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Brown v. Mason County Commission

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

December 5, 2019

AMY BROWN, individually and as Administratrix of the Estate of JAMES BRADY LEONARD, deceased, Plaintiff,
v.
MASON COUNTY COMMISSION; GALLIA COUNTY BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS; POINT PLEASANT VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT ADAM BRYANT, individually and in his official capacity; NANETTE ELLIOTT; LISA TURNER; and JOHN and JANE DOE or DOES, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ROBERT C. CHAMBERS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Presently pending before the Court are three motions to dismiss, each filed by a different set of defendants in this case. The first of these motions moves for dismissal of all claims asserted against Defendant Adam Bryant (“Bryant”). Bryant Mot. to Dismiss, ECF No. 27. The second motion similarly moves for dismissal of all claims asserted against Defendant Mason County Commission (“Mason County”). Mason Cnty. Mot. to Dismiss, ECF No. 30. Finally, the third motion moves for dismissal of all claims asserted against Defendants Gallia County Board of Commissioners (“Gallia County”), Nanette Elliot, and Lisa Turner. Gallia Cnty. Mot. to Dismiss, ECF No. 38. For the reasons set forth below, the Court DENIES the first motion and GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART the second and third motions.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case arises out of a tragic set of facts. On December 7, 2016, James Brady Leonard was a passenger in a vehicle participating in a drag race along a stretch of road running parallel to the Kanawha River in Mason County, West Virginia. Am. Compl., ECF No. 4, at ¶ 15; Gallia Cnty. Mem. of Law, ECF No. 39, at 1. At some point during the race, the driver lost control of the vehicle and struck a telephone pole. Am. Compl., at ¶ 15. The collision sent the car flying off the road and down a steep embankment, eventually landing in the river below. Id. The force of the impact ejected Leonard from the car and launched him into the river. Id. A friend, Jeffrey Woodall, pulled Leonard to shore and called 911. Id. Though Woodall attempted to carry Leonard back up to the road, the embankment leading to the river was too steep and slippery for Woodall to make the trip with him. Id. Instead, Woodall left Leonard on the riverbank and returned to the road in an attempt to find something to warm his friend. Id. Sometime after this point, Leonard-bleeding badly- succumbed to his injuries.[1] Id. at ¶¶ 22, 24.

         The timeline becomes somewhat blurrier at this point. While the Amended Complaint alleges that Mason County Emergency Medical Services (“EMS”) did not arrive at the scene for forty-six minutes following Woodall's initial 911 call, it notes only that it “is disputed as to how long it took Gallia County EMS to arrive on the scene.” Id. at ¶¶ 16, 22. The Amended Complaint similarly does not include any allegation as to the arrival time of the Point Pleasant Fire Department or Adam Bryant.[2] Id. at ¶ 18-19. Nevertheless, it appears that “[s]oon after Adam Bryant arrived at the scene, Mr. Leonard's mother”-Plaintiff Amy Brown-arrived as well. Id. at ¶ 20. Plaintiff apparently learned of the accident after receiving a call from Woodall, and was able to arrive “shortly after the crash.” Id. A Certified Flight Mobile Critical Care Nurse (“CFRN”), Plaintiff had access to her medical flight bag containing “items such as tourniquets, IV[s], IV supplies, dressings, and saline fluid bags.” Id. Nevertheless, Plaintiff alleges that Bryant prevented her from reaching her son. Id. She claims Bryant threatened her and her son's friends on the scene, telling them that “if they went to him, he would arrest them.” Id. Not immediately dissuaded, Plaintiff recalls Bryant physically restraining her when she again attempted to reach her son. Id.

         As Gallia County, Ohio borders Mason County, the counties maintain a shared services agreement through which their respective EMS departments may respond to emergency calls when necessary. Id. at ¶¶ 22, 23; Gallia Cnty. Mem. of Law, at 2. After receiving a request from the Mason County EMS department for assistance in responding to Woodall's call, a Gallia County EMS team reported to the scene. Am. Compl., at ¶ 22. Plaintiff alleges that “when they did arrive, no one from Gallia County EMS, including but not limited to Nanette Elliott and Lisa Turner, checked on Mr. Leonard's pulse, breathing, or examined his body for injuries.” Id. Instead, Plaintiff alleges “they pronounced him deceased, placed him on a backboard, and carried him up the riverbank to the roadway, where he lay until Mason County EMS arrived.” Id.

         Nearly two years later-and just two days shy of the statute of limitations deadline applicable to her claims-Plaintiff filed a five-count Complaint in this Court against several municipal and individual defendants. Count One is styled a “Due Process Violation, ” and raises civil rights claims against Bryant and Mason County. Id. at ¶¶ 26-41. Count Two is a negligent hiring, training, supervision and retention claim, and is directed at Mason County, Gallia County, and Point Pleasant Volunteer Fire Department. Id. at ¶¶ 42-47. Count Three raises a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress against Mason County, Gallia County, Point Pleasant Volunteer Fire Department, and Bryant. Id. at ¶¶ 48-51. Count Four is an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim raised solely against Bryant. Id. at ¶¶ 52-58. Finally, Count Five is styled a “Violation of the West Virginia Medical Professional Liability Act, ” and is raised against all defendants except Bryant. Id. at ¶¶ 59-63.

