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Peters v. Brown

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

December 21, 2017




         Before the Court is the Motion to Dismiss filed by Cheryl Adams (“Nurse Adams” or “Defendant”) pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (ECF No. 66). Defendant seeks dismissal of Count I of the Amended Complaint filed, pro se, by John Bradley Peters, Sr. (“Plaintiff”). (ECF No. 55). Plaintiff pleads his sole claim against Defendant under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for alleged violation of his rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States - specifically, deliberate indifference to his medical needs.

         Avoiding dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) requires a complaint to provide “enough factual matter” to allow the case to move beyond the pleading stage of litigation; the pleader must “‘nudge his or her claims across the line from conceivable to plausible.'” Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 - 35 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Bell Atlantic Co. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556, 570 (2007)). In assessing the merits of a claim subject to a motion to dismiss, a court must engage in a two-part analysis. Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 - 11 (3d Cir. 2009). First, factual and legal elements of a claim must be distinguished. Id. Second, it must be determined whether the facts as alleged support a “plausible claim for relief.” Id. In making the latter determination, the court must be mindful that the matter pleaded need not include “detailed factual allegations, ” Phillips, 515 F.3d at 231 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555), and the court must construe all alleged facts, and draw all inferences gleaned therefrom, in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Id. at 228 (citing Worldcom, Inc. v. Graphnet, Inc., 343 F.3d 651, 653 (3d Cir. 2003)). Moreover, pleadings filed by pro se litigants should be liberally construed. Mala v. Crown Bay Marina, Inc., 704 F.3d 239, 244 (3d Cir. 2013) (citing Higgs v. Att'y Gen., 655 F.3d 333, 339 (3d Cir. 2011)).

         Nevertheless, the facts pled do need to raise the expectation of relief above a purely speculative level, and must include more than “labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action.” Phillips, 515 F.3d at 231 - 32 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 554 - 56). Rule 8(a)(2) “requires a ‘showing' rather than a blanket assertion of an entitlement to relief.” Id. at 232. “[T]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice, ” Fowler, 578 F.3d at 211 (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)), and even pro se litigants are required to plead facts sufficient to supports their claims, and cannot flout procedural rules. Mala, 704 F.3d at 245.

         the Amended Complaint of August 18, 2017 alleges that in the late evening hours of March 5, 2014, Plaintiff was taken into custody by officers of the Brookville Borough Police Department. The police had responded to an emergency call by Plaintiff's wife. (ECF No. 55 ¶ 13). Plaintiff had fallen down a flight of stairs in his home, and thereafter began to act erratically; this behavior included threats of violence against members of Plaintiff's family. (Id. ¶¶ 14 - 21). Plaintiffs wife initially attributed his conduct to consumption of alcohol. (Id. ¶¶ 22 - 23).

         When the police arrived on the scene, they attempted to escort Plaintiff from his home to a patrol car with the aid of Plaintiff s sons. (Id. ¶ 24). However, Plaintiff became aggravated and attempted to return to his home. (Id. ¶ 25). In the ensuing scuffle, one of the police officers was struck by Plaintiff, at which point Plaintiff was punched in the face by another officer and wrestled to the ground with the help of one of Plaintiff s sons. (Id. ¶¶ 26 - 34).

         Following the eventual arrival of paramedics, Plaintiff was strapped to a backboard and transported to Brookville Hospital. (Id. ¶¶ 50 - 51, 55). Plaintiff was to undergo an assessment to determine whether he was medically clear for detention at the Jefferson County Jail. (Id. ¶ 55). At the hospital, Plaintiff came under the care of physician Hosny Mikhail and Nurse Adams. Nurse Adams examined Plaintiff and completed a Functional Assessment in which she found “no identified needs.” (Id. ¶ 60). Dr. Mikhail then completed his own examination, after which he recorded in his notes that Plaintiff was “MEDICALLY CLEARED TO GO TO JAIL, ” and ordered that Plaintiff be discharged. (Id. ¶¶ 62 - 63). In the early morning hours of March 6, 2014, Plaintiff was released, and his discharge papers stated that he was “MEDICALLY CLEAR TO BE DISCHARGED TO POLICE CUSTODY.” (Id. ¶¶ 72, 79). The Jefferson County Jail took custody of Plaintiff at approximately 1:45 a.m. on March 6, 2014. (Id. ¶ 83).

         In Count I of the Amended Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that Nurse Adams' conduct while Plaintiff was under her care amounted to deliberate indifference to his medical needs. (Id. ¶ 112). In response, Nurse Adams argues that Plaintiffs claim is time-barred, and that it fails to allege facts sufficient to establish that she acted under color of law for purposes of § 1983. (ECF Nos. 67; 73). The Court agrees with Defendant, and will dismiss.

