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Welch v. Board of County Commissioners of Sedgwick County

United States District Court, D. Kansas

September 3, 2019

KRISTOPHER WELCH, Plaintiff,
v.
BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS OF SEDGWICK COUNTY, KANSAS; SHERIFF JEFF EASTER, in his official capacity; and DETENTION SERGEANT ALEXANDER First Name Unknown, in his individual and official capacity, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          JOHN W. BROOMES, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is before the court on Defendant Sedgwick County's[1] motion to dismiss the claims against it. (Doc. 12.) The motion is fully briefed and is ripe for decision. (Docs. 20, 21.) Sedgwick County's motion is GRANTED for the reasons stated herein.

         I. Facts

         The following facts are taken from the allegations in Plaintiff's complaint. Jeff Easter is the elected Sheriff of Sedgwick County, Kansas, and is responsible for the administration and of the policies and procedures of the Sedgwick County Adult Detention Facility (“the Jail”), including the supervision and training of its employees. (Doc. 1 at 2.) Sergeant Alexander was a Detention Deputy at the Jail at the relevant time. On March 13, 2017, while Plaintiff was a detainee in the Jail, Alexander ordered him to change bunks. Alexander did not allow Plaintiff sufficient time to comply, however, instead ordering him to “cuff up” and then slamming him against the cell wall. After Plaintiff expressed his frustration, and while he was handcuffed and defenseless, Alexander allegedly “punched Plaintiff from behind in the left side of his face, fracturing multiple bones and causing Plaintiff to black out.” (Id. at 4.) Plaintiff alleges the force was unreasonable, excessive, and without any legitimate purpose.

         Count One of the complaint asserts a claim against Defendant Alexander under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for deprivation of the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishments. (Id. at 6.) Count Two alleges a § 1983 claim against Sedgwick County for deprivation of the same right. Among other things, Count Two alleges: that the excessive force used by Alexander “arose under circumstances that are not unusual in a detention setting … with which detention officers must deal”; that the unconstitutional force “was caused by Sedgwick County's … failure to properly or sufficiently train and supervise its detention deputies, ” a failure which “amounts to deliberate indifference … to the rights of persons [with] whom detention deputies must be in contact”; that the “improper, lack of, or insufficient training and supervision related … to: training of detention deputies to use only appropriate force, to recognize when detainees are in a defenseless position, and to ignore comments of frustration from detainees”; that the “need for more or different training and supervision of detention deputies is so obvious due to either Defendant Alexander's use of force in this case against a defenseless detainee or his deliberate indifference of such conditions and the resulting use of force and injury”; that the force used by Alexander was “caused by a failure of [Sedgwick County] to properly train, educate and supervise its detention deputies”; and that such failures amount to “deliberate indifference by [Sedgwick County] to the rights of persons with whom detention deputies come into contact … and such failures were authorized, ratified or tolerated by [Sedgwick County.]” (Id. at 7-8.)

         Sedgwick County contends it is entitled to dismissal of Count Two pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P 12(b)(6). Among other things, [2] it argues the complaint fails to state a claim under the failure-to-train theory recognized in City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378 (1989). It argues the allegations are insufficient because Plaintiff does not state what training or supervision was provided by Sheriff Easter, fails to allege facts showing deliberate indifference on the part of Sedgwick County policymakers, and fails to show a causal link between the allegedly inadequate training and the constitutional deprivation. (Doc. 13 at 6.) In response, Plaintiff argues he has stated a plausible claim because although the allegations “rise from a single punching incident, … the nature and extent of the injuries caused by that incident call into question, in and of themselves, the training and supervision provided to Sergeant Alexander.” (Doc. 20 at 3.) Moreover, he argues that Sergeant Alexander's answer to the complaint “implicitly argu[es] that his training … authorized him to use such violent force.” (Id. at 4.)

         II. Standard for Motion to Dismiss

         In order to withstand a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, a complaint must contain enough allegations of fact to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. Robbins v. Oklahoma, 519 F.3d 1242, 1247 (10th Cir. 2008) (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1974 (2007)). All well-pleaded facts and the reasonable inferences derived from those facts are viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff. Archuleta v. Wagner, 523 F.3d 1278, 1283 (10th Cir. 2008). Conclusory allegations, however, have no bearing upon the court's consideration. Shero v. City of Grove, Okla., 510 F.3d 1196, 1200 (10th Cir. 2007). Rule 12(b)(6) “does not require that Plaintiff establish a prima facie case in her complaint, but rather requires only that the Plaintiff allege enough factual allegations in the complaint to set forth a plausible claim.” Pueblo of Jemez v. United States, 790 F.3d 1143, 1171-72 (10th Cir. 2015) (internal citations omitted). In the end, the issue is not whether Plaintiff will ultimately prevail, but whether Plaintiff is entitled to offer evidence to support his claims. Beedle v. Wilson, 422 F.3d 1059, 1063 (10th Cir. 2005).

         III. Analysis

         A. Municipal liability standards. Section 1983 provides a remedy against any person who, acting under color of state law, deprives an individual of a right secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States. 42 U.S.C. § 1983. A local government “may not be sued under § 1983 for an injury inflicted solely by its employees or agent.” Waller v. City and Cty. of Denver, ___ F.3d ___, 2019 WL 3543115, *3 (10th Cir. Aug. 5, 2019) (quoting Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978)). “[I]n other words, a municipality cannot be held liable under § 1983 on a respondeat superior theory.”[3] Id. (quoting Monell, 436 U.S. at 691). Rather, the government may only be held liable “when execution of a government's policy or custom, whether made by its lawmakers or by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy, inflicts the injury.” Id. (quoting Monell, 436 U.S. at 694.)

         Accordingly, to establish municipal liability, a plaintiff must first demonstrate a municipal policy or custom, which may take one of the following forms:

(1) a formal regulation or policy statement; (2) an informal custom amounting to a widespread practice that, although not authorized by written law or express municipal policy, is so permanent and well settled as to constitute a custom or usage with the force of law; (3) the decisions of employees with final policymaking authority; (4) the ratification by such final policymakers of the decisions-and the basis for them-of subordinates to whom authority was delegated subject to these policymakers' review and approval; or (5) the failure to adequately train or supervise employees, so long as that failure results from deliberate indifference to the injuries that may be caused.

Id. (quoting Bryson v. City of Okla. City, 627 F.3d 784, 788 (10th Cir. 2010)).

         After demonstrating a municipal policy or custom, a plaintiff must demonstrate “a direct causal link between the policy or custom and the injury alleged.” Waller, 2019 WL 3543115, at *4 (quoting Bryson v. City of Okla. City, 627 F.3d 784, 788 (10th Cir. 2010)). “Where a plaintiff claims that the municipality has not directly inflicted an injury, but nonetheless has caused an employee to do so, rigorous standards of culpability and causation must be applied to ensure that the municipality is not held liable solely for the actions of its employees.” Id. (quoting Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 405 (1997)). “The causation element is applied with special rigor when the municipal policy or practice is itself not unconstitutional, for example, when the ...


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