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Abdul Rahim Muhammad, et al. v. United States of America

August 6, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: McLaughlin, J.


This action arises from a warrantless entry and search of the plaintiffs' home. Pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act ("FTCA"), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346(b), 2671-2680, Abdul Rahim Muhammad, Sharon Muhammad, Kharee Muhammad, and Tanasia Edmunds, brought Pennsylvania tort law claims against the United States. The government has moved to dismiss the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim.*fn1 The plaintiffs have agreed to the dismissal of their detention and reckless conduct claims. The remaining FTCA claims are for unlawful entry and search, trespass, invasion of privacy, false imprisonment, and assault and battery. The Court will grant the motion in part and will dismiss the claims of unlawful entry and search, and trespass as to all plaintiffs, and false imprisonment, and assault and battery as to Abdul Rahim Muhammad and Sharon Muhammad. The Court will otherwise deny the motion.

I. Factual Background*fn2

Around 9:30 AM on August 5, 2010, four FBI or other federal law enforcement agents arrived at the plaintiffs' residence at 4449 Germantown Avenue in search of a fugitive, Kevin Miller, for whom they had an arrest warrant. Am. Compl.

¶¶ 12, 14, 15. At the time, only Abdul and Sharon Muhammad's son, Kharee Muhammad, and their 17-year-old granddaughter, Tanasia Edmunds, were at home. Id. ¶ 17. The federal agents entered the premises without consent or a search warrant. Id.

¶¶ 14, 17, 19. Instead of informing the plaintiffs of their reasons for the entry and search, the federal agents stated that they were FBI agents and did not need a warrant. They eventually entered the residence using force and threats of force. Id. ¶¶ 16, 17. After securing entry, the federal agents detained Tanasia Edmunds, and "forcibly seized, detained, and handcuffed" Kharee Muhammad, who was also thrown to the ground. Id. ¶ 17. While conducting the search, the agents searched areas of the residence in which the fugitive could not have been hiding, such as the freezer compartment of the refrigerator and dresser drawers. Id. ¶ 18. Ultimately, the agents did not find Kevin Miller, and left the premises in a "state of disarray, with personal property tossed throughout the residence." Id. ¶¶ 15, 18. The plaintiffs then brought this action, alleging that the federal agents had no reasonable cause to believe Kevin Miller lived in or was on the premises at the time of the search, had no legal grounds to enter and search the premises, and had sufficient time to obtain a search warrant. Id. ¶¶ 14-15.

II. Analysis

A. The Federal Tort Claims Act Framework The United States can only be sued insofar as it has waived its sovereign immunity by consenting to suit. F.D.I.C. v. Meyer, 510 U.S. 471, 475 (1994). The FTCA is a limited congressional abrogation of sovereign immunity that confers jurisdiction upon the district courts to hear claims arising from the tortious conduct of federal employees. 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1). For a claim to be actionable under § 1346(b)(1), the claim has to be "[1] against the United States, [2] for money damages, . . .

[3] for injury or loss of property, or for personal injury or death [4] caused by the negligent or wrongful act or omission of any employee of the Government [5] while acting within the scope of his office or employment, [6] under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred." F.D.I.C., 510 U.S. at 477 (citing 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)). Waivers of immunity "must be strictly construed in favor of the United States." United States v. Idaho ex rel.

Dir., Idaho Dept. Of Water Res., 508 U.S. 1, 7 (1993).

B. Adequate Pleading

The government first contends that the plaintiffs' FTCA claims should be dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6) because the amended complaint does not meet the federal pleading standard.*fn3

The government argues that the complaint does not specify which plaintiffs were the alleged victims of which torts.

In Ashcroft v. Iqbal, The Supreme Court made clear that in order "[t]o survive a 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." 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)(internal citation omitted); see also Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210-11 (3d Cir. 2009)(stating a two-part analysis in which the Court must first separate out and accept as true all of the complaint's well-pleaded facts, and then determine whether the alleged facts "are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a plausible claim for relief.") (internal citation omitted). "[D]etailed factual allegations" are not required. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). The plaintiff, however, must plead "factual content that allows the [court, based on its judicial experience and common sense,] to draw a reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 664, 678-79.

The Court finds that the amended complaint, by grouping all four plaintiffs together, suggests that each of the plaintiffs was an alleged victim of the federal agents' actions. Furthermore, the complaint alleges facts that, taken to be true, meet the facial plausibility standard. For instance, it alleges that the law enforcement officers were federal agents, that they entered and searched the plaintiffs' residence without a search warrant, that they threw to the ground, handcuffed and detained Kharee Muhammad, and that they searched areas in which a fugitive could not have been hiding, such as dresser drawers and the freezer. Thus, the Court will deny the government's motion to dismiss the entire complaint on the basis that it fails to meet the federal pleading standard.

C. Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies

The government further seeks dismissal, under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1), of the false imprisonment and assault and battery claims for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. The FTCA's exhaustion requirement is "jurisdictional and cannot be waived." Lightfoot v. United States, 564 F.3d 625, 627 (3d Cir. 2009) (internal citation omitted). The FTCA provides that in order for the district courts to have subject matter jurisdiction over a claim, the plaintiffs must first have presented a written notice of the administrative tort claim to the appropriate government agency and have had the claim "finally denied by the agency in writing." 28 U.S.C. § 2675(a). Pursuant to § 2675(a), the plaintiffs have submitted their administrative tort claims to the FBI on October 28, 2010. See Am. Compl. Ex. B (administrative record). These claims were denied on April 21, 2011. Am. Compl. ¶ 4.

The Third Circuit has stated that § 2675(a) is satisfied as long as the administrative claim 1) provided sufficient "minimal notice" for the agency to properly investigate the incident and 2) placed a value on the claim. Tucker v. U.S. Postal Serv., 676 F.2d 954, 958-59 (3d Cir. 1982). While notice does not require the claim to "propound every possible theory of liability," a plaintiff also "cannot present one claim to the agency and then maintain suit on the basis of a different set of facts." Roma v. United States, 344 F.3d 352, 362 (3d Cir. 2003) (internal citation omitted).

The government asserts that because the handcuffing of Kharee Muhammad underlies the assault and battery claims, the plaintiffs' failure to include it in their administrative claims precludes their exhaustion. The government relies on Roma to argue that because the plaintiffs' administrative claim did not include all of the facts alleged in the amended complaint, the plaintiffs are now seeking recovery based on a different set of facts.*fn4 In Roma, the plaintiff alleged in his administrative claim that he was injured after being negligently instructed by government officials to remove his breathing apparatus while on duty as a firefighter. 344 F.3d at 359. However, his subsequent lawsuit was based on the theory that government agents were negligent in failing to prevent the fire. Id. at 363. The Court of Appeals concluded that the plaintiff's administrative claim did not satisfy ยง 2675(a) because it "did not provide any notice to the United States that it not only had to investigate the ...

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