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Hamman v. Starke County

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

April 1, 2019

JENNIFER HAMMAN, as Personal Representative of the Estate of William W. Newman, Plaintiff,
v.
STARKE COUNTY, INDIANA, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          PHILIP P. SIMON, JUDGE

         William Newman was shot and killed by law enforcement in Starke County Indiana. At this point the principal defendants seem to be the City of Knox Police Chief and another officer from that same department. But also included in the complaint as defendants are Starke County and the Starke County Sheriff's Department, although the allegations against those latter defendants are threadbare. There are also some John and Jane Does thrown into the complaint as well. Starke County and the Starke County Sheriff's Department have filed a Partial Motion to Dismiss [DE 24]. Plaintiff concedes it is appropriate to dismiss the Monell claims against Starke County and the Starke County Sheriff's Department in Counts I, II, III, and IV. Additionally, the state law claim in Count V as to Starke County will also be dismissed. But Count V will remain pending against the Starke County Sheriff's Department. Finally, I will also dismiss the Jane or John Doe defendants for reasons discussed below.

         Background

         Here are the facts as detailed in the complaint: on the morning of December 21, 2016, Knox Police Chief Smith, Corporal Dulin and John Doe Officers went to execute a warrant at a storage facility in Knox, Indiana. [Compl., ¶ 15.] Chief Smith, Corporal Dulin and the Doe Officers had a search warrant, but exceeded the scope of that warrant when they proceeded to another location on the premises where William Newman was working on a truck. [Id., ¶¶16-17.] When Newman tried to leave the storage unit, Chief Smith, Corporal Dulin and/or Doe Officers fatally shot Newman at 9:20 a.m., but they did not call for medical intervention until 10:22 a.m [Id., ¶¶ 18-19], and when medical personnel finally did arrive at 10:30 a.m., Newman was unresponsive. [Id., ¶ 20.] Newman was taken to the ER Department at Indiana University Starke Memorial Hospital where he was declared dead at 11:05 a.m. [Id., ¶ 21.]

         Plaintiff, Jennifer Hamman, is the Personal Representative of the Estate of William R. Newman. She brings this action against Starke County, the Starke County Sheriff's Department, the City of Knox, the Knox Police Chief Harold Smith, Corporal Chad Dulin (a Knox police officer), and Jane/John Does. [Compl., DE 1.] The complaint contains 5 counts: Count I (unreasonable seizure); Count II (excessive force); Count III (deliberate indifference); Count IV (Monell liability against the City of Knox, Starke County, and Starke County Sheriff's Department), and Count V (a state law claim for wrongful death).

         The present motion only involves Starke County and the Starke County Sheriff's Department. Those defendants move to dismiss Counts I-IV arguing that Hamman failed to plausibly allege a municipal liability claim under the framework set forth in Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978). Hamman concedes that she has not stated proper Monell claims at this stage in the litigation. Oddly, only Starke County has moved to dismiss Count V; the Starke County Sheriff's Department has not moved to dismiss Count V even though there are literally no allegations in the complaint against either of those defendants.

         Discussion

         In order to survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); accord Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). While I must accept all factual allegations as true and draw all reasonable inferences in the complainant's favor, I don't need to accept threadbare legal conclusions supported by purely conclusory statements. See Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Hamman must allege “more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. Making the plausibility determination is “a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679.

         A. Monell Claims

         Municipalities may be held liable under § 1983 if their official policies, including unwritten customs, cause constitutional violations. See Monell, 436 U.S. at 690-91. In this case, both Starke County and the Starke County Sheriff's Department have moved for dismissal of Counts I-IV because the complaint fails to contain any allegations, outside of a little boilerplate language, to establish the constitutional violations were caused by an express municipal policy or a widespread custom or practice. It is true that to bring a Monell claim, a party needs to plausibly state a factual basis describing with some particularity the municipality's customs or policy. McTigue v. City of Chicago, 60 F.3d 381, 382 (7th Cir. 1995).

         As noted above, Hamman does not resist dismissal of Counts I-IV against both Starke County and the Starke County Sheriff's Department. [DE 27 at 1-2.] However, she requests that the Monell counts be dismissed without prejudice (instead of with prejudice). This is entirely reasonable. See, e.g., Ford v. Sessoms, No. 1:14-cv-320 PS, 2014 WL 6605659, at *3 (N.D. Ind. Nov. 20, 2014) (dismissing Monell claims without prejudice); Frantz v. Wexford of Indiana, No. 3:18-cv-290 JD, 2018 WL 5842463, at *3-4 (N.D. Ind. Nov. 7, 2018) (dismissing count which failed to plausibly allege a claim under Monell without prejudice). As such, it is appropriate to dismiss these claims without prejudice to Hamman attempting to cure the deficiencies in an amended complaint.

         B. Whether Starke County is a Proper Defendant For Count V

         The next issue is who is the proper defendant as to the wrongful death claim in Count V - Starke County or the Starke County Sheriff's Department? Only Starke County has moved to dismiss Count V. The capacity of a party like Starke County to be sued is determined by the law of the state where the court is located. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 17(b)(3).

         Hamman very aptly notes some recent uncertainty regarding the propriety of naming both a county and the county's sheriff's department as defendants in the same case. See, e.g., Burton v. Lacy, No. 1:07-cv-0918-JDT-TAB, 2008 WL 187552, at *4 (S.D. Ind. Jan. 18, 2008) (recognizing “[t]here appears to be conflicting case law with respect to whether the Sheriff's Department or the County is the proper defendant.”); Marks v. Indiana, No. 1:15-cv-118, 2015 WL 4421338, at *2 (July 17, 2015) (dismissing county sheriff's department because it is not a suable entity under section 1983); but see Waldrip v. Waldrip, 976 N.E.2d 102, 118-19 (Ind.Ct.App. 2012) (dismissing claim of false arrest and imprisonment ...


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