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Joseph S. Agnello v. Larry Straitiff

April 15, 2011

JOSEPH S. AGNELLO, PLAINTIFF,
v.
LARRY STRAITIFF, JEFFERSON COUNTY AND KEVIN BICKLE DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ambrose, District Judge

OPINION and ORDER OF COURT

Plaintiff Joseph Agnello ("Agnello") participated in an Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition ("ARD") program in connection with a case brought by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania against Agnello in the Court of Common Pleas of Jefferson County. Agnello contends that after he completed the ARD program, his home was searched, without a warrant, based upon a false tip that he was manufacturing methamphetamines. According to Agnello, Defendant Larry J. Straitiff ("Straitiff"),*fn1 the Jefferson County Chief Probation Officer, and Paul S. Pape ("Pape"), a self-employed constable, conducted the search. Agnello claims that the search violated his Fourth Amendment rights under the Constitution. He seeks relief for the violation pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

Jefferson County has filed a Motion to Dismiss. See ECF Docket No. [20]. It challenges, under Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007) and its progeny, the sufficiency of the allegations directed against it as a municipality under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.*fn2 This is the second time Jefferson County has challenged the viability of Agnello‟s § 1983 claim of municipal liability. In my earlier Opinion and Order (see ECF Docket No. [18]), I found that the allegations set forth in the First Amended Complaint were wanting. Agnello was given the opportunity to amend. The question before me is whether the amendments cure the deficiencies I previously noted.

Standard of Review "‟In deciding a motion to dismiss, all well-pleaded allegations of the complaint must be taken as true and interpreted in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, and all inferences must be drawn in favor of them.‟" Robinson v. County of Allegheny, Civ. No. 9-4681, 2010 WL 5166321 at * 2 (3rd Cir. Dec. 21, 2010), quoting, McTernan v. City of York, 577 F.3d 521, 526 (3d Cir. 2009). "To withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, "a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.‟" Robinson, 2010 WL 5166321 at * 2, quoting, Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009). "A claim is plausible if it "pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct that is alleged.‟" Holmes v.Gates, 403 Fed. Appx. 670, 2010 WL 5078004 at * 1 (3rd Cir. Dec. 14, 2010), quoting, Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1949. "The plausibility standard is not akin to a "probability requirement,‟ but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Holmes, 2010 WL 5078004 at * 1, quoting, Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1949. "‟A pleading that offers labels and conclusions or a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do. Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders naked assertions devoid of further factual enhancement." Id. (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted). "‟Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief will . be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.‟" Id. (citations omitted).

Analysis

As the Holmes court cautioned, assessing the sufficiency of Agnello‟s allegations is a context-specific task. Here, Agnello has asserted a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for municipal liability. "A municipality or other local government may be liable under this section if the governmental body itself "subjects‟ a person to a deprivation of rights or "causes‟ a person "to be subjected‟ to such deprivation." Connick v. Thompson, Civ. No. 9-571, 2011 WL 1119022 at * 6 (U.S. March 29, 2011), citing, Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 692, 98 S. Ct. 2018 (1978). Thus, a local government is responsible only for its own illegal acts, it cannot be held vicariously liable under § 1983 for its employees‟ actions. Connick, 2011 WL 1119022 at * 6, citing, Pembauer v. Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 477, 106 S. Ct. 1292 (1986) and Monell, 436 U.S. at 691.

To prevail on a § 1983 claim against a municipality, a plaintiff must prove that the constitutional deprivation was caused by a municipal custom, practice or policy. Id. "A "policy‟ is an official proclamation by a decision maker with final authority; a "custom‟ is a practice of [municipal] officials that is so permanent and well-settled as to virtually constitute law." Bolick v. Commw. of Pa., Civ. No. 10-1461, 2011 WL 941394 at * 7 (E.D. Pa. March 16, 2011), citing, Kelly v. Borough of Carlisle, 622 F.3d 248, 263 (3d Cir. 2010).

Nothing in the Second Amended Complaint references a custom, practice or policy. For instance, Agnello does not allege that Jefferson County‟s Probation Office routinely searched ARD participants without a warrant. Instead, Agnello alleges that:

21. Defendant Jefferson County is the employer of Defendant Larry J. Stra[i]tiff, who willfully failed in any manner to train the Defendant Larry J. Stra[i]tiff in regard to his duties as Chief Probation Officer of Jefferson County, in violation of 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8550.

22. Defendant Jefferson County failed to train any Jefferson County Probation Officers.

23. Jefferson County is the employer of all Jefferson County Probation Officers.

24. Defendant Jefferson County‟s failure to train any Jefferson County Probation Officers was well known to the head Probation Officer of Jefferson County Larry J. Stra[i]tiff.

See Second Amended Complaint, ECF Docket No. [19].

Given these allegations, it appears that Agnello‟s § 1983 claim is based upon a "failure to train." The Supreme Court recognizes that "[i]n limited circumstances, a local government‟s decision not to train certain employees about their legal duty to avoid violating citizens‟ rights may rise to the level of an official policy for purposes of § 1983." Connick, 2011 WL 1119022 at * 7. However, "[a] municipality‟s culpability for a deprivation of rights is at its most tenuous where a claim turns on a failure to train." Id., citing, Oklahoma City v. Tuttle, 471 U.S. 808. 822-23, 105 S.Ct. 2427 (1985) (plurality opinion) (stating that "[a] policy of ...


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