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Walker v. State

United States District Court, D. Maryland

August 30, 2017

VERONICA WALKER, Plaintiffs
v.
STATE OF MARYLAND, et al. Defendants

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER RE: DISMISSAL MOTIONS

          Marvin J. Garbis, United States District Judge.

         The Court has before it Defendants[1] State of Maryland, 's Motion to Dismiss Or, In the Alternative, Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 47], Defendant Reginald Heavener's Motion to Dismiss [ECF No. 50], and the materials submitted relating thereto. The Court finds that a hearing is unnecessary.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On September 13, 2013, inmate Jason Wallace (“Wallace” or “Decedent”) was beaten to death by his cellmate, Darnell Thompson (“Thompson”), in their cell at Western Correctional Institution. Thompson was later convicted of second degree murder for the death of Wallace. Wallace's parents, Veronica Walker[2] and Gilbert Wallace, and his surviving minor children, V.W. and K.W., (collectively, “Plaintiffs”), bring the instant suit against the State of Maryland, the former Secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (“DPSCS”) Gary D. Maynard, the Director of Corrections Roderick R. Sowers, the former Warden Frank B. Bishop, Jr., Captain George Sneathen, Correctional Officer William May, Correctional Officer Reginald Heavener, Correctional Officer David Stevey, Correctional Officer Drew Cook, and three “John Doe” Correctional Officers (collectively, “Defendants”). Plaintiffs present federal and state constitutional claims and state law damages claims.

         By the instant Motions, Defendants seek dismissal pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, or, in the alternative, for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56.[3] The Court finds the summary judgment motion premature and disallows it without prejudice.

         As discussed herein, the Court finds that the Complaint[4]does not adequately state a plausible claim against the State of Maryland or any individual Defendant. The State of Maryland is immune from suit in federal court on the claims at issue by virtue of the Eleventh Amendment. Each Individual Defendant[5] is entitled to dismissal due to the absence of factual allegations adequate to present a plausible claim against him. Because it may be possible for Plaintiffs to draft an adequate Complaint against some, if not all, of the Individual Defendants, the Court shall provide them the opportunity to file an Amended Complaint asserting such claims, if any, they adequately can present therein.[6]

         II. DISMISSAL STANDARD

         A motion to dismiss filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6)[7] tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint. A complaint need only contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, in order to give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)(citations omitted). When evaluating a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, a plaintiff's well-pleaded allegations are accepted as true and the complaint is viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. However, conclusory statements or a “formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action” will not suffice. Id. A complaint must allege sufficient facts to “cross ‘the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.'” Francis v. Giacomelli, 588 F.3d 186, 193 (4th Cir. 2009)(quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).

         Inquiry into whether a complaint states a plausible claim is “a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id. Thus, if the well-pleaded facts contained within a complaint “do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged - but it has not shown - that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Id. (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009)).

         Generally, a motion to dismiss filed under Rule 12(b)(6) cannot reach the merits of an affirmative defense. Goodman v. Praxair, Inc., 494 F.3d 458, 464 (4th Cir. 2007). However, affirmative defenses are appropriate to consider at the Rule 12(b)(6) stage “when the face of the complaint clearly reveals the existence of a meritorious affirmative defense.” Occupy Columbia v. Haley, 738 F.3d 107, 116 (4th Cir. 2013) (emphasis added) (quoting Brockington v. Boykins, 637 F.3d 503, 506 (4th Cir. 2011)).

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Factual Allegations[8]

         At times relevant hereto, Jason Wallace was incarcerated at the Maryland Western Correctional Institution (“WCI”). Prior to September 3, 2013, Wallace was assigned by someone not identified to a cell occupied by one Darnell Thompson (“Thompson”) in Housing Unit #3 B-Wing. The Complaint alleges “upon information and belief” that Wallace was assigned by some unspecified Defendant to share the cell with Thompson, then serving a life sentence for murder, intentionally as retaliation for an “earlier altercation” between Wallace and a WCI staff member. ¶[9] 27. Moreover, Thompson had been charged with and convicted of two crimes committed while he was incarcerated - reckless endangerment in 2002 and second degree assault on law enforcement in 2009. ¶¶ 32-33. Thompson had a history of violence in prison, including attacking inmates, and it was well-known that he suffered from a mental illness. Thompson allegedly “ate foreign objects, put strange materials in his hair, would constantly talk to himself, talked about hurting others, and walked around the prison and pretended like he was shooting others.” ¶ 34. Despite these behaviors, Thompson was not assigned to a single cell or put in segregated housing.

         Wallace reported to an unspecified person at unspecified times Thompson's “unbalanced behavior” and threats against Wallace of “impending violence and/or death and other strange and irrational behavior.” ¶ 31.

         On September 3, 2013, Wallace wrote a letter to his family wherein he stated that he was concerned for his safety and wanted to be transferred into a different cell. ¶ 26. The Complaint does not allege that Wallace requested a transfer in the institution.

         On the night of Wallace's murder, September 13, 2013, the video cameras in Housing Unit #3 B-Wing were broken and not functioning. ¶ 50.

         On September 13, 2013, Defendant Captain George Sneathen was the highest ranking official in charge of B-Wing. Defendant Officer Drew Cook was the Officer in Charge of B-Wing, and Defendants Officers Stevey, Heavener, and May were assigned as officers “responsible for the supervision, inspection, search, and placement of inmates assigned to Housing Unit #3 B-Wing.” ¶¶ 40-42.

