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Igwe v. Skaggs

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

January 30, 2017

ANTHONY IGWE, as the Administrator of the Estate of PRISCILLA L. ROBINSON


          KEARNEY, J.

         A police officer's voluntary joinder in a high speed pursuit of a suspected stolen vehicle by speeding through traffic lights and stop signs leading to a fatal car accident may so shock the conscience as to deprive the decedent of substantive due process. The officer's public employer may be liable for supervisory liability if it failed to train the officer or knowingly allowed the officers to ignore pursuit policies and training.

         But the police officer must be dismissed from civil rights liability under the doctrine of qualified immunity absent a clearly established federal right governing the officer's conduct in a police pursuit which plaintiff pleads is neither a hyperpressurized environment nor one which afforded the officer time to make unhurried judgments. There is no existing precedent placing this constitutional question beyond debate. Officers cannot be held personally liable for constitutional violations if they lack no fair warning their conduct violates the substantive due process clause. In the accompanying Order, we grant the police officer's motion to dismiss the civil rights claims against him but allow continued discovery into Pennsylvania negligence claims against the officer and his public employer's supervisory liability for a possible substantive due process violation.

         I. Pleaded facts.

         Beginning at Noon on December 8, 2014, the Municipality of Monroeville (“Monroeville”) police officer Jeremy Frisk followed a vehicle and called dispatch to run a check on a license plate. After a report from police dispatch the license plate did not match the description of the vehicle, Officer Frisk suspected the vehicle may have been stolen and advised dispatch he intended to stop the vehicle. The driver of the vehicle did not pull over and continued driving on the state highway. Officer Supancic, another Monroeville police officer, responded to dispatch and proceeded to provide back-up in pursuing the driver by driving through seven red lights and a stop sign. After following the vehicle into neighboring Churchill Borough, Officer Frisk radioed the driver of the suspected stolen vehicle stopped at an underpass and “was bailing out.” Officer Frisk contacted dispatch for Churchill Borough police to respond, representing the driver was on the highway access ramp.

         Monroeville Officer Jeremy Skaggs, also on patrol, had not been dispatched nor requested approval from dispatch to respond. He decided to voluntarily respond to Officer Frisk's location. To get there quickly, Officer Skaggs drove his 2014 Ford Explorer police car at speeds of up to 88 mph in a 35 mph zone on the wrong side of the road and drove through two red lights. Approximately three minutes after Officer Frisk began this pursuit of a suspected stolen car, Officer Skaggs entered an intersection against a red traffic signal and, after engaging his breaks for half a second, crashed into the driver's side of Priscilla Robinson's car. Fifty-year-old Priscilla Robinson died the following day from her injuries.

         Officers Skaggs' employer, Monroeville, adopted a police pursuit policy but allegedly has not implemented or provided training on how its officers should operate their patrol vehicles when responding to an incident not involving a pursuit. Ms. Robinson's husband claims Officer Skaggs was not involved in a pursuit or in an emergency response. He claims Monroeville failed to adopt policies and procedures on safely responding to incidents not involving vehicle pursuit or an emergency. Alternatively, even if we find Officer Skaggs involved in a police pursuit, Monroeville failed to train and supervise its officers by allowing its established Pursuit Policy relating to travelling through intersections to be routinely ignored without disciplinary or corrective action. Ms. Robinson's husband also alleges Monroeville acquiesced to a custom and practice of its officers routinely ignoring or running over its Opticom transponder which signals traffic lights to change color in favor of the direction travelled by an officer.

         II. Analysis

         Ms. Robinson's husband Anthony Igwe alleges a § 1983 substantive due process claim under the state-created danger theory against Officer Skaggs and a Monell claim against Monroeville for failure to train and supervise, as well as state law claims of negligence against Officer Skaggs and negligence and vicarious liability against Monroeville.[1]

         Officer Skaggs and Monroeville move to dismiss the § 1983 claims arguing Mr. Igwe fails to state a claim for a Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process claim because Skaggs' conduct does not “shock the conscience;” even if Mr. Igwe sufficiently pleaded a substantive due process claim, Skaggs is entitled to qualified immunity; Mr. Igwe fails to state a Monell claim against Monroeville; and Igwe's claim for punitive damages against Monroeville must be dismissed.[2]

         A. Mr. Igwe alleges a plausible substantive due process claim.

         Applying a motion to dismiss standard, our analysis of Mr. Igwe's claim against Officer Skaggs begins with whether he sufficiently alleges Officer Skaggs deprived a constitutional right.[3] Bringing his claims under 42 U.S.C. §1983, Mr. Igwe alleges a Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process claim under the state-created danger theory.

