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Rankins v. Bristol Township

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

May 31, 2017



          Juan R. Sánchez, J.

         Ebony Capri Talley and her five-year-old daughter R'Mani Rankins were brutally murdered by Marcel Johnson, an associate of Talley, in November 2013. Rakeem Rankins, R'Mani's father, and Pearline Davis, Talley's mother, individually and as administrators of their daughter's estates, bring this civil rights action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, asserting claims for violations of their daughters' Fourteenth Amendment rights under a state-created danger and municipal liability. The Township moves to dismiss this action pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Because Plaintiffs have failed to sufficiently plead any of the necessary elements of a state-created danger claim and have failed to plead the existence of an unconstitutional custom or policy, a prerequisite for the imposition of municipal liability, the Court finds dismissal is warranted. Plaintiffs' Complaint will be dismissed without prejudice.


         In November 2013, Johnson murdered Ebony Capri Talley[2] and her five-year-old daughter, R'Mani Rankins by stabbing them and then setting them on fire inside their apartment. Johnson was subsequently convicted of both murders.

         In December 2014, Rakeem Rankins, R'Mani's father, learned that at the time of the murder, Talley and Johnson were under investigation by the Township for drug trafficking. As part of the investigation, the Bristol Borough Police Department had been gathering evidence, including video and audio surveillance recorded by a government informant, of Talley and Johnson engaging in drug transactions. The informant also engaged in drug transactions with Talley. Some of the drug transactions captured and facilitated by the informant occurred while R'Mani was present. Plaintiffs allege that by conducting this investigation of Talley, the Township created a danger, or increased the risk of danger, to both Talley and R'Mani, and ultimately caused their deaths.


         To survive a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). In evaluating a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a court first must separate the legal and factual elements of the plaintiff's claims, accepting the well-pleaded factual allegations as true and disregarding any legal conclusions. Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009). The court “must then determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a ‘plausible claim for relief.'” Id. at 211 (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679). A claim is facially plausible when the facts pleaded “allow[] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. A court may consider matters of public record in deciding a motion to dismiss. See Schmidt v. Skolas, 770 F.3d 241, 249 (3d Cir. 2014).

         To state a § 1983 claim, a plaintiff must allege the defendants, “acting under color of state law deprived him . . . of a right secured by the Constitution or the law of the United States.” Kaucher v. Cty. of Bucks, 455 F.3d 418, 423 (3d Cir. 2006). Here, Plaintiffs allege the Township violated their daughters' Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights under the “state-created danger” doctrine.

         The state-created danger doctrine is an exception to the general rule that “[a] state's failure to take affirmative action to protect a victim from the actions of a third person will not, in the absence of a custodial relationship between the state and the victim, support a civil rights claim.” Brown v. Grabowski, 922 F.2d 1097, 1100-01 (3d Cir. 1990) (citing DeShaney v. Winnebago Cty. Dep't. of Soc. Servs., 489 U.S. 189 (1989)). Under the state-created danger doctrine, a due process violation may “occur when state authority is affirmatively employed in a manner that injures a citizen or renders him ‘more vulnerable to injury from another source than he or she would have been in the absence of state intervention.'” Bright v. Westmoreland Cty., 443 F.3d 276, 281 (3d Cir. 2006) (quoting Schieber v. City of Phila., 320 F.3d 409, 416 (3d Cir. 2003)). To plead a state-created danger claim, a plaintiff must allege

(1) the harm ultimately caused to the plaintiff was foreseeable and fairly direct; (2) the state-actor acted in willful disregard for the plaintiff's safety; (3) there was some relationship between the state and the plaintiff; and (4) the state-actor used his authority to create an opportunity for danger that otherwise would not have existed.

Phillips v. Cty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 235 (3d Cir. 2008); see also Bright, 443 F.3d at 281.

         For purposes of the first element, harm is foreseeable when there is “an awareness on the part of the state actors that rises to the level of actual knowledge or an awareness of risk that is sufficiently concrete to put the actors on notice of the harm.” Phillips, 515 F.3d at 238; see K.S.S. v. Montgomery Cty. Bd. of Comm'rs, 871 F.Supp.2d 389, 400 (E.D. Pa. 2012) (“[H]arm is foreseeable when a state actor has actual awareness, based on concrete information, of a risk of harm to an individual . . . such that the actor is on notice that his or her act or failure to act significantly enhances the risk of harm.” (citation omitted and omission in original)). Moreover, to determine whether the harm is fairly direct, the court considers whether the harm “occurs to an identifiable or discrete individual under the circumstances” or merely “to a ‘random' individual with no connection to the harm-causing party.” Phillips, 515 F.3d at 239. “This inquiry essentially asks whether the alleged misconduct and the harm caused were ‘too attenuated' to justifiably hold the defendant liable.” D.N. ex rel. Nelson v. Snyder, 608 F.Supp.2d 615, 625 (M.D. Pa. 2009) (citing Phillips, 515 F.3d at 238).

         To sufficiently plead the second element of a state-created danger action-state action in willful disregard of the plaintiff's safety-a plaintiff must allege that the state actor acted with a degree of culpability that “shocks the conscience.” Bright, 443 F.3d at 281. There is “no calibrated yard stick” to measure what actions shock the conscience, and “the exact degree of wrongfulness necessary . . . depends upon the circumstances of a particular case.” Kaucher, 455 F.3d at 435-36 (3d Cir. 2006). This element may be satisfied by allegations showing the state action acted with “(1) deliberate indifference; (2) gross negligence or arbitrariness that indeed shocks the conscience; or (3) intent to cause harm.” Phillips, 515 F.3d at 241.

         The third element of a state-created danger claim requires a plaintiff to plead a relationship between the state and the plaintiff “such that the plaintiff was a foreseeable victim of the defendant's acts, or a member of a discrete class of persons subjected to the potential harm brought about by the state's actions.” Bright, 443 F.3d at 281. Such a relationship exists where there is ‚Äúsome contact such that the plaintiff was a ...

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