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Wonnum v. Way

Superior Court of Delaware

July 25, 2017

CHAKIRRA WONNUM, Plaintiff,
v.
MAJOR FRED WAY, III, WARDEN WENDI CAPLE, CAPTAIN RAMONE TAYLOR, and FAITH LEVY, Defendants.

          Submitted: June 20, 2017

         Upon State's Motion to Dismiss DENIED in part; GRANTED in part

         Upon Plaintiff's Motion to Amend Complaint DENIED

          Raeann Warner, Esq., Jacobs & Crumplar, P.A., Wilmington, Delaware, Attorney for Plaintiff Chakirra Wonnum.

          Charles H. Toliver, IV, Esq., Morris James LLP, Wilmington, Delaware, Attorney for Defendant Major Fred Way, III.

          Joseph C. Handlon and Roopa Sabesan, Deputy Attorneys General, Delaware Department of Justice, Wilmington, Delaware, Attorneys for Defendants Warden Wendi Caple, Captain Ramone Taylor, and Faith Levy.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          THE HONORABLE ANDREA L. ROCANELLI JUDGE.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         This is a civil case arising from prohibited sexual contact between Defendant Major Fred Way, III ("Defendant Way"), the former Security Superintendent at Baylor Women's Correctional Institution ("Baylor") in New Castle County, Delaware, and Plaintiff Chakirra Wonnum, an incarcerated Baylor inmate committed to the custody of the Department of Correction ("DOC"). Defendant Way engaged in sex acts with Plaintiff in Defendant Way's office at Baylor with the door closed on at least two separate occasions in June 2015.[1] Plaintiff alleges that Plaintiff suffered physical and emotional injuries as a result of these sexual encounters.

         DOC has a mandatory policy prohibiting DOC employees from being alone in a room with an inmate while the door is closed ("DOC Mandatory Policy"). The DOC Mandatory Policy requires DOC employees to keep the door to a room propped open or to have a third-party present at all times while an inmate is present. According to Plaintiff, the DOC Mandatory Policy was implemented to protect inmates and DOC employees from physical and sexual abuse.

         In addition to tort claims against Defendant Way, Plaintiff asserts claims of gross negligence against various DOC officials. First, Plaintiff alleges that Baylor Warden Wendi Caple, Baylor Correctional Officer Ramone Taylor, and Baylor Counselor Faith Levy contributed to Plaintiff's injuries by acting with gross negligence in allowing and/or failing to prevent the unsupervised encounters between Defendant Way and Plaintiff, as required by the DOC Mandatory Policy. (For ease of reference, the Court refers to Warden Caple, Mr. Taylor, and Ms. Levy as "DOC Supervisory Defendants.")

         Additionally, the Complaint states claims against Warden Caple for her alleged role as a DOC official who was responsible for promoting Defendant Way to the position of Security Superintendent and assigning him to Baylor. Plaintiff seeks to amend her Complaint[2] to add three additional DOC officials as parties to this action. Specifically, Plaintiff proposes to add claims against Robert May, John Sebastian, and Phil Parker for their alleged roles as DOC officials who, along with Warden Caple, were allegedly responsible for the decision to promote Defendant Way and assign him to Baylor. Plaintiff alleges that, in light of Defendant Way's criminal history and prior misconduct, [3] the DOC officials who promoted and assigned Defendant Way contributed to Plaintiff's injuries by acting with gross negligence in their decision-making. (For ease of reference, the Court refers to the DOC officials who were allegedly responsible for Defendant Way's promotion and assignment as "DOC Administrative Defendants, " including Warden Caple to the extent it is alleged that she acted in this capacity.)

