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Hammon v. Kennett Township

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

December 6, 2017

MICHAEL S. HAMMON et al., Plaintiffs,
KENNETT TOWNSHIP et al., Defendants.



         The facts of this case are quite unique, but the law is well-trodden. The plaintiffs, Michael and Amy Hammon, seek recovery for injuries stemming from a car accident in which Officer Albert McCarthy, in the throes of a seizure, struck Mr. Hammon's vehicle. Mr. Hammon claims that this amounts to a § 1983 violation, alleging state-created danger and Monell claims against the township employing the officer. Mr. Hammon argues that Officer McCarthy's past seizures give rise to supervisory liability. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss Mr. Hammon's complaint for failure to state a claim, arguing that the single act of allowing Officer McCarthy to stay on as police chief does not give rise to § 1983 liability. For the reasons stated below, the federal law claims are dismissed for failure to satisfy the requirements of § 1983. Given that the federal anchor claims are dismissed, the state law claims are dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.


         Officer McCarthy is the sole police officer (and therefore the chief of police) of Kennett Township, a small town of around 7, 500 people southwest of Philadelphia. In August of 2008, Officer McCarthy hit his head on a steel beam, causing him to have a seizure a little more than 24 hours later. He notified the township and eventually returned to work.

         Three years later, in October 2011, Officer McCarthy suffered an absent seizure[1] while driving on duty and rear-ended another car. He again notified the township of the incident. Although Officer McCarthy's doctor told him that he probably would not suffer another absent seizure, the township still placed Officer McCarthy on medical leave and suspended his drivers license.[2] Eventually, the township allowed Officer McCarthy to resume driving while on duty.

         Over three years later, in April 2015, Officer McCarthy had another absent seizure while driving on duty. This time, he hit the plaintiff, Mr. Hammon, and that accident is the subject of this lawsuit. Mr. Hammon sued Officer McCarthy, the township, and the members of the township's board of supervisors for violating § 1983 and various state laws.

         Legal Standard

         A Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss tests the sufficiency of a complaint. Although Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 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), “to ‘give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests, '” the plaintiff must provide “more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (citation omitted) (alteration in original).

         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. The question is not whether the claimant “will ultimately prevail . . . but whether his complaint [is] sufficient to cross the federal court's threshold.” Skinner v. Switzer, 562 U.S. 521, 530 (2011) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Thus, assessment of the sufficiency of a complaint is “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, 627 F.3d 85, 98 (3d Cir. 2010).

         In evaluating the sufficiency of a complaint, the Court adheres to certain well-recognized parameters. For one, the Court “must consider only those facts alleged in the complaint and accept all of the allegations as true.” ALA, Inc. v. CCAIR, Inc., 29 F.3d 855, 859 (3d Cir. 1994); see also Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (stating that courts must “assum[e] that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact)”); Mayer v. Belichick, 605 F.3d 223, 230 (3d Cir. 2010) (“[A] court must consider only the complaint, exhibits attached to the complaint, matters of public record, as well as undisputedly authentic documents if the complainant's claims are based upon these documents”). Also, the Court must accept as true all reasonable inferences emanating from the allegations, and view those facts and inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Rocks v. City of Philadelphia, 868 F.2d 644, 645 (3d Cir. 1989); see also Revell v. Port Auth., 598 F.3d 128, 134 (3d Cir. 2010).

         That admonition does not demand that the Court ignore or discount reality. 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) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted), and “the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions. Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Ashcroft, 556 U.S. at 678; see also Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997) (explaining that a court need not accept a plaintiff's “bald assertions” or “legal conclusions” (citations omitted)). If a claim “is vulnerable to 12(b)(6) dismissal, a district court must permit a curative amendment, unless an amendment would be inequitable or futile.” Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 236 (3d Cir. 2008).


         To state a claim against an individual under § 1983, a plaintiff must show that the defendant (1) was a person who (2) under the color of state law (3) caused a (4) deprivation of constitutional rights. City of Oklahoma City v. Tuttle, 471 U.S. 808, 816 (1985). Here, Mr. Hammon alleges both supervisory liability for the township and its board of directors, and liability for Officer McCarthy himself. The parties agree that these distinctions are largely irrelevant, given that the claims are the same for both groups of defendants. Mr. Hammon casts Officer McCarthy, as chief of police, as a supervisor for the purposes of § 1983. This agreement between the parties means that the arguments fall into two claims: Monell liability and state-created danger liability.

         I. Mon ...

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