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Dull v. West Manchester Township Police Dep't

March 17, 2008



Plaintiffs Donna Dull and her daughter, Holly Dull, bring this suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging violations of their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights during their arrest and detention in March 2005. Plaintiffs also advance tort claims pursuant to Pennsylvania law. Defendants are West Manchester Township, the City of York, and their respective police officers and chiefs. Defendants have filed motions to dismiss (Docs. 22, 23) certain of the federal and state claims against them. Plaintiffs have filed a motion to amend the complaint (Doc. 33) to substitute York City police officer Nicholas Figge for a previously fictitious defendant. For the reasons that follow, the motions to dismiss (Doc. 22, 23) will be granted in part and denied in part, and the motion to amend (Doc. 33) will be granted.

I. Statement of Facts*fn1

On March 13, 2005, plaintiff Donna Dull ("Donna") delivered photographic film to Wal-Mart, located at the West Manchester Mall in York, Pennsylvania, for development. (Doc. 1 ¶ 28.) She and her daughter, Holly Dull ("Holly"), returned to the mall to retrieve the film the following day. (Id. ¶ 29.) Donna and Holly parted company upon arrival at the mall, and Donna entered Wal-Mart to obtain her prints. A Wal-Mart employee informed Donna that the photographs could not be returned to her because Wal-Mart staff questioned their propriety and had contacted the West Manchester Township Police Department. (Id. ¶ 30.) Donna was told to contact the police to resolve the situation. (Id. ¶ 31.)

Donna left Wal-Mart and completed other errands at the mall before returning to her vehicle. (Id.) In the interim, the Wal-Mart employee had apparently contacted the police, who arrived at Donna's vehicle as she backing out of a parking space. (Id. ¶ 32.) A police vehicle operated by defendant Officer Sean Conway ("Conway") parked behind her, blocking her egress. (Id.) Conway approached Donna and instructed her to exit her vehicle. (Id. ¶ 33.) Backup officers arrived on the scene, among whom were defendants West Manchester Township Police Sergeant Peter Haines, Detective David Bixler ("Bixler"), Detective Steven Crider,*fn2 and Officer David Keller. (Id. ¶ 35.) An unidentified York City police officer also responded. (Id.)

Conway repeated his command that Donna exit her vehicle, and she complied. (Id. ¶ 36.) Conway handcuffed Donna, who stated: "Please don't do that." (Id. ¶ 38.) In response, one or more of the officers forced Donna into the side of a nearby parked vehicle despite her alleged lack or physical resistance. (Id. ¶ 39.) Donna was unable to identify which officers assailed her because her back was toward them. (Id. ¶ 42.)

Holly left the mall as police were arresting Donna and approached the Dulls' vehicle. (Id. ¶ 46.) She identified herself and asked why police were arresting her mother, and Bixler responded by instructing officers to take Holly into custody as well. (Id. ¶¶ 46-47.) Donna and Holly were taken to West Manchester Township Police Department headquarters. (Id. ¶ 51.) Donna remained in handcuffs for approximately two hours, allegedly causing her to lose feeling in her hands and fingers. (Id. ¶ 52.) She requested that police remove the handcuffs. The police complied but replaced the handcuffs with a leg iron attached to a tether. (Id. ¶ 53.)*fn3

Donna and Holly were eventually released. Donna subsequently faced criminal charges associated with the suspect photographs. (Id. ¶ 55.) The York County District Attorney moved for dismissal of those charges on June 21, 2006. (Id.) No charges were filed against Holly. (Id. ¶ 56.)

As a result of the arrest, Donna alleges that she has chest and breast pain, a bruised rib, and pain in her neck, back, and chest. (Id. ¶ 58.) She has also suffered an inguinal hernia requiring surgical repair, among other injuries. (Id.)

Plaintiffs aver that their injuries resulted from the policies and customs of the West Manchester Township Police Department; its chief, Arthur D. Smith ("Smith"); the York City Police Department; and its commissioner, Mark L. Whitman ("Whitman"). Plaintiffs claim that these defendants failed to adequately screen, hire, supervise, and discipline the officers who arrested them. (Id. ¶ 75.) Defendants allegedly encourage their officers to employ arrest tactics that escalate physical confrontation with arrestees, and they fail to discipline officers for use of excessive force. (Id. ¶ 76.) The complaint states that defendants inadequately investigate incidents of force, prematurely vindicate officers' actions in such situations, and prepare investigative reports that rely exclusively on police accounts and omit factual information adverse to officers. (Id. ¶¶ 91(a)-(c); 130(a)-(c).) Defendants perform no review of incident reports filed by supervising officers to ensure completeness and accuracy. (Id. ¶¶ 91(d)-(e); 130(d)-(e).) Finally, the complaint alleges that defendants fail to sanction officers who engage in misconduct and neglect the use of professional tests to determine whether officers demonstrate a propensity toward unnecessary force. (Id. ¶¶ 94, 97.)