         The Complaint was filed on December 5, 2018. Nearly a month and a half later-on January 17, 2019-Plaintiff's counsel provided a notice of her claims and a certificate of merit to Defendants pursuant to West Virginia Code § 55-7B-6. See Ex. A, ECF No. 38-1, at 1. On March 5, 2019, Plaintiff amended her complaint to correct the erroneous spelling of Nanette Elliot's first name. Compare Compl., ECF No. 1, at 1, with Am. Compl., at 1. The rest of her Complaint remained unchanged.

         On April 24, 2019, Defendants Bryant and Mason County filed their respective motions to dismiss and corresponding memoranda of law. Exactly one month later, Defendants Gallia County, Nannette Elliot, and Lisa Turner filed their motion to dismiss. The parties have fully briefed each motion, and the issues presented therein are ripe for review.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Rule 8(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires only that a complaint contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Rule 12(b)(6) permits a party to attack a complaint for failure to meet this threshold, and authorizes dismissal of a complaint for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” To avoid 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 Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). Put somewhat differently, a “complaint's factual allegations must produce an inference of liability strong enough to nudge the plaintiff's claims across the line from conceivable to plausible.” Nemet Chevrolet, Ltd. v. Consumeraffairs.com, Inc., 592 F.3d 250, 256 (4th Cir. 2009). There is no bright-line threshold separating plausible claims from implausible ones; instead, “[d]etermining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief will . . . be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id. at 679. The Court will grant a motion to dismiss if, “after accepting all wellpleaded allegations in the plaintiff's complaint as true and drawing all reasonable factual inferences from those facts in the plaintiff's favor, it appears certain that the plaintiff cannot prove any set of facts in support of his claim entitling him to relief.” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007).

         At the motion to dismiss stage, the “issue is not whether a plaintiff will ultimately prevail, but whether the claimant is entitled to offer evidence to support the claims” he or she makes. Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974). It follows that a motion to dismiss testing the sufficiency of a complaint “generally cannot reach the merits of an affirmative defense.” Goodman v. Praxair, Inc., 494 F.3d 458, 464 (4th Cir. 2007). Nevertheless, “in the relatively rare circumstances where facts sufficient to rule on an affirmative defense are alleged in the complaint, the defense may be reached by a motion to dismiss filed under Rule 12(b)(6).” Id. Importantly, “[t]his principle only applies . . . if all facts necessary to the affirmative defense clearly appear on the face of the complaint.” Id. (citing Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac R.R. v. Forst, 4 F.3d 244, 250 (4th Cir. 1993)) (internal quotations and punctuation omitted); see also Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 215 (2007) (“Whether a particular ground for opposing a claim may be the basis for dismissal for failure to state a claim depends on whether the allegations in the complaint suffice to establish that ground, not on the nature of the ground in the abstract.”).

         As a final matter, the Court notes that the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals strongly favors the resolution of cases on their merits rather than on technical or procedural grounds. See United States v. Shaffer Equip. Co., 11 F.3d 450, 453 (4th Cir. 1993). Consistent with this legal framework, the Court turns to its analysis of the instant case.

         III. DISCUSSION

         As noted supra, there are three motions to dismiss currently pending before the Court. While some of their arguments do overlap, the Amended Complaint names different parties in each count and often bases their respective liability upon separate conduct. As such, the Court will undertake a count-by-count analysis of each claim below, considering the defendants' motions separately where appropriate.

         A. Count One: Due Process

         Plaintiff names only two parties in Count One of the Amended Complaint-Defendants Adam Bryant and Mason County-although its bulk is made up of a laundry list of allegations against Bryant in particular. Because the legal standards governing liability for municipalities and their employees are distinct, the Court will analyze both Defendants' motions in turn.

         1. Adam Bryant

         The gravamen of Plaintiff's due process allegations against Bryant is that he “deprived plaintiff[] of [her] due process rights, under color of state law, by his affirmative act of restraining [Plaintiff] and preventing her from rendering medical care to her critically injured son.” Am. Compl., at ¶ 29. Bryant naturally disagrees, and argues that dismissal of Count One is warranted “because Plaintiff's Complaint only contains recitals of the elements of a cause of action supported by conclusory allegations, which are not entitled to the presumption of truth.” Bryant Mem. of Law, ECF No. 28, at 3. Fair enough. The Court acknowledges that it is Plaintiff's burden to allege facts sufficient to “nudge [her] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible, ” Nemet Chevrolet, Ltd., 592 F.3d at 256, and will carefully consider the Amended Complaint in this light. Yet there is deep irony in Bryant's argument, which is essentially a series of conclusory allegations of conclusory allegations. Bryant does not reference a specific provision of the Amended Complaint anywhere in his merits argument, and confusingly suggests that Plaintiff has not pleaded sufficient facts to support a “claim for Supervisor liability” that she has not raised. Bryant Mem. of Law, at 4.

