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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,



         Before the Court is a Joint Motion to Dismiss and Brief in Support [Doc. No. 36] filed by Defendants Sheriff P.D. Taylor and Sheriff John Whetsel (“Defendants”) in their individual capacities. The Sheriffs' Joint Motion was filed pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). Plaintiff filed a response [Doc. No. 44], to which Defendants have replied. [Doc. No. 49].


         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. Cf. Id. at 11, ¶ 23; see Plaintiff's Response in Opposition to the Joint Motion to Dismiss [Doc. No. 44] at 5-6 & n.7. About five months before Willis' death, Defendant Sheriff Whetsel retired from his position as sheriff. 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. See Id. 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).

         Supervisory Liability Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983

         Title 42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides that a person acting “under the color of law” to deprive someone else of their “rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, ” shall be liable to the person injured. A supervisor cannot be vicariously liable for the conduct of subordinates under § 1983; “[A] plaintiff must plead that each Government-official defendant, through the official's own individual actions, has violated the Constitution.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 676.

         Supervisory liability, however, “allows a plaintiff to impose liability on a defendant-supervisor who creates, promulgates, [or] implements . . . a policy, ” which results in the deprivation of a person's constitutional rights. See Dodds v. Richardson, 614 F.3d 1185, 1199 (10th Cir. 2011), cert. denied, 131 S.Ct. 2150 (2011). To succeed in a § 1983 suit against a defendant-supervisor, a plaintiff must show that: “(1) the defendant promulgated, created, implemented or possessed responsibility for the continued operation of a policy that (2) caused the complained of constitutional harm, and (3) acted with the state of mind required to establish the alleged constitutional deprivation.” Id. at 1199. See also Cox v. Glanz, 800 F.3d 1231, 1248 (10th Cir. 2015); Pahls v. Thomas, 718 F.3d 1210, 1210, 1225 (10th Cir. 2013).


         I. Plaintiff's claims for excessive force and lack of adequate medical care are Fourteenth Amendment due process claims.

         Because the precise constitutional harm asserted in a § 1983 supervisory liability action goes on to affect the legal standards that apply, the Court must first establish which violation is at issue. See Estate of Booker v. Gomez, 745 F.3d 405, 418-19 (10th Cir. 2014) (“[A] district court evaluating an excessive force claim must first isolate the precise constitutional violation with which [the defendant] is charged because [t]he choice of amendment matters.”).

         a) Excessive Force

         “Excessive force claims can be maintained under the Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, or Fourteenth Amendment . . . and each carries with it a very different legal test.” Porro v. Barnes, 624 F.3d 1322, 1325 (10th Cir. 2010). An excessive force claim brought under the Fourth Amendment depends on the objective reasonableness of the defendants' actions. See Id. The same claim brought under the Fourteenth Amendment turns on other factors, including “the motives of the state actor.” See Id. at 1325-26; see also Gomez, 745 F.3d at 418-19. The Fourth Amendment standard applies to claims “arising from [the] treatment of an arrestee detained without a warrant and prior to any probable cause hearing.” Gomez, F.3d at 419, 421. The Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process standard governs claims of excessive force brought by a pretrial detainee. Id. at 419.

         There is nothing in the Amended Complaint suggesting Willis was arrested without a warrant or probable cause. Plaintiff makes repeated references to the violation of Willis' Fourth Amendment rights. Doc. No. 30 at 16, ¶ 38. See Plaintiff's Response at 10 & n.10. The Fourth Amendment, by its very text, however, prohibits only “unreasonable seizures.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. Plaintiff also alleges violations under the Fourteenth Amendment. Amended Complaint at 16, ¶ 38. Willis was a pretrial detainee at the time of the attack. Id. at 7, ¶ 10. Therefore, Defendants correctly point out that the Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process standard should govern. Sheriffs' Joint Motion at 4.

         The Court agrees that Plaintiff's excessive force claim alleges a violation of Willis' Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights, resulting from “substandard policies and procedures” on use of ...

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