Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Haberle v. Troxell

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

March 20, 2018

NICOLE HABERLE, In her own right, on behalf of her two minor children, and as administrator of the Estate of Timothy Nixon, deceased Nicole Haberle, Appellant
OFFICER DANIEL TROXELL, Individually, and in his official capacity as Nazareth Borough Police Officer; THOMAS TRACHTA, Individually, and in his official capacity as Nazareth Borough Police Chief; MAYOR CARL STYRE, Individually, and in his official capacity as Mayor of Nazareth Borough; PRESIDENT DAN CHIAVAROLI, Individually, and in his official capacity as President of Nazareth Borough Council; VICE PRESIDENT LARRY STOUDT, Individually, and in his official capacity as Vice President of Nazareth Borough Council; JOHN SAMUS, Individually, and in his official capacity as a member of Nazareth Borough Council; COUNCIL MEMBER MICHAEL KOPACH, Individually, and in his offical capacity as a member of Nazareth Borough Council; COUNCIL MEMBER FRANK MAUREK, Individually, and in his official capacity as a member of Nazareth Borough Council; COUNCIL MEMBER CHARLES DONELLO, Individually, and in his official capacity as a Member of Nazareth Borough Council; COUNCIL MEMBER CARL FISCHL, Individually, and in his official capacity as a member of Nazareth Borough Council; JOHN/JANE DOE POLICE STAFF #1-X, Individually, and in their official capacities as staff of the Nazareth Police Department; BOROUGH OF NAZARETH

          Argued: November 4, 2016

         On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (E.D. Pa. No. 5-15-cv-02804) District Judge: Hon. Joseph F. Leeson, Jr.

          Joseph E. Welsh [ARGUED] Lauer & Fulmer Counsel for Appellant.

          Rufus A. Jennings John P. Morgenstern [ARGUED] Deasey Mahoney & Valentini Counsel for Appellee.

          Before: JORDAN, GREENAWAY, JR., and RENDELL, Circuit Judges.


          JORDAN, Circuit Judge

         Timothy Nixon was a troubled man. After stealing a firearm, he told his partner, Nicole Haberle, that he was going to commit suicide. When a police officer employed by the Borough of Nazareth learned of that threat, he did not wait for trained crisis support professionals but instead knocked on the door of the apartment where Nixon was located and announced his presence. Nixon immediately shot himself.

         Ms. Haberle has sued, on her own behalf and also as the administrator of Nixon's estate, claiming that that police officer - Daniel Troxell - and other law enforcement officers, and the Borough, violated the Constitution as well as a variety of federal and state statutes. All of her claims were dismissed by the District Court, and she now appeals. Her primary argument is that Troxell unconstitutionally seized Nixon and that Nixon's suicide was the foreseeable result of a danger that Troxell created. She also argues that the Borough violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101-213 (the "ADA"), by, among other things, failing to modify Borough policies, practices, and procedures to ensure that disabled individuals would have their needs met during interactions with the police. Although we recognize the grief borne by those who cared deeply for Mr. Nixon, we are nonetheless persuaded that the District Court was largely correct in its disposition of this case. But, because we conclude that Ms. Haberle should be given an opportunity to amend her complaint with respect to her ADA claim, we will affirm in part and vacate in part the District Court's rulings, and remand for further proceedings.

         I. Background[1]

         Timothy Nixon suffered from a variety of mental health problems, including depression. For years, he had lived off and on with his long-time partner, Ms. Haberle, and their two children. On May 20, 2013, he had "a serious mental health episode involving severe depression." (Opening Br. at 6.) He called Haberle and told her that he was suicidal, and then broke into a friend's home and took a handgun. He next went to his cousin's apartment.

         Fearing for Nixon's life, Haberle contacted the Borough of Nazareth Police Department. Officer Daniel Troxell obtained a warrant for Nixon's arrest, and, having learned that Nixon was still at his cousin's apartment, Troxell went there, accompanied by other officers from the Borough and surrounding municipalities.[2] Upon arriving at the apartment, some of the officers suggested setting up a perimeter and asking the Pennsylvania State Police to send crisis negotiators. Others suggested asking Haberle to help communicate with Nixon. Troxell rebuffed those suggestions, calling the other officers "a bunch of f[---]ing pussies." (App. at 7.) He declared his intention to immediately go to the apartment, because "[t]his is how we do things in Nazareth." (App. at 7.) He did as he said, knocked on the door of the apartment, and identified himself as a police officer. Nixon then promptly went into one of the bedrooms of the apartment and turned the stolen gun on himself.

