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Colburn v. Upper Darby Township

filed: January 26, 1988.


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civil No. 86-2132).

Sloviter, Becker and Garth, Circuit Judges.

Author: Sloviter


SLOVITER, Circuit Judge.



This action was filed under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that the suicide of decedent by a self-inflicted gun wound while she was detained in police custody apparently for public drunkenness was a result of constitutional violations by the officials responsible for her custody and the municipality which employs them. The district court, without permitting amendment dismissed the complaint. In determining whether the district court erred as a matter of law, we must look once again to our precedent on the extent of factual specificity required in civil rights complaints and on the nature of conduct which constitutes a constitutional deprivation.



Sue Ann Colburn, the administratrix of the estate of Melinda Lee Stierheim, filed this action against Upper Darby Township (Upper Darby); the Upper Darby police department; Diane Miller, both individually and in her official capacity as an Upper Darby police officer; Martin Kerns, both individually and in his official capacity as Upper Darby police commissioner; and James Ward, both individually and in his official capacity as Upper Darby mayor.

The facts, as set forth in the original complaint, are as follows. At approximately 5:00 p.m. on April 30, 1985, Stierheim, dressed in blue denim shorts and a halter top and "visibly intoxicated", was taken into custody by the Upper Darby police. Before placing StIerheim in a jail cell, Miller, the police matron on duty at the time, searched Stierheim. Miller did not find any handgun concealed on Stierheim's person. Approximately four hours later, while in her cell Stierheim shot herself with a handgun. Stierheim died later that night, becoming the third person since 1982 to have committed suicide while in Upper Darby police custody.

The complaint alleges that Miller's search and supervision of Stierheim was negligently and/or recklessly performed, that defendants have exhibited a "custom of laxity regarding the supervision and monitoring of their jail cells and in searching individuals taken into police custody," and that defendants' "failure to provide adequate supervision and monitoring of their jail cells and their failure to provide adequate training to police officers-matrons in searching individuals taken into police custody amounts to gross negligence and a deliberate indifference to the safety and lives of individuals taken into custody and detained." App. at 8. It is also alleged that defendants "knew or had reason to know from their observation that [Stierheim] was a suicidal risk." App. at 10. The inadequate search and supervision are alleged to have been the Proximate cause of Stierheim's death. Recovery is sought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for deprivation of Stierheim's Constitutional rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.*fn1

Defendants moved for dismissal of the complaint. They argued, inter alia, that the complaint failed to plead with the requisite factual specificity a constitutional deprivation sufficient to support a due process claim against any of the defendants; that with respect to Kerns and Ward, the complaint failed to allege facts supporting individual liability; that the complaint failed to plead with requisite specificity an official custom or policy sufficient to support municipal liability; and that since Stierheim was not convicted of any crime, she could assert no Eighth Amendment claim.

The district court granted the motion to dismiss without opinion. After the court's order dismissing but within the time allowed by stipulation approved by the court, Colburn filed an answer to the motion to dismiss and a supporting memorandum.*fn2 Colburn also moved for reconsideration. In the court's opinion denying reconsideration, it explained that it dismissed the section 1983 due process claim against Miller individually because negligent actions cannot produce constitutional deprivations actionable under section 1983, and because "the facts as stated lack sufficient specificity to tie together the allegedly inadequate frisk and the subsequent suicide." App. at 110. Similarly, the court dismissed the section 1983 due process claims against all defendants in their official capacities because "[a] conclusory allegation that a municipal police force is lax in carrying out its duties is the exact type of negligent behavior the Supreme Court intended to exclude from the scope of section 1983," and because "the extension of municipal liability to cover unforeseeable and tragic events caused directly by the superseding actions of a third party is beyond the realm of cognizable section 1983 violations." App. at 111. The court also held that the Eighth Amendment was inapplicable since Stierheim was unconvicted.

Colburn appeals from the order that denied her motion for reconsideration and thereby granted defendants' motion to dismiss.


The Pleading Standard

To sustain the dismissal of a complaint under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), "'we must take all the well pleaded allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff,' and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the pleadings, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief." Estate o fBailey by Oare v. County of York, 768 F.2d 503, 506 (3d Cir. 1985), cert. denied, 479 U.S. 882, 107 S. Ct. 270, 93 L. Ed. 2d 247 (1986) (quoting Helstoski v. Goldstein, 552 F.2d 564, 565 (3d Cir. 1977) (per curiam)). The dual policy concerns of protecting state officials from a deluge of frivolous claims and providing state officials with sufficient notice of the claims asserted to enable preparation of responsive pleadings have led us to impose on section 1983 claims the additional pleading requirement that the "complaint contain a modicum of factual specificity, identifying the particular conduct of defendants that is alleged to have harmed the plaintiffs. "Ross v. Meagan, 638 F.2d 646, 650 (3d Cir. 1981); see also Frazier v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, 785 F.2d 65, 67 (3d Cir. 1986); Rotolo v. Borough of Charleroi, 532 F.2d 920, 922 (3d Cir. 1976).

