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Brown v. Correctional Officer Newell

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

September 6, 2019

LORI BROWN, Plaintiff,
CORRECTIONAL OFFICER JEFFERY NEWELL, in his individual capacity, et at, Defendants.



         Plaintiff Lori Brown, a phlebotomist employed by Correct Care Solutions, LLC, filed this civil rights action after being assaulted by an inmate housed at the State Corrections Institution at Albion ("SCI Albion"). The Defendants are Correctional Officer Jeffery Newell ("Newell"), Lieutenant Bill Harmon ("Harmon"), and two other correctional officers named as "John Doe" Defendants. This Court has jurisdiction over Plaintiffs claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §1331.

         Presently pending before the Court is a motion to dismiss the Complaint by Defendants Newell and Harmon. ECF No. 8. For the reasons that follow, the motion to dismiss will be granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         At all times relevant to this lawsuit, Plaintiff was employed as a phlebotomist by Correct Care Solutions, LLC, a private company that contracted with SCI Albion to provide medical services to inmates. Compl. ¶¶12-13. On January 11, 2018, Plaintiff was called upon by prison personnel to draw blood from Inmate Angel Muniz ("Muniz"), who had been scheduled for the blood draw because of low sodium. Id. ¶¶14-16. Unbeknownst to Plaintiff, Muniz had a history of violent crimes and assaults, including numerous assaults on prison personnel and fellow inmates, which had led to him being transferred among several facilities within the state correctional system. Id. ¶¶18-19, 28-30.

         On the day of Muniz's appointment, Harmon (the supervising officer), Newell, and two other corrections officers (collectively, the "Defendants") were assigned to guard Muniz and escort him to the blood draw. Compl. ¶17. Once inside the designated room, Muniz sat atop an examining table. Id. ¶¶2l, 24. Muniz's hands and arms were shackled via a restraint system that wrapped around his waist. Id. ¶22. Although his legs were shackled together, they were not secured to the examination table. Id. ¶25. Newell stood to the right of Muniz while another unidentified corrections officer stood to Muniz's left. Id. ¶23. A third officer remained inside the room to operate a video camera, but stood closer to the doorway. Id. Harmon stood behind Plaintiff, "but off to her right." Id.

         As Brown attempted to conduct the blood draw, Muniz "violently, and without any warning or provocation," kicked Brown in the abdomen and chest with both feet, causing her to slam into the wall directly behind her. Compl. ¶32. As a result, Brown sustained bodily injuries, emotional trauma, medical expenses, and lost income. Id. ¶44.

         Plaintiff filed the instant lawsuit on December 6, 2018, asserting a single cause of action under 42 U.S.C. §1983 for the alleged violation of her constitutional rights. Defendants filed the pending motion to dismiss on February 14, 2019. The matter has been fully briefed and the issues sufficiently joined, making the Defendants' motion ripe for adjudication.


         Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure recognizes a defense based upon the plaintiffs failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. "When considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, we accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief." Wayne Land & Mineral Grp. LLC v. Delaware River Basin Comm'n, 894 F.3d 509, 526-27 (3d Cir. 2018) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). In order to survive dismissal, "a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Ail. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). Plausibility means "more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id. "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).


         Plaintiffs sole cause of action is brought under 42 U.S.C. §1983, which "is not itself a source of substantive rights," but provides "a method for vindicating federal rights elsewhere conferred." Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 144 n.3 (1979). To prevail under § 1983, a plaintiff must prove that she suffered the deprivation of a right secured by the United States Constitution or federal law by a person acting under color of state law. Mark v. Borough of Hatboro, 51 F.3d 1137, 1141 (3d Cir. 1995).

         In this case, it is not disputed that the named Defendants were acting under color of state law at all relevant times. Therefore, we need inquire only whether Plaintiff has plausibly alleged the violation of a federal right - specifically, her right under the Fourteenth Amendment to substantive due process, [1] which "protects individual liberty against certain government actions regardless of the fairness of the procedures used to implement them." Collins v. City of Harker Heights, 53 U.S. 115, 125 (1992) (internal quotation marks omitted). Plaintiffs theory is that the Defendants' conduct caused her to sustain a deprivation of her liberty interest in her own bodily integrity. See Phillips v. Cty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 235 (3d Cir. 2008) ("Individuals have a constitutional liberty interest in their personal bodily integrity that is protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.") (citations omitted).

         Defendants dispute that Plaintiff has alleged a constitutional violation. Alternatively, they argue that they are qualifiedly immune from liability. We address each argument in turn.

         A. Has Plaintiff Stated a Fourteenth Amendment "State Created Danger" Claim?

         Although the Due Process Clause does not impose an affirmative obligation on the State to protect its citizens, there is an exception to this general rule which "holds an officer liable if his conduct exposes an individual to a 'state-created danger.'" Kedra v. Schroeter, 876 F.3d 424, 436 (3d Cir. 2017). To prevail under this theory, a plaintiff must show that:

(1) the harm ultimately caused to the plaintiff was foreseeable and fairly direct; (2) the state-actor "acted with a degree of culpability that shocks the conscience"; (3) the state and the plaintiff had such a relationship such that "the plaintiff was a foreseeable victim of defendant's acts," as opposed to a member of the public in general; and (4) the official affirmatively used his authority "in a way that created danger to the citizen or that rendered the citizen more vulnerable to danger" than had he never acted.

Id. at 436 (quoting Bright v. Westmoreland Cty., 443 F.3d 276, 281 (3d Cir. 2006)).

         Defendants contend that Plaintiff has failed to allege a "state-created danger" because the second, third, and fourth elements are absent here. The Court agrees that, at ...

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