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David Thompson v. Wynnewood of Lower Merion Township

September 13, 2012


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



Plaintiff David Thompson, proceeding pro se, filed suit against two municipalities, Wynnewood of Lower Merion Township ("Lower Merion Township")*fn1 and the City of Philadelphia, following his April 5, 2010 street encounter with police officers employed by both municipalities.

In the Amended Complaint, Plaintiff asserts the following:*fn2 (1) a violation of his right not to be subjected to an unreasonable search and seizure under both the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania;*fn3 (2) a violation of his substantive due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution for being deprived of medical care;*fn4 (3) an entitlement to monetary damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 as a result of the violation of his constitutional rights; and (4) common law tort violations committed by Defendants, including claims of negligence, assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and false arrest.*fn5 (Doc. No. 1, Ex. A ¶ 1-3.) The Amended Complaint seeks damages of $25,000. (Doc. No. 1, Ex. A ¶ 25.)
On April 3, 2012, Plaintiff instituted this action by filing a Complaint in the Court of Common Pleas for Montgomery County. (Doc. No. 1 at 2.) On April 25, 2012, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint, naming as Defendants Lower Merion Township, Lower Merion Police Department ("LMPD"), Lower Merion Police Officer Coletta ("Coletta"), Lower Merion Township Manager Douglas Cleland ("Cleland"), the City of Philadelphia, the City of Philadelphia Police Department ("PPD"), City of Philadelphia Police Officer Horne ("Horne"), City of Philadelphia Unidentified Police Officers, and City of Philadelphia Police Sergeant Hernandez ("Sgt. Hernandez"). (Doc. No. 1, Ex. A.) On April 27, 2012, Lower Merion Township removed the case to this Court.*fn6 (Doc. No. 1.)

4. Plaintiff avers a violation under both Constitutions which amounts to a deprivation of plaintiff's constitutional right under the fourth amendment of the United States and Pennsylvania's Constitution.

18. Lower Merion Township, Lower Merion Police Department and Police Officer Colleta wasted taxpayer resources by violating its own police procedure and state law by acting unlawfully [and] negligently confronting and stopping plaintiff without probable cause because plaintiff never fit the alleged perpetrators description given at the heat of the moment as factually true, and caused plaintiff intentional infliction of emotional distress and battery [by] being accused of shooting police and [by being told] plaintiff will be shot if plaintiff did not stop.

In construing the Amended Complaint in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the Court will consider the asserted claims as tort actions for negligence, assault, battery, false arrest, and intentional infliction of emotional distress and as being brought against Defendant Police Officers in their individual capacity.

Presently before the Court are Motions to Dismiss the Amended Complaint filed by Lower Merion Township, LMPD, Coletta, and Cleland (Doc. No. 2), and the City of Philadelphia, PPD, Horne, City of Philadelphia Unidentified Police Officers, and Sgt. Hernandez (Doc. No. 6), pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. In turn, Plaintiff has filed two Responses in Opposition to Defendants' respective Motions to Dismiss.*fn7 On July 6, 2012, the Court held a hearing on Defendants' Motions to Dismiss. (Doc. No. 10.)

Upon consideration of the parties' briefs, exhibits, and arguments made at the July 6, 2012 hearing, and after an independent review of the allegations in the Amended Complaint, the Court will grant the Motions to Dismiss in part and deny them in part.


The Court will recite the facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff. This matter arises from events that occurred during Plaintiff's encounter with police officers from the Lower Merion Police Department ("LMPD") and Philadelphia Police Department ("PPD"). (Doc. No. 1, Ex. A ¶ 6.)

On April 5, 2010, at 5:45 a.m., Plaintiff encountered LMPD Officer Coletta while walking in the area of 6 East Lancaster Avenue in Lower Merion Township. (Id.) After identifying himself, Officer Coletta informed Plaintiff that he suspected Plaintiff may be the individual wanted for a recent shooting of a Philadelphia police sergeant.*fn8 (Doc. No. 1, Ex. A ¶¶ 11-12.) Officer Coletta threatened to shoot Plaintiff if he failed to accede to, or resisted, the directive to stop walking. (Id.) Plaintiff complied with Officer Coletta's order and offered no resistance during his encounter with the police. (Id.) He contends his detainment was "without probable cause." (Doc. No. 1, Ex. A ¶ 18.)

In the Amended Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that police were seeking two black male perpetrators in their mid-twenties whose distinguishable features included braided hair. (Doc. No. 1, Ex. A ¶ 11.) Moreover, law enforcement believed that the shooter had a tattoo of a tear drop located over one eye. (Doc. No. 1, Ex. A ¶ 12.)

Conversely, Plaintiff is a forty-one-year-old male. (Doc. No. 1, Ex. A ¶ 10.) He describes himself as having brown skin, but maintains that he is not African-American. (Id.) Additionally, he does not have braided hair or tattoos on his face. (Id.) On the morning of the encounter with the police, he was "wearing jogging attire of a yellow tank shirt, sweat pants and a red jogging pouch attach[ed] to [his] waist" and was holding "a banana and book." (Id.) He maintains that the red pouch "was so small" that it "could only carry identification cards and similar items of size." (Doc. No. 1, Ex. A ¶ 15.)

Following his initial stop by Officer Coletta, Plaintiff was "submerged by an onslaught gang of police officers" from both police departments. (Doc. No. 1, Ex. A ¶ 13.) He identifies Philadelphia Police Officer Horne as one of the officers who assaulted him, and Philadelphia Police Sergeant Hernandez as the officer who searched him illegally. (Id.) He asserts that Officer Horne was one of four police officers who violently twisted his wrists, kicked his legs, handcuffed him, and caused him to fall "face forward" onto the ground. (Id.) Once he was on the ground, Sergeant Hernandez conducted a search of Plaintiff's red "jogging pouch" or carry bag. (Doc. No. 1, Ex. A ¶ 15.) He maintains that this search was "unauthorized." (Id.) Following an investigation at the scene, Plaintiff was not arrested and was free to leave.

