United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
December 7, 2005.
SAMUEL J. RUIZ, and CARMEN LYDIA FRET APONTE, Plaintiffs
LEBANON COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA, et al., Defendants.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: SYLVIA RAMBO, Senior District Judge
Before the court is a motion to dismiss brought by Defendants
Lebanon County, Lebanon County Drug Task Force, Lebanon County
Prison, (hereinafter "Lebanon County Defendants") and Richard A.
Radwanski. (Doc. 20.) The parties have briefed the issues, and
the matter is ripe for disposition. For the reasons stated below,
the court will grant in part and deny in part Defendants'
Plaintiffs Samuel J. Ruiz and Carmen L. Fret Aponte filed the
instant complaint on October 27, 2004. In their complaint
Plaintiffs named as Defendants, among others, the Lebanon County
Defendants and Richard Radwanski.*fn2 Plaintiffs assert claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Defendants for
alleged violations of Plaintiffs' First, Fourth, Fifth, and
Fourteenth Amendment rights. Additionally, Plaintiffs invoke the
court's supplemental jurisdiction pursuant to
28 U.S.C. § 1367(c), and assert pendent state law claims of assault and
battery, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional
distress, defamation of character, and false imprisonment against
Plaintiffs' allegations arise out of the execution of an arrest
warrant by the Lebanon, Pennsylvania Police Department. On
October 11, 2002, pursuant to numerous controlled drug purchases,
an arrest warrant was issued for the arrest of a Samuel Ruiz, who
resided at 197 Lebanon Village, Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Plaintiffs
allege that the arrest warrant was intentionally and erroneously
executed on Plaintiff Ruiz at 63 North 12th Street, Lebanon,
Plaintiffs allege that on October 28, 2002 at 6:00 a.m.,
Lebanon County police officers knocked on the door of their home
at 63 North 12th Street, Lebanon, Pennsylvania. According to
Plaintiffs, when Plaintiff Ruiz opened the door, he was thrown to
the floor and handcuffed. Plaintiffs also allege that Plaintiff
Fret Aponte, who was pregnant at the time, was subjected to a
strip search and body cavity probe. Nothing illegal was found at
Plaintiff Ruiz was arrested and taken to the Lebanon County
Prison where he was charged with delivery of cocaine and criminal
use of a communication facility. He was held in the Lebanon
County jail until approximately 5:30 p.m., October 28, 2005, when
he was advised that the arresting officers had made a mistake.
Plaintiff Ruiz was subsequently released from custody. That same
day, the Lebanon County District Attorney's office advised the District
Justice that it was withdrawing the charges filed against
II. Legal Standard: Motion to Dismiss
In deciding a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of
Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the court is required to accept as true
all of the factual allegations in the complaint and all
reasonable inferences that can be drawn from the face of the
complaint. Worldcom, Inc. v. Graphnet, Inc., 343 F.3d 651, 653
(3d Cir. 2003). "The complaint will be deemed to have alleged
sufficient facts if it adequately put[s] the defendant[s] on
notice of the essential elements of the plaintiff's cause of
action." Nami v. Fauver, 82 F.3d 63, 65 (3d Cir. 1996). The
court will not dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim
"unless it appears beyond a doubt that the plaintiff can prove no
set of facts in support of his claim that would entitle him to
relief." Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957); Port
Auth. of New York & New Jersey v. Arcadian Corp., 189 F.3d 305,
311 (3d Cir. 1999).
"To decide a motion to dismiss, courts generally consider only
the allegations contained in the complaint, exhibits attached to
the complaint and matters of public record." Pension Benefit
Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d
Cir. 1993) (citations omitted). Additionally, the court may
consider "undisputedly authentic document[s] that a defendant
attaches as an exhibit to a motion to dismiss if the plaintiff's
claims are based on the [attached] document[s]." Id. Moreover,
"documents whose contents are alleged in the complaint and whose
authenticity no party questions, but which are not physically
attached to the pleading may be considered." Pryor v. Nat'l Collegiate Athletic Ass'n,
288 F.3d 548, 560 (3d Cir. 2002). However, the court may not rely
on other parts of the record in making its decision. Jordan v.
Fox, Rothschild, O'Brien & Frankel, 20 F.3d 1250, 1261 (3d Cir.
