipal policy or custom and the alleged constitutional
deprivation.” City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 385 (1989). The Third Circuit provided
further guidance on the “policy or custom” requirement when it held the following:
A government policy or custom can be established in two ways.
Policy is made when a ‘decisionmaker possess[ing] final authority
Monell refers to the seminal Supreme Court case addressing municipality liability. See Monell, 436 U.S. 658.
to establish a municipal policy with respect to the action’ issues an
official proclamation, policy, or edict. A course of conduct is
considered to be a ‘custom’ when, though not authorized by law,
‘such practices of state officials [are] so permanently and wellsettled’ as to virtually constitute law.
McTernan v. City of York, 564 F.3d 636, 658 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Andrews v. City of Phila.,
895 F.2d 1469, 1480 (3d Cir. 1990)
Therefore, the municipality is liable if the plaintiff can establish: (1) the municipality had
a policy or custom that deprived him of his constitutional rights; (2) the municipality acted
deliberately and was the moving force behind the deprivation; and (3) his injury was caused by
the identified policy or custom. Bd. of the Cnty. Comm’rs of Bryan Cnty. v. Brown, 520 U.S.
397, 403=04 (1997) (citing, inter alia, Monell, 436 U.S. at 690–91, 694).
Additionally, municipality liability under § 1983 may also relate to a city’s “failure to
train” or supervise its employees. Canton, 489 U.S. at 388. However, the liability occurs in
limited circumstances and only exists if two requirements are met. See id. at 388-90. First, this
liability arises “only where the failure to train amounts to deliberate indifference 2 to the rights of
persons with whom [the city’s employees] come into contact.” Id. Second, “the identified
deficiency in [the] training program must be closely related to the ultimate [constitutional]
injury.” Id. at 391.
Here, Defendants allege that Plaintiff’s claims are vague and general and fail to state a
claim since the averments “amount to a mere recitation of the . . . elements required to bring
forth a Monell claim . . . [and] are insufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.” See Butler v.
City of Phila., No. 11-7891, 2013 WL 5842709, at *2 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 31, 2013). We disagree.
This deliberate indifference is a strict standard. See Bryan Cnty., 520 U.S. at 410. “[W]hen city policymakers are
on actual or constructive notice that a particular omission in their training program causes city employees to violate
citizens’ constitutional rights, the city may be deemed deliberately indifferent if the policymakers choose to retain
that program.” Connick v. Thompson, 563 U.S. 51, 61 (2011) (citing Bryan Cnty., 520 U.S. at 407).
Plaintiff has alleged that the City promulgated an official policy that set forth inadequate
grievance procedures for the execution of a prisoner’s sentence. (Am. Compl. ¶ 52.); see also
McTernan, 564 F.3d at 657 (“When a suit against a municipality is based on § 1983, the
municipality can only be liable when the alleged constitutional transgression implements or
executes a policy, regulation, or decision officially adopted by the governing body or informally
adopted by custom.”) (internal citations omitted).
Plaintiff has done much more than just recite the elements of a Monell claim. Plaintiff
elaborated on the policy by alleging that it provided inadequate notice to prisoners, inadequate
opportunities for prisoners to be heard, and inadequate constitutional safeguards. (Am. Compl.
¶ 52.) These are far from blanket assertions that courts have dismissed in the past for being
conclusory. See, eg., McTernan, 564 F.3d at 660 (dismissing plaintiff’s Monell claim since it
simply paraphrased § 1983, as it stated, “[a]ll of the acts of the Defendants and their agents, as
alleged herein, were conducted under color and pretense of the statutes, ordinances, regulations,
customs, or usages of the City of York”). At this early stage in the case, Plaintiff has alleged that
the City promulgated a policy that established an inadequate procedure for executing a prisoner’s
sentence; therefore, he has sufficiently pleaded a Monell claim.
Plaintiff has also sufficiently alleged municipal liability based on the failure of the City to
train or supervise its employees. Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint specifically alleges that the
City had notice that “Defendants Thomas and Doe had previously made similar errors and would
continue to make errors in the future,” but failed to put into place a policy that would adequately
train its employees to calculate release dates in order to prevent future constitutional violations
such as the one alleged by Plaintiff. (Am. Compl. ¶ 52.) Before the benefit of discovery, these
allegations of deliberate indifference are sufficient to survive a 12(b)(6) dismissal.
For the foregoing reasons, Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff’s Amended
Complaint is denied.
An appropriate Order follows.
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