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Sylvia Jenkins v. Mr. Liadka

September 12, 2012

SYLVIA JENKINS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MR. LIADKA, SYRACUSE POLICE OFFICER; MR. SANDS, SYRACUSE POLICE OFFICER; JOHN DOE, SYRACUSE POLICE OFFICER; AND SYRACUSE POLICE DEP'T, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Glenn T. Suddaby, United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM-DECISION and ORDER

Currently before the Court, in this pro se civil rights action filed by Sylvia Jenkins ("Plaintiff") against Mr. Liadka, Mr. Sands, John Doe, and Syracuse Police Department ("Defendants"), is Defendants' motion to dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint for insufficient service of process pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(5) and/or for failure to state a claim pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). (Dkt. No. 13.) For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motion is granted in part and denied in part.

I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND

A. Plaintiff's Complaint

Generally, construed with the utmost of special liberality, Plaintiff's Complaint asserts three claims against Defendants arising from an investigatory stop in September 2010, in Syracuse, New York: (1) a claim that three Syracuse Police Officers unreasonably searched her in violation of the Fourth Amendment; (2) a claim that they unlawfully seized, and failed to return, her personal property in violation of the Fourth, Fifth, and/or Fourteenth Amendments; and (3) a claim that they subjected her to excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. (See generally Dkt. No. 1 [Plf.'s Compl].)

Generally, in support of these claims, Plaintiff alleges as follows: (1) on the evening of September 9, 2010, she was stopped on Butternut Street in the City of Syracuse by two officers, who questioned her regarding a call they had received; (2) when she told the two police officers that she did not know what they were talking about and "attempted to go on about [her] business," the officers became "uptight, rude, [and] abnormal in their conversations [and] behavior," and threatened her; (3) the officers then proceeded to conduct a search of "all [of Plaintiff and her] personal property," and, in the process of doing so, twisted her arm and forced her onto the front of their police vehicle; (4) a third police officer arrived, and she was assaulted by all three officers (hereinafter "Defendants"), who hit her on the back and threw her onto the police vehicle; (5) following the deprivation on September 9, 2010, Defendants denied her a post-deprivation remedy through a combination of threats, intimidation and/or non-responsiveness; and (6) Defendants took these actions against her intentionally because they did not personally like her, given her previous interactions with the Syracuse Police Department. (Id.)

Plaintiff further alleges that, as a result of this incident, she suffered various injuries and losses, including (1) a "tremendous setback in already trying to recover in an [sic] grave overall manner of my life [and] lifestyle involving officials internally [and] externally," (2) head and back pain, and mental suffering, (3) loss of personal property, and, (4) loss of employment. (Id.) As relief, Plaintiff requests an award of twelve thousand dollars ($12,000) in damages. (Id. at ¶ 6.)

Familiarity with the remaining factual allegations supporting Plaintiff's three claims is assumed in this Decision and Order, which is intended primarily for review by the parties. (See generally Dkt. No. 1.)

B. Defendants' Motion

On May 6, 2011, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss. (Dkt. No. 13, Attach 2.) Generally, in support of their motion, Defendants assert the following two arguments: (1) because the Complaint was not served within the time allowed by Fed. R. Civ. P. 4 or Local Rule 4.1 of the Local Rules of Practice for this Court, the Court lacks jurisdiction over Defendants in accordance with Fed. R. Civ. P. 4; and (2) the Complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, because (a) the Complaint fails to identify what constitutional rights Plaintiff is attempting to vindicate, (b) even if the Complaint has sufficiently identified a constitutional violation, the Complaint fails to allege facts plausibly suggesting the personal involvement of the individual Defendants in any such constitutional violation, (c) the City of Syracuse Police Department does not have the legal capacity to be sued, (d) even if Plaintiff's Complaint can be liberally construed as attempting to assert a claim against the City of Syracuse, the Complaint fails to allege facts plausibly suggesting that the individual Defendants' actions the result of a city policy or custom sufficient to confer municipal liability upon the City, (e) the Fifth Amendment does not govern a plaintiff's deprivation-of-property claim against state actors, (f) the Complaint fails to allege facts plausibly suggesting that force was used or that if force was used it was excessive for purposes of a Fourth Amendment claim, and (g) based on Plaintiff's factual allegations, Defendants Liadka and Sands are protected from liability as a matter of law by the doctrine of qualified immunity. (See generally Dkt. No. 13, Attach. 2.)