The heightened specificity requirement for section 1983 claims does not alter the general standard for ruling on motions to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6). See Bartholomew v. Fischl, 782 F.2d 1148, 1152 (3d Cir. 1986). As we stated in Frazier, "the crucial questions are whether sufficient facts are pleaded to determine that the complaint is not frivolous, and to provide defendants with adequate notice to frame an answer." 785 F.2d at 68; accord District Council 47, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees v. Bradley, 795 F.2d 310, 313 (3d Cir. 1986). We have routinely held that complaints comply with this standard if they allege the specific conduct violating the plaintiffs rights, the time and the place of that conduct, and the identity of the responsible officials. See id. at 314; Frazier, 785 F.2d at 68-70; Hall v. Pennsylvania State Police, 570 F.2d 86, 89 (3d Cir. 1978). A plaintiff is not required to provide either proof of her claims or "a proffer of all available evidence" because in civil rights cases "much of the evidence can be developed only through discovery" of materials held by defendant officials. Frazier, 785 F.2d at 68, quoted with approval in District Council 47, 795 F.2d at 313.

Moreover, we have held that "failure to permit amendment of a complaint dismissed for want of specific allegations constitutes an abuse of discretion. Ross, 638 F.2d at 650; see also District Council 47 795 F.2d at 316. Of course, the district court need not permit an amendment that would be insufficient to cure the deficiency in the original complaint. See Sooner Products Co. v. McBride, 708 F.2d 510, 512 (10th Cir. 1983) (per curiam) (citing Foman v. Davis, 371 U.S. 178, 182, 9 L. Ed. 2d 222, 83 S. Ct. 227 (1962)); 3 J. Moore, Moore's Federal Practice § 15.10, at 15-106 & n.5 (2d ed. 1985).

A review of the record provides ample explanation why plaintiff did not file a motion to amend her complaint. Defendants filed their motion to dismiss on May 16, 1986. Stipulations between counsel, approved by the court, extended plaintiffs time to answer or otherwise move with respect to defendants' motion to dismiss until June 27, 1986. Nonetheless, by order signed June 23, 1986 and entered June 24, 1986, the district court granted what it termed the "unopposed" motion to dismiss for the reasons stated therein.

On June 27, 1986, within the time of the extension previously approved by the court, plaintiff filed her answer and a forty page 'memorandum in opposition to the motion to dismiss which referred to additional facts in support of her cause of action. Plaintiff argued, inter alia, that the complaint was pled in sufficient detail, but also requested, if necessary, that the court "permit plaintiff to amend the complaint following completion of discovery. "App. at 75. Because the court had already dismissed the complaint, plaintiff also filed on the same day a motion for reconsideration of the district court's order.

It might have been preferable for plaintiff to have appended her proposed amended complaint to a motion so that the district court would have had before it the precise allegations that plaintiff was prepared to make. Under the circumstances, and in particular because of the court's premature dismissal order, we do not deem plaintiffs failure to file a formal motion to amend dispositive We have repeatedly directed the district courts in section 1983 cases to consider proposed amendments, even in the absence of a petition for leave to amend. See, e.g., Rotolo, 532 F.2d at 923. As Judge Garth, writing for the court in District Council 47, 795 F.2d at 316, stated: "The fact that [plaintiff] appealed the dismissal of this complaint rather than seeking leave to amend pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(a) before the district court should not prejudice the plaintiffs. We have never required plaintiffs to request leave to amend following a district court's dismissal of a complaint."

Plaintiffs counsel advised us at oral argument that plaintiff is in a position to file an amended complaint that will include allegations referred to in her memorandum filed in the district court. App. at 70-72. Therefore we need not decide whether the complaint as originally filed was properly dismissed; it is more expedient to consider whether the allegations of the complaint together with those that counsel has represented plaintiff would make if given leave to amend would state a claim under section 1983.

In reviewing the sufficiency of civil rights complaints, we cannot avoid noting the difficulty plaintiffs and their counsel may have in attempting to accommodate this court's requirement of factual specificity with amended Fed.R.Civ.P. 11. That rule equates the signature of an attorney or party signing a pleading with a certificate that the pleading "is well grounded in fact," and requires plaintiffs to make "some prefiling inquiry into both the facts and the law to satisfy the affirmative duty imposed by the law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 11 Advisory Committee's Notes concerning 1983 Amendment. However, the Advisory Committee has explained that, "the standard is one of reasonableness under the circumstances." Id. One of the circumstances to be considered is whether the plaintiff is in a position to know or acquire the relevant factual details. The administratrix in this action is in a particularly difficult position because Stierheim is dead and the results of defendants' investigations into the incident are apparently not a matter of public record. Defendants have not yet responded to plaintiffs interrogatories and her requests for production of documents. We must take these factors in consideration in determining whether, at this preliminary stage, we can hold as a matter of law that plaintiffs allegations cannot reasonably be read to state a claim under section 1983.


