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Atherton v. Shaffer

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

December 5, 2017


          OPINION RE: ECF NO. 8

          Maureen P. Kelly, Chief Magistrate Judge.

         Presently before the Court is a Motion to Dismiss for failure to state a claim filed by Defendants Brian Shaffer and Christopher Robbins (collectively, "Defendants"). ECF No. 8. For the reasons that follow, the Motion to Dismiss is grant is part and denied in part


         Plaintiff Christina Atherton filed a Complaint on July 21, 2017. ECF No. 1. In the Complaint, Plaintiff makes the following allegations. On June 7, 2016, Plaintiff was leaving the grocery store where she was employed and, in doing so, made a left turn out of the parking lot towards the intersection of SR 66 and SR 128 ("the intersection"). Id. ¶ 8. The intersection is equipped with a preemptive emergency signal that is activated by the siren of an emergency vehicle. Id. ¶ 9. Plaintiff, who had a green light, proceeded through the intersection and turned left from SR 128 onto SR 66. Id. ¶ 10. As she crossed the intersection, Defendant Shaffer, a Pennsylvania State Police officer travelling in a marked cruiser, proceeded through a red light at the intersection at a high rate of speed and without activating his siren. Id. ¶¶ 6, 12, 15, 18. Plaintiff had no warning or advance indication of any kind that Defendant Shaffer was proceeding through the intersection at a high rate of speed. Id. ¶ 15. Defendant Shaffer collided with the rear passenger-side quarter panel of Plaintiff s vehicle, propelling her vehicle forward and causing it to strike another motorist. Id. ¶¶ 12, 13. As a result of the accident, Plaintiff sustained a concussion and other injuries and her vehicle was damaged beyond repair. Id. ¶ 14. Due to her injuries, Plaintiff was forced to substantially reduce her working hours for approximately two months. Id. ¶ 26.

         Defendant Robbins, also a Pennsylvania State Police officer, investigated the accident scene shortly after it occurred. Id., ¶¶ 7, 16. Defendant Robbins tested the preemptive emergency signal by activating his own cruiser's siren. Id. ¶ 17. The signal responded properly, changing the light from red to green as the cruiser approached the intersection. Id. Defendant Robbins concluded that the signal was in proper working order. Id.

         Defendant Robbins charged Plaintiff with a violation of 75 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 3325(a), for failing to yield to an emergency vehicle. Id. ¶ 19. At some point after his investigation was complete, Defendant Robbins indicated to Plaintiff and/or Plaintiffs mother that he "had to" charge Plaintiff because his job was to protect the Commonwealth. Id. ¶ 21. Following a non-jury trial, Plaintiff was found not guilty of failure to yield to an emergency vehicle. Id.¶25.

         In Plaintiffs Complaint, she raised five counts. ECF No. 1. On September 28, 2017, Defendants filed the instant Motion to Dismiss and Brief in Support. ECF Nos. 8-9. On October 27, 2017, Plaintiff filed a Brief in Opposition to the Motion to Dismiss. ECF No. 15. In her Brief in Opposition, Plaintiff withdrew Counts I and IV (relating to malicious prosecution) of her Complaint. Id. at 1. Accordingly, the Court need only address the instant Motion to Dismiss as it concerns Counts II, III and V. Count II is a claim of reckless investigation under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against both Defendants; Count III is a claim for conspiracy under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against both Defendants; and Count V is a state law claim of negligence against Defendant Shaffer.


         As the United States Supreme Court explained in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), a complaint may properly be dismissed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) if it does not allege "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Id. at 570. In assessing the merits of a claim subject to a motion to dismiss, a court must accept all alleged facts as true and draw all inferences gleaned therefrom in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 228 (3d Cir. 2008) (citing Worldcom, Inc. v. Graphnet, Inc.. 343 F.3d 651, 653 (3d Cir. 2003)). A pleading party need not establish the elements of a. prima facie case at this stage; the party must only "put forth allegations that 'raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary element[s]."' Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 213 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Graff v. Subbiah Cardiology Associates, Ltd., 2008 WL 2312671 (W.D. Pa. June 4, 2008)).


         A. Count II: Reckless investigation

         In support of their Motion to Dismiss, Defendants argue that: (1) reckless investigation is not a recognized claim; and (2) assuming this claim is cognizable, Plaintiff has failed to plead sufficient facts to establish such a claim. ECF No. 9 at 6-8.

         As to the first argument, this Court has recently explained:

It is generally understood that the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has not explicitly recognized a claim for reckless investigation. K.L.Q. v. Plum Borough Sch. Dist, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 64908, 2016 WL 2892174, at *6 (W.D. Pa. May, 17, 2016) (Lenihan, M.J.). Further, the '"contours of a stand-alone claim for failure to investigate are not well-defined within this Circuit.'" Kelly v. Jones, 148 F.Supp.3d 395, 400 (E.D. Pa. 2015) (quoting Briscoe v. Jackson, 2 F.Supp.3d 635, 645 n. 5 (E.D. Pa. 2014)). Nonetheless, some courts have allowed such claims when a plaintiff shows that "'a police officer acted intentionally or recklessly, in a manner that shocks the conscience, in failing to investigate.'" Id., (quoting Thomas v. Stanek, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 21276, 2015 WL 757574, at *7 (W.D. Pa. Feb. 23, 2015) (McVerry, J.)). These claims are typically asserted under circumstances in which a police officer arrested the plaintiff without conducting an adequate investigation beforehand. '"Failure to investigate is considered in tandem with ...

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