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Bell v. Borough of West Mifflin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

May 8, 2017

SHEKI BELL and ISAAC LEWIS, Plaintiff,
v.
BOROUGH OF WEST MIFFLIN, WAL-MART STORES, INC., JOSEPH HOFFMAN and DAVID HAINES, Defendant.

          OPINION

          Joy Flowers Conti Chief United States District Judge

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiffs Sheki Bell (“Bell”) and Isaac Lewis (“Lewis” and together with Bell, “plaintiffs”) filed this lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“§ 1983”) and Pennsylvania common law. (ECF No. 1.) According to plaintiffs, defendants Borough of West Mifflin (“West Mifflin”), Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (“Wal-Mart”), Joseph Hoffman (“Hoffman”), and David Haines (“Haines” and collectively with West Mifflin, Wal-Mart, and Hoffman, “defendants”) deprived them of rights guaranteed to them by the United States Constitution, and Wal-Mart committed the torts of false arrest and malicious prosecution-as defined under Pennsylvania state law-against them.

         Currently pending before the court is a motion to dismiss the amended complaint (ECF No. 33) filed by Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart argues that plaintiffs failed to state plausible claims against it under either § 1983 or Pennsylvania common law. On April 12, 2017, the court held a hearing to address Wal-Mart's motion to dismiss. The court-as fully set forth in this opinion- explained that it would grant the motion to dismiss because the factual allegations in the amended complaint were not sufficient for the court to plausibly infer that: (1) Wal-Mart is liable to plaintiffs for maintaining a policy or custom that directly caused the deprivation of their constitutional rights; or (2) Wal-Mart is liable to plaintiffs under Pennsylvania common law based upon a theory of respondeat superior for the actions of its employees.

         II. Procedural History

         On May 26, 2016, plaintiffs initiated this action by filing a three-count complaint (ECF No. 1) against defendants. Plaintiffs asserted the following claims against the following defendants:

- Count one against Hoffman and Haines: a claim for violations of plaintiffs' civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“§ 1983”) based upon violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution;
- Count two against West Mifflin: a § 1983 claim based upon West Mifflin's “fail[ure] to supervise and train its police officers and for overlooking and/or covering up officer misconduct; and
- Count three against Wal-Mart: a § 1983 claim based upon Wal-Mart's violations of plaintiffs' civil rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and a claim titled “Pennsylvania State Common Law Tort.”

(ECF No. 1.)

         On July 11, 2016, West Mifflin, Haines, and Hoffman filed an answer to the complaint and affirmative defenses. (ECF No. 9.) On November 29, 2016, Wal-Mart filed a motion to dismiss the complaint and a brief in support of the motion. (ECF Nos. 21, 22.) On December 20, 2016, plaintiffs filed a response in opposition to Wal-Mart's motion to dismiss and a brief in support of the response. (ECF Nos. 24, 25.) On February 1, 2017, the court held a hearing with respect to the motion to dismiss, granted the motion without prejudice, and granted plaintiffs leave to file an amended complaint.

         On March 2, 2017, plaintiffs filed an amended complaint. (ECF No. 32.) Plaintiffs in the amended complaint assert the same claims they asserted in the original complaint against the same defendants. (Id.) On March 13, 2017, Wal-Mart filed a motion to dismiss the amended complaint and a brief in support of that motion. (ECF Nos. 33, 34.) On April 3, 2017, plaintiffs filed a response in opposition to the motion to dismiss and a brief in support of the response. (ECF Nos. 36, 37.) On April 5, 2017, West Mifflin, Haines, and Hoffman filed an answer to the amended complaint and affirmative defenses. (ECF No. 38.) On April 12, 2017, the court held a hearing to address Wal-Mart's motion to dismiss.

         III. Factual Allegations in the Amended Complaint which are Accepted as True for the Purposes of the Motion to Dismiss A. General Allegations

         Plaintiffs are individuals who reside in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (ECF No. 32 ¶¶ 2-3.) West Mifflin is, and was, at all relevant times a municipal entity created under Pennsylvania law with offices in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania. (Id. ¶ 4.) West Mifflin was at all relevant times the public employer of Hoffman and Haines. (Id.)

         Wal-Mart is a corporation organized and existing under the laws of Delaware with a retail place of business located in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania. (Id. ¶ 5.) Hoffman and Haines were at all relevant times duly appointed and acting officers, servants, employees and agents of West Mifflin and its police department. (Id. ¶¶ 6-8.)

         Bell is a 36-year-old African-American female who, at the time of the incidents alleged in the amended complaint, was seven and one-half months pregnant. (ECF No. 32 ¶ 15.) Lewis is an African-American male. (Id. ¶ 16.) On or about the evening of September 1, 2014, Bell and Lewis were at the Wal-Mart store located in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania (the “Wal-Mart store”) to return and exchange a large screen television they purchased earlier that day, which they determined was damaged. (Id. ¶¶ 17a, 17b.)[1]

         B. Allegations against Hoffman and Haines

         On September 1, 2014, Hoffman and Haines were on-duty as police officers for West Mifflin and were summoned to respond to the Wal-Mart store for a reported “disturbance.” (Id. ¶ 18a.) When Hoffman and Haines arrived at the Wal-Mart store, they encountered plaintiffs, who were engaged in a discussion with Wal-Mart employees concerning plaintiffs' attempted return of a large screen television they purchased at the Wal-Mart store earlier that day. (ECF No. 32 ¶ 17b.) Hoffman and Haines immediately detained Bell for thirty minutes in the parking lot of the Wal-Mart store in handcuffs, in full public view, and in the presence of her seven-year-old son and Lewis. (Id ¶ 18b.) Hoffman and Haines detained Bell without conducting an investigation or questioning her. (Id.) According to plaintiffs, Hoffman and Haines assumed that-because plaintiffs are African-American-they were perpetrating a crime by attempting to return to the Wal-Mart store a television, that they had not purchased at the store. (Id.)

         Hoffman and Haines had no reason to believe plaintiffs were armed, dangerous, or threatening. Bell:

- did not make any movements toward Hoffman, Haines, or any other person that could be interpreted as threatening;
- did not make any verbal threats to Hoffman, Haines, or any other person;
- did not touch Hoffman or Haines;
- clearly was unarmed; and - did not have any weapon or dangerous device readily at hand.

(ECF No. 32 ¶ 29.)

         C. Allegations against West Mifflin

         According to plaintiffs:

- the conduct of Hoffman and Haines was a direct consequence of policies and practices of West Mifflin and its police department (ECF No. 32 ¶ 36);
- West Mifflin knew or should have known about Hoffman's and Haines' propensity to engage in misconduct of the type alleged in this case (Id. ¶ 40);
- “it was the policy and/or custom of the Borough of West Mifflin, acting through the West Mifflin Police Department to inadequately train, supervise and discipline its police officers, including the Defendant Officers, thereby failing to adequately discourage further constitutional violations on the part of its police officers, such as were inflicted upon Plaintiff (id); and
- Hoffman and Haines believed their actions would not be properly monitored by supervisory officers and that misconduct would not be investigated or sanctioned, but rather would be tolerated (id ¶ 41.)

         D. Allegations ...


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