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Roberts v. Whitt

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Beckley Division

May 24, 2018

ASHLEY ROBERTS, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
S. A. WHITT, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          IRENE C. BERGER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         The Court has reviewed Defendants, S.A. Whitt, D. Snuffer, and City of Beckley's Motion to Dismiss (Document 7), Defendants, S. A. Whitt, D. Snuffer, and City of Beckley's Memorandum of Law in Support of their Motion to Dismiss (Document 8), the Plaintiffs' Response to Defendant S. A. Whitt, D. Snuffer, and City of Beckley's Motion to Dismiss (Document 9), and Defendants S. A. Whitt, D. Snuffer, and City of Beckley's Reply to Plaintiffs' Response to Their Motion to Dismiss (Document 11). In addition, the Court has reviewed the Plaintiffs' Complaint (Document 1). For the reasons stated herein, the Court finds that the motion to dismiss should be granted in part and denied in part.

         FACTUAL ALLEGATIONS

         The Plaintiffs, Ashley Roberts, Steven Rumbold, and Leann Rumbold, initiated this action with a complaint filed on August 18, 2017. They named as Defendants S.A. Whitt, S. Snuffer, D. Pack, and the City of Beckley. Mr. Whitt and Mr. Snuffer were police officers with the Beckley Police Department, and Mr. Pack was a corporal employed by the West Virginia State Police. The officers were part of the Beckley Raleigh County Drug and Violent Crimes Task Force Unit (“Task Force”).

         On August 18, 2015, members of the Task Force executed a search warrant at the residence of Mr. and Ms. Rumbold, where Ms. Roberts was staying. Although the search warrant did not authorize a no-knock entry, the Defendants kicked in the unlocked front door without knocking or announcing themselves. Ms. Roberts, who was eight months pregnant, was in the bathroom when the officers entered. They “grabbed plaintiff Roberts off the toilet, threw her to the ground on her stomach, yelling at her to ‘get on your fucking stomach.'” (Compl. at ¶ 12.) An officer “placed either his knee, or his boot, on her back while she was handcuffed, leaving visible bruises.” (Id.) An officer eventually helped her sit on the couch, but she remained distressed that her baby had been harmed.

         Mr. Rumbold was sleeping at the time of the officers' entry. The Defendants pulled him from bed and began beating him, “knocking his teeth out and breaking his nose.” (Id. at ¶ 15.) He was not resisting or threatening the officers. The Defendants also subjected Ms. Rumbold to physical force, “including purposefully stepping on her back to the point that a foot print was left on her back.” (Id. at ¶ 17.)

         The Plaintiffs assert the following claims: Count One - Excessive Force in Violation of the Fourth Amendment, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Count Two - Bystander Liability, Count Three - Unreasonable Search and Seizure in Violation of the Fourth Amendment, and Count Four - State Law Negligence, alleging improper training and supervision. They seek damages for medical expenses, pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, psychological and emotional distress, other compensatory damages, punitive damages against the individual Defendants, and reasonable attorney fees and costs.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A motion to dismiss filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint or pleading. Francis v. Giacomelli, 588 F.3d 186, 192 (4th Cir. 2009); Giarratano v. Johnson, 521 F.3d 298, 302 (4th Cir. 2008). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires that a pleading contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). Additionally, allegations “must be simple, concise, and direct.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(d)(1). “[T]he pleading standard Rule 8 announces does not require ‘detailed factual allegations, ' but it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). In other words, “a complaint must contain “more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. Moreover, “a complaint [will not] suffice if it tenders naked assertions devoid of further factual enhancements.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         The Court must “accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint.” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007). The Court must also “draw[ ] all reasonable factual inferences from those facts in the plaintiff's favor.” Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 244 (4th Cir. 1999). However, statements of bare legal conclusions “are not entitled to the assumption of truth” and are insufficient to state a claim. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. Furthermore, the court need not “accept as true unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusions, or arguments.” E. Shore Mkts., v. J.D. Assocs. Ltd. P'ship, 213 F.3d 175, 180 (4th Cir. 2000). “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice . . . [because courts] ‘are not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).

         To survive a motion to dismiss, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, ‘to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). In other words, this “plausibility standard requires a plaintiff to demonstrate more than ‘a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.'” Francis, 588 F.3d at 193 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). A plaintiff must, using the complaint, “articulate facts, when accepted as true, that ‘show' that the plaintiff has stated a claim entitling him to relief.” Francis, 588 F.3d at 193 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557). “Determining whether a complaint states [on its face] a plausible claim for relief [which can survive a motion to dismiss] will . . . be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679.

         DISCUSSION

         The Defendants[1] assert that the City of Beckley cannot be liable for 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims under a respondeat superior theory, and the Plaintiffs failed to plead facts supporting a claim that their injuries were proximately caused by an official policy or custom of the City of Beckley. They further argue that the Plaintiffs failed to identify which officers allegedly used force against each Plaintiff, and so the § 1983 claims contained in Counts One and Three should be dismissed. Similarly, the Defendants assert that the Plaintiffs did not specifically allege that each officer was aware of another officer's acts depriving the Plaintiffs of a constitutional right, and chose not to act despite having the opportunity to prevent harm. The Defendants further argue that the negligence claim must be dismissed because state law immunizes them from claims of damages related to execution of lawful search warrants. Finally, the Defendants argue that state law bars any award of punitive damages against a political subdivision and its employees, and that state law provides Defendants Snuffer and Whitt with immunity.

         In response, the Plaintiffs clarify that Counts One through Three are asserted only against the individual officers, and Count Four is asserted only against the City of Beckley. The Plaintiffs note that the Defendant officers were all present through the entire search and were present and participated in the improper use of force. They argue that courts, including this Court, have found similar allegations sufficient to state a claim for bystander liability in previous cases. The Plaintiffs further cite cases indicating that immunity for execution of search warrants and for political subdivisions is less far-reaching than claimed by the Defendants, and argue that the negligent supervision and training claims should ...


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