         The State of Delaware has appeared on behalf of the DOC Supervisory Defendants as well as the DOC Administrative Defendants. The State has moved to dismiss Plaintiff's claims against the DOC Supervisory Defendants on the grounds that (i) the DOC Supervisory Defendants are immune from liability under Section 4001 of the State Tort Claims Act ("State Tort Claims Act");[4] and (ii) Plaintiff's claims against the DOC Supervisory Defendants are barred by the judicially-created public duty doctrine. In addition, the State has moved to dismiss the claims against Warden Caple to the extent Plaintiff seeks to impose liability on Warden Caple for her alleged role in the promotion of Defendant Way to the position of Security Superintendent and assignment of him to Baylor. Finally, the State opposes Plaintiff's Motion to Amend the Complaint on the grounds that the proposed addition of the three additional DOC officials is futile because the DOC Administrative Defendants have qualified immunity under the State Tort Claims Act and are protected by the public duty doctrine. Defendant Way takes no position on either pending motion.[5]

         This is the Court's Memorandum Opinion on the State's Motion to Dismiss and Plaintiff's Motion to Amend the Complaint.

         II. APPLICABLE LAW AND LEGAL STANDARDS

         A. Superior Court Civil Rule 12(b)(6).

         The State has moved to dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint against the DOC Supervisory Defendants pursuant to Superior Court Civil Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted which must be decided solely on the allegations set forth in the complaint.[6] The Court shall accept all well-pleaded allegations in the Complaint as true and make all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party.[7] Factual allegations, even if vague, are well-pleaded if they provide notice of the claim to the other party.[8] The Court should deny the motion if the claimant "may recover under any reasonably conceivable set of circumstances susceptible of proof."[9]

         B. Superior Court Civil Rule 15(a).

         Plaintiff has moved to amend the Complaint pursuant to Superior Court Civil Rule 15(a). Where, as here, an opposing party has filed a responsive pleading to the initial complaint, Rule 15(a) allows Plaintiff to amend the Complaint only by leave of Court, [10] which is reserved to the Court's discretion[11]and "shall be freely given when justice so requires."[12] However, "leave to amend should be denied when the proposed amendment would be futile."[13] "A motion for leave to amend a complaint is futile where the amended complaint would be subject to dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim."[14]

         C. Section 4001 of the State Tort Claims Act.

         The State Tort Claims Act shields State employees, such as the DOC Supervisory Defendants and the DOC Administrative Defendants, from civil liability if the State employee's conduct: (1) arose out of and in connection with the performance of official duties involving the exercise of discretion, (2) was performed in good faith, and (3) was performed without gross or wanton negligence.[15] Plaintiff must establish the absence of only one of these elements to defeat qualified immunity under the State Tort Claims Act.[16]

         With respect to Section 4001(1) of the State Tort Claims Act, an act is considered discretionary where "there is no hard and fast rule as to [the] course of conduct that one must or must not take."[17] In contrast, an act is non-discretionary or ministerial "if the act of the official involves less in the way of personal decision or judgment or the matter for which judgment is required has little bearing of importance upon the validity of the act."[18] Ministerial acts are performed "in a prescribed manner"[19] and "typically involve conduct directed by mandatory rules or policies."[20] Whether an act is discretionary or ministerial is a legal determination.[21]

         With respect to Section 4001(3) of the State Tort Claims Act, gross negligence is a heightened standard of ordinary negligence that is defined as "an 'extreme departure from the ordinary standard of care' that 'signifies more than ordinary inadvertence or inattention.'"[22] The Delaware Supreme Court has equated gross negligence to criminal negligence under Delaware's criminal code, [23]characterizing the applicable standard as the failure "to perceive a risk . . . of such nature that failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the situation."[24]

         D. The Public Duty Doctrine.

         The judicially-created public duty doctrine bars certain claims against State officials that arise from discretionary conduct.[25] The public duty doctrine applies if the State official owes a duty to the public at large rather than to a specific individual when the alleged tortuous conduct is discretionary in nature.[26] If Plaintiff's claims arise from the discretionary acts of the DOC Supervisory Defendants or the DOC Administrative Defendants, the claims are barred by the public duty doctrine unless Plaintiff can establish (i) an assumption of an affirmative duty to act by the defendant; (ii) knowledge by the defendant that inaction could lead to ...


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