         With respect to Defendant's first argument, a complaint is properly subject to dismissal due to the passing of the relevant statute of limitations if the defense is “apparent on the face of the complaint.” Wisniewski v. Fisher, 857 F.3d 152, 157 (3d Cir. 2017) (citing Bradford-White Corp. v. Ernst & Whinney, 872 F.2d 1153, 1161 (3d Cir. 1989); Schmidt v. Skolas, 770 F.3d 241, 249 (3d Cir. 2014)). The appropriate limitations period for § 1983 claims in Pennsylvania is two years. Id. (citing Knoll v. Springfield Twp. Sch. Dist., 763 F.2d 584, 585 (3d Cir. 1985)). Thus, an Amended Complaint filed on August 18, 2017, presenting a claim pertaining to the conduct of a newly named defendant on March 5 - 6, 2014, is untimely filed. Plaintiff nevertheless contends that the statute of limitations does not bar his claim against Nurse Adams, because it relates back to the claims originally filed against Brookville Hospital and Dr. Mikhail, and because Nurse Adams received notice of her potential liability by virtue of her representation by the same attorney as represents Brookville Hospital and Dr. Mikhail. (ECF No. 72 at 4 - 6).

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(c)(1)(B) dictates that an amended pleading will relate back to the date of an original pleading if it contains “‘a claim or defense that arose out of the conduct, transaction, or occurrence set out - or attempted to be set out - in the original pleading.'” Glover v. F.D.I.C., 698 F.3d 139, 145 (3d Cir. 2012) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(c)(1)(B)). Accordingly, a court must “‘search for a common core of operative facts in the two pleadings.'” Id. (quoting Bensel v. Allied Pilots Ass'n, 387 F.3d 298, 310 (3d Cir. 2004)). “[O]nly where the opposing party is given ‘fair notice of the general fact situation and the legal theory upon which the amending party proceeds' will relation back be allowed.” Id. at 146 (quoting Bensel, 387 F.3d at 310). Amended pleadings which have the effect of significantly altering the nature of a proceeding “‘by injecting new and unanticipated claims are treated far more cautiously.'” Id. (quoting United States v. Hicks, 283 F.3d 380, 388 (D.C. Cir. 2002)).

         Plaintiff filed his original Complaint on March 7, 2016. (ECF No. 1). Brookville Hospital and Dr. Mikhail were named as defendants, but not Nurse Adams. (Id. at 5). The Complaint made mention of an “intake nurse” on three occasions, but made no specific allegations of wrongdoing or contribution to Plaintiff's injury by said nurse. (Id. at 6, 11). Neither were there allegations of manipulation or falsification of medical records by hospital staff. The Complaint claimed only that Dr. Mikhail “refused to request facts” and ignored signs and symptoms necessary to make informed medical decisions. (Id. at 12). It was also claimed that “Brookville Hospital has failed to train or supervise it's [sic] doctors to seek all information necessary to make a proper medical judgment.” (Id. at 12). Indeed, the Complaint actually appears to cast the unidentified nurse in a positive light when it notes that the nurse attempted to alert Dr. Mikhail to the severity of Plaintiff's condition. (Id.).

         In the Amended Complaint, Plaintiff claims that Nurse Adams was deliberately indifferent to his medical needs when she “intentionally and/or with gross negligence…reported false information in medical forms.” (ECF No. 55 ¶ 112). While amended pleadings are frequently found to relate back when simply restating “‘the original claim with greater particularity'” or amplifying “‘the factual circumstances surrounding the pertinent conduct, '” that is not the case here. Glover, 698 F.3d at 146 (quoting Bensel, 387 F.3d at 310). The conduct of which Nurse Adams is accused cannot be said to fit within the claims pled against Brookville Hospital and Dr. Mikhail in the original Complaint. Consequently, the original Complaint[1] cannot be said to have placed Nurse Adams on notice of potential liability for falsification of medical records. A complaint cannot be rehabilitated by invoking Rule 15(c) where it “does not give a defendant ‘fair notice of what the plaintiff's amended claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'” Id. (quoting Baldwin Cnty. Welcome Ctr. v. Brown, 466 U.S. 147, 149 n. 3 (1984)). Although the Court draws all inferences and views all facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the pleadings make clear that Count I is barred by the applicable statute of limitations as it pertains to Nurse Adams, and must be dismissed.

         However, even if Count I did relate back to Plaintiff's allegations in the original Complaint, Defendant is correct in asserting that dismissal is warranted for failure to state a claim under § 1983. Section 1983 provides that:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the ...

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