PIERSON v. STENGER et al
OPINION and ORDER denying 6 partial Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim filed by Defendants Jason Stenger and Zachary Webb. Signed by Chief Magistrate Judge Maureen P. Kelly on 6/26/17. (ard)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
JASON STENGER in his individual capacity
and ZACHARY WEBB in his individual
Civil Action No. 17-326
Chief Magistrate Judge Maureen P. Kelly
Re: ECF No. 6
Kelly, Chief Magistrate Judge
Plaintiff Chris Pierson (“Plaintiff”), has presented a Complaint raising civil rights
violations against Defendants Jason Stenger and Zachary Webb (collectively, “Defendants”) and
an assault and battery claim against Defendant Stenger. ECF No. 1. Presently before this Court
is a partial Motion to Dismiss filed by Defendants. ECF No. 6. For the following reasons, the
Motion to Dismiss will be denied.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
Plaintiff filed his Complaint on March 14, 2017. ECF No. 1. Therein, he makes the
following relevant allegations. On June 21, 2015, at approximately 3:30 a.m., Plaintiff received
a phone call from Destinee Knox (“Knox”), who informed Plaintiff that she and Calvin Shultz
(“Shultz”) were in a GetGo parking lot and that Shultz was being investigated for DUI by the
Pennsylvania State Police. Id. ¶ 8. Knox asked Plaintiff to come to pick them up. Id. Plaintiff
agreed and arrived at the GetGo parking lot at approximately 3:39 a.m. Id. ¶ 10. Plaintiff
approached Defendants, Pennsylvania State Police officers, who were speaking with Shultz. Id.
¶¶ 11-12. Plaintiff introduced himself to Defendants, peaceably inquired as to Shultz’s situation
and informed Defendants that he was able to take Shultz and Knox home. Id. ¶ 13. In a hostile
manner, Defendant Stenger ordered Plaintiff to “get back.” Id. ¶ 14. Plaintiff complied with the
order, stepping backwards. Id. ¶ 15. Plaintiff then calmly repeated his offer to take Shultz and
Knox home. Id. ¶ 16. Without provocation, Defendant Stenger punched Plaintiff in the mouth.
Id. ¶ 17. Plaintiff fell to the ground. Id. ¶ 18. Defendant Stenger then forcefully pressed his
knee into the back of Plaintiff’s neck, forcing Plaintiff’s face and body into the pavement. Id.
¶ 19. Defendant Webb observed Defendant Stenger’s actions, but did not intervene. Id. ¶ 20.
Defendant Stenger then handcuffed Plaintiff. Id. ¶ 21. As a result of Defendant Stenger’s
actions, Plaintiff suffered pain, lacerations to his face, bruises on his arms and severe dental
injuries requiring surgery and extensive post-operative care. Id. ¶ 22.
Plaintiff raises two claims in the Complaint: (1) Count I: a claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§ 1983 (“Section 1983”) against Defendants for violation of Plaintiff’s constitutional rights under
the Fourth Amendment; and (2) Count II: assault and battery against Defendant Stenger. Id. at 58.
Defendants filed the instant partial Motion to Dismiss and Brief in support on May 30,
2017. ECF Nos. 6-7. On June 19, 2017, Plaintiff filed a Brief in opposition to the Motion to
Dismiss. ECF No. 11.
The Motion to Dismiss is now ripe for review.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
As the United States Supreme Court explained in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550
U.S. 544 (2007), a complaint may properly be dismissed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil
Procedure 12(b)(6) if it does not allege “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on
its face.” Id. at 570. In assessing the merits of a claim subject to a motion to dismiss, a court
must accept all alleged facts as true and draw all inferences gleaned therefrom in the light most
favorable to the non-moving party. Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 228 (3d Cir.
2008) (citing Worldcom, Inc. v. Graphnet, Inc., 343 F.3d 651, 653 (3d Cir. 2003)). A pleading
party need not establish the elements of a prima facie case at this stage; the party must only “put
forth allegations that ‘raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the
necessary element[s].’” Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 213 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting
Graff v. Subbiah Cardiology Associates, Ltd., 2008 WL 2312671 (W.D. Pa. June 4, 2008)).
