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Pierce v. Chautauqua County

September 28, 2007

JEFFERSON L. PIERCE, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS LEGAL PARENT AND GUARDIAN OF J.P. AND M.P., MINORS, AND DIANE J. PIERCE, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS LEGAL PARENT AND GUARDIAN OF J.P. AND M.P., MINORS, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
CHAUTAUQUA COUNTY, NEW YORK; CHAUTAUQUA COUNTY SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT; JOSEPH A. GERACE, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS CHAUTAUQUA COUNTY SHERIFF; CHAUTAUQUA COUNTY SHERIFF'S DEPUTIES, CHRIS OTTOWAY AND JASON BEICHNER; INTENDED TO BE THE INDIVIDUAL OFFICERS INVOLVED IN THE HARASSMENT, ASSAULT, AND/OR DETENTION OF PLAINTIFF, JEFFERSON L. PIERCE, HEREIN "CCSD JOHN DOE" AND/OR "CCSD JANE DOE," THE NAMES "CCSD JOHN/JANE DOE," BEING FICTITIOUS, AND INTENDED TO BE ANY ADDITIONAL INDIVIDUAL OFFICERS INVOLVED IN THE HARASSMENT ASSAULT AND/OR DETENTION OF PLAINTIFFS HEREIN; KIRK MAURER, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS COMMISSIONER OF CHAUTAUQUA COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES; CHAUTAUQUA COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES; AND "DSS JOHN DOE," AND/OR "DSS JANE DOE," THE NAMES "DSS JOHN/JANE DOE" BEING FICTITIOUS, INTENDED TO BE THE CHAUTAUQUA COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES EMPLOYEES OR AGENTS INVOLVED IN THE HARASSMENT OF THE PLAINTIFFS HEREIN, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John T. Curtin United States District Judge

In this action, plaintiffs seek damages against the County of Chautauqua; the Chautauqua County Sheriff's Department ("Sheriff's Department"); Sheriff Joseph A. Gerace ("Sheriff Gerace"), individually and in his official capacity; Sheriff's Deputies Chris Ottoway ("Ottoway"), Jason Beichner ("Beichner"), and any other deputies involved; Commissioner of Chautauqua County Department of Social Services Kirk Maurer ("Commissioner Maurer") individually and in his official capacity; Chautauqua County Department of Social Services ("DSS"); and any of its agents who may have been involved. Plaintiffs' causes of action are based on theories of liability for several common law torts, as well as violations of plaintiffs' civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The defendants have filed a motion to dismiss plaintiffs' claims pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) (Item 23). For the reasons that follow, defendants' motion is granted in part and denied in part.

BACKGROUND and FACTS

According to the amended complaint, on November 25, 2005 at approximately 7:50 p.m., Chautauqua County Sheriff's Deputies Ottaway and Beichner arrived at the plaintiffs' house and accused plaintiff Jefferson L. Pierce of discharging a firearm after dark (Item 22, ¶ 19). The deputies also stated that plaintiff Jefferson Pierce had a felony record and was therefore unlawfully in possession of a firearm (id.). Plaintiffs denied that a firearm had been discharged, and Mr. Pierce told the deputies that he was not a convicted felon (id., ¶ 20). Nonetheless, the deputies entered the residence without a warrant and without consent, knocked over the plaintiff's two-year-old daughter, and confiscated several firearms, including a World War I-era rifle which plaintiff Diane J. Pierce was holding (id., ¶¶ 21-22). Plaintiffs also allege that the deputies threatened the plaintiffs that Chautauqua County Child Protection Services agents, who were parked in plaintiffs' driveway, would remove plaintiffs' children if plaintiffs did not comply with the search of their residence (id., ¶¶ 19, 24).

Plaintiffs' complaint further alleges that the deputies used excessive force when arresting Mr. Pierce (Item 22, ¶¶ 36-40). The complaint alleges that the deputies "'grabbed' Mr. Pierce by the arms, 'wrenched' him around, and forcibly removed him from his home . . . ," causing pain and exacerbating his pre-existing injuries (id., ¶¶ 25, 37, 38). Mr. Pierce was taken to the Chautauqua County jail, where he was detained for approximately one hour until it was discovered that a mistake had been made, and that he was not a convicted felon (id., ¶ 26). Mr. Pierce was then released (id.).