Plaintiff then walked to Lankenau Hospital where he was diagnosed with, and received treatment for, a sprain and contusion to his left hand.*fn9 (Doc. No. 1, Ex. A ¶ 16; Doc. No. 1, Ex. C to Ex. A at 2.) Plaintiff contends that he suffered a tissue injury to, and swelling in, his wrist and arm. (Doc. No. 1, Ex. A ¶ 17.) Thereafter, he received occupational therapy and treatment for elbow and arm pain during three visits to Jefferson Hospital from May 7, 2010 to June 1, 2010. (Doc. No. 1, Ex. D to Ex. A at 1.) As a result of these events, Plaintiff filed the present suit in the Court of Common Pleas for Montgomery County. Defendants subsequently removed the case to this Court.


The motion to dismiss standard under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) is set forth in the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007); see also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009). The Twombly standard requires a plaintiff to plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." 550 U.S. at 570. As a result of the Twombly holding, plaintiffs must have "nudged [their] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible, or the complaint must be dismissed." Id. In Iqbal, the Supreme Court further elaborated on the Twombly plausibility standard by holding that "a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter," that if accepted as true, states a claim for "relief that is plausible on its face." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Under Iqbal, "where the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged--but it has not 'show[n]'--'that the pleader is entitled to relief.'" Id. at 679 (citation omitted). This "plausibility" determination will be a "context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id.

Applying the principles of Iqbal and Twombly, the Third Circuit in Santiago v. Warminster Twp., 629 F.3d 121 (3d Cir. 2010), set forth a three-part analysis that district courts in this Circuit must utilize in evaluating whether allegations in a complaint survive a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. 629 F.3d at 130; see also Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009) (applying the principles of Iqbal and articulating a two-part test).

In the first part of the analysis, the court must "'tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim.'" Santiago, 629 F.3d at 130 (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 675). Second, the court should identify allegations that, "because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to assumptions of truth." Id. Finally, "where there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement for relief." Id. Essentially, while a district court must accept all of the complaint's well-pleaded facts as true, a complaint must do more than allege a plaintiff's entitlement to relief--it must "show" such an entitlement with the facts. Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210-11 (citing Phillips v. City of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234-35 (3d Cir. 2008)).


A. The LMPD and PPD are Divisions of Municipalities and Cannot Be Sued as Individual Entities

Both the Lower Merion Police Department and the City of Philadelphia Police Department maintain that, as police departments, they are not amenable to suit because they are subunits of municipalities. They assert that Plaintiff's claims against them merge with his claims against the municipalities themselves and that both police departments must be dismissed from this suit. The Court agrees.

Section 1983 imposes liability on anyone who, under color of state law, deprives a person of "any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws." Blessing v. Freestone, 520 U.S. 329, 341 (1997). In a § 1983 action, police departments cannot be sued in conjunction with municipalities because a police department is merely an administrative arm of a local municipality and not a separate entity. See Hankin Family P'ship v. Upper Merion Twp., No. 01-1622, 2012 WL 43610, at *9 n.19 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 6, 2012) (citing Martin v. Red Lion Police Dept., 146 F. App'x 558, 562 (3d Cir. 2005)); Debellis v. Kulp, 166 F. Supp. 2d 255, 264 (E.D. Pa. 2001). Here, because the LMPD and PPD are divisions of larger municipal entities, Plaintiff's claims against the police departments are merged with the claims against Defendants Lower Merion Township and the City of Philadelphia, and dismissal of the police departments as Defendants is warranted.

B. Plaintiff's Claims Against Township Manager Cleland Must Be Dismissed for Lack of Personal Involvement in the Alleged Violations

Plaintiff names Lower Merion Township Manager Douglas Cleland as a Defendant in his Amended Complaint. A defendant in a civil rights action must have personal involvement in the alleged wrongs. Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 537 n.3 (1981); Hampton v. Holmesburg Prison Officials, 546 F.2d 1077, 1082 (3d Cir. 1976). Liability cannot be predicated solely on a theory of respondeat superior. Hampton, 546 F.2d at 1082. Personal involvement can be shown through allegations of personal direction or of actual knowledge and acquiescence. See Rode v. Dellarciprete, 845 F.3d 1195, 1208 (3d Cir. 1988) (holding that a plaintiff must allege knowledge and acquiescence in order to hold a government supervisor liable for the actions of his employees).

Here, it appears that Cleland has been named as a Defendant by virtue of his title as Township Manager of Lower Merion Township. Plaintiff has not pled any facts which would permit an inference that Cleland was personally involved in, or had actual knowledge of, the alleged incident, or any violations of federal or state law. Accordingly, Plaintiff's claims against Cleland will be dismissed.

C. Federal Claims

As a preliminary matter, Defendant Lower Merion Township argues that Police Officer Coletta is entitled to qualified immunity on the federal claims. Qualified immunity protects government officials "from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). When determining whether a government actor is entitled to qualified immunity, a court must decide: (1) whether the facts alleged demonstrate that a state actor violated a constitutional right; and (2) whether that right is clearly established so that a reasonable person would know that the conduct was unlawful. Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201-02 (2001). A trial judge has discretion in deciding which of the two prongs to consider first "in light of the circumstances in the particular case at hand." Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009). "Even when the right is clearly established, the [state actor] is entitled to ...

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