         After dinner on September 13, Wallace and Thompson were locked in their cell. An unidentified officer conducted a head count. Sometime between 6:00 and 6:30 p.m., Thompson was taken out of his cell by Defendant Stevey to the Special Housing Observation Unit for urinalysis testing.[10] ¶ 47. Defendant Stevey did not observe the cell when he took Thompson to the Observation Unit. Id.

         At some time after the head count and before the time when Thompson was summoned out of his cell, Thompson brutally assaulted and killed Wallace. During the assault, there was a “prolonged struggle, yelling for help, suspicious movement and/or noises emanating” from Wallace's cell. ¶ 46. The Complaint does not allege where Officers Sneathen, Cook, Heavener, Stevey, and May were located during this time. Nor is there any factual allegation as to whether they saw or heard anything regarding the altercation. No Officer took any action to stop the attack.

         In the Observation Unit, Thompson was strip searched by someone who observed blood on his clothing and that his shirt was ripped. ¶ 47.

         Allegedly “up to an hour” after Thompson had left the cell, another inmate told Defendants Heavener and May that Wallace was lying on his cell floor, unresponsive, coughing up blood, and having trouble breathing. ¶ 48. The Complaint alleges that Defendants (presumably Heavener and May) at approximately 8:10 PM discovered Wallace's body in the floor of his cell. Wallace's head and chest were under his bunk and blood was around his body. “Decedent's entire facial area was reduced to mush, his face and forehead had a noticeable deformity, brain matter was exposed, and his jaw was broken.” ¶ 43. Wallace died from his injuries.

         B. Procedural Posture

         On September 12, 2016, Gilbert Wallace and Veronica Walker, Individually and as Personal Representative of the Estate of Jason Wallace, filed the instant Complaint [ECF No. 3]. On June 22, 2017, this Court granted Minor Plaintiffs V.W. and K.W.'s Motion to Intervene in the case as potential wrongful death beneficiaries. See Order Re: Intervention [ECF No. 78].

         In the Complaint, Plaintiffs assert claims in Seven Counts:

Count I Violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983
Count II Violation of Maryland Declaration of Rights Articles 24 and 26
Count III Wrongful Death Count IV Survival Action Count V Negligence
Count VI Gross Negligence
Count VII Funeral Expenses

Compl. [ECF No. 3].

         On March 6, 2017, Defendant State of Maryland and the Individual Defendants, other than Reginald Heavener and the “John Doe” Defendants, [11] filed the instant Motion to Dismiss, or, in the Alternative, Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 47]. On the same day, Defendant Heavener filed his separate Motion to Dismiss [ECF No. 50]. All movants seek dismissal of all Counts.

         C. Sovereign Immunity - the Eleventh Amendment

         Defendant State of Maryland contends that it is immune from Plaintiffs' claims in this suit by virtue of the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The Eleventh Amendment provides: “The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or subjects of any Foreign State.” U.S. Const. amend. XI. Thus, unconsenting states are immune from suit in federal court, even by their own citizens, absent an exception. See Lee-Thomas v. Prince George's Cty. Pub. Sch., 666 F.3d 244, 248-49 (4th Cir. 2012). None of the exceptions are applicable here.

Congress did not abrogate States' Eleventh Amendment immunity for 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims. See Will v. Michigan Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 65-66, 109 S.Ct. 2304, 105 L.Ed.2d 45 (1989) (finding that a state is not a person within the meaning of § 1983 and that Eleventh Amendment bars § 1983 suits unless the state has waived its immunity). The second exception is inapplicable here because Plaintiffs are not seeking any prospective injunctive relief, but instead only damages. Finally, the State of Maryland has not waived its Eleventh Amendment immunity in this case.

Hodge v. Coll. of S. Maryland, 121 F.Supp.3d 486, 495 (D. Md. 2015)(involving Fourteenth Amendment claim against State of Maryland). “The waiver of sovereign immunity in the Maryland Torts Claims Act clearly limits the state's waiver of immunity to actions brought in the Maryland state courts. A state's waiver of immunity from suit in state court ‘is not enough to waive the immunity guaranteed by the Eleventh Amendment.'” Weller v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. for City of Baltimore, 901 F.2d 387, 397-98 (4th Cir. 1990)(citations omitted)(quoting Atascadero State Hosp. v. Scanlon, 473 U.S. 234, 241 (1985)); see also Hyde v. Maryland State Bd. of Dental Examiners, No. 1:16-CV-02489-ELH, 2017 WL 2908998, at *7 (D. Md. July 7, 2017)(Hollander, J.).

         Accordingly, the Eleventh Amendment bars Plaintiffs from pursuing this suit against the State of Maryland in federal court. All claims against the State shall be dismissed.

         In addition, the Eleventh Amendment also precludes suits brought against state employees in their official capacities because, in those circumstances, the State is the real, substantial party in interest. See Brandon v. Holt, 469 U.S. 464, 471-72 (1985).

Thus, “[t]he general rule is that relief sought nominally against an officer is in fact against the sovereign if the decree would operate against the latter.” And, as when the State itself is named as the defendant, a suit against state officials that is in fact a suit against a State is barred regardless of whether it seeks damages or injunctive relief.

Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 101-02 (1984)(internal citations omitted). Accordingly, all federal claims[12] against the Individual Defendants in their official capacities shall be dismissed.

         The Court will herein discuss all claims against the Individual Defendants asserted against them in their individual capacities.

         D. Count I - Federal Constitutional Claims

         Plaintiffs assert claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for alleged violations of the rights provide by the Eighth and Fourteenth ...


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