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WILLIAMS v. PENNSYLVANIA STATE POLICE BUEREAU

April 30, 2001

SHARON R. WILLIAMS, PLAINTIFF,
V.
PENNSYLVANIA STATE POLICE BUREAU OF LIQUOR CONTROL ENFORCEMENT, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lowell A. Reed, Jr., S.J.

MEMORANDUM

Defendant Alfred Campbell now moves for summary judgment (Document No. 52) in this civil rights case, seeking a ruling that the evidence could not support a jury finding that he violated the equal protection rights of plaintiff Sharon Williams, and that regardless, he is entitled to qualified immunity. Upon consideration of the arguments and the evidence of record, pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

Background

On a prior motion for summary judgment in this case, the Court ruled that there remained a genuine issue of material fact as to whether defendant Alfred Campbell violated the right of plaintiff to equal protection through his personal involvement in the decision to place plaintiff on restricted duty in the course of her employment with the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Liquor Control and Enforcement ("Bureau"). See Williams v. Pennsylvania State Police, 108 F. Supp.2d 460, 472-73 (E.D.Pa. 2000). In the months that have passed since this Court rendered that decision, the Bureau terminated plaintiff's employment. Plaintiff then amended her complaint to include Title VII and equal protection claims arising out of that termination, which allegedly flowed directly from the decision to place plaintiff on restricted duty.

Campbell now moves for summary judgment as to the equal protection claim against him, not only as to her termination-related claim, but also as to her claim arising out of her placement on restricted duty. This Court cannot and will not revisit its prior decision to deny summary judgment as to the restricted duty claim. Thus, the sole question this Court will address today is whether summary judgment is appropriate as to plaintiff's claim that Campbell violated her equal protection rights by causing her to be terminated.

Analysis*fn1

Campbell's central argument is that there is insufficient evidence linking him to the decision to terminate plaintiff, largely because he was not employed by the Bureau at the time the decision to terminate plaintiff was made. This motion presents an issue that is not often discussed in the civil rights setting; the issue of proximate causation. Although it is not frequently addressed, the element of proximate cause is implicit in 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and thus must be established in order to prove liability.

Section 1983 places liability on a person who "subjects, or causes to be subjected" another to a constitutional deprivation. See 42 U.S.C. § 1983. This language suggests that there are two ways a defendant may be liable for a constitutional deprivation under § 1983: (2) direct, personal involvement in the alleged constitutional violation on the part of the defendant, or (2) actions or omissions that are not constitutional violations in themselves, but foreseeably lead to a constitutional violation. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit offered a most cogent discussion of this issue in Arnold v. International Bus. Machines Corp., 637 F.2d 1350 (9th Cir. 1981):

A person `subjects' another to the deprivation of a constitutional right, within the meaning of section 1983, if he does an affirmative act, participates in another's affirmative acts, or omits to perform an act which he is legally required to do that causes the deprivation of which complaint is made. . . . Moreover, personal participation is not the only predicate for section 1983 liability. Anyone who "causes" any citizen to be subjected to a constitutional deprivation is also liable. The requisite causal connection can be established not only by some kind of direct personal participation in the deprivation, but also by setting in motion a series of acts by others which the actor knows or reasonably should know would cause others to inflict the constitutional injury.

Id. at 1355 (emphasis added) (quoting Johnson v. Duffy, 588 F.2d 740, 743-44 (9th Cir. 1978)).

The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has not directly addressed this issue of proximate causation in § 1983 cases. Defendant cites Rode v. Dellarciprete, 845 F.2d 1195, 1207 (3d Cir. 1988) for the proposition that a plaintiff may only prevail on a § 1983 claim against an individual defendant if the plaintiff shows that the defendant was personally involved in the actual constitutional violation. The passage from Rode upon which defendant relies reads, "A defendant in a civil rights action must have personal involvement in the alleged wrongs; liability cannot be predicated solely on the operation of respondeat superior." Id. at 1207. As is clear from the quotation, the observations of the court of appeals in Rode concerning personal involvement were made in the context of a discussion of plaintiff's theory of liability, not proximate causation. The cases the Rode court cited for in support of its "personal involvement" proposition also dealt only with respondeat superior liability, and not with causation. Respondeat superior liability and proximate causation are distinct concepts*fn2 and therefore have distinct analyses. Therefore, I do not believe that the observations of the court of appeals in Rode are controlling in this context, where the question is not whether a supervisor could be responsible for the actions of her subordinates, but whether there is a sufficient nexus between the actions of an individual and an alleged constitutional wrong.

Because I can find no controlling law from the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on this issue, and because I consider the analysis of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Arnold to be persuasive and most consistent with the language of § 1983, I adopt the Arnold analysis today and hold that causation by an individual defendant in a § 1983 action may be established in two ways: (1) with evidence of direct personal involvement in the alleged constitutional violation by the defendant, or (2) with evidence that the defendant set in motion a series of acts by others that the defendant knew or reasonably should have known would cause others to inflict the constitutional injury.*fn3

It is not disputed that Campbell had no direct, personal involvement in the decision to terminate plaintiff. Plaintiff urges liability on the second ground; that Campbell set in motion a series of events that he knew or reasonably should have known would cause others to terminate her. The crux of the motion for summary judgment, then, is whether there is evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that Campbell knew or reasonably should have known that his acts ultimately would cause plaintiff's termination.

Plaintiff presents no new evidence on this point. Rather, she relies on the evidence presented on the prior motion for summary judgment, upon which this Court based its conclusion that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Campbell violated her equal protection rights by placing her on restricted duty. That evidence consisted primarily of a memorandum from Campbell memorializing the decision to place plaintiff on restricted duty. ...


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