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Pendleton v. Board of County Commissioners for Oklahoma County

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

September 30, 2019

MAE PENDLETON, Special Administrator of the Estate of Maurice Pendleton, Deceased, Plaintiff,


          CHARLES B. GOODWIN, United States District Judge.

         Now before the Court are the following motions: (1) Motion to Dismiss of Defendant P.D. Taylor in His Official Capacity as Sheriff of Oklahoma County (Doc. No. 5); (2) Motion to Dismiss of Defendant Taylor in His Individual Capacity (Doc. No. 6); (3) Motion to Dismiss of Defendant Board of County Commissioners for Oklahoma County (Doc. No. 7); (4) Motion to Dismiss of Defendants Willa Johnson, Brian Maughan, and Ray Vaughn in Their Official Capacities as County Commissioners of Oklahoma County (Doc. No. 8); and (5) Motion to Dismiss of Defendants Johnson, Maughan, and Vaughn in Their Individual Capacities (Doc. No. 9). Plaintiff has submitted four Responses in opposition (Doc. Nos. 14, 15, 16, 17). After considering the parties’ arguments and the governing law, the Court determines that the Motions should be granted in part and denied in part, as set forth more particularly below.

         Summary of the Pleadings

         Plaintiff Mae Pendleton filed this lawsuit as Special Administrator for the Estate of her son, Maurice Pendleton, who was beaten to death by fellow inmates while in pretrial custody at the Oklahoma County Detention Center (the “OCDC”). Plaintiff alleges that, on or about July 18, 2017, Mr. Pendleton was “locked inside a converted basketball court used as a holding pen for inmates facing disciplinary sanctions.” Compl. (Doc. No. 1-2) ¶¶ 16, 23. The holding area “was not supervised by any jail staff, ” and inmates were “left unrestrained to freely roam about without restriction or oversight.” Id. ¶ 18. While locked in the holding area, Mr. Pendleton “was confronted and attacked by at least four inmates, ” three of whom were “awaiting disciplinary hearings for attacking other inmates” and all of whom had a known “history of violence.” Id. ¶¶ 19-20. The attackers “savagely beat[]” Mr. Pendleton, “kick[ing] [him] repeatedly in the head and body, ” while “stripping him naked.” Id. ¶¶ 21-22. When jailers arrived, Mr. Pendleton was “still alive and consci[ous]”; however, he died several hours later from a traumatic head injury. Id. ¶¶ 23, 25.

         Defendants include the Board of County Commissioners for Oklahoma County, Oklahoma (the “Board”); County Commissioners Willa Johnson, Brian Maughan, and Ray Vaughn (collectively, the “Commissioners”), [1] in both their official and individual capacities; and Oklahoma County Sheriff P.D. Taylor, in both his official and individual capacities. Plaintiff alleges Defendants had “actual notice” that inadequate staffing and monitoring at the OCDC were “likely to result in inmate-on-inmate violence” and, despite having such knowledge, failed to allocate funding to address the deficiencies. Id. ¶ 41. Plaintiff alleges: “Either the Board failed to adequately fund Taylor’s office to fulfill its constitutional duty to provide a facility that was adequate for the safekeeping of inmates, or Taylor’s office squandered taxpayer money on luxuries instead of correcting the deficiencies.” Id. ¶ 40.

         Plaintiff seeks “a declaration that conditions of confinement at the OCDC caused the death of Maurice Pendleton and deprived him of the fundamental constitutional right to safety and bodily integrity.” Id. ¶ 2. She also seeks damages for the alleged federal and state constitutional deprivations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Bosh v. Cherokee County Governmental Building Authority, 305 P.3d 994 (Okla. 2013), respectively. See Id . ¶ 3.


         I. The Rule 12(b)(5) Motion

         The Commissioners first contend that dismissal of the claims raised against them in their individual capacities is required under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(5) because Plaintiff failed to properly serve them with this lawsuit.