Count I: Official capacity
Defendants’ partial Motion to Dismiss has multiple bases. First, Defendants argue that
“the Court should dismiss all of Plaintiff’s Section 1983 claims against [Defendants] in their
official capacities.” ECF No. 7 at 5. As the caption of this action makes clear and as Plaintiff
asserts in his Response in opposition to the Motion to Dismiss, ECF No. 11 at 3-4, Plaintiff has
brought this action against Defendants in their individual capacities. 1 Accordingly, the Motion
to Dismiss on this basis will be denied.
Count I: Qualified immunity
Defendants further argue that they are entitled to qualified immunity as to the Section
1983 claim. Id. at 8.
Qualified immunity protects government officials “from liability for civil damages
insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of
Defendants raise two additional arguments which are based on their erroneous assumption that Plaintiff is suing
them in their official capacities: one concerning monetary damages, ECF No. 7 at 7; and one concerning
compensatory and punitive damages, id. at 8-9. These arguments are without merit for the same reason: Plaintiff has
sued Defendants in their individual capacities only.
which a reasonable person would have known.” Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982).
The United States Supreme Court has set forth a two-step objective reasonableness test to
determine whether qualified immunity should be granted. Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 200-01
(2001); see also Kopec v. Tate, 361 F.3d 772, 776 (3d Cir. 2004). “First, the court must consider
whether the facts alleged, taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, show that the officer's
conduct violated a constitutional right.” Kopec, 361 F.3d at 776 (citing Saucier, 533 U.S. at
201). If “‘a violation could be made out on a favorable view of the parties’ submissions,” the
court must determine “‘whether the right was clearly established.’” Id. (quoting Saucier, 533
U.S. at 201). “‘The relevant dispositive inquiry’ in making this determination is ‘whether it
would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he
confronted.’” Id. (quoting Saucier, 533 U.S. at 202).
The second step requires a determination of “whether it would be clear to a reasonable
officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation confronted.” Id. (citing Saucier, 533 U.S.
at 202). “In other words, there must be sufficient precedent at the time of action, factually
similar to the plaintiff's allegations, to put defendant on notice that his or her conduct is
constitutionally prohibited.” Mammaro v. N.J. Div. of Child Prot. and Permanency, 814 F.3d
164, 169 (3d Cir. 2016) (citing McLaughlin v. Watson, 271 F.3d 566, 572 (3d Cir. 2001)).
As is clear from the above-described legal standard, any determination as to the
application of qualified immunity necessitates a careful examination of relevant facts and
applicable law. Defendants do not identify any legal authority related to the constitutional right
asserted or a single factual allegation upon which they rely to support their argument.
Defendants’ bald assertions that “there have been no constitutional violations” and even if there
were, “Plaintiff’s right was not clearly established given the facts of this case and the information
in Defendants’ possession,” ECF No. 7 at 8, do not constitute a sufficient basis upon which the
Court can conduct meaningful review. Accordingly, the Motion to Dismiss on this basis will be
Count II: Sovereign immunity
As to Count II, Defendants argue that the claim against Defendant Stenger for assault and
battery is barred by sovereign immunity. ECF No. 7 at 5-7. In response, Plaintiff withdrew this
claim against Defendant Stenger. ECF No. 11 at 4. Accordingly, the Motion to Dismiss on this
basis will be denied as moot.
For the foregoing reasons, Defendants’ partial Motion to Dismiss, ECF No. 6, will be
denied. An appropriate Order follows.
AND NOW, this 26th day of June, 2017, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the partial
Motion to Dismiss filed by Defendants Stenger and Webb, ECF No.6, is DENIED.
By the Court:
/s/ Maureen P. Kelly
Chief United States Magistrate Judge
All counsel of record via CM/ECF
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