Finally, in the Third Circuit, a court must grant leave to
amend before dismissing a complaint that is merely deficient.
See, e.g., Weston v. Pennsylvania, 251 F.3d 420, 428 (3d Cir.
2001); Shane v. Fauver, 213 F.3d 113, 116-17 (3d Cir. 2000).
"Dismissal without leave to amend is justified only on the
grounds of bad faith, undue delay, prejudice, or futility."
Alston v. Parker, 336 F.3d 229, 236 (3d Cir. 2004).
Defendants' motion to dismiss raises the following six
arguments: (1) civil rights claims against Lebanon County Prison
should be dismissed because the prison is not a "person" under
42 U.S.C. § 1983; (2) Plaintiffs' claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983
should be dismissed as against the Lebanon County Defendants
because Plaintiffs have not claimed that the deprivation of
Plaintiffs' civil rights was caused by the municipality's
official policy or custom; (3) Plaintiffs' state law tort claims
are barred by the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act; (4)
Plaintiffs' claims against Defendant Richard Radwanski are barred
by qualified immunity; (5) Plaintiffs' complaint lacks the
required specificity for a civil rights complaint; and (6)
Plaintiffs cannot make a claim for punitive damages against the
Lebanon County Defendants. The court will discuss each of these
arguments in turn. A. Lebanon County Prison as a "Person" under
42 U.S.C. § 1983
Defendants contend that the Lebanon County Prison is not a
"person" under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. To support their argument,
Defendants cite two cases. The first, Mitchell v. Chester County
Farms Prison, 426 F. Supp. 271 (E.D. Pa. 1976), predates the
Supreme Court decision in Monell v. Department of Social
Services of the City of New York, 436 U.S. 658, 690 (1978),
which established that municipal entities may be considered
"persons" under § 1983.*fn3 The court will not consider
Mitchell. The second, Muhammed v. Hilbert, 906 F. Supp. 267
(E.D. Pa. 1995), said in a footnote that claims against a county
prison had been previously dismissed because the prison does not
constitute a "person" under § 1983. Id. at 269 n. 2. The court
in Muhammed gives no reasoning behind this statement, as the
issue had been handled by the court during a previous motion to
dismiss. Id. That court's previous holding may have been based
on Monell, which held that municipalities may not be sued on a
theory of respondeat superior. 436 U.S. at 694. However, the
court simply cannot glean from the Muhammed footnote that the
law recognizes that county prisons, by their very nature, are not
"persons" under § 1983. As a municipal entity, the court finds no
reason why county prisons should be treated differently from
other municipal entities subject to Monell. The court will deny
the motion to dismiss as to this issue. B. Section 1983 Claims against the Lebanon County
Defendants argue that Plaintiffs have not alleged that the
Lebanon County Defendants caused Plaintiffs' injury through an
official policy or custom. As stated above, a municipality or a
municipal agency may be considered a "person" under § 1983.
Monell, 436 U.S. at 690. However, a municipality may not be
sued under § 1983 under a theory of respondeat superior. Id. at
691. Rather, the plaintiff must show that the "execution of the
government's policy or custom . . . inflicts the injury. . . ."
Id. at 694. The "policy" requirement is intended to "make clear
that municipal liability is limited to action for which the
municipality itself is responsible. Pembaur v. City of
Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 479 (1986). At the pleading stage, the
plaintiff is required to plead the existence of such a policy or
custom of the municipality. Brozusky v. Hanover Twp.,
222 F. Supp. 2d 606, 610 (M.D. Pa. 2002) (citing Leftall v. Dallas
Independent School District, 28 F.3d 521, 525 (5th Cir. 1994)).
In their complaint, Plaintiffs do not assert that the actions
of the individual officers occurred as a result of either an
official policy or a custom. Plaintiffs do not refer to the
Lebanon County Defendants by name, but do state that Defendants
"by and through their agents were involved in the illegal arrest
and imprisonment of Samuel Ruiz and the battery on Ms. Fret
[Aponte]." (Compl. ¶ 56.) Later, Plaintiffs state that "[t]he
foregoing actions of the Defendants were intentional and were in
violation of the United States Constitution. . . ." (Compl. ¶
57.) These statements, without more, lead the court to conclude
that Plaintiffs intended to sue the Lebanon County Defendants
under a theory of respondeat superior. Nowhere do Plaintiffs
refer to any policy or custom on the part of any of the Lebanon
County Defendants that directed the actions of the officers in their
arrest and imprisonment of Plaintiff Ruiz and the alleged battery
on Plaintiff Fret Aponte. Without an allegation of policy or
custom, Plaintiffs' claims under § 1983 against the Lebanon
County Defendants are deficient. The court will grant the motion
to dismiss on this issue.
