A federal judge has ruled that the City of Philadelphia is not liable for
injuries sustained by a woman who was just a child when she suffered a years-long period of sexual abuse at the hands of a city police officer.
U.S. District Judge Cynthia M. Rufe earlier this month also determined that three former Philadelphia police commissioners and the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation are not to blame for the abuse perpetuated upon Deborah Grooms by Tyrone Wiggins, who is currently serving out a 17-and-a-half-to-35-year state prison sentence for his conviction on criminal charges stemming from his eight-year campaign of “horrifying sexual abuse” of Grooms beginning when the woman was 10 years old.
Background information on the case shows that Wiggins, also defendant in the civil action, taught a karate class at a city rec center operated by the Parks and Recreation Department at which Grooms was enrolled.
The former officer became acquainted with the girl’s family, and soon after gaining their trust began to sexually abuse Grooms, actions he continued for a total of eight years.
“Wiggins used his physical strength, proximity to Grooms’ family, and his status as a police officer to intimidate Grooms,” the judicial memorandum states. “He threatened her with incarceration if she ever told anyone about his actions.”
Wiggins even committed some of his crimes against Grooms while on duty; he was known to lie to dispatchers when they asked where he was, during times when he was sexually assaulting the girl in Fairmount Park.
Wiggins, the record shows, got so loud at Grooms’ apartment at times that police officers would respond to the home, although Wiggins was able to get the responding officers to retreat after flashing his badge and saying that everything was alright.
Grooms finally reported the abuse to police in 2006, after which Wiggins was suspended by former Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson.
The former officer was still allowed to teach karate at the rec center, however, and later, as criminal charges approached, Wiggins was allowed to resign from his job so as to keep his pension, according to the court record.
As for the civil case, Johnson, another former police commissioner, Richard Neal, and the city itself filed motions to dismiss, arguing that while Grooms stated an injury cognizable under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act, the complaint fails to state a sufficient factual basis to impose liability on defendants other than Wiggins.
Grooms had argued that the other defendants should be held liable for failing to train police officers, and because the city caused her constitutional violations pursuant to official policies or customs.
Rufe, the judge, wrote that with respect to the failure-to-train accusation, the complaint did not give sufficient indication of the factual basis of the two essential elements needed to state a plausible claim for relief, in this case indifference and causation.
“Beyond alleging that Neal and Johnson were the Commissioners of Police at the times when Grooms’ constitutional rights were violated, she alleges no facts to support the inference that at the time she was abused there was any known or obvious condition that required training that either individual defendant failed to address,” Rufe wrote. “Groom argues in both her complaint and in her opposition to the motions to dismiss that the individual defendants had a continuing duty to review police officers’ conduct and credentials, but this does not rise to the level of ‘actual or constructive notice that a particular omission in their training program causes city employees to violate citizens’ constitutional rights.’”
The judge also wrote that Grooms pleaded no facts that could support the inference that Neal, who was commissioner until 2002, was on actual or constructive notice of Wiggins’ behavior at any point.
“It is not enough that Wiggins abused her,” Rufe wrote. “The abuse or the conditions that permitted the abuse to continue must have been known or obvious to the moving defendant and he must have chosen to ignore them in order to be held liable on a failure to train theory.”
Grooms, Rufe wrote, also failed to plead facts that could subject the city to liability under a theory that an official policy or custom caused the woman’s injuries.
“She never alleges with any specificity what the policy or custom was or any facts beyond her injuries to suggest that [an official policy] existed,” the judge wrote. “Therefore, Grooms fails to allege how a fact finder could infer that a policy, rather than a rogue officer, caused her injuries.
“In short,” Rufe wrote, “Grooms unquestionably alleges sufficiently that she was injured, but beyond conclusory statements, she never alleges that police commissioners or other municipal officials knew or had reason to know of her injuries or that they enforced a specific custom or policy pursuant to which she was injured.”
Rufe concluded by stating that while Grooms undoubtedly suffered “grievous, abominable injuries,” the woman failed to allege facts that could support a legal theory that would impose liability on the municipal defendants.