         In any event, Plaintiff has alleged more than enough facts to state a claim against Bryant. Taken as true, Plaintiff has alleged that Bryant physically restrained her from assisting her son and thereby prevented her from saving his life. Am. Compl., at ¶¶ 29, 41. As noted above, Plaintiff bases her claim on federal and state due process provisions. While it is never explicitly stated, the Court construes Plaintiff's federal constitutional claim as a § 1983 action. Section 1983 provides a private cause of action for the deprivation of rights, under color of state law, secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States. Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21, 27 (1991). Here, Plaintiff has raised her federal constitutional claims under the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee that no state “shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” U.S. Const. amend. XIV. Of course, this clause “guarantee[es] more than fair process.” Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702, 719 (1997). In particular, it covers “a substantive sphere . . . barring certain government actions regardless of the fairness of the procedures used to implement them.” Cnty. of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 840 (1998). Where no other constitutional provision provides protection against a particular source of government behavior, substantive due process is the guide to analyzing a claim. See Id. at 842. Here, no other constitutional provision applies.

         The “touchstone of due process is protection of the individual against arbitrary action of government.” Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 558 (1974). It is true that, in general, the Due Process Clause “does not require the State to provide its citizens with particular protective services.” DeShaney v. Winnebago Cnty. Dept. of Soc. Servs., 489 U.S. 189, 196-97 (1989). However, “when the State by the affirmative exercise of its power so restrains an individual's liberty that it renders him unable to care for himself . . . it transgresses the substantive limits on state action set by . . . the Due Process Clause.” Id. at 200. Of course, the Due Process Clause “does not transform every tort committed by a state actor into a constitutional violation.” Cnty. of Sacramento, 523 U.S. at 848. Instead, a “plaintiff must demonstrate some egregious official conduct which constitutes an abuse of power that shocks the conscience.” See Tigrett v. Rector & Visitors of Univ. of Va., 137 F.Supp.2d 670, 678 (W.D. Va. 2001) (quoting Dunn v. Fairfield Cmty. High Sch. Dist. No. 225, 158 F.3d 962, 965 (7th Cir. 1998)) (internal quotations omitted); see also Waybright v. Frederick Cnty., Md., 528 F.3d 199, 205 (4th Cir. 2008) (“[T]he Supreme Court has . . . marked out . . . conduct wrong enough to register on a due process scale as conduct that shocks the conscience, and nothing less.”).

         While this is undoubtedly a high bar, Plaintiff's allegations concerning Bryant-taken as true-meet this threshold. Plaintiff claims that Bryant stopped her from providing assistance to her son despite being aware of her role as a critical care nurse. Am. Compl., at ¶ 30. At one point, she claims that he physically restrained her and threatened her with arrest as she attempted to move past him. Am. Compl., at ¶ 31. It is worth noting that discovery may shed more light on the factual circumstances surrounding Plaintiff's interaction with Bryant at the crash scene, and that her factual assertions will no longer be accepted as true at future stages of this action. Yet it bears repeating that, for the purposes of a motion to dismiss, Plaintiff's allegations are sufficient to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.

         To the extent Plaintiff raises state constitutional claims against Bryant, the Court's analysis follows a similar path. The West Virginia Constitution provides that “[n]o person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” W.Va. Const. art. III, § 10. The “republican form of government which exists under the West Virginia Constitution, by its nature encompasses a concept of substantive due process.” Cooper v. Gwinn, 298 S.E.2d 781, 787 ( W.Va. 1981). Unless barred by immunity, a private cause of action exists where a party denies a litigant “rights that are protected by the Due Process Clause embodied within . . . the West Virginia Constitution.” Hutchison v. City of Huntington, 479 S.E.2d 649, 654 ( W.Va. 1996). “In deciding whether a party deprived someone of their property or liberty interest without due process of law under the West Virginia Constitution, the West Virginia Supreme Court looks to, and follows federal case law and precedent.” Smith v. Teach, No. 3:07-CV-49, 2008 WL 11451886, at *11 (N.D. W.Va. Nov. 13, 2008). Given this congruence, Plaintiff has pleaded sufficient facts to state a claim for relief under the West Virginia Constitution as well.

         Of course, the Court's analysis does not end here. Even if Plaintiff has stated a plausible claim, Bryant argues that immunity shields him from liability. As Plaintiff has raised federal and state due process claims, two types of immunity are implicated in the present case: federal qualified immunity, and state statutory immunity.

         Qualified immunity is an affirmative defense that may be raised at the motion to dismiss stage. Raub v. Bowen, 960 F.Supp.2d 602, 608 n. 8 (E.D. Va. 2013). Inasmuch as qualified immunity is “an immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability . . . it is effectively lost if a case is erroneously permitted to go to trial.” Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526 (1985). As a result, the Supreme Court has ‚Äúrepeatedly . . . stressed the ...


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