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Winston v. Riel

September 3, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: McLAUGHLIN, Sean J., District J.


Plaintiff Michael Winston filed this pro se civil action alleging that his federal civil rights were violated in connection with an assault he suffered in the City of Bradford. Named as Defendants are various law enforcement and/or city officials, to wit: Tom Riel (identified as "Mayor, Public Affairs & Police"), Ross Veidich (identified as "City Councilman for Public Safety"), Mike Close (identified as "Chief of City Police"), and Brian Miller and Steve Green (each identified as "Police Officer City"). Now pending before the Court is a motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).


When deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, a court must "accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief." Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir.2008). Because Plaintiff is proceeding pro se, his complaint must be "'liberally construed'" and "'held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers[.]'" Brown v. City of Long Branch, No. 09-3632, 2010 WL 1980997 at *2 (3d Cir. May 19, 2010) (quoting Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007)). This notwithstanding, "[t]o survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint -- even a pro se complaint --'must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Thakar v. Tan, No. 09-2084, 2010 WL 1141397 at *2 (3d Cir. March 25, 2010) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, ---U.S. ----, ----, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009)). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. (quoting Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949). See also Brown, supra, at *2 ("The factual allegations in the complaint must be sufficient to "'raise a right to relief above the speculative level.'") (quoting Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir. 2008)).


In his complaint, Plaintiff cites a slew of federal constitutional and statutory provisions, some of which are jurisdictional or venue-related and some of which are substantive in nature. Among the statutory citations are certain provisions of the federal civil rights laws as well as various provisions of the federal criminal code.

Despite his invocation of numerous provisions of federal law, Plaintiff's factual averments are sparse and his theory of liability is unclear.*fn1 He claims that he was "beat up by three people on the streets of Bradford City" and "the police came and refused to help or give Plaintiff [any] right to relief on or before Dec 20th 07." (Compl. [2] ¶ 8 p. 2.)

Plaintiff alleges that the named Defendants "are jointly responcible [sic] for training conduct and enforcement of all laws and rights in as [sic] United States of America Article VI..." (Id.) He further claims that he has "relentlesly [sic] wrote [sic] and called every local state and federal office to complain which is also a right to complain and to get redrees [sic]," but he "has been refused by all local state and federal government [departments]..." (Id. at ¶ 9 p. 3.)

1. 42 U.S.C. § 1983

Construing these vague allegations most liberally in the Plaintiff's favor, it seems most plausible that he is attempting to plead a federal cause of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.*fn2 In order to state a viable claim under § 1983, "a plaintiff must allege the violation of a right secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States, and must show that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law." West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988)). See also Kneipp v. Tedder, 95 F.3d 1199, 1204 (3d Cir. 1996). Here, Plaintiff's complaint fails to allege facts which, if proven, would establish that the named Defendants violated a right secured by federal law.

It appears, for example, that the Plaintiff may be attempting to assert a violation of his substantive due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. The essence of Plaintiff's complaint seems to be that he was assaulted by three private individuals within the City of Bradford and city police officers (presumably Defendants Miller and Green) declined to give him assistance. His allegation that the officers "refused to ... give Plaintiff right to relief" may mean that they declined to investigate the incident or arrest the individuals who assaulted the Plaintiff. Alternatively, he may be complaining that the Defendants failed to attend to his physical needs and/or that they failed to protect him from the harm in the first place.

Assuming these facts to be true, however, they do not establish a Fourteenth Amendment due process violation. While individuals have a constitutional liberty interest in personal bodily integrity that is protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, see D.R. v. Middle Bucks Area Vocational Technical School, 972 F.2d 1364, 1368 (3d Cir.1992) (citation omitted), that clause does not impose an affirmative obligation on the state to protect its citizens from private danger. See DeShaney v. Winnebago County Dept. of Soc. Servs., 489 U.S. 189, 195-96 (1989); Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 235 (3d Cir. 2008).

One exception to that rule is the "special relationship" theory, which applies when the government has engaged in an "affirmative act of restraining the individual's freedom to act on his own behalf -- through incarceration, institutionalization, or other similar restraint of personal liberty." DeShaney v. Winnebago County Dept. of Social Serv., 489 U.S. 189, 200 (1989). Plaintiff, however, does not allege any facts that would support the existence of such a "special relationship" in this case.

There is another exception to the general rule that the Due Process Clause does not impose upon governmental actors an affirmative duty to protect private individuals from harm committed by other private individuals. This exception is known as the so-called "state-created danger" theory which, as our circuit court of appeals has explained, requires plaintiffs to meet a four-part test: (1) the harm ultimately caused to the plaintiff was foreseeable and fairly direct; (2) the state-actor acted in willful disregard for the plaintiff's safety; (3) there was some relationship ...

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