On June 2, 2011, Plaintiff filed a response to Defendants' motion. Generally, Plaintiff's response, which is handwritten and three pages in length, states that she "definitely oppose[s] [Defendants'] request" for the dismissal of her Complaint. (See generally Dkt. No. 17.) However, Plaintiff's response does not address the legal arguments asserted by Defendants for the dismissal of Plaintiff's Complaint. (Compare Dkt. No. 17 with Dkt. No. 13, Attach. 2.) Although Plaintiff's response was submitted two days after the expiration of the response-deadline, the Court has accepted it, out of an extension of special solicitude to her as a pro se civil rights litigant.

In addition, Plaintiff has filed three letters to the Court on the following dates: July 6, 2011, August 22, 2011, and January 13, 2012. (Dkt. No. 18-20.) Generally, these letters contain assertions that Plaintiff believes that the police are following her, treating her negatively, and responding unsatisfactorily to her telephone calls. (Id.) To the extent that these three letters are intended to constitute papers in opposition to Defendants' motion, the Court will not consider them, because (1) they are not responsive to the motion, and/or (2) they were not submitted in a timely manner. Moreover, to the extent that these three letters are intended to constitute a request for relief, the Court will not consider them, because do not state the relief sought, state with particularity the grounds for seeking the order, and attach a memorandum of law and affidavit, as required by Fed. R. Civ. P. 7(b) and Local Rule 7.1 of the Local Rules of Practice for this Court.

II. RELEVANT LEGAL STANDARDS

A. Legal Standard Governing Motions to Dismiss for Insufficient Service of Process Rule 4(m) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides, in pertinent part, as follows:

If a defendant is not served within 120 days after the complaint is filed, the court--on motion or its own after notice to the plaintiff--must dismiss the action without prejudice against that defendant or order that service be made within a specified time. But if the plaintiff shows good cause for the failure, the court must extend the time for service for an appropriate period.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 4(m).

The Local Rules of Practice for this Court shorten the service requirements under Fed. R. Civ. P. 4. Specifically, Local Rule 4.1(b) requires "service of process upon all defendants within sixty (60) days of the filing of the complaint. This expedited service is necessary to ensure adequate time for pretrial discovery and motion practice. In no event shall service of process be completed after the time specified in Fed. R. Civ. P. 4." N.D.N.Y. L.R. 4.1(b).

B. Legal Standard Governing Motions to Dismiss for Failure to State Claim

It has long been understood that a defendant may base a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted on either or both of two grounds: (1) a challenge to the "sufficiency of the pleading" under Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2); or (2) a challenge to the legal cognizability of the claim. Jackson v. Onondaga Cnty., 549 F. Supp. 2d 204, 211, nn. 15-16 (N.D.N.Y. 2008) (McAvoy, J., adopting Report-Recommendation on de novo review).

Because such motions are often based on the first ground, a few words on that ground are appropriate. Rule 8(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires that a pleading contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2) [emphasis added]. In the Court's view, this tension between permitting a "short and plain statement" and requiring that the statement "show[]" an entitlement to relief is often at the heart of misunderstandings that occur regarding the pleading standard established by Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2).

On the one hand, the Supreme Court has long characterized the "short and plain" pleading standard under Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2) as "simplified" and "liberal." Jackson, 549 F. Supp.2d at 212, n.20 (citing Supreme Court case). On the other hand, the Supreme Court has held that, by requiring the above-described "showing," the pleading standard under Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2) requires that the pleading contain a statement that "give[s] the defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff's claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Jackson, 549 F. Supp.2d at 212, n.17 (citing Supreme Court cases) (emphasis added).