         Personal service under Rule 4 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure “notif[ies] a defendant of the commencement of an action against him.” Okla. Radio Assocs. v. Fed. Deposit Ins. Corp., 969 F.2d 940, 943 (10th Cir. 1992). Further, such service “provides the mechanism” for the court to “assert[] jurisdiction over the person of the party served.” Id.; see also Murphy Bros., Inc. v. Michetti Pipe Stringing, Inc., 526 U.S. 344, 350-51 (1999). A Rule 12(b)(5) motion challenges the plaintiff’s mode of serving process on the moving party. Craig v. City of Hobart, No. CIV-09-53-C, 2010 WL 680857, at *1 (W.D. Okla. Feb. 24, 2010) (citing 5B Charles A. Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice & Procedure § 1353 (3d ed. 2004)). In opposing a Rule 12(b)(5) motion, the plaintiff bears the burden of showing that he or she “complied with all statutory and due process requirements.” Id. “Motions under Federal Rules 12(b)(4) and 12(b)(5) differ from the other motions permitted by Rule 12(b) somewhat in that they offer the district court a course of action-quashing the process without dismissing the action-other than simply dismissing the case when the defendant’s defense or objection is sustained.” 5B Wright & Miller, supra, § 1354; accord Gray v. Ritter, No. CIV-09-909-F, 2010 WL 4880890, at *2 (W.D. Okla. Oct. 8, 2010).

         Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(e)(1), service may be made upon an individual within a judicial district of the United States by “following state law for serving a summons in an action brought in courts of general jurisdiction in the state where the district court is located or where service is made.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 4(e)(1). Thus, service upon these Defendants in accordance with the Oklahoma Pleading Code would satisfy Rule 4.

         Pursuant to the Oklahoma Pleading Code, a summons and initial pleading may be served by “certified mail, return receipt requested and delivery restricted to the addressee.” Okla. Stat. tit. 12, § 2004(C)(2)(b). The Commissioners’ Motion argues that Plaintiff failed to comply with Oklahoma’s service statute because Plaintiff served the Petition and Summons by unrestricted (as opposed to restricted) certified mail. See Comm’rs Indiv. Capacity Mot. (Doc. No. 9) at 5-6.[2] The Commissioners have not supplied the executed summonses to the Court, and Plaintiff has not filed the executed returns of service as required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(l).

         Plaintiff does not dispute, however, that service was improper under Oklahoma law. See Pl.’s Resp. to Comm’rs Indiv. Capacity Mot. (Doc. No. 15) at 6-7. Plaintiff nonetheless argues that, absent any allegation that the deficiency has denied these Defendants due process, dismissal is unwarranted. The Court agrees.

         “Strict compliance with the Oklahoma statutory scheme is not required for service to be proper[.]” Bristow First Assembly of God v. BP p.l.c., 210 F.Supp.3d 1284, 1292 (N.D. Okla. 2016). Instead, Oklahoma courts adhere to a rule of “substantial compliance.” Graff v. Kelly, 814 P.2d 489, 495 (Okla. 1991); Free v. Okla. Dep’t of Corrs., No. CIV-13-87-F, 2014 WL 347627, at *4 (W.D. Okla. Jan. 30, 2014). “To determine whether substantial compliance has occurred, the court must consider the circumstances and determine whether the found departure offends the standards of due process and thus may be deemed to have deprived a party of its fundamental right to notice.” Bristow, 210 F.Supp.3d at 1292 (internal quotation marks omitted). In other words, the court must find that the deficient service nonetheless fairly apprised the defendant of the lawsuit and the consequences attendant to default. Id.

         Both the Tenth Circuit and the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals have recognized that the statutory requirement of restricted delivery is not essential, so long as the defendant had actual notice of the pending litigation. See Nikwei v. Ross Sch. of Aviation, Inc., 822 F.2d 939, 943-44 (10th Cir. 1987) (rejecting defendant’s argument that “service was fatally defective” under prior Oklahoma statute because “plaintiffs did not request a return receipt from addressee only” where “the evidence demonstrated that the defendant himself was served”); Coulsen v. Owens, 125 P.3d 1233, 1237 (Okla.Civ.App. 2005) (holding that “service [was] valid, ” despite the fact that “the certified mail delivery was not designated ‘restricted, ’” where “there was no dispute that Defendant received the summons and petition”).

         As in Niwei and Coulsen, the record in this case reflects that the Commissioners received actual notice of Plaintiff’s lawsuit and are otherwise unprejudiced by Plaintiff’s technical deficiency. Accordingly, the Court concludes that Plaintiff substantially complied with Oklahoma’s service statute, the requested relief of dismissal or quashing of service is unwarranted, and the Court may exercise personal jurisdiction over the Commissioners.