         Our Court of Appeals, most recently in L.R. v. School District of Phila., [4] identified the elements necessary to plead a state-created danger claim:

1. the harm ultimately caused was foreseeable and fairly direct;
2. a state actor acted with a degree of culpability that shocks the conscience;
3. a relationship between the state and the plaintiff existed such that the plaintiff was a foreseeable victim of the defendant's acts, or a member of a discrete class of persons subjected to the potential harm brought about by the state's actions, as opposed to a member of the public in general; and
4. a state actor affirmatively used his or her authority in a way that created a danger to the citizen or that rendered the citizen more vulnerable to danger than had the state not acted at all.[5]

         Officer Skaggs primarily focuses his argument on the second element, arguing his conduct does not “shock the conscience” as a matter of law.[6] To satisfy the second element of a state-created danger claim, the state actor's culpability must “shock the conscience.” The Supreme Court's decision in County of Sacramento v. Lewis provides the starting point for our culpability analysis.[7] In Lewis, the Court addressed the standard of culpability of a law enforcement officer for violating substantive due process in a pursuit case. We know from Lewis an actor's negligent conduct under traditional tort law generally does not give rise to a constitutional claim, as the Court recognized its earlier holdings “reject[ing] the lowest common denominator of customary tort liability as any mark of sufficiently shocking conduct, and have held that the Constitution does not guarantee due care on the part of state officials; liability for negligently inflicted harm is categorically beneath the threshold of constitutional due process.”[8]The Court recognized conduct at “the other end of the culpability spectrum . . . would most probably support a substantive due process claim” where the conduct intended to injure the plaintiff.[9] In the context of a high-speed chase, Lewis held only an “intent to harm” could shock the conscience sufficient to give rise to liability under a § 1983 Fourteenth Amendment claim.[10]

         Lewis opened the door to a middle range of conscience-shocking culpability; conduct that is “something more than negligence but less than intentional conduct, such as recklessness or gross negligence.”[11] After Lewis, our Court of Appeals addressed the level of conscience shocking conduct necessary in substantive due process and state-created danger cases culminating in Sanford v. Stiles.[12] Sanford held the level of culpability required to shock the conscience increases as the time a state actor has to deliberate decreases.[13] On one end of the spectrum are “hyperpressurized environments, ” such as a high-speed police chase, where there is no time for deliberation. There, “intent to cause harm” is required.[14] On the other end of the spectrum are cases where there is time for deliberation and a state actor has time to make “unhurried judgments.”[15] There, “deliberate indifference” is sufficient.[16] Recognizing circumstances where there is less than a “split-second” decision but more than an “unhurried judgment, ” our Court of Appeals held the standard for conscience shocking conduct in a state-created danger case is whether the state actor “consciously disregarded a great risk of harm.”[17]

         Officer Skaggs asserts the higher “intent to harm” standard is applicable because he believed he was responding to an emergency and Igwe fails to allege such intent.[18] We read Mr. Igwe's Second Amended Complaint as alleging Officer Skaggs “consciously disregarded a great risk of harm” standard articulated in Sanford.[19] Mr. Igwe alleges Officer Skaggs “consciously disregarded a substantial risk that great harm would result from his conduct” and asks we apply this lesser standard to the culpability prong of the state-created danger test.[20]

         Citing this mid-level culpability standard, Mr. Igwe alleges Officer Skaggs was not involved in a high-speed chase the day of the accident and, having voluntarily undertaken the pursuit, had a reasonable three minute opportunity to deliberate.[21] Mr. Igwe alleges Officer Skaggs, against Monroeville's policy, voluntarily joined the pursuit of the suspect despite Officer Supancic's dispatch as “secondary unit;” failed to advise dispatch he intended to provide assistance until he approached the intersection where the accident occurred; failed to obtain approval from a pursuant supervisor before joining the pursuit in violation of Monroeville's policy; failed to comply with Monroeville's “Pursuit” and “Emergency Response” policies as well as Pennsylvania law on pursuits and emergency vehicles; drove his police car at a high rate of speed in the area of a retail shopping area; entered an intersection against a red traffic signal; and outran the Opticom safety system, all of which evidences Skaggs “consciously disregarded a substantial risk that great harm would result from his conduct.”[22]

