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Willis v. Oklahoma County Detention Center

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

September 13, 2019

STACY WILLIS, as Personal Representative of the Estate of, MITCHELL EVERETT WILLIS, Deceased, Plaintiff,


          Timothy D. DeGiusti Chief United States District Judge.

         Before the Court is a Joint Motion to Dismiss and Brief in Support [Doc. No. 35] filed by Defendants Oklahoma County Detention Center, Board of County Commissioners of Oklahoma County, Sheriff P.D. Taylor, and the Oklahoma County Sheriff's Department (collectively, “Defendants”), in their official capacities. The Joint Motion was filed pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). Plaintiff filed a response [Doc. No. 43], to which Defendants have replied. [Doc. No. 48].


         Mitchell Everett Willis (“Willis”) was arrested on August 18, 2017. Plaintiff's Amended Complaint [Doc. No. 30] at 7, ¶ 10. That same day, Willis was placed in the custody of the Oklahoma County Detention Center (the “OCDC”) as a pretrial detainee. Id. at 7-8, ¶¶ 10, 12. After intake, Willis was allegedly assaulted by employees of the Oklahoma County Sheriff's Department (the “OCSD”), suffering blunt force trauma to the head, neck, and torso. Id. at 7, ¶ 10. Several other OCSD employees looked on as Willis was attacked. Id. Following the assault, Willis was left face down on the floor of his cell for several hours, where he died as the result of his injuries. Id. at 9-10, ¶ ¶ 16, 19.

         Before Willis' death, OCDC had been the subject of serious concern. Because of a 2007 investigation into OCDC, the United States Department of Justice (“DoJ”) issued a report (“DoJ Report”). Doc. No. 30, Ex.1 at 1. Certain conditions at OCDC, the DoJ concluded, “violate the constitutional rights of detainees confined therein.” Id. at 2. The DoJ noted insufficient staffing, possible uses of excessive force, issues regarding medical care, and poor training. Id. at 6-10.

         OCSD oversees the jail's day-to-day operations. See Memorandum of Understanding Between the United States and Oklahoma County, Oklahoma, Doc. No. 30, Ex. 2 at 6. The questionable practices employed at OCDC allegedly began under Sheriff Whetsel and continued through Sheriff Taylor's term in office. See Id. at 11, ¶ 23. About five months before Willis' death, Defendant Sheriff Whetsel retired from his position. That same day, March 1, 2017, Defendant Sheriff Taylor took office. See Plaintiff's Amended Complaint [Doc. No. 30] at 4-5, ¶ 6.

         Plaintiff Stacy Willis, on Willis' behalf, sued multiple defendants alleging violations of Willis' rights under the United States Constitution. Plaintiff's Amended Complaint at 1. The claims were brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, along with requests for attorney's fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988.


         Rule 12(b)(6) Failure to State a Claim

         To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a complaint must contain enough facts that, when accepted as true, “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); see Robbins v. Oklahoma, 519 F.3d 1242, 1247 (10th Cir. 2008). A claim has facial plausibility when the court can draw “the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. In § 1983 cases, it is particularly important “that the complaint make clear exactly who is alleged to have done what to whom, to provide each individual with fair notice as to the basis of the claims against him or her.” See Robbins, 519 F.3d at 1249-50 (emphasis in original); see also Smith v. United States, 561 F.3d 1090, 1104 (10th Cir. 2009).


         I. OCDC and OCSD are not proper defendants and should be dismissed with prejudice.

         Defendants argue, and Plaintiff agrees, that OCDC and OCSD should be dismissed from this action. See Joint Motion at 2; Plaintiff's Response to Joint Motion [Doc. No. 43] at 1-2.

         A noncorporate entity's capacity to be sued is determined by the law of the state in which the district court is located. Fed.R.Civ.P. 17(b)(3). In Oklahoma, each organized county can sue and be sued. Okla. Stat. tit. 19, § 1(1). The authority of each county is exercised by its board of county commissioners, and a lawsuit brought against a county must be filed against the board of county commissioners of the relevant county. Okla. Stat. tit. 19, §§ 3, 4. Because OCDC and OCSD do not have legal identities separate from that of Oklahoma County, they are not suable entities and are not proper defendants in a civil rights action. See Lindsey v. Thomson, 275 Fed.Appx. 744, 747 (10th Cir. Sept. 10, 2007) (unpublished) (affirming dismissal of § 1983 claims against police departments and a county sheriff's department, noting that defendants were “not legally suable entities”); Reid v. Hamby, No. 95-7142, 1997 WL 537909, at *6 (10th Cir. Sept. 2, 1997) (unpublished) (holding that “an Oklahoma ‘sheriff's department' is not a proper entity for purposes of a ...

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