WILLIAMS v. CITY OF PHILADELPHIA OFFICE OF THE SHERIFF et al
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER THAT DEFENDANTS MOTION TO DISMISS IS GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART; ETC.. SIGNED BY HONORABLE R. BARCLAY SURRICK ON 8/22/17. 8/22/17 ENTERED AND E-MAILED AND FAXED BY CHAMBERS.(jl, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
CITY OF PHILADELPHIA OFFICE OF THE
SHERIFF, ET AL.
AUGUST 22 , 2017
Presently before the Court is Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss. (ECF No. 3.) For the
following reasons, the Motion will be granted in part and denied in part.
Plaintiff Jermaine Williams, a former prisoner at the State Correctional Institute at
Graterford, Pennsylvania, brings the instant action against Defendants alleging that Defendants
violated his constitutional rights, and seeks relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. 1
On November 14, 2016, Plaintiff was being transported from Graterford to the Criminal
Justice Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Compl. ¶ 3, ECF No. 1.) Defendants Deputy
Sheriff Lopez and Deputy Sheriff Valasco were responsible for transporting Plaintiff and several
other inmates to the Criminal Justice Center. (Id.) At the time of transportation, Plaintiff was in
a wheelchair. (Id. ¶¶ 7-8.) Some of the other inmates being transported were also in
wheelchairs. (Id. ¶ 14.) All of the inmates, including Plaintiff, were shackled and handcuffed
during the entire trip. (Id. ¶ 9.) Plaintiff alleges that Defendants did not secure Plaintiff’s
Defendants include the City of Philadelphia Office of the Sheriff, Deputy Sheriff V.
Lopez, and Deputy Sheriff Valasco.
wheelchair, or the wheelchairs of any of the other inmates, inside the van. (Id. ¶ 7.) Plaintiff
also alleges that Defendants did not secure Plaintiff or any of the other inmates with a seatbelt or
any other safety apparatus. (Id.) Plaintiff alleges that the inmates “complained to the
[Defendants] about the unsafe situation they were in.” (Id. ¶ 10.) Defendants ignored these
complaints. (Id. ¶ 15.)
Defendant Valasco then began to drive the van to the Criminal Justice Center. (Id. ¶ 6.)
Plaintiff alleges that Valasco was driving too fast, and that the inmates asked Valasco to slow
down on multiple occasions. (Id. ¶¶ 12, 16.) Several inmates began to “sway side to side and
back and forth” during the trip. (Id. ¶ 10.) Plaintiff alleges that his wheelchair began to lift off
the floor of the van. (Id. ¶ 11.) The inmates complained to Defendants that their wheelchairs
were sliding back and forth inside of the van; however, Defendants’ only response was “don’t
come to jail.” (Id. ¶¶ 13, 14.) Valasco sped around a curve on the east side of Philadelphia City
hall too fast, and had to abruptly “slam on the brakes” in order to gain control of the van. (Id. ¶
16.) When the van stopped abruptly, Plaintiff was “thrown out of his wheelchair head first into
the metal grate of the van.” (Id. ¶ 17.) Several other inmates were simultaneously thrown out of
their seats. (Id. ¶ 16.) Plaintiff was thrown upside down in the van, and two of the other inmates
were thrown on top of him. (Id. ¶ 17.) Plaintiff suffered severe injuries including a concussion,
chest injuries, and an injury to his spine at the cervical and lumbar levels. (Id. ¶ 22.)
Plaintiff filed the Complaint in this Court on June 15, 2017. Plaintiff asserts both federal
and state law violations in his Complaint. With regard to the federal claim, Plaintiff alleges that
Defendants violated his constitutional rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments,
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count I). With regard to the state law claim, Plaintiff alleges that
Defendants negligently operated a Pennsylvania motor vehicle, in violation of 42 Pa. Cons. Stat.
Ann. § 8542 (Count II). On July 24, 2017, Defendants filed the instant Motion to Dismiss.