Plaintiffs filed the instant complaint on February 16, 2007. Plaintiffs allege various infringements of their rights under the federal constitution and the law of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Defendants West Manchester Township and its police department, chief, and officers (collectively "the West Manchester defendants") have filed a motion to dismiss (Doc. 22) selected claims against them. Defendants City of York, its police department, police commissioner, and fictitiously named officer John Doe (collectively "the York City defendants") have filed a motion to dismiss (Doc. 23) all claims against them on the ground that plaintiff failed to identify the fictitiously named officer within the statute of limitations. Alternatively, they move to dismiss certain counts of the complaint for failure to state a claim. Plaintiffs have filed a motion to amend (Doc. 33) their complaint to identify the fictitiously named officer as York City Police Sergeant Nicholas Figge ("Figge"). The parties have fully briefed these issues, which are now ripe for decision.

II. Standard of Review

Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides for the dismissal of complaints that fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6). When ruling on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the court must "accept as true all factual allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom, and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Kanter v. Barella, 489 F.3d 170, 177 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting Evancho v. Fisher, 423 F.3d 347, 350 (3d Cir. 2005)). Although the court is generally limited in its review to the facts in the complaint, it "may also consider matters of public record, orders, exhibits attached to the complaint and items appearing in the record of the case." Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1384 n. 2 (3d Cir. 1994); see also In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1426 (3d Cir. 1997).

Federal notice pleading rules require the complaint to "give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Sershen v. Cholish, No. 3:07-CV-1011, 2007 WL 3146357, at *4 (M.D. Pa. Oct. 26, 2007) (quoting Erickson v. Pardus, --- U.S. ---, 127 S.Ct. 2197, 2200 (2007)). The plaintiff must present facts that, if true, demonstrate a plausible right to relief. See FED. R. CIV. P. 8(a) (stating that the complaint should include "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief"); Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, ---U.S. ---, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1965 (2007) (requiring plaintiffs to allege facts sufficient to "raise a right to relief above the speculative level"); Victaulic Co. v. Tieman, 499 F.3d 227, 234 (3d Cir. 2007). Thus, courts should not dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim if it "contain[s] either direct or inferential allegations respecting all the material elements necessary to sustain recovery under some viable legal theory." Montville Twp. v. Woodmont Builders LLC, No. 05-4888, 2007 WL 2261567, at *2 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting Twombly, --- U.S. at ---, 127 S.Ct. at 1969). Under this liberal pleading standard, courts should generally grant plaintiffs leave to amend their claims before dismissing a complaint that is merely deficient. See Grayson v. Mayview State Hosp., 293 F.3d 103, 108 (3d Cir. 2002); Shane v. Fauver, 213 F.3d 113, 116-17 (3d Cir. 2000).

III. Discussion

The York City defendants' motion requests dismissal because their liability is conditioned upon the actions of the fictitiously named officer, and is barred by plaintiffs' failure to identify the officer within the limitations period. The court will therefore first address plaintiffs' motion to amend the complaint to add Figge as a defendant. The court will thereafter address the York City and West Manchester defendants' motions to dismiss various counts of the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

A. Motion to Amend the Complaint

Rule 15 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure governs amendment of pleadings. Amendments generally take effect when they are filed. Hence, amending a pleading to append a new defendant after expiration of the limitations period is ineffective unless the amendment relates back to the date that the original complaint was filed. An amendment relates back if three conditions imposed by Rule 15(c) are satisfied. First, the claim against the new defendant must "ar[i]se out of the conduct, transaction, or occurrence set out-or attempted to be set out-in the original pleading." FED. R. CIV. P. 15(c)(1)(B); see also Singletary v. Pa. Dep't of Corr., 266 F.3d 186, 194 (3d Cir. 2001.) Second, the newly identified defendant must, within 120 days of the filing of the complaint, receive notice of the action such that he or she will not incur prejudice by defending the suit on the merits. FED. R. CIV. P. 15(c)(1)(C)(I); id. R. 4(m); see Singletary, 266 F.3d at 194; see also Urrutia v. Harrisburg County Police Dep't, 91 F.3d 451, 458 (3d Cir. 1996). Third, "the newly named party must have known, or should have known, (again, within the 120 day period) that 'but for a mistake' made by the plaintiff concerning the newly named party's identity, 'the action would have been brought against' the newly named party in the first place." Singletary, 266 F.3d at 194 (quoting FED. R. CIV. P. 15(c)(1)(C)(ii)).*fn4 A plaintiff who satisfies these conditions may nevertheless be denied leave to amend under Rule 15(a) if the plaintiff engaged in undue delay when moving to amend. See Arthur v. Maersk, Inc., 434 F.3d 196, 203 (3d Cir. 2006.)