         II. The Rule 12(b)(1) Motions

         The Board and the Commissioners argue that the Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction over Plaintiff’s claims because Plaintiff lacks standing to sue as her injury is not traceable to the Board. See Bd. Mot. (Doc. No. 7) at 12-20; Comm’rs Official Capacity Mot. (Doc. No. 8) at 11-17; Comm’rs Indiv. Capacity Mot. at 15-19. The crux of this argument is that, because the Board “has no express statutory authority to act in areas of jail operations, ” the injury alleged is not “traceable to the [Board’s] acts or omissions” or to the conduct of any individual Commissioner. Bd. Mot. at 15. These Defendants argue that they do not exercise supervisory authority over Defendant Taylor as Sheriff, that Plaintiff is not complaining about any policies of the Board, and that Plaintiff cannot establish that her injuries “are fairly traceable to conduct of [the Board], ” and thus the Board and the Commissioners are not proper parties to this lawsuit. Id.

         This standing argument conflates the justiciability of a plaintiff’s lawsuit with the plaintiff’s ultimate ability to prove a defendant’s liability in that lawsuit. Cf. Kauble v. Bd. of Cty. Comm’rs of Cty. of Okla., No. CIV-17-729-D, 2018 WL 912285, at *3 (W.D. Okla. Feb. 15, 2018) (“While couched in terms of subject matter jurisdiction, [the Oklahoma County Board of County Commissioners’] argument [that the plaintiff lacks Article III standing to sue], in reality, is premised on the notion that [the plaintiff] has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted because [the Oklahoma County Board of County Commissioners] has no authority to act in areas of detaining or releasing inmates.”); Thurman v. Cty. Comm’rs of Okla. Cty., No. CIV-17-950-M, 2018 WL 6237908, at *3 (W.D. Okla. Oct. 16, 2018) (R. & R.) (same), adopted, 2018 WL 6220213 (W.D. Okla. Nov. 28, 2018).

         This type of standing argument has been repeatedly rejected by this Court:

Under Oklahoma law, a county’s board of county commissioners is not a separate legal entity from the county. Rather, in general, it exercises the powers of the county. 19 Okla. Stat. § 3. A suit brought against a county’s board of county commissioners is the way Oklahoma law contemplates suing the county. 19 Okla. Stat. § 4. Moreover, in the § 1983 context, a suit against the board of county commissioners or some other county official in their official capacity is, in substance, a suit against the county .....
The motion filed by the Board of County Commissioners confuses the issue by arguing that it (the Board) is not a “proper party, ” essentially because it didn't do anything wrong, or fail to do anything it had a duty to do. But, as noted above, the Board, as such, is not even a legal entity and obviously cannot be a “party” regardless of what it did or didn’t do. Rather, the question is whether a basis for claim against the county is stated.
Snow v. Bd. of Cty. Comm’rs of Cty. of McClain, No. CIV-14-911-HE, 2014 WL 7335319, at *2 (citing DuBois v. Bd. of Cty. Comm’rs of Mayes Cty., No. 12-CV-677-JED-PJC, 2014 WL 4810332 (N.D. Okla. Sept. 29, 2014)).

Cramer v. Okla. Cty. Bd. of Cty. Comm’rs, No. CIV-18-179-G, 2019 WL 1937602, at *5-6 (W.D. Okla. May 1, 2019) (citation omitted).

         Plaintiff has plausibly alleged that the County, through its Board of three Commissioners, is responsible for providing and funding a jail for Oklahoma County and failed to properly fulfill that responsibility. See, e.g., Compl. ¶¶ 5, 32-34, 50. Further, as explained below, Plaintiff has plausibly alleged a claim against Oklahoma County, acting through Defendant Taylor, regarding the operation of the Jail. See, e.g., id. ¶¶ 6, 42.

“Although it is true that in certain circumstances a board of county commissioners may be an improper party because its policies or customs cannot be shown to be responsible for an alleged constitutional violation, that does not mean that a board can never be a proper party as a matter of law.” Kauble, 2018 WL 912285, at *4; accord Chichakli v. Samuels, No. CIV-15-687-D, 2016 WL 11447755, at *3 (W.D. Okla. Mar. 10, 2016) (R. & R.) (“Grady County can be held liable notwithstanding the fact that the Grady County Board of County Commissioners, itself, does not operate the jail or promulgate the policies attendant thereto.”), adopted, 2016 WL 2743542 (W.D. Okla. May 11, 2016). “The United States Supreme Court has made it clear that any official or entity whose actions represent official ...

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