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Jacobs v. Board of Education of Prince George County

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

November 8, 2017

REGINALD DARNELL JACOBS, Plaintiff,
v.
BOARD OF EDUCATION OF PRINCE GEORGE COUNTY, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Paul W. Grimm United States District Judge

         In November 2013, Defendant Officer Charles Pickard yelled at and “violently attack[ed] and assault[ed]” Plaintiff Reginald Jacobs, who at the time was a minor. Am. Compl., ¶¶ 12-16, ECF No. 22. Pickard was charged criminally for his conduct and found guilty. Id. ¶¶ 22-23. Jacobs, now an adult, brings this civil litigation against Officer Pickard, the Board of Education of Prince George's County (the “County”), the Prince George's County Police Department (the “Department”), and Prince George's County (the “County”) alleging four counts: (I) violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (against all defendants); (II) violations of Articles 24 and 26 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights (against all defendants); (III) battery (against Pickard); and (IV)[1]false imprisonment (against Pickard). Am. Compl. ¶¶ 30-73. The County has filed a motion to dismiss Counts I and II, or in the alternative a motion to bifurcate, ECF No. 24.[2] The Board also moved to dismiss Counts I and II, ECF No. 25, and fully adopted the County's memorandum of law, ECF No. 25-1. Because, at this preliminary stage, Jacobs has alleged plausibly that the County knew of, but failed to address adequately, a custom of its police officers to use excessive force, I will deny the County and the Board's motions to dismiss. I will also deny the motions to bifurcate the case with respect to the Monell claim, given the criminal conviction of the officer involved. The County, the Board, and the Department must file their Answers no later than November 22, 2017 and I will issue a Scheduling Order and schedule a Fed.R.Civ.P. 16 conference thereafter.

         Background

         Plaintiff Reginald Jacobs, who was a minor at the time, was confronted by Defendant Charles Pickard while walking down the hallway of Suitland High School on November 12, 2013.[3] Am. Compl. ¶¶ 12-14. Officer Pickard, who was dressed in police uniform, removed his bullet proof vest and gun belt and began yelling “‘let's go to the body'” at Jacobs. Id. ¶ 15. Pickard then subjected Jacobs to profanity-laced yelling and “violently attack[ed] and assault[ed] Plaintiff, striking Plaintiff directly in the face with extreme force.” Id. ¶¶ 15-16. After knocking Jacobs down multiple times and continuing to attack him with “extreme force, ” Pickard handcuffed Jacobs, placed him in a patrol car, and took him to Palmer Park police station. Id. ¶¶ 16-18. After a period of time, Jacobs was returned to Suitland High School where another unnamed officer attempted to coerce him into writing a false statement of the day's events. Id. ¶ 19. Pickard was charged criminally based on these events and found guilty of three separate counts, including reckless endangerment, second degree assault and misconduct in office. Id. ¶¶ 22-23.

         Jacobs filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action against Officer Pickard, the Board, the Department, and the County, for which Officer Pickard works, alleging that Pickard used excessive force, deprived him of his constitutional rights, and unreasonably searched and seized him. Compl., ECF No. 1. With regard to the County, Jacobs claims it “has failed to adequately train, supervise, and discipline its officers against the use of improper detention, unreasonable force and unreasonable search and seizure” and

with actual notice and/or constructive knowledge and with deliberate indifference, and manifested through [its] failure to train and a persistent and wide spread practice, incorporate[s] a policy and/or custom of permitting its law enforcement officers to improperly detain, use unreasonable and excessive force, and unreasonably search persons without proper cause.

Am. Compl. ¶ 25, 37. In Count I, Jacobs claims that “Prince George's County has allowed an atmosphere of excessive abuse to exist as demonstrated by the numerous times meritorious claims have been brought against it, which manifested itself in the brutal assault of Plaintiff by Defendant Pickard.” Id. ¶ 32. Jacobs lists ten cases filed in this Court against the County between 2010 and 2015. Id. ¶ 28. In Count II, Jacobs makes the same claims against the County pursuant to Articles 24 and 26 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights.[4]

         Jacobs filed an Amended Complaint, and the County filed its Motion to Dismiss Counts I and II or in the alternative, a motion to bifurcate those counts, ECF No. 24, which the Board adopted fully in its motion to dismiss or bifurcate.[5]

         Discussion

         Under Rule 12(b)(6), Jacobs's claims against the County are subject to dismissal if they “fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). A pleading must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), and must state “a plausible claim for relief, ” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678-79 (2009). “A claim has facial plausibility when the [claimant] pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the [opposing party] is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Rule 12(b)(6)'s purpose “is to test the sufficiency of a [claim] and not to resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses.” Velencia v. Drezhlo, No. RDB-12-237, 2012 WL 6562764, at *4 (D. Md. Dec. 13, 2012) (quoting Presley v. City of Charlottesville, 464 F.3d 480, 483 (4th Cir. 2006)).

