Federal judge dismisses Monell, conspiracy violations against law enforcement

By Nicholas Malfitano | Jun 27, 2015

On Wednesday, a federal judge ruled claims of a Monell violation and conspiracy to obstruct an investigation into civil rights violations against Delaware County and several of its law enforcement officials would be dismissed.

Joseph S. Oxman  

PHILADELPHIA – On Wednesday, a federal judge ruled claims of a Monell violation and conspiracy to obstruct an investigation into civil rights violations against Delaware County and several of its law enforcement officials would be dismissed.

Judge Michael M. Baylson, of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, threw out two of the five counts brought by plaintiffs Ken Jacobs and Timothy Williams against Delaware County Police Detective M. Palmer, Detective Worrilow, unknown members of the Delaware County Police Department, Delaware County, Police Commissioner Joseph Bail, Captain C. Fell and unknown members of the Chester Police Department.

The civil rights litigation, initiated by the plaintiffs in October along with an amended complaint in March, charged the law enforcement officials listed above with Fourth Amendment violations under the U.S. Constitution; a Monell violation revolving around failure to train, supervise and discipline officers; assault and battery; intentional infliction of emotional distress; and conspiracy to obstruct an investigation into civil rights violations through falsifying a police report.

The plaintiffs levied these charges against the defendants with respect to an incident that took place on Oct. 13, 2012.

On that day, Jacobs and Williams were in the parking lot of the Crozer Park baseball fields in Chester, watching people in the park riding motorcycles. At that time, a pick-up truck drove into the parking lot, Palmer began shooting out of the truck window at Jacobs and Williams.

Palmer and an unknown Delaware County detective stepped out of the vehicle, pointed their weapons at Jacobs and Williams, and ordered them to get on the ground. The suit says one of the officers fired two more shots and asked plaintiffs to reveal the whereabouts of stolen four-wheelers while shouting racial slurs.

According to the lawsuit, the officers eventually released the men, returned to their truck and sped away. Officers from the Chester Police Department arrived at the scene and chased the pickup truck. Jacobs called his aunt, a Corporal for the Chester Police, who dispatched officers to the scene to interview the plaintiffs and witnesses.

One of the responding Chester officers was Captain Fell, who arrived at the scene and interviewed Palmer. Two days later, Delaware County Detective Worrilow interviewed Jacobs at his home. A short time later, Fell and Worrilow informed Chester Police Commissioner Joseph Bail of the incident.

Through their attorneys, Jacobs and Williams argued Delaware County was “put on actual notice” of the need to properly train its police officers, regarding the consumption of alcohol, use of firearms while on duty and detention of citizens, due to past department misconduct.

Defense counsel argued, on two occasions, their rationale for motioning to dismiss both the claims of a Monell violation and conspiracy to obstruct an investigation into civil rights violations through falsifying a police report.

As to the Monell violation, the defense contended Jacobs and Williams fail to identify specific conduct of a county decision maker that led to unconstitutional action, and “only plead broad legal conclusions to support their failure to train theory.” Further, the defense alleges Jacobs and Williams do not specify “what training the county failed to provide its officers, a pattern of similar violations by untrained county employees, or facts that would support the application of single incident municipal liability.”

For the conspiracy claim, the defense stipulated Jacobs and Williams “have not alleged that the failure to write an accurate report or conduct a proper investigation resulted in a violation of plaintiffs’ constitutional rights, such as when a false police report results in arrest and incarceration.”

The Chester police officers named as defendants claim their investigation was “conducted after the alleged constitutional violations and, as neither Captain Fell nor Commissioner Bail were in any way involved with the alleged deprivation of plaintiffs’ rights to be free from unreasonable seizure and excessive force, plaintiffs cannot maintain a conspiracy claim against them.”

Baylson found despite being asked to illustrate specific examples of past misconduct by Delaware County police officers, as previously argued and alleged by Jacobs and Williams, the plaintiffs did not do so in their amended complaint.

“Citing Second Circuit precedent, Plaintiffs contend that a municipality engages in a custom or practice that constitutes deliberate indifference when it fails to train or discipline officers regarding past unconstitutional conduct,” Baylson said. “Plaintiffs have not, however, alleged any facts in the complaint as to the past conduct of Delaware County. With respect to Count Five (the conspiracy count), plaintiffs have again failed to allege that the conspiracy deprived plaintiffs of any federally protected right.”

Baylson pointed out the Monell claim brought by Jacobs and Williams failed because of a lack of identification for a municipal policy-maker allegedly responsible for the rule or custom not training the officers.

“Plaintiffs have still not identified the relevant municipal decision maker responsible for the alleged policy decision not to train the Delaware County officers, nor alleged that the decision maker had knowledge of and acquiesced in the failure to train. Failure to allege conduct by a municipal decision maker is fatal to a Monell claim,” Baylson said.

Baylson similarly found the plaintiffs did not provide the evidentiary support needed on their conspiracy claim.

"Plaintiffs proffer no argument that the alleged falsification of police records would or did prevent them from seeking adequate redress on their Count One (Fourth Amendment violation), Count Three (assault and battery), and Count Four (intentional infliction of emotional distress) claims, or that there is an alternative remedy they have been denied that this Court cannot offer them,” Baylson said.

“For all of these reasons, the amended complaint does not, and cannot, state a denial of access claim. Overall, plaintiffs have not identified any federally protected right that was infringed by the alleged conspiracy and it appears that they cannot do so, making further amendment of Count Five futile,” Baylson concluded.

The plaintiffs are seeking compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorney’s fees, court costs, interest and other such relief the Court deems just and equitable.

The plaintiffs are represented by Joseph S. Oxman of Oxman Goodstadt Kuritz, in Philadelphia.

The defendants are represented by Robert P. DiDomenicis of Holsten & Associates, in Media, and Nicholas A. Cummins of Bennett Bricklin & Saltzburg, in Philadelphia.

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania case 2:14-cv-05797

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at nickpennrecord@gmail.com

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