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Belin v. O'Neill

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

December 3, 2019

CHARLES O'NEILL, et al., Defendants.


          PETER G. SHERIDAN, U.S.D.J.

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant County of Somerset's ("Defendant") motion to dismiss the Third Amended Complaint. (ECF No. 49). This case emanates from the death of prisoner Jaquan Williams ("Williams"), who was incarcerated at Somerset County Jail, after a physical altercation with another inmate in his jail cell. Plaintiff Patricia Belin ("Plaintiff) is the administratrix of Williams' estate. The Third Amended Complaint sets forth five causes of action: (1) failure to train (Count I); (2) failure to enforce policies and procedures (Count II); (3) wrongful death (Counts III); (4) violations of civil rights as protected under the New Jersey Constitution (Counts IV); and (5) negligence (Count V). (ECF No. 46). The Court has subject matter jurisdiction over this action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331.


         Williams was a known gang member and had a litany of arrests and detentions. (See Third Amended Complaint ("TAC") ¶¶ 6-30). On January 2, 2017, Williams was detained at the Somerset County Jail in connection with his failure to pay child support. (Id. ¶ 5). On January 11, 2017 at approximately 6:30 p.m., Williams challenged fellow inmate, James Kyser, to a fight, which took place in Williams' cell. (Id. ¶¶ 36, 50, 70). Two unidentified inmates witnessed the fight. One witness "observed Kyser throwing [Williams] around in his cell, and could hear the thud . .. of Williams' body hitting metal inside the cell." (Id. ¶ 75). The altercation in Williams' cell lasted approximately fifteen to twenty minutes. (Id. ¶ 73). "Directly after the fight," two Corrections Officers ("CO") separately came into Williams' housing unit, or "pod," and checked on Williams, but did not notice anything wrong with him at those times. (Id. ¶ 66). Shortly thereafter, an unidentified inmate called into the control center via intercom indicating that "something was wrong" with Williams. (Id. ¶ 37). At 7:06 p.m., or approximately sixteen to twenty-one minutes after the altercation, a CO responded to Williams' cell and called a "Code White" due to Williams' shallow breathing and slow facial movements. (Id. ¶ 38, Ex. A). Williams was then transported to Robert Woods University Hospital. He arrived at the hospital at 7:23 p.m. (Id. ¶ 40) and was pronounced dead at 9:45 p.m. (Id. ¶ 46).

         Plaintiff interposes her claims against the municipal Defendant, only.[1] The TAC cites and incorporates by reference several "jail directives," or policies in which Defendant's employees were purportedly obligated to follow. (Id. ¶¶ 82-99; Ex. B-G). These jail directives concern: (i) the job description, duties, and responsibilities of Classification Supervisors, Control Center 2 Operators, CC Operators, Roving Officers; as well as (ii) guidelines and procedures for inmate classification. (Id.). In addition, Plaintiff cites provisions of N.J.A.C. § 10A:31, which, inter alia, governs the standards of care owed to prison inmates under New Jersey law. (See Id. ¶¶ 100-103). In particular, Plaintiff references N.J.A.C. § 10A:31-14.2(a), which provides: "Inmates shall be protected by adult county correctional facility staff from personal abuse, corporal punishment, personal injury, disease, property damage, and harassment." Plaintiff also points to N.J.A.C. § 10A:31.12(b), which states: "The [prison] medical staff shall assess the medical complaints of inmates and provide for the treatment of inmates according to priorities of need."

         In Count I, Plaintiff contends that the series of events transpiring on January 11, 2017 demonstrate Defendant's failure to train COs in accordance with said jail directives and as prescribed under the above-referenced provisions of N.J.A.C. § 10A:31. (Id. ¶¶ 105-121). Similarly, in Count II, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant failed to enforce same. (Id. ¶¶ 123-142).

