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Ekwunife v. City of Philadelphia

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

March 24, 2017

SYLVESTER EKWUNIFE, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF PHILADELPHIA, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM

          EDUARDO C. ROBRENO, J.

         This action arises from the alleged arrest and subsequent three-year detention of Plaintiff Sylvester Ekwunife (“Plaintiff”) on sexual assault charges that were later dismissed. Plaintiff alleges that the affidavit of probable cause submitted by the Philadelphia Police Department in support of its application for his arrest warrant contained multiple misstatements and omissions, resulting in his false arrest and false imprisonment. Plaintiff also alleges that after the sole victim recanted her accusation against Plaintiff, the prosecutor continued to pursue her case against Plaintiff and attempted to use the recanted testimony to coerce a guilty plea from Plaintiff, in violation of his constitutional rights.

         Plaintiff brings claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 42 U.S.C. § 1985, as well as various state law claims, against the City of Philadelphia (“the City”); Detective Laura Hammond of the Philadelphia Police Department's Special Victims Unit (“Detective Hammond”), in her individual and official capacities; Philadelphia Police Officer Joseph T. Carter (“Officer Carter, ” and collectively with the City and Detective Hammond, “the City Defendants”), in his individual and official capacities; Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams (“DA Williams”), in his official capacity; and former Assistant District Attorney Heba Gore (“Former ADA Gore”), in her individual and official capacities (together with DA Williams, “the DA Defendants”).

         Following the June 24, 2016, dismissal without prejudice of Plaintiff's pro se Amended Complaint, Plaintiff filed a second and then a third amended complaint - this time represented by counsel - bringing claims of false arrest, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, failure to train and supervise, and conspiracy. On October 17, 2016, following a hearing, the Court granted the City Defendants' and DA Defendants' motions to dismiss the Third Amended Complaint, and granted Plaintiff leave to amend his complaint yet again, in accordance with the guidance the Court provided at the hearing. Plaintiff has now filed a Fourth Amended Complaint, and the City and DA Defendants have each filed separate motions to dismiss.[1]Plaintiff opposes the DA Defendants' motion, but has not filed a response to the City Defendants' motion. For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant both motions to dismiss.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff alleges the following facts, all of which are presumed to be true for purposes of resolving the motions to dismiss.

         Plaintiff alleges he and his wife allowed Sharon McFayden (“McFayden”), the mother of Plaintiff's wife's granddaughter, to live with her children at a house Plaintiff owned, with the understanding that McFayden would pay the mortgage on the property. See Fourth Am. Compl. (“FAC”) ¶ 15, ECF No. 32. After McFayden failed to pay the mortgage, Plaintiff asked her to move out of the home so that it could be rented. See Id. McFayden moved out of the home, but “started plotting against Plaintiff.” Id. She kept Plaintiff from receiving notices from the bank regarding the mortgage, and later arranged with the bank to forfeit the property. Id.

         According to Plaintiff, McFayden has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Id. As a result, Plaintiff's wife's son, Danny Rosario (“Rosario”), wanted custody of Karizma, the daughter of Rosario and McFayden. Id. at ¶ 16. Before the custody battle began, however, McFayden contacted Philadelphia's Department of Human Services (“DHS”) and reported that Plaintiff had sexually abused Karizma. Id. at ¶ 17. DHS case workers then visited the home to investigate the complaint. Id. at ¶ 18. During the home visit, Plaintiff's wife and Rosario both informed the DHS case workers that Karizma “was known for fabricating things, ” and that her mother “was mentally ill, and had a motive to lie against [P]laintiff.” Id. The case workers did not allow Plaintiff, or anyone else in the household, to tell them Plaintiff's side of the story. Id. at ¶ 19.

         On February 18, 2012, Plaintiff was arrested and detained on sexual assault charges. Id. at ¶ 20. Plaintiff alleges that the Philadelphia Police Department obtained a warrant to arrest him on the basis of an affidavit of probable cause prepared and filed by Detective Hammond. Id. at ¶ 44. According to Plaintiff, Detective Hammond provided “false information” in her affidavit, including (1) incorrectly identifying Plaintiff as a white man; (2) listing the alleged victim as 11 years old, whereas she was between 3 and 4 years old at the time of the incident; and (3) listing the incorrect address where the incident allegedly occurred. See id.