Though Plaintiffs' complaint is deficient in this respect,
Plaintiffs seem to assert in their brief that they can show the
existence of a custom or policy on the part of the Lebanon County
Defendants. (Pl.'s Br. in Opp'n at 7-8). The court must grant
leave to amend a complaint that is merely deficient. See, e.g.,
Weston, 251 F.3d at 428; Shane, 213 F.3d at 116-17. The
parties have raised no issues as to bad faith, prejudice, undue
delay, or futility that would advise against this court allowing
Plaintiffs to amend their complaint. The court will grant
Plaintiffs leave to amend their complaint with respect to this
C. Plaintiffs' State Law Tort Claims against the Lebanon
Defendants argue that Plaintiffs' state law tort claims against
the Lebanon County Defendants are barred by the Political
Subdivision Tort Claims Act, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 8541.
Defendants contend that the actions of the officers do not
correspond to any of the eight enumerated exceptions to
governmental immunity in 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 8542(b).*fn4
Plaintiffs do not argue that the Lebanon County Defendants'
actions fall within one of the eight exceptions; rather,
Plaintiffs argue that municipal agencies are not immune from suit for the
intentional torts of their employees under Pa. Cons. Stat. §
Section 8550 does carve out an exception for intentional torts,
but only does with respect to employees of government agencies,
not the agencies themselves. Cooper v. City of Chester,
810 F.Supp. 610, 626 n. 8 (E.D. Pa. 1992) (internal citations
omitted).*fn6 Because there is no exception to immunity for
intentional torts committed by municipal defendants, and because
the alleged torts do not fall within the eight enumerated
exceptions to governmental immunity, the court will grant the
motion to dismiss with respect to this issue. As state law is a
bar to these tort claims, amendment would be futile. Accordingly,
the court will not grant Plaintiffs leave to amend their
complaint on this issue.
D. Qualified Immunity for Defendant Richard Radwanski
Defendants assert that Plaintiffs' claims against Defendant
Radwanski are barred by qualified immunity. Government officials
enjoy qualified immunity "insofar as their conduct does not
violate clearly established constitutional or statutory rights of
which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v.
Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). The inquiry is two-fold.
The threshold determination is whether, taken in the light most favorable to
Plaintiffs, the allegations establish that a constitutional right
has been violated. Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001);
see also Wright v. City of Philadelphia, 409 F.3d 595, 600 (3d
Cir. 2005). Upon such a finding, the court must then determine
whether it is a clearly established right such that a reasonable
person should know that his conduct was unlawful. Saucier,
533 U.S. at 201-02.
First, the court must determine whether Plaintiffs have pled a
violation of their constitutional rights. Plaintiffs contend in
the complaint that Defendant Radwanski violated their
constitutional rights by both arresting Plaintiff Ruiz and
searching Plaintiff Fret Aponte's person without probable cause.
Thus, Plaintiffs have sufficiently pled a violation of their
constitutional rights. Second, the court must inquire whether a
reasonable official would have considered the conduct unlawful.
Plaintiffs allege that Defendant Radwanski, who had been involved
in obtaining the arrest warrant, personally executed that arrest
warrant at an address that was not the address on the search
warrant. (Compl. ¶¶ 26, 29.) Plaintiffs allege further that this
action was intentional. (Compl. ¶ 57.)
Defendants assert that Defendant Radwanski's conduct was not
unreasonable because Plaintiffs admit in their complaint that
Defendant Radwanski arrested Plaintiff Ruiz by mistake.
Plaintiffs make no such admission. Plaintiffs allege that
Defendants admitted to him that his arrest had been a mistake.
(Compl. ¶ 53.) Defendants' characterization of their actions as
mistaken at the time is not determinative. More importantly,
Plaintiffs' inclusion of Defendants' admission into their
complaint does not mean that Plaintiffs accept this view. Indeed,
Plaintiffs allege elsewhere that the actions of Defendants were
intentional. Viewing these allegations in a light most favorable to Plaintiffs, the court
cannot find that Radwanski acted reasonably, or that Defendant
Radwanski could have believed that he was acting reasonably.