         The County, as a unit of local government, is a “person[]” subject to suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, to the extent allowed in Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 690-91 (1978). DiPino v. Davis, 729 A.2d 354, 368 (Md. 1999). But, “[u]nder Monell, a municipality's liability “arises only where the constitutionally offensive actions of employees are taken in furtherance of some municipal ‘policy or custom.'” Walker v. Prince George's Cty., Md., 575 Therefore, I will consider the sufficiency of Jacobs's state constitutional tort claims in tandem with his § 1983 claim. See Schloss, 2016 WL 1451246, at *10; Ross, 899 F.Supp.2d at 431. F.3d 426, 431 (4th Cir. 2009) (quoting Milligan v. City of Newport News, 743 F.2d 227, 229 (4th Cir. 1984)); see Rockwell v. Mayor of Balt., No. RDB-13-3049, 2014 WL 949859, at *11 (D. Md. Mar. 11, 2014) (citing Walker). Thus, a Monell claim is a form of § 1983 action under which a municipality, such as the County, is liable “where a policymaker officially promulgates or sanctions an unconstitutional law, or where the municipality is deliberately indifferent to the development of an unconstitutional custom.” Smith v. Ray, 409 F. App'x 641, 651 (4th Cir. 2011). The government's policy or custom must have “played a part in the deprivation” underpinning the plaintiff's claim. DiPino, 729 A.2d at 369. The policy or custom may be “an express policy, such as a written ordinance or regulation”; a decision by “a person with final policymaking authority”; “an omission, such as a failure to properly train officers, that manifest[s] deliberate indifference to the rights of citizens”; or “a practice that is so persistent and widespread as to constitute a custom or usage with the force of law.” Lytle v. Doyle, 326 F.3d 463, 471 (4th Cir. 2003) (internal quotation marks omitted)).

         To state a Monell claim, a plaintiff must allege that “(1) the municipality [had] actual or constructive knowledge of the custom and usage by its responsible policymakers, and (2) there [was] a failure by those policymakers, as a matter of specific intent or deliberate indifference, to correct or terminate the improper custom and usage.” Rockwell, 2014 WL 949859, at *11 (quoting Randall v. Prince George's Cty., 302 F.3d 188, 210 (4th Cir. 2002) (internal quotation marks omitted)). The plaintiff also must allege that there was “a ‘direct causal link' between the policy or custom and the deprivation of rights.” Id. (quoting City of Canton, Ohio v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 386-86 (1989)). Notably, “‘there must be numerous particular instances of unconstitutional conduct in order to establish a custom or practice, '” because “[a] municipality is not liable for mere ‘isolated incidents of unconstitutional conduct by subordinate employees.'” Smith, 409 F. App'x at 651 (quoting Lytle v, 326 F.3d at 473).

         According to the County, “the Amended Complaint falls woefully short of demonstrating that Plaintiff's alleged injuries were caused by a custom or practice of the County” because the allegations in Counts I and II are “speculative and conclusory.” Def.'s Mem. 6. As the County sees it, “Counts I and II [], divested of all speculative and conclusory statements and incomparable excessive force cases, fail to properly state a Monell claim that can survive the County's motion to dismiss” because the Amended Complaint “fails to assert ‘[any] factual allegations of known, widespread conduct by [County] employees comparable to that alleged as to [Plaintiff].'” Id. at 6-7 (quoting Ross v. Prince George's Cty., Md., No. DKC-11-1984, 2012 WL 1204087, at *9 (D. Md. Apr. 10, 2012)) (alteration in original). The County also asserts that “[t]he ten excessive force cases identified in the First Amended Complaint cannot be the basis for Plaintiff's Monell claim because either the suits are pending suits, dismissed with no findings of excessive force, or the County was successful in defending the claim.” Id. at 7-8. In its Reply, the County argues that “the unique circumstances surrounding the present case (i.e., police officer assigned to a public school and confronting a juvenile) which is part of Plaintiff's claims should control the scope and nature of the discovery that was not present in any of the cases cited by Plaintiff.” Def.'s Reply 3-4.

         Plaintiff insists that, in combination with the officer's actions in this case, the listed cases demonstrate “a clear showing of pervasive misconduct and a policy or custom on the part of Prince George's County and its employees to engage in improper detention, unreasonable and excessive force and unreasonable search and seizures has been properly and specifically pleaded.” Pl.'s Opp'n 8 (referencing Am. Compl. ¶ 28). But, an unsubstantiated complaint in itself is not sufficient; there also must be a finding of excessive force. See Amann v. Prince George's Cty., Md., No. DKC-99-3759, 2001 WL 706031, at *2 (D. Md. June 15, 2001) (noting that “complaints filed in the other lawsuits” that have not been resolved are “mere allegations rather than notice of actual unconstitutional behavior”); see also Ostroski v. Town of Southold, 443 F.Supp.2d 325, 346 (E.D.N.Y. 2006) (“The mere fact that a number of lawsuits have been filed, without any information as to whether the suits are meritorious or spurious, or alternatively, any evidence that the municipality ignored such complaints such that it constituted deliberate indifference to any potential problem of excessive force, does not assist a fact-finder in determining whether the [municipality] actually has a historical problem of ...


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