The Requirements of a Section 1983 Claim

Defendants do not dispute that the complaint sufficiently alleges one of the two prerequisites of a section 1983 action, that the conduct complained of must be committed by a person acting under color of state law. Instead they challenge the complaint's sufficiency in alleging the second requirement, that the conduct complained of deprived the plaintiff of a right or privilege secured by the Constitution or the laws of the United States. See Riley v. Jeffes, 777 F.2d 143, 145 (3d Cir. 1985). They argue that the failure to prevent Stierheim's suicide does not rise to the level of a constitutional violation since they have no obligation "to protect a prisoner from self-destructive behavior." Appellees' Brief at 28. We cannot accept the defendants' argument that a prisoner's suicide can never give rise to a section 1983 violation.

Cases where the injury to the victim is caused by violence from persons other than the defendant officials acting under color of law present difficult issues. In Commonwealth Bank & Trust Co. v. Russell, 825 F.2d 12 (3d Cir. 1987), we considered whether a section 1983 complaint could be sustained against custodial officials for their allegedly reckless actions in maintaining an insecure jail from which a dangerous prisoner escaped and thereafter murdered nearby residents. In upholding the district court's dismissal of the complaint, we distinguished between the relationship of custodial officials and the general public, at issue in Russell, and the relationship of custodial officials and persons in their custody. We held that the escaped prisoner's crime against a member of the general public could not reasonably be attributed to the custodial officials. Id. at 17. On the other hand, we stated that "[a] prisoner is, by virtue of his or her custody, in a special relationship with the custodial authorities and dependent upon them for protection." Id. at 16. We continued, "if the authorities recklessly disregard the prisoner's safety, they may be liable under § 1983 for actions performed by another inmate." Id.

In our earlier opinion in Davidson v. O'Lone, 752 F.2d 817 (3d Cir. 1984) (in banc), aff'd sub nom. Davidson v. Cannon, 474 U.S. 344, 106 S. Ct. 668, 88 L. Ed. 2d 677 (1986), we considered the claim of a prison inmate who suffered a deprivation of a liberty interest through an attack by another inmate. We reasoned that "because an inmate is not free to leave the confines which s/he is forced to share with other prisoners, the state bears the responsibility for the inmate's safety." Davidson, 752 F.2d at 821. We stated that liability may be imposed on prison officials, even for assaults which they did not commit, "if there was intentional conduct, deliberate or reckless indifference to the prisoner's safety, or callous disregard on the part of prison officials." Id. at 828. We reaffirmed that where prison officials infringed a liberty interest by intentional conduct, gross negligence, or reckless indifference, or an established state procedure, the matter is actionable under section 1983. Id.*fn3

We see no reason not to apply a similar construction of section 1983 when the acts causing the injury are those of the prisoner herself. A detainee is entitled under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to, at a minimum, no less protection for personal security than that afforded convicted prisoners under the Fourteenth Amendment and no less a level of medical care than that required for convicted prisoners by the Eighth Amendment. See Boring v. Kozakiewicz, 833 F.2d 468, at 7-10 (3d Cir. 1987); Norris v. Frame, 585 F.2d 1183, 1187 (3d Cir. 1978); Hampton v. Holmesburg Prison Officials, 546 F.2d 1077, 1079-80 (3d Cir. 1976); see also City of Revere v. Massachusetts General Hospital, 463 U.S. 239, 244, 77 L. Ed. 2d 605, 103 S. Ct. 2979 (1983) (detainee's due process rights are at least as great as prisoner's Eighth Amendment rights); Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 539, 60 L. Ed. 2d 447, 99 S. Ct. 1861 (1979) (pretrial detainees have additional due process right to freedom from punishment).

In Hudson v. Palmer, 468 U.S. 517, 82 L. Ed. 2d 393, 104 S. Ct. 3194 (1984), the Court held that prison officials were entitled to search inmates and their cells to discover contraband in order to prevent prison violence. The violent behavior referred to included not only prisoners' assaults against prison staff, visitors, and other prisoners, but also prisoners' suicides. In that connection, the Court stated:

Inmates have necessarily shown a lapse in ability to control and conform their behavior to the legitimate standards of society by the normal impulses of self restraint During 1981 and the first half of 1982, . . . there were over 125 suicides in [state and federal prisons].

Id. at 526. Significant for our purposes is the Court's statement that prison administrators "are under an obligation to take reasonable measures to guarantee the safety of the inmates themselves." Id. at 526-27.

