Federal judge allows sexual assault victim to file amended complaint against rescue squad

By Jon Campisi | Oct 9, 2012

A federal judge in Philadelphia last week denied a defense motion to dismiss a lawsuit

that had been filed by an emergency medical worker against the ambulance squad for which she worked over claims that the organization was partially responsible for a sexual assault the plaintiff endured at the hands of a fellow rescue worker.

In a memorandum opinion filed Oct. 3 at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, U.S. District Judge Mitchell S. Goldberg denied Bensalem Rescue Squad’s motion to dismiss the federal action that had been filed by Margo Carlin earlier this year.

Carlin had initially filed her claim in the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas; the defendant subsequently removed the case to the federal court in Philadelphia.

Carlin sued the rescue squad under the state-created danger doctrine, alleging that the organization’s conduct violated her due process rights.

Specifically, Carlin claimed that the squad placed her in danger by providing her coworker, Michael Marren, with access to the rescue squad’s building, failing to provide Marren and other ambulance workers with sexual harassment training, and failing to impose additional security measures at the building.

Marren sexually assaulted Carlin after a night out drinking on March 9, 2010, according to the judicial memorandum.

The two, along with other rescue squad members, had gone out for a night of socializing at a local bar on March 8 of that year; Carlin and Marren ended up going to a local inn after the bar, and then went on to return to the rescue squad building in Bensalem, where Marren subsequently sexually assaulted Carlin in a ladies room, the memorandum states.

On Dec. 17, 2010, a jury convicted Marren on three counts of aggravated indecent assault and three counts of indecent assault.

In its motion to dismiss the claims against it, the rescue squad argued that Carlin’s complaint does not satisfy the elements required for a state-created danger claim.

Citing case law, Goldberg wrote that a state’s failure to protect an individual against private violence does not generally constitute a violation of the Due Process Clause.

However, the judge wrote, there is an exception to the rule under the state-created danger doctrine, whereby a state actor may be responsible for the safety of an individual for whom it affirmatively creates or enhances a risk of danger.

In this case, Goldberg wrote, the court failed to identify any affirmative use of authority by the rescue squad that created a danger or rendered Carlin more vulnerable to danger.

Because of this, the judge wrote, Carlin’s state-created danger claim “necessarily fails.”

The judge wrote that in order to plead a claim under the state-created danger doctrine, a plaintiff must allege a “misuse of state authority, rather than a failure to use it, that can violate the Due Process Clause.”

Carlin’s allegations that the rescue squad failed to provide its members with sexual harassment training and engaged in other failures, amount to “nothing more than a series of actions not taken by Defendant,” the memorandum states. “As failures to act do not render Defendant liable under the fourth element [needed to support a state-created danger claim], Plaintiff fails this element and cannot proceed on a state-created danger claim.”

Goldberg, however, wrote that in civil rights cases, a district court must extend a plaintiff an opportunity to amend his or her complaint before a judge can dismiss it, hence Goldberg’s decision to deny the rescue squad’s motion to dismiss at this juncture.

The decision gives Carlin a month in which to amend her complaint.

In addition to the rescue squad, Marren, the assailant, is also named as a defendant in the litigation.

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