(Defs.’ MTD, ECF No. 3.) Defendants’ Motion seeks dismissal of Plaintiff’s federal claim
(Count I), and remand the case to state court in order to address Plaintiff’s state law claim. On
August 16, 2017, Plaintiff filed a Memorandum in Opposition to Defendants’ Motion. (Pl.’s
Opp., ECF No. 6.)
Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), “[a] pleading that states a claim for relief
must contain a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to
relief.” Rule 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of a complaint, in whole or in part, for failure to
state a claim upon which relief can be granted. A motion under Rule 12(b)(6) tests the
sufficiency of the complaint against the pleading requirements of Rule 8(a). “To survive a
motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a
claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)
(quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)).
A claim is plausible “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to
draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. A
complaint that merely alleges entitlement to relief, without alleging facts that show entitlement,
must be dismissed. See Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 211 (3d Cir. 2009). Courts
need not accept “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere
conclusory statements . . . .” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. “While legal conclusions can provide the
framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations.” Id. at 679. This
‘“does not impose a probability requirement at the pleading stage,’ but instead ‘simply calls for
enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of’ the
necessary element.” Phillips v. Cty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting
Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).
In determining whether dismissal of the complaint is appropriate, courts use a two-part
analysis. Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210. First, courts separate the factual and legal elements of the
claim and accept all of the complaint’s well-pleaded facts as true. Id. at 210-11. Next, courts
determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a
“‘plausible claim for relief.’” Id. at 211 (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679). Given the nature of
the two-part analysis, “‘[d]etermining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief will
. . . be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience
and common sense.’” McTernan v. City of York, 577 F.3d 521, 530 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting
Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679).
Finally, “a complaint need not establish a prima facie case in order to survive a motion to
dismiss.” Connelly v. Lane Const. Corp., 809 F.3d 780, 788-89 (3d Cir. 2016). A prima facie
case is “an evidentiary standard, not a pleading requirement.” Swierkiewicz v. Sorema, N.A., 534
U.S. 506, 510 (2002). It therefore is “not a proper measure of whether a complaint fails to state a
claim.” Fowler, 578 F.3d at 213. “Instead of requiring a prima facie case, the post-Twombly
pleading standard ‘simply calls for enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery
will reveal evidence of’ the necessary elements.’” Connelly, 809 F.3d at 789 (quoting Phillips,
515 F.3d at 234).
Defendants contend that Plaintiff has failed to state a § 1983 claim because Plaintiff’s
Complaint only alleges that Defendants acted negligently. Defendants contend that Plaintiff’s
allegations of mere negligence are insufficient to state a claim under the Eighth and Fourteenth
Amendments. Plaintiff responds that the Complaint alleges that Defendants acted with reckless
disregard to Plaintiff’s safety, thus satisfying the required standard for pleading a § 1983 claim.
Section 1983 states in relevant part that a “person who, under color of any statute,
ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State . . . subjects, or causes to be subjected, any
citizen of the United States . . . the deprivation of any rights . . . secured by the Constitution and
laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law.” 42 U.S.C. § 1983. “A cause of
action under Section 1983 requires only two allegations: a person has deprived the plaintiff of a
federal right, and that person acted under color of state or territorial law.” Goldwire v. City of
Phila., 130 F. Supp. 3d 936, 941 (E.D. Pa. 2015) (citing Gomez v. Toledo, 446 U.S. 635, 640
“The Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment protects
prisoners against the ‘unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain.’” Hamilton v. Leavy, 117 F.3d
742, 746 (3d Cir. 1997) (quoting Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 319 (1986)). “[T]he treatment
a prisoner receives in prison and the conditions under which he is confined are subject to scrutiny
under the Eighth Amendment.” Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 832 (1994) (citation and
internal quotation marks omitted). A prisoner’s right to be free of “cruel and unusual
punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment, [is] made applicable to the States by the
Fourteenth [Amendment].” Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 101 (1976). In order to state a claim
under the Eighth Amendment, a plaintiff must allege that “(1) he was incarcerated under
conditions posing a substantial risk of serious harm, (2) the official was deliberately indifferent
to that substantial risk to his health and safety, and (3) the official’s deliberate indifference
caused him harm.” Bistrian v. Levi, 696 F.3d 352, 367 (3d Cir. 2012) (citing Farmer, 511 U.S.