         Plaintiff alleges that at some point after his arrest, the Court of Common Pleas held a hearing at which “the Judge found that there was no ‘digital penetration'” in the sexual assault case. Id. at ¶ 21. At some unspecified later point, Karizma “recanted her story” to the Assistant District Attorney prosecuting the case, Heba Gore. Id. Despite the victim's recantation, Plaintiff claims, the DA's Office “left [P]laintiff in custody while continuing to try to extort a guilty plea from him with a real threat of a 50-year sentence.” Id. at ¶ 22. In January 2015, nearly three years after Plaintiff was arrested, the DA's Office requested a dismissal of the case against him without explanation. Id. at ¶ 23. On May 1, 2015, the state court expunged Plaintiff's arrest record. Id. at ¶ 24.

         Plaintiff alleges that as a result of Defendants' actions, he was humiliated and beaten by “other inmates who perceived him to be a child molester, and had to be taken to the hospital multiple times.” Id. at ¶ 60. Plaintiff also alleges that he was “publicly shamed, ridiculed, [and] humiliated, ” and he lost the opportunity to care for his special-needs son. Id. at ¶¶ 59, 61.

         II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff filed an initial pro se complaint on January 21, 2016, asserting claims against the City and the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office. ECF No. 3. The Court dismissed Plaintiff's claims against the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e), explaining that (1) a district attorney's office is not an “entity” for purposes of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and therefore is not susceptible to suit, and (2) the doctrine of absolute immunity shields prosecutors from liability related to their official acts. ECF No. 2.

         Plaintiff subsequently amended his complaint on February 10, 2016. ECF No. 4. Plaintiff's Amended Complaint brought only one claim, violation of Plaintiff's Fourteenth Amendment Due Process rights, and named only three defendants: the City of Philadelphia, Former ADA Gore, individually and as an official, and Detective Hammond, individually and as an official. See Id. On March 1, 2016, the Court issued an order dismissing Plaintiff's claims against Former ADA Gore pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e) under the doctrine of absolute immunity. ECF No. 5.

         On May 11, 2016, the City filed a motion to dismiss Plaintiff's Amended Complaint. ECF No. 9. The City argued that Plaintiff failed to state a claim for municipal liability under § 1983 and Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), because Plaintiff (1) failed to identify a municipal policymaker, (2) failed to allege facts regarding a municipal policy or custom that deprived Plaintiff of his constitutional rights, and (3) failed to identify specific instances of prior police misconduct caused by the City's policies or practices. See Id. Plaintiff did not respond to the motion.

         On June 7, 2016, Plaintiff retained counsel. See ECF No. 12. On June 24, 2016, the Court held a hearing on Defendants' motion to dismiss the Amended Complaint. See ECF No. 15. At the hearing, the Court stated that Plaintiff's allegations regarding a policy, practice, or procedure relating to the alleged failure to train were conclusory, and granted Defendants' motion to dismiss without prejudice, allowing Plaintiff leave to amend his complaint. See Hr'g Tr. at 15, Jun. 24, 2016, ECF No. 29. During a discussion regarding Plaintiff's failure to properly allege a policymaker, the Court noted that absolute immunity does not apply to the District Attorney's Office to the extent the office is acting in an administrative capacity instead of a prosecutorial capacity. See Id. at 8-9. The Court suggested that Plaintiff add the District Attorney's Office as a defendant if Plaintiff intended to allege that the District Attorney's Office is the policymaker for purposes of his § 1983 claim and that the office was acting in an administrative capacity. See Id. at 13-15.

         Plaintiff filed a Second Amended Complaint on July 18, 2016, ECF No. 18, followed by a Third Amended Complaint on July 19, 2016, ECF No. 19. The Third Amended Complaint added Officer Carter and DA Williams as defendants, and re-added Former ADA Gore. ECF No. 19. The DA Defendants and City Defendants each filed separate motions to dismiss, ECF Nos. 22, 25, which Plaintiff opposed, ECF Nos. 27, 28. On October 17, 2016, following a hearing, the Court granted both motions to dismiss, dismissing the claims against the City and the DA Defendants in Plaintiff's Third Amended Complaint without prejudice and with leave to amend. At the hearing, the Court asked Plaintiff to make the following changes in the Fourth Amended Complaint: (1) identify each of the defendants and the claims Plaintiff is making against each defendant; (2) identify the facts supporting each claim against each defendant, including sufficient facts to make the claim plausible under Twombly and Iqbal, and (3) to the extent Plaintiff intended to bring a Monell claim, identify the specific policy or custom at issue. See Hr'g Tr. 36:5-37:10, Oct. 14, 2016, ECF No. 37.