The Supreme Court has explained that such fair notice has the important purpose of "enabl[ing] the adverse party to answer and prepare for trial" and "facilitat[ing] a proper decision on the merits" by the court. Jackson, 549 F. Supp.2d at 212, n.18 (citing Supreme Court cases); Rusyniak v. Gensini, 629 F. Supp.2d 203, 213 & n.32 (N.D.N.Y. 2009) (Suddaby, J.) (citing Second Circuit cases). For this reason, as one commentator has correctly observed, the "liberal" notice pleading standard "has its limits." 2 Moore's Federal Practice § 12.34[1][b] at 12-61 (3d ed. 2003). For example, numerous Supreme Court and Second Circuit decisions exist holding that a pleading has failed to meet the "liberal" notice pleading standard. Rusyniak, 629 F. Supp.2d at 213, n.22 (citing Supreme Court and Second Circuit cases); see also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949-52 (2009).

Most notably, in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, the Supreme Court reversed an appellate decision holding that a complaint had stated an actionable antitrust claim under 15 U.S.C. § 1. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 127 S. Ct. 1955 (2007). In doing so, the Court "retire[d]" the famous statement by the Court in Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957), that "a complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Twombly, 127 S. Ct. at 1968-69. Rather than turning on the conceivability of an actionable claim, the Court clarified, the "fair notice" standard turns on the plausibility of an actionable claim. Id. at 1965-74. The Court explained that, while this does not mean that a pleading need "set out in detail the facts upon which [the claim is based]," it does mean that the pleading must contain at least "some factual allegation[s]." Id. at 1965. More specifically, the "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level [to a plausible level]," assuming (of course) that all the allegations in the complaint are true. Id.*fn1

As for the nature of what is "plausible," the Supreme Court explained that "[a] claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009). "[D]etermining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief . . . [is] a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense. . . . [W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged--but it has not show[n]--that the pleader is entitled to relief." Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1950 [internal quotation marks and citations omitted]. However, while the plausibility standard "asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully," id., it "does not impose a probability requirement." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556.

Because of this requirement of factual allegations plausibly suggesting an entitlement to relief, "the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in the complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions. Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by merely conclusory statements, do not suffice." Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1949. Similarly, a pleading that only "tenders naked assertions devoid of further factual enhancement" will not suffice. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949 (internal citations and alterations omitted). Rule 8 "demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation." Id.

This pleading standard applies even to pro se litigants. While the special leniency afforded to pro se civil rights litigants somewhat loosens the procedural rules governing the form of pleadings (as the Second Circuit has observed), it does not completely relieve a pro se plaintiff of the duty to satisfy the pleading standards set forth in Fed. R. Civ. P. 8, 10 and 12.*fn2

Rather, as both the Supreme Court and Second Circuit have repeatedly recognized, the requirements set forth in Fed. R. Civ. P. 8, 10 and 12 are procedural rules that even pro se civil rights plaintiffs must follow.*fn3 Stated more simply, when a plaintiff is proceeding pro se, "all normal rules of pleading are not absolutely suspended." Jackson, 549 F. Supp. 2d at 214, n.28.

Finally, a few words are appropriate regarding what documents are considered on a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). The court may consider the following documents without triggering the summary judgment standard: "(1) documents attached as an exhibit to the complaint or answer, (2) documents incorporated by reference into the complaint (and provided by the parties), (3) documents that, although not incorporated by reference, are "integral" to the complaint, or (4) any matter of which the court can take judicial notice for the factual background of the case." Planck v. Schenectady Cnty., 12-CV-0336, 2012 WL 1977972, at *5 (N.D.N.Y. June 1, 2012) (Suddaby, J.). Moreover, "a pro se plaintiff's papers in response to a defendant's motion to dismiss for ...


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