at 834). ‘“Deliberate indifference’ in this context is a subjective standard: ‘the prison officialdefendant must have known or been aware of the excessive risk to inmate safety.’” Id. (quoting
Beers-Capitol v. Whetzel, 256 F.3d 120, 125 (3d Cir. 2001)); see also Rogers v. Boatright, 709
F.3d 403, 407-08 (5th Cir. 2013) (“To establish deliberate indifference, the prisoner must show
that the defendants (1) were aware of facts from which an inference of an excessive risk to the
prisoner’s health or safety could be drawn and (2) that they actually drew an inference that such
potential for harm existed.” (citation and internal quotation marks omitted)). The Eighth
Amendment imposes duties on officials to “take reasonable measures to guarantee the safety of
inmates.” Farmer, 511 U.S. at 832 (citations omitted). A “denial of [humane] conditions can
result from an officer’s deliberate indifference to a prisoner’s safety.” Brown v. Fortner, 518
F.3d 552, 558 (8th Cir. 2008) (citation omitted); see also Farmer, 511 U.S. at 826 (“[A]
factfinder may conclude that a prison official knew of a substantial risk from the very fact that
the risk was obvious.”).
The Eighth Circuit has held that a “failure to provide a seatbelt to a prisoner while driving
in a manner that puts the prisoner at risk of injury can constitute deliberate indifference to a
prisoner’s safety and health.” Brown, 518 F.3d at 558 (citation omitted). In Brown, the plaintiff
was a prisoner who was being transported in a van by the defendant officer. Id. at 559. The
plaintiff was shackled and in handcuffs. Id. The plaintiff and the other inmates being
transported asked the defendant officer to secure them with a seatbelt, however the officer
refused. Id. The Eighth Circuit noted that since plaintiff was prevented from securing his own
seatbelt and made multiple requests to be secured, the defendant officer was aware of the
substantial risk of harm to the plaintiff. Id. at 560. Similarly, in Rogers, the Fifth Circuit held
that the plaintiff had pled an Eighth Amendment violation by alleging that the defendant
“operated the prison van recklessly, knowing that there was a substantial risk that [the plaintiff]
would be injured if the van stopped abruptly because [the plaintiff] was shackled in leg irons and
handcuffs and was not provided with a seatbelt.” 709 F.3d at 409. District courts within this
Circuit have similarly held that an Eighth Amendment claim exists when a defendant officer
transports a prisoner in a vehicle that lacks adequate safety restraints, and then proceeds to drive
recklessly, thus causing the plaintiff to suffer injuries. See, e.g., Stewart v. Wenerowicz, No. 124046, 2015 WL 5092865, at *9 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 27, 2015) (holding that the plaintiff sufficiently
alleged an Eighth Amendment claim because he was handcuffed and in shackles, was not
provided with a seatbelt or any other safety restraint, and the defendant drove the vehicle at
excessive speeds, ignoring the plaintiff’s requests to slow down); Otero v. Catalogne, No. 08282, 2010 WL 3883444, at *11 (W.D. Pa. Sept. 28, 2010) (holding that the defendant manifested
a deliberate indifference for the plaintiff’s safety because the defendant ignored the plaintiff’s
request for the defendant to stop driving recklessly).