In the case sub judice, the claims against Figge arise from the same transaction or occurrence as the claims against the named defendants. All defendants allegedly participated in Donna and Holly's arrest. Plaintiffs have therefore satisfied the first condition for relation back of the amendment to the complaint.

The second condition requires that the newly added defendant receive notice of the action within 120 days after the filing of the original complaint and that the defendant incur no prejudice in defending the suit on the merits. Actual notice is not required, and two methods exist through which a defendant may receive constructive notice sufficient to comply with the requirements of Rule 15(c). Under the shared attorney method, a newly added defendant will be deemed to have notice of a claim if "the originally named party and the party who is sought to be added are represented by the same attorney." Singletary, 266 F.3d at 196. Imputation of notice is appropriate if "the attorney is likely to have communicated to the latter party that he may very well be joined in the action." Id. The plaintiff must demonstrate that the strength of the relationship between the existing defendant's attorney and the new defendant supports an inference that the attorney informed defendant of the claim within the 120-day period prescribed by Rule 15. Garvin v. City of Phila., 354 F.3d 215, 225 (3d Cir. 2003).

Alternatively, the plaintiff may impute notice under the identity of interest method. This method requires "'that the parties [be] so closely related in their business operations or other activities that the institution of an action against one services to provide notice of the litigation to the other.'" Singletary, 266 F.3d at 197 (quoting 6A CHARLES A. WRIGHT, et al., FEDERAL PRACTICE AND PROCEDURE, § 1499, at 146 (2d ed. 1990)). A plaintiff seeking to impute notice from a supervisor to a subordinate under this method must establish "circumstances that permit the inference that notice was actually received" by the subordinate. Singletary, 266 F.3d at 200; Garvin, 354 F.3d at 227.

In the instant case, counsel for the York City defendants entered appearances on behalf of fictitiously named John Doe on March 3 and 15, 2007. (See Docs. 7, 9.) On March 9, 2007, Figge prepared an incident report regarding the Dulls' arrest at the behest of his superiors. (See Doc. 39, Ex. B at 5.) This report, prepared nearly two years after the arrest, followed the filing of the complaint by a mere one month. Discovery produced on July 3, 2007, approximately two weeks after expiration of the 120-day period, formally identified Figge as the officer who participated in the arrests.

In light of these facts, the court concludes that notice of plaintiff' claims is be imputed to Figge under the shared attorney method. One may reasonably assume that counsel for the York City defendants began investigating the identity of the unnamed defendant after they commenced representation on defendants' behalf. See Parsons v. City of Phila., No. Civ. A. 02-1881, 2002 WL 32341781, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 12, 2002) (holding that it is reasonable to assume that, upon receiving a complaint against prison officials and unnamed prison guards, officials conducted an investigation to determine the unidentified defendants' identity.) The complaint identified only one York City police officer at the scene of the arrest; hence, counsel would have had to uncover Figge's identity in order to obtain firsthand information regarding their clients' involvement in the suit.

Figge's report-prepared one month after the filing of the complaint-and counsel's identification of Figge as the responding officer bolster this conclusion. Figge's completion of the incident report nearly two years after the arrest but in close temporal proximity to the complaint strongly suggests his superiors demanded it for use in the present lawsuit. Further, the 120-day deadline of Rule 15 expired a mere two weeks prior to the July 3 discovery responses. Counsel inevitably would have had to consult with Figge about the nature of the lawsuit well before the expiration of the deadline in order to formulate the discovery disclosures produced on July 3. Therefore, the court concludes that Figge received notice of plaintiffs' claims within the 120-day period prescribed by Rule 15 and that he received imputed notice of the claim under the shared attorney method.

Imputed notice would likewise be proper under the identity of interest method. The interests of Figge and the York City defendants are closely aligned because liability of both is dependent on Figge's actions at the arrest scene. Preparation of the incident report supports an inference that Figge was aware of the suit. See Sanford v. Stiles, 456 F.3d 298, 314 (3d Cir.2006) (stating that municipal liability requires an underlying violation of constitutional rights, either by the municipality's employees or as a result of its policies and customs). As discussed supra, the evidence of record corroborates ...

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