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Speakman v. Williams

United States District Court, D. Delaware

January 9, 2020

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 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 Plaintiffs.

          C. Malcolm Cochran, IV, Chad M. Shandler, Nicole K. Pedi, Richards, Layton & Finger, P.A.- attorneys for Defendant Willie J. Patrick, Jr.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          NOREIKA, U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Presently before the Court are the objections of Plaintiffs (D.I. 64) (“Plaintiffs' Objections”) and Defendant Willie J. Patrick, Jr. (“Patrick”) (D.I. 71) (“Patrick's Objections”) to Chief Magistrate Judge Thynge's Report and Recommendation (D.I. 57, “the Report”) relating to Patrick's Motion to Dismiss (D.I. 41). The Report recommends granting Patrick's motion to dismiss based on the statute of limitations, 10 Del. C. § 8119[1], and dismissing the Complaint against him with prejudice. (D.I. 57 at 37). The Court has reviewed the Report, Plaintiffs' Objections and Patrick's response thereto (D.I. 77) (“Patrick's Response”), Patrick's Objections and Plaintiffs' responses thereto (D.I. 79-82) (“Plaintiffs' Responses”), [2] and has considered de novo the relevant portions of Patrick's motion to dismiss (D.I. 41, 42, 48) 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 Patrick are each SUSTAINED-in-PART and OVERRULED-in-PART, the Report is ADOPTED as MODIFIED below as to Patrick, and Patrick's motion to dismiss is GRANTED. The Complaint as to Patrick 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 therefore 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, Patrick, regarding “rolling bypass, ” which Plaintiffs contend violated their substantive rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Patrick filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under any of Plaintiffs' three counts: (A) State-Created Danger; (B) Shocks the Conscience; and (C) Maintenance of Policies, Practices, and Customs. (D.I. 42 at 8-15). Patrick also asserted that he is shielded from the suit by (D) qualified immunity, (E) the applicable statute of limitations, and (F) the political question doctrine. (D.I. 42 at 15-18). Finally, Patrick alleged (G) that the family member plaintiffs lack standing. (D.I. 42 at 18-19). Plaintiffs filed an answering brief in opposition and the Magistrate Judge issued the Report on August 28, 2019 (D.I. 57). The Report makes a number of findings related to Patrick, 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 Patrick filed objections to the Report, (D.I. 64, 71). On September 25, 2019, each responded to the other's objections. (D.I. 77, 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 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. Patrick'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 do not focus on the counts of the Complaint, but rather offer general complaints that the Report “mischaracterized” the nature of the case, which purportedly “infected” the analysis “on many [unspecified] issues.” (D.I. 64 at 4). The only count of the Complaint mentioned in Plaintiffs' Objections is Count I. (D.I. 64 at 3, 4, 9). Plaintiffs' Response to Patrick'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 Patrick and this motion to dismiss may be addressed, however, the Court has considered all issues in Plaintiffs' Responses that are specifically targeted to Patrick, as well as Plaintiffs' objection in footnote 9 of D.I. 65, which mentions Patrick 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 Patrick 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 Patrick because it recommends dismissal of all counts against him based on the statute of limitations. (D.I. 57 at 37).

         Patrick does not object to the Report's conclusions regarding the elements of Count I, and “concurs[] with [its] findings and recommendation” that the count be dismissed “against all Defendants for failure to state a claim pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6).” (D.I. 71 at 2). Nevertheless, he submitted objections to Count I to argue that Plaintiffs' Complaint fails to allege that he, specifically, was a “fairly direct” cause of the harm they endured and to “request[] an order from the Court clarifying that he is entitled to dismissal on Plaintiffs' state created danger claim on the grounds that Plaintiffs failed to allege facts sufficient to support his personal involvement in the allegations that form the bases of Count I of the Complaint.” (D.I. 71 at 2-3). Plaintiffs, on the other hand, protest the Report's analysis of the “special relationship” prong . (D.I. 64 at 4).[5]Thus, the Court considers Patrick to object to the Report's conclusion, or lack thereof, regarding whether Plaintiffs have sufficiently stated a claim against him for Count I based on its findings regarding the “fairly direct” element as well as his lack of personal involvement, and considers Plaintiffs to object to the Report's finding regarding the “special relationship” element.

         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).

         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.” (D.I. 57 at 17). Finding no clear error after reasoned consideration, the Court adopts this portion of the Report.

         In regard to the “fairly direct” requirement, the Report finds that the facts alleged by Plaintiffs are insufficient as to all defendants because “[t]he rolling bypass policy and/or inadequate staffing were not the direct catalyst for the harm. This fire was the result of arson committed by a third party.” (D.I. 57 at 18). Patrick argues that “in addition to these findings with respect to all Defendants, the Complaint's allegations are also deficient to maintain Count I against [him] specifically because there are no well-pleaded allegations that [his] ‘enactment' of rolling bypass in 2009, or its implementation through the end of his term in January 2013, were the ‘fairly direct' cause of the deaths and injuries that occurred in the Canby Park fire.” (D.I. 71 at 2).

         “To fulfill the ‘fairly direct' requirement of the state-created danger claim, the plaintiff must plausibly allege that state officials' actions ‘precipitated or were the catalyst for' the harm for which the plaintiff brings suit.” Henry v. City of Erie, 728 F.3d 275, 285 (3d Cir. 2013) (quoting Morse, 132 F.3d at 910). “‘Precipitate,' in turn, means ‘to cause to happen or come to a crisis suddenly, unexpectedly, or too soon.” Id. (quoting Webster's Third New International Dictionary 1784 (1993); citing The Random House Dictionary of the English Language 1521 (2d ed. 1987) (defining “precipitate” as “to hasten the occurrence of; bring about prematurely, hastily, or suddenly”); id. at 325 (defining “catalyst” as “a person or thing that precipitates an event or change”)). “Thus, it is insufficient to plead that state officials' actions took place somewhere along the causal chain that ultimately led to the plaintiff's harm.” City of Erie, 728 F.3d at 285. In other words, in order for Plaintiffs' pleading to be sufficient, there cannot be “too many links in the causal chain after [Patrick] acted and before tragedy struck.” Id. at 285-86.

         Patrick left his position as Fire Chief in January 2013, more than three and one-half years before the September 24, 2016 fire. (D.I. 57 at 2). During that period, as Plaintiffs' Complaint details, various intervening events occurred. For example:

• A new mayor, Dennis P. Williams (“Williams”), was elected and a new fire chief, Anthony S. Goode (“Goode”) was appointed;[6]
• Williams and Goode enacted a similar, but “new policy of ‘conditional company closures'”;
• Williams and Goode further understaffed the WFD by delaying the filling of vacancies and transferring numerous firefighters from fire ...

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