As in the above cases, Plaintiff has pled facts sufficient to demonstrate that he was
transported under conditions that posed a substantial risk of serious harm to himself and the other
inmates in the van. Plaintiff alleges that he was in shackles and handcuffs, which prevented him
from being able to secure himself inside the van. In addition, not only did Defendants not secure
Plaintiff with a seatbelt, Defendants did not secure Plaintiff’s wheelchair inside the van. Plaintiff
alleges that Valasco was driving too fast, which caused Plaintiff and the other inmates to move
back and forth inside of the van. Plaintiff suffered serious injuries because Valasco was driving
too fast around a curve, and was forced to slam on the brakes. This sudden stop caused the
inmates to be thrown out of their respective wheelchairs, and specifically, for Plaintiff to hit the
metal grate of the van head first. The risk of harm to Plaintiff is obvious. A person in a
wheelchair should not be placed into a van without a seatbelt or any safety restraints, and then be
subjected to reckless driving.
In addition, Plaintiff has sufficiently alleged that Valasco was aware of this risk because
Plaintiff and the other inmates alerted him to the dangerous situation on multiple occasions.
Plaintiff and other inmates “complain[ed] to [Defendants] about the unsafe situation they were
in.” (Compl. ¶ 10.) The inmates “complained several times,” stating that their wheelchairs were
“sliding back and forth” during the trip. (Id. ¶ 14.) Plaintiff alleges that Defendants ignored
their complaints, and that Defendants told them “don’t come to jail.” (Id. ¶ 13.) Valasco
continued to drive too fast, until ultimately he was forced to slam on the brakes, causing the
aforementioned injuries. Based on the inmates’ complaints and Valasco’s response, it is obvious
that Valasco knew that Plaintiff was not secure within the van, and ignored the substantial risk of
harm to Plaintiff. Accordingly, Plaintiff has sufficiently alleged an Eighth and Fourteenth
Amendment claim against Valasco, pursuant to § 1983.
Plaintiff also brings a § 1983 claim against Defendant Lopez, the deputy Sheriff who was
in the passenger seat of the van. “If a police officer, whether supervisory or not, fails or refuses
to intervene when a constitutional violation . . . takes place in his presence, the officer is directly
liable under Section 1983.” Smith v. Mensinger, 293 F.3d 641, 650 (3d Cir. 2002) (citation and
internal quotation marks omitted). “However, an officer is only liable if there is a realistic and
reasonable opportunity to intervene.” Id. (citation omitted). Courts have held that an officer has
a reasonable opportunity to intervene if the actions occurred within the officer’s presence or
within the officer’s knowledge. See Putman v. Gerloff, 639 F.2d 415, 423 (8th Cir. 1981) (“We
conclude although [the officer] was a subordinate the evidence is sufficient to hold him jointly
liable for failing to intervene if a fellow officer, albeit his superior, was using excessive force . . .
.”); Byrd v. Brishke, 466 F.2d 6, 11 (7th Cir. 1972) (“We believe it is clear that one who is given
the badge of authority of a police officer may not ignore the duty imposed by his office and fail
to stop other officers who summarily punish a third person in his presence or otherwise within
his knowledge.”). “The restriction on cruel and unusual punishment contained in the Eighth
Amendment reaches non-intervention just as readily as it reaches the more demonstrable
brutality of those who unjustifiably and excessively employ fists, boots or clubs.” Smith, 293
F.3d at 651.
Here, Defendant Lopez was sitting in the passenger seat of the van, and was present
during the entire trip. Lopez heard Plaintiff and the other inmates’ requests for Valasco to slow
down, and ignored the inmates’ complaints that they were in an unsafe and dangerous situation.
Plaintiff alleges that Defendants told Plaintiff and the other inmates “don’t go to jail” in response
to their pleas. Since Lopez did not secure Plaintiff inside of the van, and was present while
Valesco drove recklessly, making no attempt to stop Valesco, we find that Plaintiff has
sufficiently pled a § 1983 claim against Lopez. See Stewart, 2015 WL 5092865, at *9-10 (ruling
that the plaintiff stated a § 1983 claim against an officer who was “present but not driving at the
time of the incident” and who “failed to intervene to stop the driver from operating the vehicle in
a reckless manner”).
