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DeGroat v. Cavallaro

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

May 17, 2017

MICHAEL DEGROAT, Individually and as Administrator of the Estate of Derek DeGroat, Sheila Marie DeGroat, Breeanna DeGroat, and Derek Edward Michael DeGroat by Lindsey Erk as parent and natural guardian, Plaintiffs,
SERGEANT PAUL V. CAVALLARO, et al., Defendants.


          A. Richard Caputo United States District Judge

         Presently before the Court is a Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 26) filed by Defendants Trooper Brian E. Rickard, Corporal Benjamin W. Clark, Corporal Christopher Cole, Corporal James E. Travis, Trooper Wayne Thomas, Corporal Derek Felsman, Trooper James A. Hitchcock, Trooper Brett Ast, and Trooper Michael Oakes (collectively, the “moving Defendants”). For the reasons that follow, the moving Defendants' Motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. Background

         The well-pleaded facts as set forth in Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint (Doc. 24) are as follows:

         This action stems from the death of Derek DeGroat (the “decedent”), who was shot eleven (11) times and killed by members of the Pennsylvania State Police (“PSP”). (Compl. ¶ 19.) On December 21, 2015, the decedent was visiting Plaintiff Sheila DeGroat, his mother, and Plaintiff Breeanna DeGroat, his sister, at the family's home in Wayne County, Pennsylvania. (Id. ¶¶ 2, 17.) During this visit, the decedent lawfully possessed an unloaded firearm. (Id. ¶ 19.) A verbal disagreement took place between the decedent and his then-girlfriend, Lindsey Erk. (Id. ¶ 18.) At some point, members of the PSP arrived at the family home, including the moving Defendants. (Id. ¶ 13.) Around 11:53 P.M., one or more of the PSP officers on the scene fired thirty-nine (39) shots in the direction of the decedent, striking him eleven (11) times and killing him. (Id. ¶¶ 2, 19.) The decedent did not point or aim his unloaded firearm at the PSP officers at any time leading up to the shooting. (Id. ¶ 19.)

         This suit is brought by Michael DeGroat, individually as the decedent's father and as Administrator of the Estate for the decedent; Sheila Marie DeGroat, the decedent's mother; Breeanna DeGroat, the decedent's sister; and Derek Edward Michael DeGroat, the decedent's son, by his parent and natural guardian Lindsey Erk. (Id. ¶¶ 2-3.) The Amended Complaint named as Defendants Sergeant Paul V. Cavallaro, Station Commander of the Wayne County Honesdale Troop R Barracks of the PSP; Captain Christopher L. Paris, the “Troop R” Commanding Officer of the PSP; the moving Defendants, all of whom are PSP officers who were present at the DeGroat family home on the night of the incident; and John Doe's numbered 1-15, who are presently unknown PSP officers who were also present at the DeGroat family home on the night of the incident. (Id. ¶¶ 11-14.)[1] The moving Defendants are being sued in their official and individual capacities. (Id. ¶ 13.)

         II. Legal Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of a complaint, in whole or in part, for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). When considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Court's role is limited to determining if a plaintiff is entitled to offer evidence in support of her claims. See Semerenko v. Cendant Corp., 223 F.3d 165, 173 (3d Cir. 2000). The Court does not consider whether a plaintiff will ultimately prevail. Id. A defendant bears the burden of establishing that a plaintiff's complaint fails to state a claim. See Gould Elecs. v. United States, 220 F.3d 169, 178 (3d Cir. 2000).

         A pleading that states a claim for relief must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). The statement required by Rule 8(a)(2) must “‘give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007) (per curiam) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). Detailed factual allegations are not required. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. However, mere conclusory statements will not do; “a complaint must do more than allege the plaintiff's entitlement to relief.” Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009). Instead, a complaint must “show” this entitlement by alleging sufficient facts. Id. While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 664 (2009). As such, “[t]he touchstone of the pleading standard is plausibility.” Bistrian v. Levi, 696 F.3d 352, 365 (3d Cir. 2012).

         The inquiry at the motion to dismiss stage is “normally broken into three parts: (1) identifying the elements of the claim, (2) reviewing the complaint to strike conclusory allegations, and then (3) looking at the well-pleaded components of the complaint and evaluating whether all of the elements identified in part one of the inquiry are sufficiently alleged.” Malleus v. George, 641 F.3d 560, 563 (3d Cir. 2011).

         Dismissal is appropriate only if, accepting as true all the facts alleged in the complaint, a plaintiff has not pleaded “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face, ” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570, meaning enough factual allegations “‘to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of'” each necessary element. Phillips v. Cty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). “The plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement, ' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. At 678. “When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” Id. at 679.

         In deciding a motion to dismiss, the Court should consider the complaint, exhibits attached to the complaint, and matters of public record. Mayer v. Belichick, 605 F.3d 223, 230 (3d Cir. 2010) (citing Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993)). The Court may also consider “undisputedly authentic” documents when the plaintiff's claims are based on the documents and the defendant has attached copies of the documents to the motion to dismiss. Pension Benefit Guar. Corp., 998 F.2d at 1196. The Court need not assume that the plaintiff can prove facts that were not alleged in the complaint, see City of Pittsburgh v. W. Penn Power Co., 147 F.3d 256, 263 & n.13 (3d Cir. 1998), or credit a complaint's “‘bald assertions'” or “‘legal conclusions, '” Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997) (quoting In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1429-30 (3d Cir. 1997)).

         III. Discussion

         Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint (Doc. 24) lists nine causes of action: (1) a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for a violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments (Count I); (2) an additional claim under § 1983 for a violation of the Fourth Amendment (Count II); (3) a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress (“NIED”) (Count III); (4) a claim labeled as “intentional tort” (Count IV); (5) a claim alleging a breach of the duty of care (Count V); (6) a claim alleging a failure to intervene against Defendants Cavallaro and Paris (Count VI); (7) a claim for wrongful death (VII); (8) claims for assault and battery (Count VIII); and (9) a claim labeled as “zone of danger” (Count IX[2]). The moving Defendants filed their Motion to Dismiss on November 30, 2016, seeking to dismiss Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint in part. (Doc. 26.) The moving Defendants argue that the Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process claim asserted in Count I should be dismissed because Plaintiffs' federal-law claim is governed by the Fourth Amendment and its “reasonableness” standard. ...

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