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Speakman v. Williams

United States District Court, D. Delaware

September 30, 2019

FIREFIGHTER BRAD SPEAKMAN, RET.; SENIOR FIREFIGHTER TERRANCE TATE, RET.; LIEUTENANT JOHN CAWTHRAY; KELLI ANN STARR-LEACH as Administratrix of the Estate of LIEUTENANT CHRISTOPHER M. LEACH and as a guardian ad litem of A.L. and M.L.; BRENDAN LEACH; LAURA FICKES, individually and as Executrix of the Estate of SENIOR FIREFIGHTER JERRY W. FICKES, JR.; BENJAMIN FICKES, JOSHUA FICKES; SIMONE CUMMINGS as Administratrix of the Estate of SENIOR FIREFIGHTER ARDYTHE D. HOPE; ARYELLE HOPE; ALEXIS LEE; and ARDAVIA LEE Plaintiffs,
v.
DENNIS P. WILLIAMS, individually; JAMES M. BAKER, individually; ANTHONY S. GOODE, individually; WILLIAM PATRICK, JR., individually; and THE CITY OF WILMINGTON, a municipal corporation, Defendants.

          Thomas C. Crumplar, Raeann C. Warner, Jacobs & Crumplar, P.A.; Stephen J. Neuberger, Thomas S. Neuberger, The Neuberger Firm, P.A. - attorneys for Plaintiff

          Mark L. Reardon, Brian E. O'Neill, Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott, LLC, Wilmington, DE - attorneys for Defendant James M. Baker

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          NOREIKA, U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE

         Presently before the Court are the objections of Plaintiffs (D.I. 65) (“Plaintiffs' Objections”) and Defendant James M. Baker (“Baker”) (D.I. 61) (“Baker's Objections”) to Magistrate Judge Thynge's Report and Recommendation (D.I. 57, “the Report”) relating to Baker's Motion to Dismiss (D.I. 34). The Report recommends granting Baker's motion to dismiss based on the statute of limitations, 10 Del. C. § 8119[1], and dismissing the Complaint against him with prejudice. The Court has reviewed the Report, Plaintiffs' objections and Baker's response thereto (D.I. 74) (“Baker's Response”), Baker's objections and Plaintiffs' responses (D.I. 79-82) (“Plaintiffs' Responses”), [2] and has considered de novo the relevant portions of Baker's motion to dismiss (D.I. 34), his opening brief (D.I. 35), and Plaintiffs' corresponding answering brief (D.I. 46), as well as papers submitted with each. Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3). The Court has also afforded reasoned consideration to any unobjected to portions of the Report. EEOC v. City of Long Branch, 866 F.3d 93, 99-100 (3d Cir. 2017). For the reasons set forth in this opinion, the objections of Plaintiffs and Baker are each SUSTAINED-in-PART and OVERRULED-in-PART, the Report is ADOPTED as MODIFIED below as to Baker, and Baker's motion to dismiss is GRANTED, and the Complaint as to Baker is dismissed without prejudice.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The Report sets forth a detailed description of the factual and procedural background of this matter. (D.I. 57 at 2-12). The parties have not objected to any of those sections of the Report and the Court's reasoned consideration finds no clear error. The Court adopts those sections and incorporates them here.

         As noted in the Report, this matter concerns the death of three Wilmington Fire Department (“WFD”) firefighters and substantial injury of three other firefighters as a result of a house fire that occurred on September 24, 2016 in Wilmington, DE. Plaintiffs allege that the injuries sustained were proximately caused by the policies and actions of, inter alia, Baker, regarding “rolling bypass, ” which Plaintiffs contend violated their substantive rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Baker filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under any of Plaintiffs' three counts: (1) State-Created Danger; (2) Shocks the Conscience; and (3) Maintenance of Policies, Practices, and Customs. Baker also asserts that he is entitled to qualified immunity and that Plaintiffs' action was untimely. Plaintiffs filed an answering brief in opposition and the Magistrate Judge issued the Report on August 28, 2019. The Report makes a number of findings related to Baker, but the conclusion ultimately recommends dismissing the case in its entirety based only on statute of limitations grounds. (D.I. 57 at 37).

         On September 11, 2019, both Plaintiffs and Baker filed objections to the Report, (D.I. 61, 65). On September 25, 2019, each responded to the other's objections. (D.I. 74, 79-82).