Plaintiff alleges that the City of Philadelphia must be held liable under § 1983 because
Defendants Lopez and Valasco’s actions were “a direct result of policies, procedures and
practices of the Sheriff, including failure to train them properly in all aspects of [P]laintiff’s
transportation . . . .” (Compl. ¶ 25.) “[A] municipality cannot be held liable under § 1983 on a
respondeat superior theory.” Monell v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs. of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658,
691 (1978). Rather, liability under § 1983 attaches to a municipality only where the
municipality’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. “[N]ot every
decision by municipal officers automatically subjects the municipality to § 1983 liability.
Municipal liability attaches only where the decisionmaker possesses final authority to establish
municipal policy with respect to the action ordered.” Pembaur v. City of Cincinnati, 475 U.S.
469, 481 (1986); see also Bielevicz v. Dubinon, 915 F.2d 845, 850 (3d Cir. 1990) (“[A] plaintiff
must show that an official who has the power to make policy is responsible for either the
affirmative proclamation of a policy or acquiescence in a well-settled custom.”). A custom
exists when a “persistent and widespread” practice of government officials is so “permanent and
well settled as to constitute a custom or usage with the force of law.” Monell, 436 U.S. at 690.
A policy or custom may also be alleged as a result of long-standing acquiescence. See Simmons
v. City of Phila., 947 F.2d 1042, 1064 (3d Cir. 1991). ‘“[V]ague assertions’ of policy or custom
are not sufficient to impose liability.” Buoniconti v. City of Phila., 148 F. Supp. 3d 425, 438
(E.D. Pa. 2015) (quoting Groman v. Twp. of Manalapan, 47 F.3d 628, 637 (3d Cir. 1995)).
Here, Plaintiff has offered no factual support to demonstrate either a persistent and
widespread custom, or a policy made by an official possessing final decision-making authority.
Plaintiff’s Complaint makes no reference to a persistent or widespread practice of officers failing
to safely secure inmates during transportation. Given the absence of any factual support in the
Complaint, we cannot infer that Defendants Valasco or Lopez were acting in accordance with a
widespread custom or practice when they exposed Plaintiff to a substantial risk of harm. See
Andrews v. City of Phila., 895 F.2d 1469, 1480 (3d Cir. 1990) (“[I]t is incumbent upon a plaintiff
to show that a policymaker is responsible either for the policy or, through acquiescence, for the
custom.”). Plaintiff does not allege that either Lopez or Valasco possessed final authority to
establish a policy that officers were not required to secure inmates in wheelchairs during
transportation. Furthermore, Plaintiff’s bald allegations are insufficient to adequately plead a
failure to train claim. See Wood v. Williams, 568 F. App’x. 100, 105-06 (3d Cir. 2014)
(upholding dismissal of a failure to train claim when the complaint included only one prior
incident of potentially unconstitutional conduct). Accordingly, Plaintiff’s conclusory statement
that Lopez and Valasco’s actions were a consequence of the “policies, procedures and practices”
of the City, without more, is not sufficient to establish a Monell claim against the City of
Leave to Amend
Plaintiff requests leave to amend his Monell claim against the City of Philadelphia if the
Court determines that the Monell claim is deficient. Courts should freely grant leave to amend a
complaint when justice so requires “unless it would be inequitable or futile.” Grayson v.
Mayview State Hosp., 293 F.3d 103, 108 (3d Cir. 2002). “Neither inequity nor futility of
amendment is present” here and there is no indication that Plaintiff “lacks good faith or proper
motives.” Id. Therefore, we will permit Plaintiff to amend his Complaint to cure the
For the foregoing reasons, Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss will be granted in part and
denied in part.
An appropriate Order follows.
BY THE COURT:
R. BARCLAY SURRICK, J.
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