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Eskridge v. Hutchins

Superior Court of Delaware

March 22, 2017

Eskridge
v.
Warden Jim Hutchins, et al.

          Submitted: February 17, 2017

          JEFFREY J. CLARK, JUDGE

         Dear Mr. Eskridge and Mr. Handlon:

         This suit involves alleged injuries caused by a carbon monoxide leak at the Department of Correction's Morris Community Corrections Center (hereinafter "MCCC"). This is my letter decision regarding the Defendants' motion to dismiss. The decision on this motion turns on pleading requirements in state courts for federal claims brought pursuant to 42 USC § 1983 (hereinafter "Section 1983 claims"), and sovereign immunity.

         Here, Plaintiff Brandon Eskridge's (hereinafter "Mr. Eskridge's") claims include conclusory statements that sufficiently allege the elements of a Section 1983 claim against two of the six Department of Correction defendants. The Court finds, however, that Section 1983 claims brought in Delaware State courts are properly evaluated pursuant to the plausibility standard, as in the federal courts. Such claims require allegations of sufficient facts to establish the plausibility of a plaintiff's claims. For the reasons set forth herein, the Complaint does not plausibly allege Section 1983 claims against any of the named defendants. Accordingly, they are dismissed pursuant to Superior Court Civil Rule 12(b)(6).

         Furthermore, Mr. Eskridge's complaint can be fairly read as including personal injury claims against Department of Correction officials and employees. For the reasons discussed below, any such state law claims are barred by sovereign immunity. Accordingly, Mr. Eskridge's state law personal injury claims are also dismissed for that reason.

         Background

         Here, Mr. Eskridge sues six Department of Correction employees ("Defendants") ranging in rank from the Warden of MCCC through two sergeants directly responsible for his supervision on the day in question. The facts cited herein are those alleged by Mr. Eskridge in his Complaint and are taken as true for purposes of this motion.

         On June 21, 2016, Mr. Eskridge and sixty-seven other inmates suffered personal injuries caused by carbon monoxide poisoning while inmates at MCCC. Without specifying the nature of his claims other than they are (1) "personal injury claims" that are also brought under (2) "Unsafe Hazardous Substance Conditions (MTOX)", he sues two correctional officers for not taking action when he and fellow inmates became sick. He also names four Department of Correction supervisory level employees for being reckless and callously indifferent, and for not properly addressing a grievance regarding the incident.

         Although Mr. Eskridge does not specifically cite 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in his suit, he alleges that Defendants deprived him of his constitutional rights through their callous indifference and recklessness. In the context of Section 1983 claims, the United States Supreme Court has recognized that "deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners constitutes the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain . . . proscribed by the Eighth Amendment" to the United States Constitution.[1] Furthermore, where state officials are sued pursuant to Section 1983, the presumption is that the officials are sued in their individual capacities.[2]Here, he does not allege the capacities of the Defendants, which in turn creates a threshold issue in evaluating available defenses. In applying the most deferential reading to Mr. Eskridge's Complaint, the Court will evaluate his Section 1983 claims as though they are raised against the Defendants in their individual capacities.[3]

         Defendants move for dismissal pursuant to Superior Court Civil Rule 12(b)(6) alleging that they are immune from state law claims pursuant to the State Tort Claims Act, [4] and are otherwise immune from this suit. The Defendants also allege that except for the two sergeants who were on the floor at the time of the alleged injury, the complaint alleges no personal involvement on their part that would engender liability under Section 1983. Furthermore, the Defendants argue that, notwithstanding Mr. Eskridge's allegations of the two sergeants' direct involvement, he does not allege that they had knowledge of a serious risk of harm and were indifferent to it or unreasonably responded to it.[5] In response to the motion to dismiss, Mr. Eskridge filed a letter with the Court that did not address the substantive arguments raised by the Defendants. Rather, he requests assistance with discovery.

         Delaware's Notice Pleading Standards and Pleading Standards for Section 1983 Claims

         When deciding a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, the Court must accept as true all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint.[6] With few exceptions, the test for sufficiency is a broad one: the complaint will survive the motion to dismiss so long as "a plaintiff may recover under any reasonably conceivable set of circumstances susceptible of proof under the complaint."[7]

         The standard for sufficiency in pleading Section 1983 claims, however, has been far from uniform. First, this seems to be in part because many federal courts have required plaintiffs, notwithstanding notice pleading requirements in the Federal Rules, to set forth facts establishing the plausibility of their claims (rather than mere conceivability). Arguments against such a heightened pleading standard include that neither the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure nor Section 1983 itself require heightened pleading.

         After considering the matter, the Court holds that a Section 1983 claimant in a Delaware State court must plead his or her claim with sufficient particularity to satisfy the plausibility standard. The Court bases its decision on (1) the standard articulated by the United States Supreme Court for federal courts in Section 1983 pleading; and (2) the application of a heightened pleadings standard in a significant number of Delaware Superior Court decisions issued to date.

         The United States Supreme Court examined Section 1983 pleading requirements in the context of a motion to dismiss in Ashcroft v. Iqbal.[8] There, the United States Supreme Court held that

[t]o 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 . . . ." 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. . . . [I]t asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully. . . . Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements do not suffice. [9]

         Even though Section 1983 claims are federal causes of action, it is not a fait accompli that state courts hearing these federal claims are bound to apply federal pleading requirements.[10] Delaware Superior Court Civil Rule 8(a) and 8(e) require only the notice pleading standard described above. In addition, Section 1983 claims are not included within the heightened pleading standard of Superior Court Civil Rule 9.

         In this instance, the Court finds it appropriate to afford considerable deference to the United States Supreme Court's procedural requirements regarding this federal law cause of action. In large part, it is appropriate when considering that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure do not vary from the Superior Court Civil Rule pleading requirements in relevant part.

         Furthermore, while other Superior Court Rule 12(b)(6) decisions to date have not articulated their decisions in terms of the plausibility standard, it is clear that most are in fact applying this heightened pleading requirement in Section 1983 actions. Defendants cite one such decision in Carta v. Danburg.[11] There, the complaint alleged that two higher level Correction officials had actual knowledge that a culture of violence existed at one Correction facility where correctional officers allegedly abused inmates.[12] The allegations included that these supervisory officials were liable for the abuse of an inmate. In furtherance of his complaint, the plaintiff alleged three specific prior incidents of abuse at that facility that were known to the officials, but the officials nevertheless disregarded those conditions with deliberate indifference.[13] There, the Superior Court examined the facts, accepted them as true, but determined that

the existence of a few cases of [prior] alleged inmate abuse over the period of time involved here, accepted as true, is, without more, insufficient to plead a claim against the defendants upon ...

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