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         A. Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim

         In ruling on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Court must accept all well-pleaded factual allegations as true and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Mayer v. Belichick, 605 F.3d 223, 229 (3d Cir. 2010); see also Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 232-33 (3d Cir. 2008). “To survive a motion to dismiss, [however, ] a civil plaintiff must allege facts that ‘raise a right to relief above the speculative level on the assumption that the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact).'” Victaulic Co. v. Tieman, 499 F.3d 227, 234 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). Dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) is appropriate if a complaint does not 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 Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570)); see also Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009). A claim is facially plausible “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. The Court is not obligated to accept as true “bald assertions” or “unsupported conclusions and unwarranted inferences.” Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997) Schuylkill Energy Res., Inc. v. Pennsylvania Power & Light Co., 113 F.3d 405, 417 (3d Cir. 1997). Instead, “[t]he complaint must state enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of [each] necessary element” of a plaintiff's claim. Wilkerson v. New Media Tech. Charter Sch. Inc., 522 F.3d 315, 321 (3d Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         B. Review of Reports and Recommendations on Dispositive Motions

         The power invested in a federal magistrate judge varies depending on whether the issue is dispositive or non-dispositive. “Unlike a nondispositive motion (such as a discovery motion), a motion is dispositive if a decision on the motion would effectively determine a claim or defense of a party.” City of Long Branch, 866 F.3d at 98-99 (citations omitted). Under this standard, a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) is clearly dispositive.

         For reports and recommendations issued regarding dispositive motions, Rule 72(b)(3) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure instructs that “a party may serve and file specific written objections to the proposed findings and recommendations” “[w]ithin 14 days” and “[t]he district judge must determine de novo any part of the magistrate judge's disposition that has been properly objected to.” See also 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Brown v. Astrue, 649 F.3d 193, 195 (3d Cir. 2011). When no timely objection is filed, “the court need only satisfy itself that there is no clear error on the face of the record in order to accept the recommendation.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b) advisory committee's notes to 1983 amendment. “[B]ecause a district court must take some action for a report and recommendation to become a final order and because ‘[t]he authority and the responsibility to make an informed, final determination . . . remains with the judge, ” however, district courts are still obligated to apply “reasoned consideration” in such situations. City of Long Branch, 866 F.3d at 99-100 (citing Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 271 (1976); Henderson v. Carlson, 812 F.2d 874, 878 (3d Cir. 1987)).

         III. DISCUSSION

         As an initial matter, the Court must determine whether the parties' objections were both timely and “specific.” Fed. R Civ. P. 72(b)(2). Both sets of objections were timely, as they were filed within the requisite fourteen-day period. So, too, were the parties' responses to their respective objections. Baker's Objections and Response are also specific - each of the submissions specifically identifies the bases of the dispute and references relevant counts and language from the Report and Plaintiffs' Objections. Plaintiffs' Objections and Responses, however, are not. Plaintiffs' Objections contains a morass of non-specific protestations intermixed with one mention of one count (Count I) and one specific finding they dispute. (D.I. 65 at 1-2, 9 n.9). Plaintiffs' Response to Baker's Objections is more specific, at least until it attempts to incorporate unspecified arguments from Plaintiffs' responses regarding other defendants. See supra note 2. As a matter of judicial efficiency and so all matters related to Baker and this motion to dismiss may be addressed, however, the Court has considered all issues in Plaintiffs' Responses and Objections that are specifically targeted to Baker as well as Plaintiffs' objection in footnote 6 of D.I. 64, which mentions Baker by name and identifies the issue being raised.

         A. Count I - State-Created Danger

         Plaintiffs' Complaint fails to allege facts sufficient to assert a claim against Baker for Count I.[3] Count I of the Complaint does not address individual defendants, [4] but rather addresses “Defendants” as a group. (D.I. 1 ¶¶ 481-498). The Report, thus, similarly addresses the defendants as a group, finding that Plaintiffs' Complaint fails to satisfy three of the four elements of a state-created danger claim - those requiring: (1) the harm be “foreseeable and fairly direct”; (2) the existence of a “special relationship”; and (3) use of “authority to create an opportunity for danger” - but satisfies the fourth: (4) alleging conduct that “shocks the conscience” under a deliberate indifference standard. (D.I. 57 at 15-21). As noted above, in its conclusions, the Report does not recommend dismissal of Count I, specifically, as to Baker because it recommends dismissal of all counts against him based on the statute of limitations. (D.I. 57 at 37).

         Baker objects to the Report's lack of specific recommendation as to Count I, not to its analysis. (D.I. 61 at 2). Although Plaintiffs do not clearly reference particular elements of Count I in their Objections, they argue that the Report misapprehends the proximate cause and foreseeability issues in this case, which is the essence of Count I's “foreseeable and fairly direct” inquiry. (D.I. 65 at 1-2, 7-8). Thus, the Court considers Plaintiffs to object to the Report's finding regarding the “foreseeable and fairly direct” element and Baker to object solely to the Report's ultimate conclusion, or lack thereof, regarding whether Plaintiffs have sufficiently stated a claim against him for Count I.

         1. Foreseeable and Fairly Direct

         The Report finds that Plaintiffs do not satisfy the “foreseeable and fairly direct” requirement of a state-created danger claim because, although the “foreseeability” aspect was sufficiently pleaded, the Complaint “fail[s] to allege sufficient facts to meet the [fairly direct] requirement.” (D.I. 57 at 17-18). As explained below, the Court agrees.

         Neither party objects to the Report's conclusion that the “foreseeability” requirement is met “because the State-actors had actual knowledge and awareness of risk associated with rolling bypass.”[5] (D.I. 57 at 17). Finding no clear error ...


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