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Sauers v. Homanko

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

February 14, 2017

MICHAEL SAUERS, Individually and as Administrator of the ESTATE OF CAROLA R. SAUERS, Deceased, Plaintiff
v.
STEPHEN HOMANKO, BOROUGH OF NESQUEHONING, and SEAN SMITH Defendants

          MEMORANDUM

          James M. Munley United States District Court

         Plaintiff Michael Sauers (hereinafter “plaintiff”) avers that a local police officer violated his and his late wife's civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (hereinafter “section 1983”) when he lost control of his police cruiser and collided with plaintiff's automobile. Before the court for disposition is the police officer's motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. (Doc. 11). For the following reasons, the court will deny the motion.

         Background

         On May 12, 2014, Nesquehoning police officer Stephen Homanko (hereinafter “Defendant Homanko”), on duty in his 2009 Ford Crown Victoria police cruiser, was travelling in the southbound lane of Route 209 in Nesquehoning, Pennsylvania. (Doc. 1, Compl. (hereinafter “Compl.”) ¶ 10). At some point, he observed a yellow Dodge Neon commit what he believed to be a potential summary traffic offense in the northbound lane of Route 209. (Id. ¶ 11). Based on his observation, Defendant Homanko turned his police cruiser around and pursued the Neon. (Id. ¶ 12). To catch up to and apprehend the Neon's driver, Defendant Homanko at times reached speeds over 100 miles-per-hour. (Id. ¶ 14). While attempting to negotiate a curve in the road, Defendant Homanko lost control of his police cruiser and collided with a 2007 Toyota Yaris traveling southbound on Route 209 and driven by Plaintiff Michael Sauers. (Id. ¶¶ 15, 9). Plaintiff endured extensive injuries as a result of the collision, and his wife, who was travelling in the front passenger seat of the vehicle, died as a result of her injuries. (Id. ¶¶ 9, 17-18).

         On May 6, 2016, plaintiff filed a seven-count complaint against Defendant Homanko, the Borough of Nesquehoning, and Nesquehoning police chief Sean Smith. Counts I, II, and III allege civil rights violations under section 1983 against all defendants. Counts IV, V, VI, and VII also assert respective Pennsylvania state law negligence, wrongful death, survival, and vicarious liability claims.

         On July 11, 2016, Defendant Homanko moved to dismiss plaintiff's complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. (Doc. 11). The parties have briefed their respective positions and the matter is ripe for disposition.

         Jurisdiction

         As this case is brought pursuant to section 1983 for a violation of plaintiff's constitutional rights, we have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 (“The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.”). We have supplemental jurisdiction over plaintiff's state law claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367.

         Standard of Review

         Defendant Homanko filed a motion to dismiss plaintiff's complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The court tests the sufficiency of the complaint's allegations when considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion. All well-pleaded allegations of the complaint must be viewed as true and in the light most favorable to the non-movant to determine whether, “‘under any reasonable reading of the pleadings, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief.'” Colburn v. Upper Darby Twp., 838 F.2d 663, 665-66 (3d Cir. 1988) (quoting Estate of Bailey by Oare v. Cty. of York, 768 F.2d 503, 506 (3d Cir. 1985)). The plaintiff must describe “‘enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of' [each] necessary element” of the claims alleged in the complaint. Phillips v. Cty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556 (2007)). Moreover, the plaintiff must allege facts that “justify moving the case beyond the pleadings to the next stage of litigation.” Id. at 234-35. In evaluating the sufficiency of a complaint, the court may also consider “matters of public record, orders, exhibits attached to the complaint and items appearing in the record of the case.” Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1384 n.2 (3d Cir. 1994) (citations omitted). The court need not accept legal conclusions or unwarranted factual inferences. See Curay-Cramer v. Ursuline Acad. of Wilmington, Del., Inc., 450 F.3d 130, 133 (3d Cir. 2006) (citing Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997)).

         Discussion

         Defendant Homanko moves to dismiss plaintiff's complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Specifically, Defendant Homanko argues that plaintiff has not pled facts sufficient to satisfy the elements of his section 1983 claim. Alternatively, Defendant Homanko contends that he is entitled to qualified immunity. We address these issues in turn.

         I. Section 1983: State-Created Danger

         Count II of plaintiff's complaint asserts a section 1983 claim against Defendant Homanko. Section 1983 provides a civil remedy for the “deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” 42 U.S.C. § 1983. “To state a claim under section 1983, a plaintiff must demonstrate that ‘some person has deprived him of a federal right . . . [and] that the person who has deprived him of that right acted under the color of state or territorial law.'” Halsey v. Pfeiffer, 750 F.3d 273, 290 (3d Cir. 2014) (quoting Gomez v. Toledo, 446 U.S. 635, 640 (1980)). Thus, “[t]he threshold issue in any [section] 1983 lawsuit is whether the plaintiff has sufficiently alleged a deprivation of a constitutional right.” L.R. v. Sch. Dist. of Phila., 836 F.3d 235, 241 (3d Cir. 2016). In the instant case, plaintiff alleges that Defendant Homanko, a Nesquehoning police officer who undisputedly acted under the color state law, violated his right to bodily integrity and his wife's right to life protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

         “Generally, the Due Process Clause does not impose an affirmative duty upon the state to protect citizens from the acts of private individuals.” Sanford v. Stiles,456 F.3d 298, 303-04 (3d Cir. 2006) (citing DeShaney v. Winnebago Cty. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 489 U.S. 189, 198-200 (1989)). “There are, however, two exceptions to this rule: the ‘special relationship' exception and the ‘state-created danger' exception.” Jiminez ...


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