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Betts v. New Castle Youth Development Center

September 13, 2010

ERIC M BETTS; SUSAN BETTS, APPELLANTS
v.
NEW CASTLE YOUTH DEVELOPMENT CENTER; KENNETH WENT, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITY; CHARLES MITCHAM, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITY; DAVID TOMOCHECK, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITY; OMAR STUART, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITY; WILLIE BLUE, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITY; TAMMY A ODEM, IN HER INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITY; JOHN DOE, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITY



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania (D.C. No. 07-cv-00337) District Judge: Honorable David Stewart Cercone.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hardiman, Circuit Judge.

PRECEDENTIAL

Argued May 18, 2010

Before: FUENTES, HARDIMAN and NYGAARD, Circuit Judges.

OPINION OF THE COURT

On Saturday, April 29, 2006, seventeen-year-old Eric Betts suffered a tragic spinal cord injury while attempting to make a tackle during a "pick-up" football game at the New Castle Youth Development Center (YDC). Following the injury, Betts sued YDC and several of its staff members pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming various constitutional violations. The District Court entered summary judgment for YDC and its staff in their official capacities, finding them immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment. Summary judgment also was entered on the merits in favor of the Defendants in their individual capacities. Betts filed this timely appeal.*fn1

I.

The District Court had subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331. We have appellate jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291.

"Our review of Defendants' entitlement to Eleventh Amendment immunity is plenary." Haybarger v. Lawrence County Adult Prob. and Parole, 551 F.3d 193, 197 (3d Cir. 2008). We review the District Court's summary judgment de novo, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Groman v. Twp. of Manalapan, 47 F.3d 628, 633 (3d Cir. 1995). Summary judgment is appropriate where there are no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(2). A genuine issue of material fact exists when the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). When the moving party has carried its burden, the nonmoving party must "set out specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)(2). Unsupported assertions, conclusory allegations, or mere suspicions are insufficient to overcome a motion for summary judgment. See Williams v. Borough of West Chester, 891 F.2d 458, 460 (3d Cir. 1989).

II.

The YDC houses youths who have been adjudicated delinquent and committed by Pennsylvania's Juvenile Courts to the care and custody of the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare's Bureau of Juvenile Justice Services. At the time of his injury, Betts had been committed to the YDC's Secure Treatment Program-a maximum security program for serious offenders-and was assigned to one of five residential cottages. Counselors worked in the cottages and were required to accompany the residents at all times. On weekends, residents had "free time" during which they were permitted to use indoor and outdoor basketball courts, several gyms and weight training equipment, a swimming pool, and an outdoor area available for football or walking. During daytime activities such as the football game involved in this case, at least one YDC staff member had to be present for every six residents.

On the day Betts was tragically injured, two counselors accompanied ten residents, including Betts, to the outdoor area to play football. By their previous agreement, residents from Pittsburgh chose to square off against residents from Philadelphia. As was their habit, the residents played tackle football without any equipment. During the course of the fateful game, a player simulated a kickoff by throwing the ball into the air. Betts-who had prior experience playing organized and "pick-up" tackle and touch football-ran down the field "full force" and hit the ball carrier with his head. Betts testified at his deposition that he "really tried to hurt" the opposing player because his "adrenaline was rushing."

Upon impact, Betts fell to the ground and was unable to get up. While Betts was lying on the ground, a counselor advised Betts to tell people he had been playing touch, not tackle, football.*fn2 An ambulance transported Betts to a local hospital, where he was evacuated by helicopter to St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Youngstown, Ohio. Unfortunately, Betts's spinal cord injury was so severe that it resulted in quadriplegia.

Following the accident, Betts sued YDC and several of its staff members in their official and individual capacities. As relevant to this appeal, Betts claimed his rights were violated under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. The Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting that YDC and its staff in their official capacities were immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment. The District Court agreed, holding that the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (DPW) is an administrative agency without existence apart from the Commonwealth. Betts v. New Castle Youth Dev. Ctr., 2009 WL 2913846, at *3 (W.D. Pa. Sept. 8, 2009). And because the YDC is a Pennsylvania state agency "regulated, monitored and maintained" by the DPW, it was entitled to the same immunity. Id.*fn3

As for Betts's individual-capacity claims against the YDC staff members, the District Court ruled on the merits. On Betts's Eighth Amendment claim, the District Court held there was insufficient evidence to raise genuine issues of fact as to the existence of a substantial risk of serious harm and the Defendants' deliberate indifference to that risk. Id. at *5-6. Regarding Betts's claims under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the District Court held that his claim for deliberate indifference failed for the same reason it failed under the Eighth Amendment ...


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