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Jerri v. Harran

United States District Court, Third Circuit

August 19, 2013

DAVID JERRI, JR. DAVID JERRI, SR., Plaintiffs
v.
FREDERICK HARRAN., et al., Defendants

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

MICHAEL M. BAYLSON, U.S.D.J.

In this civil rights case, there are two plaintiffs as noted above and multiple defendants, in the following categories:

a. Bensalem Township
b. Mayor of Bensalem Township (Joseph DiGirolamo)
c. Three individuals who are director (Harran), deputy director (Ponticelli) of Public Safety and a detective (Monaghan), all employed by Bensalem Township
d. Five individuals who are councilmen for Bensalem Township
e. Two private parties, one a business and the other the owner of the business. The Complaint constitutes 416 separately numbered paragraphs of which 234 are factual allegations.

After extensive briefing and oral argument on August 14, 2013, and for the reasons stated at the hearing and below, the Court rules as follows:

1. The Complaint does not contain a “short and plain statement” of plaintiffs’ claims as required by Rule 8, F.R.Civ.P. Further, the plaintiffs constantly allege that “defendants” as a group, without any distinctions, are liable for virtually every claim of wrong-doing, even though certain acts were only committed by specific individuals. Plaintiffs have argued that “supervisory liability” can apply through the concept of “knowledge and acquiescence.”

Although the Third Circuit has, in dictum in several cases, recognized that a theory of knowledge and acquiescence may serve as the basis of a § 1983 claim against a person in a supervisory role in relation to the alleged unconstitutional wrongdoing, the Court has never upheld such a judgment in a precedential decision. Argueta v. United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, 643 F.3d 60, 71, (3d Cir. 2011); Santiago v. Warminster Twp., 629 F.3d 121, 129 (3d Cir. 2010); Rode v. Dellarciprete, 845 F.2d 1195, 1207 (3d Cir. 1988). The court has refrained from defining the precise contours of what is required in order to plead or prove such a claim sufficiently. These decisions impose a high standard, and all but one of the Third Circuit’s decisions have not proceeded beyond the motion to dismiss or summary judgment stage. The one case which resulted in upholding, in part, a preliminary injunction, Pennsylvania v. Porter, infra, has unique facts.

In Argueta v. United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, 643 F.3d 60, 62-63, (3d Cir. 2011) Plaintiffs made a Bivens claim against ICE, the Assistant Secretary for Operations for ICE, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Operations for ICE, and two Field Directors for ICE in the area, after they were subjected to allegedly unconstitutional behavior during a raid of their home. Plaintiffs asserted that these Defendants dramatically increased ICE operations designed to find and arrest illegal immigrants, without accordingly providing the necessary training to protect against unconstitutional conduct in the course of the operations. Plaintiffs further asserted that although Defendants had been on notice of the occurrence of unconstitutional conduct in the course of operations, they “failed to develop meaningful guidelines or oversight mechanisms to ensure that home searches were conducted in a constitutional fashion…[or] to provide some sort of basic accountability for violations of the Constitution.” Id. at 65. The Third Circuit held that these allegations did not constitute a plausible claim for relief “on the basis of the supervisors’ ‘knowledge and acquiescence’ or any other similar theory of liability, ” though the court refrained from deciding whether a supervisor may be held liable in the Bivens context if he or she did not directly participate in unconstitutional conduct. Id at 70. The court emphasized the well-settled principle that “[g]overnment officials may not be held liable for the unconstitutional conduct of their subordinates under a theory of respondeat superior.” (quoting Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1948) (citing Monell v. N.Y. City Dep’t of Social Servs. 436 U.S. 658, 691, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978)). The court further explained that, while “[i]t is uncontested that a government official is liable only for his or her own conduct and accordingly must have had some sort of personal involvement in the alleged unconstitutional conduct, ” it rejected the opportunity to determine what specifically is necessary to establish personal involvement, but assumed for the purposes of its decision “that a federal supervisory official may be liable in certain circumstances even though he or she did not directly participate in the underlying unconstitutional conduct.” Argueta, 643 F.3d at 71-72.

In Santiago v. Warminster Twp., 629 F.3d 121, 125 (3d Cir. 2010), the Plaintiff made §1983 claims against three senior police officers who she alleged had planned or acquiesced in the use of excessive force during a raid on her home, which caused her to have a heart attack. The Third Circuit held that Plaintiff had not stated a plausible claim for relief against these three Defendants because her allegation that she alone was subjected to unconstitutional mistreatment in the course of the raid, while none of the several other people subjected to the raid were so treated, did not, “by itself, give rise to a plausible claim for supervisory liability against those who planned the operation.” Id. at 133. The court categorized the Plaintiff’s theory of liability “under which a supervisor may be personally liable . . . if he or she participated in violating the plaintiff's rights, directed others to violate them, or, as the person in charge, had knowledge of and acquiesced in his subordinates' violations, ” as “a species of supervisory liability…not respondeat superior liability.” (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). The court outlined the elements necessary to establish such a theory of liability as follows: “any claim that supervisors directed others to violate constitutional rights necessarily includes as an element an actual violation at the hands of subordinates. In addition, a plaintiff must allege a causal connection between the supervisor's direction and that violation, or, in other words, proximate causation.” Id. at 130.

In A.M. v. Luzerne County Juvenile Det. Ctr., 372 F.3d 572, 586 (3d Cir. 2004) the Third Circuit outlined two viable theories of supervisory liability under § 1983. Firstly, “[i]ndividual defendants who are policymakers may be liable under § 1983 if it is shown that such defendants, with deliberate indifference to the consequences, established and maintained a policy, practice or custom which directly caused [the] constitutional harm.” (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). The court held that summary judgment against Plaintiffs was inappropriate in relation to this theory because “evidence in the record show[ed] that [the defendant juvenile detention administrators] had responsibility for developing policies and procedures…[and the Plaintiff] presented sufficient evidence to present a jury question on whether the Center's policies and procedures caused his injuries.” Id. at 586. Secondly, the court explained that “a supervisor may be personally liable under § 1983 if he or she participated in violating the plaintiff's rights, directed others to violate them, or, as the person in charge, had knowledge of and acquiesced in his subordinates' violations.” Id. The court held that summary judgment against Plaintiffs would be inappropriate in relation to this theory of liability as well because Plaintiff’s evidence that the administrators “took little or no action to protect him [was] sufficient to present a genuine issue of material fact as to their knowledge of and acquiescence in the conduct of the child-care workers.” Id.

In Baker v. Monroe Township, 50 F.3d 1186, 1191 n.3 (3d Cir. 1995) the Third Circuit noted that “[i]t is [ ] possible to establish section § 1983 supervisory liability by showing a supervisor tolerated past or ongoing misbehavior, ” citing to Stoneking v. Bradford Area School Dist. in support of this principle. In Baker, the court did not decide this issue because such a theory of liability had not been alleged. In Stoneking, the Third Circuit held that the Plaintiff student could maintain a § 1983 claim against Defendant principal, vice-principal, and superintendant of her school, after a teacher sexually abused her, “because she…alleged that defendants, with deliberate indifference to the ...


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