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Mast v. Lafayette College

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

January 30, 2015

LAFAYETTE COLLEGE et al., Defendants.




This is a pro se action brought by plaintiff Dianne Mast many years after her husband's sudden and tragic death while playing in an informal basketball game on the campus of Lafayette College, where their son was a member of the football team. Though I am sympathetic to the grief Mrs. Mast continues to feel long after her husband's death, she does not have a claim under federal civil rights laws, and even if she did, the claim would be untimely. Accordingly, I am obligated to dismiss this action with prejudice.

I. Summary of the Facts

In her amended complaint, Plaintiff alleges that her husband, Edward Mast, was playing a basketball game in a gymnasium at Lafayette College on October 18, 1994 when he suffered a cardiac arrhythmia. Mr. Mast was not a student or employee, but apparently had permission to use the gym for recreational purposes. Someone at the scene called 911. According to Plaintiff, that call necessarily would have been routed through Lafayette's Public Safety Office because the office was a 911 answering point. Therefore, she contends, the Public Safety Officers would have been aware of the emergency, but they were slow to respond and only arrived after local police. An ambulance transported Mr. Mast to a hospital, but he was pronounced deceased at 8:45 p.m. Plaintiff alleges that the Public Safety Officers' delay and the lack of portable defibrillators in the gymnasium caused or contributed to Mr. Mast's death.[1]

Though Mr. Mast passed away in 1994, Plaintiff alleges that new information about the incident has recently come to light. The original Coroner's report attributed the cause of death to "cardiac dysrhythmia due to a hypertrophic cardiomyopathy." Autopsy Report attached to original Complaint. But in 2013, after a cardiologist examined the health of her son's heart, Plaintiff's personal cardiologist reviewed Mr. Mast's autopsy report and concluded that Mr. Mast did not have a defective gene that led to the heart attack. Plaintiff argues that this is new information demonstrating that her husband could have been saved by faster emergency response in 1994.

II. Procedural History

Plaintiff filed this lawsuit in July of 2013. The original complaint alleged Defendants violated the Clery Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1092, which pertains to campus safety. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss in which they argued, in part, that the Clery Act contains no private cause of action, and therefore Plaintiff had not raised a federal question that would allow this court to take jurisdiction. Plaintiff responded by filing a First Amended Complaint. The new complaint alleges federal question jurisdiction based on 42 U.S.C. § 1983. It is not entirely clear what substantive federal rights Plaintiff claims were violated for the purposes of the 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim. It is also unclear whether Plaintiff is alleging supplemental state law claims. Defendants have filed a new motion to dismiss the First Amended Complaint.

III. Standard of Review

Defendants' Motion to Dismiss the Amended Complaint makes several arguments: 1) Plaintiff has failed to allege that Defendants acted "under color of state law" as required by 42 U.S.C. § 1983; 2) Plaintiff has failed to allege that Defendants deprived her of any particular substantive federal rights, alleging only negligence, which is not actionable under § 1983; and 3) Plaintiff's claims are barred by the relevant statute of limitations.

Courts must only grant a motion to dismiss when, after separating factual allegations from legal conclusions and accepting all the plaintiff's factual allegations as true, the complaint fails to state a plausible claim for relief. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Courts must be more lenient towards pleadings filed by pro se plaintiffs. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007); Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976) ("a pro se complaint must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers") (citations omitted); Higgs v. Atty. Gen. of the U.S., 655 F.3d 333, 339 (3d Cir. 2011) ("The obligation to liberally construe a pro se litigant's pleadings is well-established."). However, substantive laws are the same for represented and pro se plaintiffs, and pro se plaintiffs must ultimately satisfy the same burdens of proof. See Hatcher v. Potter, 2005 WL 3348864 at *1 n.1 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 7, 2005) ("While a pro se litigant is given some latitude with the respect to his pleadings, a pro se plaintiff is not excused from complying with rules of procedural and substantive law."); Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806, 834 n.46 (1975) (explaining that criminal defendants have a right to represent themselves, although that right does not excuse them from obeying procedural and substantive legal rules).

IV. Discussion

A. Plaintiff cannot establish state action that would give rise to liability under federal civil rights law.

A plaintiff pursuing a claim based on 42 U.S.C. § 1983 must allege that the defendant acted "under color of law." Rendell-Baker v. Kohn, 457 U.S. 830, 837-38 (1982). The Third Circuit explained this requirement means that "a plaintiff seeking to hold an individual liable under § 1983 must establish that she was deprived of a federal constitutional or statutory right by a state actor." Kach v. Hose, 589 F.3d 626, 646 (3d Cir. 2009). The Third Circuit has identified "three discrete tests to determine whether there has been state action." Mark v. Borough of Hatboro, 51 F.3d 1137, 1142 (3d Cir. 1995). First, the court considers "whether the private entity has exercised powers that are traditionally the exclusive prerogative of the state'" Id. (citing Blum v. Yaretsky, 457 U.S. 991, 1004-05 (1982)). Second, the court examines "whether the private party has acted with the help of or in concert with state officials.'" Id. (citing McKeesport Hosp. v. Accreditation Council for Grad. Med. Ed., 24 F.3d 519, 525 (3d Cir. 1994)). The third line of inquiry along which a court may find state action ...

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