         Legal Standard

         On a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), the Court is required to accept as true all allegations in the Third Amended Complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom, and to view them in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. See Jordan v. Fox, Rothschild, O'Brien & Frankel, 20 F.3d 1250, 1261 (3d Cir. 1994). "To survive a motion to dismiss, 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) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). While a court will accept well-pleaded allegations as true for the purposes of the motion, it will not accept bald assertions, unsupported conclusions, unwarranted inferences, or sweeping legal conclusions cast in the form of factual allegations. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678-79; see also Morse v. Lower Merion School District, 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997). A complaint should be dismissed only if the well-pleaded alleged facts, taken as true, fail to state a claim. See In re Warfarin Sodium, 214 F.3d 395, 397-98 (3d Cir. 2000). The question is whether the claimant can prove any set of facts consistent with his or her allegations that will entitle him or her to relief, not whether that person will ultimately prevail. Semerenko v. Cendant Corp., 223 F.3d 165, 173 (3d Cir. 2001). "The pleader is required to 'set forth sufficient information to outline the elements of his claim or to permit inferences to be drawn that these elements exist.'" Kost v. Kozakewicz, 1 F.3d 176, 183 (3d Cir. 1993) (quoting 5A Wright & Miller, Fed. Practice & Procedure: Civil 2d § 1357, at 340 (2d ed. 1990)). "While a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiffs obligation to provide the 'grounds' of his' entitle[ment] to relief requires 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 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). "Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, ... on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact), . .. ." Id.


         i. Failure to Train and Enforce Policies and Procedures (Counts I, II)

         In Counts I and II, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant County of Somerset failed to properly train and enforce certain "policies, practices and customs necessary to protect Somerset County Jail detainees' [i.e., Williams'] constitutional rights." (See TCAC ¶ 105, 143). Plaintiff brings Counts I and II under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

         "Title 42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides a cause of action against 'every person who, under color of any statute of any State subjects or causes to be subjected, any citizen to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws." Wyatt v. Cole, 504 U.S. 158, 161 (1992). "The purpose of § 1983 is to deter state actors from using the badge of their authority to deprive individuals of their federally guaranteed rights and to provide relief to victims if such deterrence fails." Id.

         It is well established that "a local government may not be sued under § 1983 for an injury inflicted solely by its employees or agents." Monell v. Dept. of Social Servs. of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978). In other words, "a local government cannot be held liable under § 1983 under a theory of respondeat superior." Hammon v. Kennett Twp., 746 Fed.Appx. 146, 149 (3d Cir. 2018). Rather, "[p]laintiffs who seek to impose liability on local governments under § 1983 must prove that [some] 'action pursuant to official municipal policy' caused their injury." Connick v. Thompson, 563 U.S. 51, 60-61 (2011) (citation omitted). However, "[i]t is not enough for a § 1983 plaintiff merely to identify conduct properly attributable to the municipality. The plaintiff must also demonstrate that, through its deliberate conduct, the municipality was the 'moving force' behind the injury alleged. That is, a plaintiff must show that the municipal action was taken with the requisite degree of culpability and must demonstrate a direct causal link between the municipal action and the deprivation of federal rights." Vulcan Pioneers of New Jersey v. City of Newark, No. CIV. A. 02-5802 SDW, 2008 WL 4224941, at *4 (D.N.J. Sept. 10, 2008), aff'd, 374 Fed.Appx. 313 (3d Cir. 2010) (quoting Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs of Bryan Cty., Okl v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 404 (1997)). District courts are required to apply these "rigorous requirements of culpability and causation" stringently. Id.; see also Connick, 563 U.S. at 61-62.

         In order to state a claim for failure to train under Monell and its progeny (Count I), Plaintiff must demonstrate that the "municipality's failure to train its employees in a relevant respect. . . amount[s] to [a] 'deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom the [untrained employees] come into contact.'" Connick, 563 U.S. at 61 (citation omitted). Decisional case law provides that Plaintiff may successfully plead Defendant's "deliberate indifference" by identifying specific training deficiencies and either (1) a pattern of constitutional violations of which policymaking officials can be charged with knowledge, or (2) that training is obviously necessary to avoid constitutional violations. See, e.g., City of Canton, Ohio v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 396-97 (1989); Gaymon v. Esposito, No. CIV.A. 11-4170 JLL, 2012 WL 1068750, at *7 (D.N.J. Mar. 29, 2012). Moreover, Plaintiff must also demonstrate that the identified deficiencies were the actual cause of Williams' constitutional injuries. Id. at 391-392. In other words, Plaintiff cannot prevail merely by alleging that COs were inadequately trained, or that there was some negligent administration of an otherwise adequate program, or that the conduct resulting in the injury could have been avoided by better training. See Id. (federal courts are "ill suited to undertake" "in an endless exercise of second-guessing ...

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