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Tucker v. School District of Philadelphia

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

August 13, 2019

BRIANA TUCKER, as the parent and natural guardian of her son, Jelani Christmas a minor, Plaintiff,
v.
SCHOOL DISTRICT OF PHILADELPHIA and TERRENCE WALSH, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM

          GERALD J. PAPPERT, J.

         Briana Tucker, on behalf of her son Jelani Christmas, sued the School District of Philadelphia and special education teacher Terrence Walsh under 42 U.S.C § 1983 and state tort laws. Tucker claims Walsh physically assaulted Christmas at school using excessive force and depriving Christmas of equal protection of the law. Walsh and the School District jointly moved to dismiss the Complaint, and the Court granted Tucker leave to amend. Defendants filed a second Motion to Dismiss the Amended Complaint. The Motion is granted in part, again with leave to amend, and denied in part for the reasons that follow.

         I

         In March of 2018, Jelani Christmas was a fifth-grade student at J. Hampton Moore Elementary School in Philadelphia. (Am. Compl. ¶ 13, ECF No. 7.) Christmas, who has a learning disability, was enrolled in Terrence Walsh's special education class. (Id. at ¶¶ 13-14.) The Amended Complaint alleges that on March 22, 2018, Walsh “became incited and assaulted [Christmas] because he did not put his pencil back in the appropriate place.” (Id. at ¶ 16.) Walsh “grabbed [Christmas] by his neck and choked him, ” then “repeatedly pushed [Christmas's] head and body against the school room wall.” (Id. at ¶ 17.) The assault occurred “during class in front of other students.” (Id.)

         The Amended Complaint alleges that the “School District's policy failed to train . . . Walsh in applying physical restraints against its students.” (Id. at ¶ 22.) The School District did not fire, re-train or discipline Walsh after he assaulted Christmas. (Id. at ¶ 23.) Instead, Christmas was moved to another classroom. (Id.)

         Tucker seeks damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 from both Defendants for use of excessive force (Count I) and from the School District for depriving Christmas of equal protection of the law (Count II). She claims both Defendants are also liable under Pennsylvania law for intentional infliction of emotional distress (Count III) and assault and battery (Count IV).

         II

         To survive a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the plaintiff must allege “sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009). A complaint must provide “more than labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (citation omitted). “Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact).” Id. (citation omitted). While a complaint need not include detailed facts, it must provide “more than an unadorned, the-defendant- unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Ashcroft, 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).

         Twombly and Iqbal require the Court to take three steps to determine whether the complaint will survive defendants' motion to dismiss. See Connelly v. Lane Const. Corp., 809 F.3d 780, 787 (3d Cir. 2016). First, it must “take note of the elements the plaintiff must plead to state a claim.” Id. (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 675). Next, it must identify the allegations that are no more than legal conclusions and thus “not entitled to the assumption of truth.” Id. (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679). Finally, where the complaint includes well-pleaded factual allegations, the Court “should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” Id. (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679). The Court should “construe truths in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and then draw all reasonable inferences from them.” Id. at 791.

         III

         Section 1983 imposes civil liability on any person who, acting under the color of state law, deprives another person of rights, privileges or immunities secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States. Shuman ex rel. Shertzer v. Penn Manor Sch. Dist., 422 F.3d 141, 146 (3d Cir. 2005) (citing Gruenke v. Seip, 225 F.3d 290, 298 (3d Cir. 2000)). Section 1983 does not create substantive rights; it provides a remedy for the violation of federal constitutional or statutory rights. Id.

         A § 1983 claim against a municipality may proceed in two ways: the plaintiff may allege that an unconstitutional municipal policy or custom led to his injuries or that his injuries were caused by a failure or inadequacy by the municipality that reflects a deliberate or conscious choice. Forrest v. Parry, 930 F.3d 93, 105 (3d Cir. 2019) (citing Estate of Roman v. City of Newark, 914 F.3d 789, 798-99 (3d Cir. 2019)). A plaintiff alleging an unconstitutional policy must point to “an official proclamation, policy or edict by a decisionmaker possessing final authority to establish municipal policy on the relevant subject.” Id. A plaintiff alleging an unconstitutional custom “must evince a given course of conduct so well-settled and permanent as to virtually constitute law.” Id. (citing Estate of Roman, 914 F.3d at 798). The plaintiff must also allege that the policy or custom was the proximate cause of his injuries by demonstrating an “affirmative link” between the policy or custom and the constitutional violation. Estate of Roman, 914 F.3d at 798 (citing Kneipp v. Tedder, 95 F.3d 1199, 1213 (3d Cir. 1996) and quoting Bielevicz v. Dubinon, 915 F.2d 845, 850 (3d Cir. 1990)). A plaintiff alleging that his injuries were caused by a failure or inadequacy by the municipality must demonstrate “(1) municipal policymakers know that employees will confront a particular situation, (2) the situation involves a difficult choice or a history of employees mishandling, and (3) the wrong choice by an employee will frequently cause deprivation of constitutional rights.” Forrest, 930 F.3d at 106 (citing Estate of Roman, 914 F.3d at 798 and Carter v. City of Phila., 181 F.3d 339, 357 (3d Cir. 1999)).

         A

         Count I of the Amended Complaint alleges that both Defendants are liable under § 1983 for use of excessive force. Excessive force claims brought under § 1983 are not governed by a single generic standard. Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 393 (1989). “In addressing an excessive force claim brought under § 1983, ” the Court must first “identify[ ] the specific constitutional right allegedly infringed by the challenged application of force.” Id. at 394 (citing Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 140 (1979)). “The validity ...


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