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Williams v. Velez

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

May 10, 2017

OFFICER MOISES J. VELEZ, et al., Defendants.


          GENE E.K. PRATTER United States District Judge.

         This action arises out of an incident between Philbert Williams and Officers of the Philadelphia Police Department (“PPD”), during which Officer Velez allegedly broke Mr. Williams's left thumb. Mr. Williams brings various federal and state law claims against Officer Velez and Officer Santiago, who witnessed the incident. Additionally, Mr. Williams brings a Monell claim against the City of Philadelphia, alleging that the incident was part of widespread unlawful policies or customs within the PPD. The City's Motion to Dismiss the Monell claim is before the Court, and for the following reasons, the Court will grant the City's motion.


         Mr. Williams's thumb injury occurred during arrest for alleged criminal trespass and attempted burglary in June 2015. On June 11, 2015, Officers Velez and Santiago, along with Officer McDevitt, approached Mr. Williams at the rear of a residential property in North Philadelphia and demanded that Mr. Williams get on the ground. He complied, and the officers handcuffed him and placed him in the back of a patrol car. Throughout the encounter, Mr. Williams pleaded with the officers to knock on the door of the residence to determine if he was a lawful visitor to the property. Mr. Williams alleges that the officers never sought information on whether he was a lawful visitor.

         Officers Velez and Santiago took Mr. Williams to the Ninth District police headquarters. When they were standing on the sidewalk near the entrance, Mr. Williams again asked the officers to inquire about whether he was a visitor to the property. According to Mr. Williams, Officer Velez responded by yanking Mr. Williams's left thumb and yelling, “Didn't I tell you to shut the f*** up.” Am. Compl. ¶ 22. Officer Santiago supposedly observed the incident and laughed. Mr. Williams alleges that another unidentified officer witnessed the incident and ordered Mr. Williams be taken to a hospital for treatment. Mr. Williams told Officer Velez that he would sue the officers and the City, and Officer Velez laughed and replied that Mr. Williams would only get $5000 to $6000 in compensation for the injury. Officers Velez and Santiago took Mr. Williams to St. Joseph's Hospital where his left hand was x-rayed, and he received a soft cast for his left thumb and prescription pain medication.

         Upon returning to police headquarters after treatment, Mr. Williams attempted to report the incident. He asked for the name of the unidentified officer who witnessed the incident with Officer Velez, but was turned away and told that revealing such information would run counter to the “buddy system.” Mr. Williams also alleges that his requests to speak to Internal Affairs were rejected, and it is his understanding that the incident with Officer Velez was never reported to the PPD. Mr. Williams alleges that following the incident, he was held in a Ninth District holding cell for several days, was denied pain medication, and now continues to suffer from emotional and mental anguish as a result of the injury to his thumb.

         Separate from his particular encounter with Officer Velez, Mr. Williams alleges that the City of Philadelphia had a policy or custom of failing to adequately train and/or supervise police officers, including the officer defendants in this case. Mr. Williams appends an array of evidence to the Amended Complaint to support that such a policy or custom exists, including news articles purporting to summarize statistics about complaints filed against the City, a Report from the Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services entitled “Collaborative Reform Initiative: An Assessment of Deadly Force in the Philadelphia Police Department” (“DOJ Report”), and the six-month follow up assessment to the DOJ's initial report. In the DOJ Report, the DOJ and the PPD collaborated to “examine and reform deadly force policies, practices, and related processes in the PPD.” Ex. D at 12. Their objectives were to “[e]nhance training as it relates to officer and public safety in deadly force situations[;] [i]mprove the quality and transparency of deadly force investigations from both a criminal and administrative standpoint[;] [s]trengthen the use of force review process[;] [and] [i]nstitutionalize organizational learning processes and practices related to deadly force incidents.” Id. The DOJ Report “reviewed all PPD policies as they relate to deadly force” and various training programs and approaches. Id. at 14-17. The Report also assessed investigations of officer-involved shootings and other instances of deadly force. The bulk of the DOJ Reports' conclusions pertained to use of deadly force.

         Mr. Williams's Amended Complaint includes five counts: violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for Excessive Use of Force against Defendant Velez (Count I); violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for Failure to Train and/or Otherwise Supervise against the City of Philadelphia (Count II); violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for Failure of Bystander Officer to Intervene against Defendant Santiago (Count III); a state law claim for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress against Defendants Velez and Santiago (Count IV); and a state law claim for Assault and Battery against Defendant Velez (Count V). The City has moved to dismiss Count II.


         A motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) tests the sufficiency of a complaint. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8 requires only “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), in order to “give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). However, the plaintiff must provide “more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Id.

         To survive a motion to dismiss, the plaintiff must plead “factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Specifically, “[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level. . . .” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citations omitted). The question is not whether the claimant will ultimately prevail, but whether the complaint is “sufficient to cross the federal court's threshold.” Skinner v. Switzer, 562 U.S. 521, 530 (2011). An assessment of the sufficiency of a complaint is thus “a context-dependent exercise” because “[s]ome claims require more factual explication than others to state a plausible claim for relief.” W. Penn Allegheny Health Sys., Inc. v. UPMC, 617 F.3d 85, 98 (3d Cir. 2010) (citations omitted).

         When deciding a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the Court may look only to the facts alleged in the complaint and its appropriate attachments. See Jordan v. Fox, Rothschild, O'Brien & Frankel, 20 F.3d 1250, 1261 (3d Cir. 1994). The Court must accept as true all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Angelastro v. Prudential-Bache Sec., Inc., 764 F.2d 939, 944 (3d Cir. 1985). The Court must also accept as true all reasonable inferences that may be drawn from the allegations, and view those facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, here, Mr. Williams. See Rocks v. City of Phila., 868 F.2d 644, 645 (3d Cir. 1989). Nonetheless, the Court need not accept as true “unsupported conclusions and unwarranted inferences, ” Doug Grant, Inc. v. Greate Bay Casino Corp., 232 F.3d 173, 183-84 (3d Cir. 2000) (internal quotation marks omitted), nor Mr. Williams's “bald assertions” or “legal conclusions, ” Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997). The Court must also disregard “naked assertions devoid of further factual enhancement” and “threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (internal alterations omitted).


         The City moves to dismiss the one count Mr. Williams raises against it-the Monell failure to train and/or supervise claim. Mr. Williams invokes 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which creates a cause of action for persons who are deprived of their constitutional rights by any person acting under the color of state law or custom. In addition to creating a cause of action against the actor who caused the constitutional deprivation, § 1983 also permits an injured party to sue a municipality. Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 690-91 (1978). However, a municipality will only be liable under § 1983 in limited circumstances. A municipality cannot be held liable for the unconstitutional acts of its employees on a theory of respondeat superior. Id. at 691. Instead, to state a § 1983 claim against a municipality, a plaintiff must allege that (1) the municipality had a policy or custom that deprived him of his constitutional rights; (2) the municipality acted deliberately and was the moving force behind the deprivation; and (3) his injury was caused by the identified policy or custom. See Stewart v. Moll, 717 F.Supp.2d 454, 464-65 (E.D. Pa. 2010). The City takes the ...

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