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Becker v. City of Evansville

United States District Court, Southern District of Indiana, Evansville Division

April 22, 2014

JAMIE BECKER, Plaintiff,
CITY OF EVANSVILLE, UNKNOWN EVANSVILLE POLICE DEPARTMENT OFFICERS, and ZACHARY ELFREICH, individually and as an Officer of the Evansville Police Department, Defendants.


William G. Hussmann, Jr. Judge

This matter is before the Magistrate Judge on the Defendants’ Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (Filing No. 44), the parties’ consent (Filing No. 8; Filing No. 9), and Judge Pratt’s Order of Reference (Filing No. 11). The motion is fully briefed. (See Filing No. 45; Filing No. 49; Filing No. 50; Filing No. 54; Filing No. 55.) The Magistrate Judge, having considered the motion, the parties’ filings, and relevant law, and being duly advised, hereby GRANTS the motion in part and DENIES it in part.

I. Background

On March 22, 2011, Evansville police arrested Plaintiff Jamie Becker at his home subject to a warrant. Becker’s Complaint alleges the following sequence of events.

Officers of the Evansville Police Department (EPD)—including a canine unit—were greeted at the door by Becker’s mother and followed her into the home when she called up the stairs to Becker that police were present with a warrant for his arrest. (Filing No. 1-1 at ¶¶ 9–10.) Becker, who had been sleeping, yelled in response that he was dressing and would be downstairs in a moment. (Id. at ¶¶ 7, 10.) Becker then dressed and proceeded from his bedroom to the staircase. (Id. at ¶ 11.) As Becker approached the stairs, an EPD officer—without warning or provocation—unleashed a police dog, which viciously attacked Becker. (Id.) An officer then threw Becker down two stairs face first, placed his knee in Becker’s back, and held Becker’s hands behind his back—all while the dog continued to bite Becker’s leg. (Id. at ¶ 12.) Becker claims that the dog chewed on his leg for approximately one minute and that he was severely and permanently injured as a result of the attack. (Id. at ¶¶ 13–14.)

In October of 2012, Becker initiated this action in state court, accusing the City of Evansville, the EPD, former Police Chief Brad Hill, EPD Officer Tim Nussmeier, and unidentified EPD officers of battery, negligence, and negligent supervision under Indiana law. (See Filing No. 1-1.) Becker also raised claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the Defendants used excessive force in violation of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures. (See Filing No. 1-1.) The Defendants promptly removed the action to this Court. (See Filing No. 1.) In January of 2013, the Magistrate Judge—by the parties’ agreement— dismissed the EPD, Chief Hill, and Officer Nussmeier from the action and added Officer Zachary Elfreich as the defendant accused of unleashing the police dog. (See Filing No. 13; Filing No. 15.)

II. Legal Standard

“A motion for judgment on the pleadings under Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is governed by the same standards as a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6).” Adams v. City of Indianapolis, 742 F.3d 720, 727–28 (7th Cir. 2014). Therefore, the Magistrate Judge should consider only the allegations presented in the Complaint. Wilson v. Price, 624 F.3d 389, 391 n.1 (7th Cir. 2010) (citation omitted). The Magistrate must treat all well-pled allegations in the Complaint as true and draw all inferences in Becker’s favor. Bielanski v. County of Kane, 550 F.3d 632, 633 (7th Cir. 2008) (citations omitted).

To avoid dismissal, Becker need not have advanced detailed factual allegations, but only “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that [he] is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2); Pisciotta v. Old Nat’l Bancorp, 499 F.3d 629, 633 (7th Cir. 2007). However, his allegations must “‘give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests, ’” and they must “‘raise a right to relief above the speculative level.’” Pisciotta, 499 F.3d at 633 (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957); Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). This means the Complaint must enable the Magistrate to “draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).

III. Discussion

The Defendants argue that Becker’s Complaint is deficient in five respects. The Magistrate Judge addresses each issue in turn.

A. Becker may proceed in his claims against unidentified officers.

Becker has raised claims against “unknown officer[s] of the Evansville Police Department” whose identities he has hoped to uncover through discovery. (E.g., Filing No. 1-1 at ¶¶ 26, 30, 42.) The Defendants offer dictum for the proposition that pleadings against unidentified defendants fail as a matter of law. See Wudtke v. Davel, 128 F.3d 1057, 1060 (7th Cir. 1997) (“We note in passing that it is pointless to include lists of anonymous defendants in federal court; this type of placeholder does not open the door to relation back under Fed.R.Civ.P. 15 . . . nor can it otherwise help the plaintiff”). The Defendants further argue that Becker should not be granted leave to amend his Complaint to reflect any officers identified through discovery because the deadline to do so under the case management was April 1, 2013. (See Filing No. 14 at ¶ III(D).)

Although the Magistrate Judge values adherence to the case management plan, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a)(2) instructs courts to “freely give leave [to amend pleadings] when justice so requires.” The Seventh Circuit has suggested that courts should allow amendment absent a showing of undue delay, bad faith, dilatory motive, repeated failure to cure deficiencies, undue prejudice, or futility. See Bausch v. Stryker Corp., 630 F.3d 546, 562 (7th Cir. 2010). The Defendants may offer such a showing when Becker moves for leave to amend his Complaint, but the Magistrate declines to dismiss Becker’s claims against unidentified defendants at this stage.

This being said, Becker cannot wait until the moment of trial to identify all his Defendants. Accordingly, he may move for leave to amend his Complaint to identify new EPD officers as defendants within 15 days of the issuance of this order. If Becker fails to timely move for leave to amend his Complaint, the Magistrate Judge will dismiss all claims against unidentified officers with prejudice and without further notice. The Magistrate acknowledges that a discovery dispute remains unresolved in this matter and may reconsider this deadline if Becker can demonstrate that the Defendants have wrongly withheld information that would have enabled him to more quickly identify his yet-unnamed officers.

B. The parties have agreed to dismissal of Counts II and III against Defendant Elfreich in his ...

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