The viability of a section 1983 complaint arising from the suicide of a pretrial detainee was considered in depth in Partridge v. Two Unknown Police Officers of Houston, 791 F.2d 1182 (5th Cir. 1986). In that case a boy who exhibited agitation and aberrant behavior when arrested for burglary and theft and who had Previously had a nervous breakdown, a fact communicated to the arresting officer, committed suicide shortly after being placed In solitary confinement. In reversing the dismissal of the complaint, Judge Wisdom, writing for the majority, stated that "the defendants had a duty, at a minimum, not to be deliberately indifferent to [the detainee's] serious medical needs." Id. at 1187. He continued:

A serious medical need may exist for Psychological or psychiatric treatment, just as it may exist for physical ills. A psychological or psychiatric condition can be as serious as any physical pathology or injury, especially when it results in suicidal tendencies. And just as a failure to act to save a detainee from suffering from gangrene might violate the duty to provide reasonable medical care absent an intervening legitimate government objective, failure to take any steps to save a suicidal detainee from injuring himself may also constitute a due process violation.

Id. at 1187 (footnotes omitted).

The principal theory of the complaint in Partridge was that the boy's death was "caused by the detention center's custom or policy of allowing jail procedures that are callous to the point of deliberate indifference to detainees, especially detainees in need of protection from injuring themselves or others." Id. at 1185. The court held that "to the extent that the claim rests on the detention center's deliberate and systematic lack of adequate care for detainees, it alleges the kind of arbitrariness and abuse of power that is preserved as a component of the due process clause in Daniels [v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 106 S. Ct. 662, 88 L. Ed. 2d 662 (1986)]." Id. at 1187.

Other courts have similarly sustained the viability of complaints alleging that officials have demonstrated deliberate indifference to detainees' suicidal tendencies. See Roberts v. City of Troy, 773 F.2d 720 724-25 (6th Cir. 1985); Madden v. City of Meriden 602 F. Supp. 1160, 1163-64 (D. Conn. 1985); see also Jackson v. Chicago, 645 F. Supp. 926, 927-28 (N.D. Ill. 1986); Matje v. Leis, 571 F. Supp. 918, 930 (S.D. Ohio 1983). This court has suggested that such a showing will support section 1983 liability, rejecting a similar claim only because the plaintiffs had failed to prove at trial anything more than negligence on the part of the police officers. See Patzig v. O'Neil, 577 F.2d 841, 847-48 (3d Cir. 1977).

Defendants rely on two district court cases, Williams v. City of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 639 F. Supp. 377 (E.D. Pa.) and Grant v. City of Philadelphia, No. 83-5424 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 5, 1985), where plaintiffs' section 1983 actions based on the suicide of pretrial detaInees were unsuccessful. Neither of those cases involved a motion to dismiss the complaint. Instead, both cases were decided on summary judgment following discovery. Thus, for example, based on the material before it on summary judgment, the district court in Williams was able to conclude that defendants' action could not be termed more than negligence and that "the officers' failure to seek out medical care cannot be said to be a deliberate or reckless Indifference to Williams' health and safety." Williams, 639 F. Supp. at 383. A similar conclusion was reached by the same court in Grant.

Since the case before us was decided on a motion to dismiss the complaint rather than on a motion for summary judgment, and there has been no discovery, we need not consider whether this court would have decided those cases the same way. Of course we agree that custodial officials cannot be placed in the position of guaranteeing that inmates will not commit suicide. On the other hand, if such officials know or should know of the particular vulnerability to suicide of an inmate, then the Fourteenth Amendment imposes on them an obligation not to act with reckless indifference to that vulnerability.

In Estate of Bailey by Oare v. County of York, 768 F.2d 503, 508 (3d Cir. 1985), this court further elucidated this issue when we held:

The allegations of the complaint may fairly be read to allege conduct rising to the level of deliberate indifference, reckless disregard, or gross negligence by the agency and by its supervisory officials fairly attributable to policies and practices of the agency. They allege more than the mere "negligent monitoring of the mother's household," as stated by the dissent. They therefore adequately meet the standard of conduct encompassed by § 1983. See, e.g., Voutour v. Vitale, 761 F.2d 812 820-22, 823 (1st Cir. 1985); Avery v. County of Burke, 660 F.2d 111, 114 (4th Cir. 1981).

We have not yet had occasion to define "gross negligence" or distinguish it from "reckless disregard" or "reckless indifference" in the civil rights context.*fn4 Even if we were convinced that there could be a meaningful distinction between these terms for purposes of section 1983 actions, it would be premature to attempt to draw such a fine line at this stage of the proceeding. Since the Supreme Court has recognized the obligation of prison officials to take reasonable measures to guarantee the safety of inmates, our inquiry is merely whether the putative amended complaint can fairly be construed as alleging a violation of that duty sufficient to constitute deprivation of Stierheim's due process rights.


Sufficiency of the ...

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