         Taking Mr. Igwe's allegations as true and applying the mid-level culpability standard, the allegations give rise to a plausible claim under a state-created danger theory. The thrust of Mr. Igwe's allegations focuses on Officer Skaggs' decision to voluntarily assume a role as a responding officer in violation of Monroeville policy, knew he could terminate his response at any time, and drove his police car in reckless disregard for the safety of the general public. While Mr. Igwe provides us with no authority, nor could we find any, where this alleged conduct shocks the conscience and thus requires we dismiss Officer Skaggs under qualified immunity, we cannot find Mr. Igwe's allegations could never state a substantive due process claim at this preliminary stage. At this stage, we address only whether Mr. Igwe pleaded Officer Skaggs consciously disregarded a great risk of harm by voluntarily joining a police pursuit including over-running several red lights. Until we review the discovery, we defer to Mr. Igwe's allegation of either no need to pursue or a limited emergency. Under this rubric, Officer Skaggs' speeding through traffic lights in a voluntary pursuit of a suspect leaving his vehicle may shock the conscience.

         We are aware of presently inapposite analysis informed by discovery in Leddy v. Twp. of Lower Merion[23] and Suarez v. City of Philadelphia[24] to support insufficient conscience shocking behavior. In Leddy, defendant police officer, responding to a non-emergency radio call at an excessive rate of speed, struck and injured another motorist. Plaintiff brought a § 1983 substantive due process claim against the officer.[25] In Leddy's circumstances, the police officer responded to a non-emergency call, but one requiring immediate attention with no time to make “unhurried judgments.”[26] On summary judgment, the district court applied mid-level culpability and found the officer's conduct driving at a high speed without lights and sirens “while not condonable, cannot be said to have shocked the conscience, ” and while his “high rate of speed on a crowded roadway may well have been negligent and conceivably reckless, [it] cannot be characterized as constitutionally conscience shocking.”[27]

         In Suarez, plaintiff brought a § 1983 state-created danger and negligence action against a paramedic who, while responding to an emergency call, hit plaintiff's decedent. There, the paramedic drove his vehicle, with lights and siren activated, the wrong way down a one way street. On summary judgment, the district court found the culpability standard articulated by our Court of Appeals for medical personnel responding to an emergency as “consciously disregarded, not just a substantial risk, but a great risk that serious harm would result.”[28] The district court concluded “[c]ourts have not found conscience-shocking behavior even when officers traveled at high speeds without warning lights or sirens activated or ran through red lights.”[29]

         Mr. Igwe argues the district courts in both Leddy and Suarez dismissed the claims after discovery and argues “what [Skaggs] ultimately knew is something that needs to be explored during discovery.” We accept as true Igwe's allegations Skaggs voluntarily assumed the role of responding officer and drove at excessive speeds in violation of Monroeville policy and Pennsylvania law; his response should have been “non-emergency;” he outran the Opticom system; and entered an intersection against a red light crashing into Ms. Robinson. The fact question is whether, under the mid-level culpability standard, there is evidence of conscience shocking conduct beyond mere negligence.[30] At this pleading stage, we cannot summarily dismiss Mr. Igwe's substantive due process claim.

         B. Officer Skaggs is entitled to qualified immunity.

         Even assuming Mr. Igwe plausibly pleads a potential substantive due process claim, Officer Skaggs is entitled to qualified immunity from civil rights liability and damages.

         Our qualified immunity analysis involves two steps: “(1) whether the plaintiff sufficiently alleged the violation of a constitutional right, and (2) whether the right was ‘clearly established' at the time of the official's conduct, ” here, December 8, 2014.[31] At this preliminary stage, “qualified immunity will be upheld… only when the immunity is established on the face of the complaint.”[32]

         Qualified immunity protects officers in a police pursuit acting in an objectively reasonable manner. Officer Skaggs' subjective motives are not material, although the information known to him may affect our substantive due process analysis. The Supreme Court describes qualified immunity as a “fair warning” standard: if the federal law is clearly established, the officer is on notice his conduct violative of federal law may lead to liability. ...

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