         On November 3, 2016, Plaintiff filed a Fourth Amended Complaint, bringing claims for violation of due process and failure to train (Counts I and II), malicious prosecution (Count III), false arrest and false imprisonment (Count IV), failure to intervene (Count V), failure to investigate (Count VI), conspiracy (Count VII), intentional infliction of emotional distress (Count VIII), and false arrest and false imprisonment (Count IX). ECF No. 32. Plaintiff seeks compensatory and punitive damages in the amount of $15 million. Id. at ¶ 62.

         On December 2, 2016, the DA Defendants moved to dismiss Plaintiff's Fourth Amended Complaint. ECF No. 34. On December 6, 2016, the City Defendants moved to dismiss all claims against the City. ECF No. 35. On December 15, 2016, Plaintiff filed a “Memorandum of Law in Support of Plaintiff's Response to Motion to Dismiss the Fourth Amended Complaint Sub Judice [sic], ” which appears to oppose only the DA Defendants' motion to dismiss. ECF No. 36. Plaintiff's time to respond to the City Defendants' motion to dismiss has expired. The Court is now ready to rule on both motions.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         A party may move to dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). When considering such a motion, the Court must “accept as true all allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom, and view them in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.” DeBenedictis v. Merrill Lynch & Co., 492 F.3d 209, 215 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting Rocks v. City of Phila., 868 F.2d 644, 645 (3d Cir. 1989)). To withstand a motion to dismiss, the complaint's “[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). This “requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Id. Although a plaintiff is entitled to all reasonable inferences from the facts alleged, a plaintiff's legal conclusions are not entitled to deference and the Court is “not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.” Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986).

         The pleadings must contain sufficient factual allegations so as to state a facially plausible claim for relief. See, e.g., Gelman v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 583 F.3d 187, 190 (3d Cir. 2009). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)). In deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Court limits its inquiry to the facts alleged in the complaint and its attachments, matters of public record, and undisputedly authentic documents if the complainant's claims are based upon these documents. See Jordan v. Fox, Rothschild, O'Brien & Frankel, 20 F.3d 1250, 1261 (3d Cir. 1994); Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993).

         IV. DISCUSSION

         In Plaintiff's Fourth Amended Complaint, he brings claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violation of due process, failure to train, false arrest, false imprisonment, and failure to intervene; a conspiracy claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1985; and state law claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress, false arrest, and false imprisonment. Plaintiff also brings malicious prosecution and failure-to-intervene claims, without specifying whether he is bringing those claims under state or federal law.

         The City Defendants argue that Plaintiff has failed to state a claim with respect to any of his § 1983 claims against the City, because (1) he has not adequately pleaded that his constitutional rights were violated by a municipal policy or custom, as required to state a § 1983 claim against a municipality under Monell, and (2) he has failed to plead a failure-to-train claim because he has not identified any instances of prior police misconduct. Plaintiff has not responded to the City Defendants' motion. As Plaintiff's time to oppose the City Defendants' motion has expired, the Court will grant the motion as unopposed. See Local R. 7.1(c) (providing that “[i]n the absence of timely response, [a] motion may be granted as uncontested except as provided under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56.”). However, in the interest of completeness, the Court will address the City Defendant's arguments below.

         The DA Defendants argue that (1) Plaintiff's § 1983 claims against the DA Defendants in their official capacities fail because Plaintiff has not adequately pleaded an unconstitutional policy or custom that violated Plaintiff's rights or a failure-to-train claim; (2) a failure-to-intervene claim does not apply to the facts Plaintiff alleges; (3) Plaintiff has failed to state a claim against the DA Defendants under any subsection of § 1985; (4) Plaintiff's state law claims against the DA Defendants in their official capacities are barred by the Pennsylvania Tort Claims Act; (5) Plaintiff's claim under the Pennsylvania Constitution fails because there is no private right of action; and (6) Plaintiff's claims against Former ADA Gore in her individual capacity fail under the doctrine of absolute immunity.

         For the reasons discussed below, the Court concludes that Plaintiff fails to establish a § 1985 claim against the DA Defendants, and that Plaintiff's § 1983 claims against the City and against the DA Defendants in their official capacities fail because Plaintiff's conclusory allegations do not establish a municipal policy or custom that would support a Monell claim. Further, the Court agrees with the DA Defendants that Plaintiff's due process and malicious prosecution claims against Former ADA Gore in her individual capacity are barred by the doctrine of absolute immunity, that a failure-to-intervene claim does not apply here, and that there is no private right of action under the Pennsylvania Constitution. To the extent that Plaintiff brings any state law claims against the ...


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