         Following the suicide, Haberle sued Troxell, the other officers who were at the scene, the chief of police of Nazareth, the Mayor of Nazareth, and various members of the Borough Council, including the President and Vice-President, and the Borough of Nazareth itself. Her complaint, as amended, included eleven counts.[3] The Defendants moved pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) to dismiss the amended complaint, and that motion was granted. The District Court did not grant Haberle an opportunity to further amend her complaint, concluding that any additional amendment would be futile. This timely appeal followed.

         II. Discussion[4]

         Haberle focuses on three arguments - two under provisions of the Constitution and one under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Specifically, she alleges that dismissal of her claims against Troxell was improper because Troxell's actions amounted to an unconstitutional seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment. She also claims that Troxell's actions constituted a "state-created danger" in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.[5] Finally, she argues that the Borough violated the ADA. None of those arguments is persuasive.

         A. Troxell's Actions Did Not Constitute an Improper Seizure

         Police are entitled to "knock and talk" with people in a residence, and doing so is not a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Estate of Smith v. Marasco, 318 F.3d 497, 519 (3d Cir. 2003) (citing Rogers v. Pendleton, 249 F.3d 279, 289-90 (4th Cir. 2001)). In order to effectuate a seizure, there must be something more than "inoffensive contact between a member of the public and the police … ." United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 555 (1980). There must be, for instance, "the threatening presence of several officers, the display of a weapon by an officer, some physical touching of the person of the citizen, … the use of language or tone of voice indicating that compliance with the officer's request might be compelled, " or some other communication that would convey to a reasonable person that compliance was not optional. Id. at 554. "[T]he subjective intention of the [officers] … is irrelevant except insofar as that may have been conveyed to the respondent." Id. at 554 n.6.

         In this case, the District Court correctly concluded that there was no seizure. Whether or not well-advised, and despite his crudely expressed intentions, Troxell merely knocked on the door and announced his presence. That alone is not enough to violate the Fourth Amendment. There is no allegation that Troxell made intimidating remarks to Nixon or announced his presence in a threatening fashion. Nor is there any allegation that Nixon was aware of the warrant or of the other officers that were outside of the apartment complex. The complaint gives no reason to believe that Nixon felt he was "not free to leave, " id. at 554, or that he was unable to "decline the [officer's] requests or otherwise terminate the encounter." Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429, 436 (1991). Because Nixon's liberty was not restricted, there was no seizure. See Estate of Bennett v. Wainwright, 548 F.3d 155, 171 (1st Cir. 2008) ("Given the Estate's failure to establish [the decedent's] knowledge of the [police] perimeter, no reasonable factfinder could find that a person in [the decedent's] circumstances would have thought that the perimeter restricted his liberty to leave the ... residence.").

         In any event, Troxell acted under color of a warrant, and Haberle does not argue that the warrant was invalid or was obtained under false pretenses or would have resulted in a false arrest. Even if a seizure had occurred, then, it would not have been unlawful. See Berg v. Cty. of Allegheny, 219 F.3d 261, 273 (3d Cir. 2000) (explaining that an officer is immune from suit after an arrest based on a warrant, if there is a reasonable belief that the warrant is valid).

         B. Troxell's Actions Did Not Cause a State-Created Danger

         As a general principle, the government has no obligation under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to protect citizens against injuries caused by private actors. DeShaney v. Winnebago Cty. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 489 U.S. 189, 197 (1989). That includes a self-inflicted injury. Sanford v. Stiles, 456 F.3d 298, 303-04 (3d Cir. 2006). There is, however, an obligation to protect individuals against dangers that the government itself creates. Bright v. Westmoreland Cty., 443 F.3d 276, 281 (3d Cir. 2006). We have identified four elements for a claim under the "state-created danger" doctrine:

(1) [T]he harm ultimately caused was foreseeable and fairly direct;
(2) a state actor acted with a degree of culpability that shocks the conscience;
(3) a relationship between the state and the plaintiff existed 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, as opposed to a member of the public in general; and
(4) a state actor affirmatively used his or her authority in a way that created a danger to the citizen or that rendered the citizen more vulnerable to danger ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.