Plaintiffs initiated this action by filing a complaint on September 26, 2006 (Item 1). After the defendants filed a motion to dismiss, plaintiffs filed an amended complaint on December 4, 2006 (Item 18). Plaintiffs claim, among other things, that the actions of the Sheriff's Deputies violated their civil rights according to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Specifically, plaintiffs claim that Chautauqua County and/or Sheriff Joseph A. Gerace are liable for plaintiffs' injuries because Chautauqua County "lacked adequate policy in recruiting, managing and training officers in police actions . . . ." (Item 22, ¶ 32). Plaintiffs also claim that Chautauqua County and Sheriff Gerace have a municipal policy which allows officers to act on complaints without sufficient investigation (id., ¶ 33).

On January 5, 2007, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss plaintiffs' amended complaint (Item 23). Defendants argue that plaintiffs have failed to allege any actions by the Chautauqua County DSS or Commissioner Maurer that constitute a violation of section 1983, failed to allege any personal involvement by Sheriff Gerace, failed to adequately allege any municipal custom or policy necessary to support a claim against the municipalities or individual defendants sued in their official capacities, failed to state a claim against the Sheriff's Department and DSS as administrative arms of Chautauqua County, and have failed to allege a claim against the individual deputies (Item 24, ¶¶ 14-19).

DISCUSSION

I. Motion to Dismiss

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires only "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Specific facts are not necessary; the statement need only "'give the defendant fair notice of what the. . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'" Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. ___, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1964 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). Under Rule 12(b)(6), a plaintiff's complaint will be dismissed if it fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). When ruling on a defendant's motion to dismiss, a judge must accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint. Bell Atlantic Corp., 127 S.Ct. at 1965 (citing Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N. A., 534 U.S. 506, 508, n.1 (2002)). While a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff's obligation to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do. See Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986) (on a motion to dismiss, courts "are not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation").

In ruling on a motion to dismiss, the court is "not to weigh the evidence that might be presented at a trial but merely to determine whether the complaint itself is legally sufficient." Goldman v. Belden, 754 F.2d 1059, 1067 (2d Cir. 1985) (citing Ryder Energy Distribution Corp. v. Merrill Lynch Commodities Inc., 748 F.2d 774, 779 (2d Cir. 1984)). Therefore, after interpreting the complaint in favor of the plaintiff, if it is determined that the plaintiff has failed to allege a set of facts which, if proven to be true, would entitle him to relief, the complaint will be dismissed. See Ferran v. Town of Nassau, 11 F.3d 21, 22 (2d. Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 513 U.S. 1121 (1994); Sworn v. Western New York Children's Psychiatric Ctr., 269 F. Supp. 2d 152, 155 (W.D.N.Y. 2003) (citing Hishon v. King & Spalding, 467 U.S. 69, 73 (1984)).

II. Claims Against the Sheriff's Department and DSS

The defendants seek dismissal of the complaint against the Chautauqua County Sheriff's Department and the Chautauqua County DSS on the ground that both governmental departments are administrative units of the County of Chautauqua and are not separate legal entities subject to suit.

It is well settled that, under New York law, "departments which are merely administrative arms of a municipality, do not have a legal identity separate and apart from the municipality and cannot sue or be sued." Caidor v. M&T Bank, 2006 WL 839547, at *2 (N.D.N.Y. March 27, 2006) (quoting Hall v. City of White Plains, 185 F. Supp. 2d 293, 303 (S.D.N.Y. 2002)). Accordingly, since the Chautauqua County Sheriff's Department and DSS are merely administrative arms of Chautauqua County, the claims against them must be dismissed. See Willard v. Town of Hamburg, 1996 WL 607100, at *1 (W.D.N.Y. Sept. 30, 1996) (dismissing the claims against the Police Department and the Town Board because neither "exist separate and apart from the Town and [they] do not have their own legal identities").

III. Claims Against Commissioner Maurer and Sheriff Gerace

The plaintiffs have sued both Commissioner Maurer and Sheriff Gerace in their official capacities as well as their individual capacities. The defendants, however, argue that the complaint alleges no facts which indicate personal involvement by Commissioner Maurer or Sheriff Gerace in the alleged incident, and that plaintiffs have failed to allege ...


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