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Sweat v. Sanders

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington

July 17, 2019

HOWARD SWEAT, as Administrator of the Estate of Anthony Tyrone Moore, Plaintiff,
RICHARD W. SANDERS, et al., Defendants.



         The supervisory Defendants in this action-Kentucky State Police (KSP) Commissioner Richard W. Sanders, former KSP Deputy Commissioner William Alexander Payne, and KSP Captain Michael T. Kidd-jointly move to dismiss all claims against them. DE #9. Defendants argue that dismissal is proper based on immunity and Plaintiff's failure to state cognizable claims under the applicable law. For the reasons that follow, the Court grants the Motion, on the terms of this Order.

         I. Facts and Procedural Background

         The facts of this case are straightforward, tragic, and not at this juncture seriously in dispute[1]-the controversy lies in where the blame falls. On August 29, 2017, just before 2:30 a.m., Plaintiff's decedent, Anthony Tyrone Moore, was walking along Old Georgetown Road in Lexington, Kentucky, heading to work. DE #16 (Amended Complaint) at ¶¶ 2, 10.[2] Unknown and unrelated to Moore, a parallel set of events was unfolding nearby; the two scenes would soon catastrophically converge. Nathaniel Harper had just stolen a Dodge pickup truck from a Lawrenceburg, Kentucky couple's driveway, and local officers attempted to stop the vehicle; Harper fled in the boosted truck, and state police stepped in to assist. The KSP located Harper on I-64, headed east. Id. at ¶¶ 10-11. KSP troopers deployed a tire deflation device as Harper drove along I-64, but Harper persisted. Id. The troopers continued to pursue Harper as he exited the interstate, travelling toward Lexington on Newtown Pike with deflated front tires. Id. While driving at a speed between 80 and 100-mph-in a 35-mph residential area-Harper lost control of the vehicle on a right-hand turn and “struck a pedestrian, fence, utility pole, and the residence of 227 Old Georgetown Road” before the truck “overturned and caught fire.” Id. at ¶ 10. That pedestrian was Moore, who died as a result of the collision. Id. at ¶ 11.

         Plaintiff-administrator of Moore's estate (“the Estate”)-avers that this high-speed pursuit occurred in contravention of express KSP policy, which “[p]rohibits a pursuit from continuing solely because the subject continues to flee, ” and argues that Harper's theft offense did not justify the subsequent chase. Id. at ¶¶ 12, 14. The Estate filed the original Complaint on October 3, 2018, against the supervisory Defendants (Sanders, Payne, and Kidd), as well as five unknown KSP troopers who participated in the chase. DE #1. After the Court permitted expedited discovery of the trooper identity (see DE ##7, 12), Plaintiff amended the Complaint to include them as Defendants, without altering any of the claims against the supervisory Defendants.[3] DE #16. The Estate asserts a violation of Moore's substantive due process right under the Fourteenth Amendment via 42 U.S.C. § 1983, as well as state law negligence and gross negligence claims, id. at ¶¶ 15-18, seeking compensatory and punitive damages, id. at ¶¶ 9, 19.

         The supervisory Defendants move to dismiss the claims, maintaining that the § 1983 theory against them fails because it inadequately alleges individual supervisory liability, and arguing that, regardless, qualified immunity (and state official immunity, as applicable) bar recovery. DE #9. The Estate responded (DE #18), and Defendants replied (DE #19).

         II. Motion to Dismiss Standard

         Rule 12 dismissal is appropriate if a complaint “fail[s] to state a claim upon which relief can be granted[.]” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). The complaint 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). In deciding a Rule 12 motion, “the complaint is viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, the allegations in the complaint are accepted as true, and all reasonable inferences are drawn in favor of plaintiffs.” Nwanguma v. Trump, 903 F.3d 604, 607 (6th Cir. 2018) (citing Bassett v. Nat'l Collegiate Athletic Ass'n, 528 F.3d 426, 430 (6th Cir. 2008)). However, the Court is not required to accept as true “a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation[.]” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1965 (2007). Rule 12(b)(6) survival “requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action[.]” Id. Although Rule 8 sets a relatively low bar for pleading adequacy, “it does not unlock the doors of discovery for a plaintiff armed with nothing more than conclusions.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1950 (2009).