Therefore, the court will deny the motion with respect to this
E. Sufficiency of Plaintiffs' Complaint
Defendants argue that Plaintiffs' complaint is insufficient as
a matter of law with respect to their civil rights claims. They
contend that the complaint demonstrates a "clear lack of
precision," and "fail[s] to state with particularity the alleged
egregious conduct, the time, the place, and the persons
responsible therefor and regards Defendants. . . ." (Br. in Supp.
There is no heightened pleading standard for civil rights
claims. See Leatherman v. Tarrant County Narcotics Intelligence
and Coordination Unit, 507 U.S. 163, 168 (1993). Rather, civil
rights claims are subjected to the notice pleading standard of
Rule 8(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.*fn7
Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 513 (2002); see
also Alston v. Parker, 363 F.3d 229, 233 (3d Cir. 2004). The
plaintiff does not need to allege every element of a claim in a
cause of action. Menkowitz v. Pottstown Mem'l Med. Ctr.,
154 F.3d 113, 124 (3d Cir. 1998). The complaint need only apprise the
defendants of "`who is being sued, for what relief, and on what
theory, with enough detail to guide discovery.'" Alston,
363 F.3d at 235 (quoting McHenry v. Renne, 84 F.3d 1172, 1177 (9th
Here, Plaintiffs' complaint offers sufficient facts and legal
theories to apprise Defendants of the nature of their suit. The
complaint, contrary to Defendants' assertions, lays out the time, place, and nature of
the alleged egregious conduct. Plaintiffs state in detail what
they assert is an illegal arrest and incarceration of Plaintiff
Ruiz and an intrusive search of Plaintiff Fret Aponte. Plaintiffs
contend that these actions violated their constitutional rights.
Even if Plaintiffs were required to state with particularity the
precise time and place of Defendants' actions, Plaintiffs'
complaint would be satisfactory. The law places no such
heightened pleading requirement on Plaintiffs, and as a result
the court will deny the motion to dismiss with respect to this
F. Punitive Damages against the Lebanon County Defendants
Defendants assert that Plaintiff cannot recover against the
Lebanon County Defendants because municipal defendants are immune
from such damages under § 1983. Plaintiff concedes this point.
(Pl.'s Br. in Opp'n at 11.) Thus, the court will grant the motion
to dismiss on this issue.
For the reasons stated above, the court will grant the motion
to dismiss in part and will deny it in part. The motion to
dismiss Plaintiffs' § 1983 claims based on the sufficiency of
Plaintiffs' complaint with respect to the Lebanon County
Defendants and Defendant Radwanski is denied. However, the motion
to dismiss § 1983 claims against the Lebanon County Defendants
based on a failure to show an official policy or custom is
granted, with leave to amend. The motion to dismiss Plaintiffs'
state law tort claims against the Lebanon County Defendants is
granted, without leave to amend. The motion to dismiss
Plaintiffs' claim for punitive damages against the Lebanon County
Defendants will be granted, without leave to amend. The motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' § 1983 claims against
Defendant Radwanski based on qualified immunity will be denied.
An appropriate order will issue. ORDER
In accordance with the foregoing memorandum of law, IT IS
HEREBY ORDERED THAT:
1) Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 20) is GRANTED in part
and DENIED in part.
a) Defendants' motion to dismiss § 1983 claims
against Defendants Lebanon County, Lebanon County
Drug Task Force, and the Lebanon County Prison
(collectively "Lebanon County Defendants") based on
Plaintiff's failure to show an official policy or
custom is GRANTED, with leave to amend.
b) Defendants' motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' state
law tort claims against the Lebanon County Defendants
is GRANTED, without leave to amend.
c) Defendants' motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' § 1983
claims against Defendant Richard Radwanski based on
qualified immunity is DENIED. d) Defendants' motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' § 1983
claims with respect to the Lebanon County Defendants
and Defendant Radwanski based on the sufficiency of
Plaintiff's complaint is DENIED.
2) Plaintiffs' amended complaint must be filed with the court
no later than December 30, 2005. Plaintiff's amended complaint
shall be complete in itself. M.D. Pa. L.R. 15.1.
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