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Pamplin v. Coulter

October 14, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Magistrate Judge Lisa Pupo Lenihan


Plaintiff, Robert Pamplin, commenced this action pursuant to the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against two guards and the warden at the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) alleging claims of excessive force, failure to intervene, and failure to protect/supervise, in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution and state law claims of assault and battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss the complaint under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). For the reasons that follow, Defendants' Motion to Dismiss the Plaintiff's Complaint will be denied.

A. Standard of Review -- Motion to Dismiss

A Rule 12(b)(6) motion tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint. In order to survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, the plaintiff must allege "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 554, 556 (2007) (citations omitted). A plaintiff's "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above a speculative level on the assumption that the allegations in the complaint are true." Id. at 555. The issue is not whether the plaintiff will prevail at the end but only whether he should be entitled to offer evidence to support his claim. Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319 (1989); Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974). The complaint must be read in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and all well-pleaded, material allegations in the complaint must be taken as true. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976).

B. Plaintiff's Allegations

In his Complaint, Plaintiff alleges the following. On March 13, 2008, correctional officers Coulter and Brody held responsibility for transferring Pamplin and several other inmates from one area of the jail to another. During the transfer process, Pamplin questioned Coulter about his property, some of which Pamplin believed to be missing. Coulter became upset about Pamplin's questioning and grabbed Pamplin's shirt and rammed his head into a concrete wall. Coulter then took Pamplin to the ground, slammed his head against the ground, and pinned Pamplin to the ground by straddling him. During this attack, Coulter yelled, "All you had to do was shut your fucking mouth!" or words to that effect. Defendant Brody watched the attack but did nothing to stop it. Coulter and Brody then dragged Pamplin down the hallway by his legs and arms back towards the housing unit from which he was being transferred. Although Pamplin's head was bleeding, Coulter and Brody dragged him away from the medical unit. Plaintiff further alleges that Warden Rustin was aware of attacks against inmates by ACJ guards prior to the attack against Pamplin, that such attacks were in violation of the ACJ use of force policy, and that Rustin failed to adopt a practice of disciplining officers for violations of the use of force policy. As a result of Defendants' actions, Pamplin suffered physical and emotional harm such as an open head wound which required stitches, nausea, dizziness, bruises, abrasions, headaches, and vision problems.

C. Liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983

Plaintiff first seeks to assert liability against Defendants pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. To state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must meet two threshold requirements. He must allege: 1) that the alleged misconduct was committed by a person acting under color of state law; and 2) that as a result, he was deprived of rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42 (1988); Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 535 (1981), overruled in part on other grounds, Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 330-331 (1986). Defendants are considered state actors for purposes of imposing liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Thus, Plaintiff may maintain his action if he can show a violation of his constitutional rights.

1. Excessive Force

The Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment protects inmates against the application of excessive force by correctional officers. See Whitley v. Albers, 475 U.S. 312, 318-19 (1986). What is required to prove an Eighth Amendment violation "varies according to the nature of the alleged constitutional violation." Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 5 (1992). In an excessive force claim, the core judicial inquiry is "whether force was applied in a good faith effort to maintain or restore discipline or maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm." Hudson v. McMillian, 503 U.S. 1, 7 (1992). Factors relevant to this inquiry include: the need for application of force; the relationship between that need and the amount of force used; the threat reasonably perceived by the responsible officials; and any efforts made to temper the severity of a forceful response. Hudson, 503 U.S. at 7 (citations omitted). The absence of serious injury is a relevant, but not dispositive, additional factor to be considered in the subjective analysis. Id.

Here, Plaintiff alleges that he suffered injuries sufficient to require sutures to close the wounds in his head and that he suffered bruising and swelling as well as headaches and vision problems due to an unprovoked attack. This is like the situation in Brooks v. Kyler, 204 F.3d 102 (3d Cir. 2000) where the plaintiff claimed that the defendants repeatedly punched him in the head, stomped on his back and neck, slammed him into a wall, choked him, threatened him, and nearly rendered him unconscious. Here, like Brooks, Plaintiff suffered physical injuries consisting of lacerations and abrasions from the incident, according to his allegations, where there was no need to use any force. Accordingly, Defendants are not entitled to dismissal of Plaintiff's excessive force claim against Defendant Coulter. Cf. Smith v. Mensinger, 293 F.3d 641, 649 (3d Cir. 2002) ("Punching and kicking someone who is handcuffed behind his back and under the control of at least six prison guards as he is being thrown into cabinets and walls is 'repugnant to the conscience of mankind,' absent the extraordinary circumstances necessary to justify that kind of force.") (internal citation omitted).

2. Failure to Intervene

A corrections officer's failure to intervene in a beating can be the basis of liability for an Eighth Amendment violation under ยง 1983 if the corrections officer had a reasonable opportunity to intervene and simply refused to do so. Smith, 293 F.3d at 650. A corrections officer can not escape liability by relying upon his inferior or non-supervisory rank vis-a-vis the other officers. Id. Plaintiff's allegations against Defendant Brody are sufficient to state a claim upon which relief may ...

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