         Hinging on Rule 8's minimal standards, Twombly and Iqbal require a plaintiff to “plead facts sufficient to show that her claim has substantive plausibility.” Johnson v. City of Shelby, 135 S.Ct. 346, 347 (2014). The factual allegations collectively must “raise a right to relief above the speculative level[, ]” id., and “state a claim that is plausible on its face, i.e., the court must be able to draw a ‘reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.'” Nwanguma, 903 F.3d at 607 (quoting Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949 (citation omitted)). This “plausibility standard” does not require a showing that success on the claims is probable, “but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949. Where plaintiffs state “simply, concisely, and directly events that . . . entitled them to damages, ” the rules require “no more to stave off threshold dismissal for want of an adequate statement[.]” Johnson, 135 S.Ct. at 347; see also El-Hallani v. Huntington Nat. Bank, 623 Fed.Appx. 730, 739 (6th Cir. 2015) (“Although Twombly and Iqbal have raised the bar for pleading, it is still low.”).

         Unadorned, naked assertions warrant no presumption of truth and are not well-pleaded facts in the plausibility analysis. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949. “Plausibility is a context-specific inquiry, ” Ctr. for Bio-Ethical Reform, Inc. v. Napolitano, 648 F.3d 365, 369 (6th Cir. 2011), “requiring the reviewing court to draw on its experience and common sense[, ]” Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1950. In deciding a dismissal motion attacking pleading adequacy, courts must assess “the facial sufficiency of the complaint . . . without resort to matters outside the pleadings[, ]” with the limited exception of “exhibits attached to the complaint, public records, items appearing in the record of the case, and exhibits attached to defendant's motion to dismiss, so long as they are referred to in the complaint and are central to the claims contained therein.” Gavitt v. Born, 835 F.3d 623, 640 (6th Cir. 2016) (citations omitted), III.Dismissal of Claims against Defendant Kidd Based on Defendants' representation that Kidd was not commanding the KSP post responsible for the allegedly improper chase (see DE #9 at 3), the Estate agrees to dismiss its claims against him. DE #18 at 1. Plaintiff requests dismissal of the claims against Kidd without prejudice to renewal, should discovery reveal Kidd's involvement, while Defendants seek dismissal with prejudice. Because the Estate did not respond on the merits as to Kidd, but rather accepted the representation that Kidd had no factual role, the Court does dismiss him without prejudice. This is the functional equivalent of a voluntary dismissal, so here should result in dismissal without prejudice.

         IV. The First Amended Complaint does not clear the Iqbal/Twombly hurdle.

         The Complaint alleges claims against the KSP hierarchy and against directly involved troopers. Its federal component is a § 1983 count, grounded on substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. In the bystander death context, such a claim essentially requires that the involved officers had an intent to harm the pursued person-a purpose beyond mere apprehension of the suspect. See Cty. of Sacramento v. Lewis, 118 S.Ct. 1708, 1711-12 (1998) (holding that “in a high-speed automobile chase aimed at apprehending a suspected offender . . . only a purpose to cause harm unrelated to the legitimate object of arrest will satisfy the element of arbitrary conduct shocking to the conscience, necessary for a due process violation”); accord Plumhoff v. Rickard, 134 S.Ct. 2012, 2022 n.4 (2014); see also Guertin v. State of Mich., 912 F.3d 907, 924 (6th Cir. 2019) (quoting Lewis, 118 S.Ct. at 1720) (assessing, in the police chase context “whether the state actor applie[d] force ‘maliciously and sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm'-in other words, whether he acted with an intent to harm”). The supplemental state claims involve negligence, which has a typical elemental formulation under Kentucky law. See, e.g., Keaton v. G.C. Williams Funeral Home, Inc., 436 S.W.3d 538, 542 (Ky. Ct. App. 2013) (identifying the elements of a Kentucky negligence claim as duty, breach of duty, and proximately resulting damages).

         Leaving aside the factually-involved troopers, the claims against the remaining hierarchical defendants-the KSP Commissioner and Deputy-require a particular analysis as to individual liability. As discussed more fully in the immunity section, § 1983 supervisor liability requires culpable conduct by the individual supervisor. It is not enough that a supervisor have a place or position of authority. Rather, he must actively engage in behavior leading to the wrong; inaction does not suffice. See, e.g., Bellamy v. Bradley, 729 F.2d 416, 420 (6th Cir. 1984). Similarly, Kentucky does not vicariously impose individual liability on supervisors. See Yanero v. Davis, 65 S.W.3d 510, 528 (Ky. 2001). Thus, absent proof a supervisor himself directly and unreasonably employed the incompetent or himself did not, in the ministerial sense, abide by an objective conduct rule, the state supervisor will not face individual tort liability.

         The Court has carefully assessed the First Amended Complaint. As to the hierarchical defendants, the pleading cites only their positions. See DE #16 at ΒΆΒΆ 5-6. Generically, and as ...

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