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William Blackwell v. Middletown Borough Police Department

November 16, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: (Magistrate Judge Carlson)

(Judge Conner)


I. Statement of Facts and of the Case

The plaintiff, William Blackwell, is a state prisoner who is proceeding pro se. On May 3, 2012, Blackwell filed an initial civil complaint with this court which named the Middletown Borough Police Department, three Middletown police officers, and a district judge, David Judy, as defendants. (Doc. 1.) In his complaint, Blackwell stated that the police officers violated his civil rights in the course of a 2010 police investigation into alleged drug trafficking and weapons offenses by Blackwell. (Id.) In particular, Blackwell alleged misfeasance by the police officers in the course of an investigation that led police to secure, and execute, a search warrant at Blackwell's residence. (Id.) District Judge Judy's alleged involvement in this misconduct is limited to the performance of his judicial duties; namely, Blackwell alleged that District Justice Judy authorized the issuance of a search warrant to the police, a warrant which was later the subject of a successful suppression motion in Blackwell's state criminal prosecution. (Id.)

On an initial screening review, we recommended that the Court dismiss Blackwell's complaint against District Justice Judy for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. (Doc. 5.) The district court adopted this recommendation, and dismissed Blackwell's complaint without prejudice to the filing of an amended complaint. (Doc. 9.)

Blackwell has now submitted this amended complaint, along with a motion for leave to file this amended complaint. (Docs. 15 and 16.) The proposed amended complaint once again names three Middletown Police officers as defendants, and recites that these officers engaged in misconduct in the course of the investigation which led to the issuance of this state search warrant. (Id.) While Blackwell's amended complaint makes specific factual averments relating to the alleged conduct of the three police officers, the complaint also names an institutional defendant, the Middletown Borough Police Department, but makes no specific assertions regarding this institutional defendant. (Id.) Thus, the amended complaint apparently seeks to hold this institutional defendant liable on a respondeat superior theory of liability simply because it employed the three named officers.

Upon a second screening review of this proposed amended complaint, for the reasons set forth below, we recommend: (1) that Blackwell be granted leave to amend his complaint; (2) that the complaint be served upon the individual officers; but (3) that the institutional defendant, the Middletown Borough Police Department, be dismissed from this action.

II. Discussion

A. Blackwell Should be Granted Leave to Amend His Complaint, But the Claims Against the Middletown Borough Police Department Should be Dismissed

Rule 15 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure governs amendments and supplementation of pleadings. Fed. R. Civ. P. 15. Rule 15(a) authorizes a party to amend his pleading once as a matter of course within 21 days after serving it, or if the pleading is one to which a responsive pleading is required, 21 days after service of the responsive pleading, or 21 days after service of a dispositive motion under Rule 12, whichever is earlier. Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(a)(1)(A) and (B). "In all other cases, a party may amend its pleading only with the opposing party's written consent, or the court's leave," which courts are to freely give "when justice so requires." Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(a)(2). Consistent with this policy, leave to amend rests in the discretion of the court. Foman v. Davis, 371 U.S. 178, 182 (1962); see also Oran v. Stafford, 226 F.3d 275, 291 (3d Cir. 2000).

That discretion, however, is governed by certain basic principles, principles that are embodied in Rule 15 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. In this regard, while Rule 15 provides that leave to amend should be freely given when justice so requires, the district court still retains broad discretion to deny a motion to amend. Bjorgung v. Whitetail Resort, LP, 550 F.3d 263 (3d Cir. 2008); Cureton v. National Collegiate Athletic Ass'n., 252 F.3d 267 (3d Cir. 2001). Furthermore, "'[a]mong the grounds that could justify a denial of leave to amend are undue delay, bad faith, dilatory motive, prejudice, and futility.' In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1434 (3d Cir.1997); ('Burlington'); Lorenz v. CSX Corp., 1 F.3d 1406, 1413-14 (3d Cir.1993). 'Futility' means that the complaint, as amended, would fail to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Burlington, 114 F.3d at 1434." Shane v. Fauver, 213 F.3d 113, 115 (3d Cir. 2000). Thus, a party moving to amend a complaint must allege sufficient well-pleaded facts to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, and motions for leave to amend that are judged against Rule 15's futility standard must satisfy legal requirements similar to those governing the sufficiency of complaints generally since this threshold requirements for an amended complaint mirror the language of Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which provides that a complaint should be dismissed for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6).

With respect to this benchmark standard for legal sufficiency of a complaint, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has aptly noted the evolving standards governing pleading practice in federal court, stating that:

Standards of pleading have been in the forefront of jurisprudence in recent years. Beginning with the Supreme Court's opinion in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007) continuing with our opinion in Phillips [v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 230 (3d Cir. 2008)]and culminating recently with the Supreme Court's decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal --U.S.--, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009) pleading standards have seemingly shifted from simple notice pleading to a more ...

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