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Villar v. County of Erie

United States District Court, W.D. New York

December 27, 2019

ADAM VILLAR, Plaintiff,
COUNTY OF ERIE and TIMOTHY B. HOWARD, Individually and as Erie County Sheriff, Defendants.




         In this action, Plaintiff Adam Villar seeks damages from Erie County and its sheriff, Timothy B. Howard, for violations of his constitutional rights while he was incarcerated in the Erie County Correctional Facility (“ECCF”). Before this Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Villar's complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, pursuant to Rule 12 (b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Docket No. 55.) For the following reasons, Defendants' motion is granted in part and denied in part.


         This Court assumes the truth of the following factual allegations contained in Villar's complaint and the attached exhibits.[1] See Hosp. Bldg. Co. v. Trs. of Rex Hosp., 425 U.S. 738, 740, 96 S.Ct. 1848, 48 L.Ed.2d 338 (1976); see also Hamilton Chapter of Alpha Delta Phi, Inc. v. Hamilton Coll., 128 F.3d 59, 63 (2d Cir. 1997).

         Plaintiff Adam Villar was arrested in Erie County on December 31, 2009 and taken to the Erie County Holding Center (“ECHC”) in Buffalo, New York. (Complaint, Docket No. 1-1, pp. 3-78, ¶ 16.) On January 2, 2010, Villar was transported to ECCF in Alden, New York. (Id., ¶ 17.) On January 3, 2010, Villar was sexually assaulted and raped by another inmate in a shower stall in the Nova Unit at ECCF. (Id., ¶¶ 20-25.) The inmate who sexually assaulted Villar “ran” the Nova Unit and was known to both Erie County and Sheriff Howard. (Id., ¶ 24.) This inmate stated that he had done this-referring to sexual assault-before. (Id., ¶ 26.) On January 4, 2010, Villar was sexually assaulted again, by the same inmate, in a shower stall in the Nova Unit at ECCF. (Id., ¶¶ 27-29.)

         Defendant Erie County operated ECCF. (Id., ¶ 5.) Timothy Howard, as Erie County Sheriff, was and is responsible for the day-to-day operations of ECCF. (Id., ¶ 9.)

         Defendants Erie County and Timothy Howard were aware of the risk of sexual assault faced by Villar in January 2010. (Id., ¶¶ 12, 30.) On July 15, 2009, Acting Assistant U.S. Attorney General Loretta King issued a letter (“the King letter”) detailing the results of a Department of Justice investigation of ECHC and ECCF. (Id., ¶ 15.) Erie County and Sheriff Howard were on notice of the risks to inmates described in this letter. (Id.) The United States brought a lawsuit based on the issues in the King letter against Erie County and Sheriff Howard on September 30, 2009. (Id., ¶ 15.) The King letter and the complaint from the resulting lawsuit are attached as exhibits to Villar's complaint. (Docket No. 1-1 at pp. 29-78 (letter), pp. 14-25 (complaint).)

         The King letter noted 70 reported incidents of inmate-on-inmate violence between January 1, 2007, and February 9, 2008, detailing five specific incidents where assaults happened in the absence of staff supervision. (Id., p. 49.) It identified inadequate inmate supervision and a failure to properly classify inmates as causes of this violence. (Id., pp. 48-49.) The letter referred to an April 2007 New York State report that also addressed the inadequate classification system. (Id., p. 52.) The King letter recommended remedial measures including increased staffing levels, improved supervision of common areas, improved security rounds, the development of a classification system that classified inmates based on inmate history, and rape prevention training for staff. (Id., pp. 69-71.) Defendants did not implement any of the remedial measures suggested in the King letter. (Complaint, ¶¶ 14, 33-34.)


         Villar alleges that both Defendants are liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for failing to protect him from assault while he was in their custody, in violation of his Fourteenth Amendment rights. Villar alleges several theories of Defendants' liability. Villar alleges that both defendants are liable because they knew of and disregarded a serious risk that he would be assaulted. (Complaint, ¶¶ 36-37.) Villar alleges that Erie County, as a municipality, and Sheriff Howard, in his official capacity, are liable to him because there was a policy or custom of failing to prevent inmate assaults at ECCF. (Complaint, ¶¶ 33-34.) Finally, Villar alleges that Sheriff Howard, in his individual capacity, is liable because he was personally involved in the failure to protect him. (Id., ¶¶ 34.)

         Defendants move to dismiss Villar's claim for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted under Rule 12 (b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

         A. Rule 12 (b)(6)

         Rule 12 (b)(6) allows dismissal of a complaint for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12 (b)(6). Federal pleading standards are generally not stringent: Rule 8 requires only a short and plain statement of a claim. Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). But the plain statement must “possess enough heft to show that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 557, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1966, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007).

         When determining whether a complaint states a claim, the court must construe it liberally, accept all factual allegations as true, and draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. Goldstein v. Pataki, 516 F.3d 50, 56 (2d Cir. 2008); ATSI Commc'ns, Inc. v. Shaar Fund, Ltd., 493 F.3d 87, 98 (2d Cir. 2007). Legal conclusions, however, are not afforded the same presumption of truthfulness. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) (“The tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions.”)

         “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). Labels, conclusions, or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. Facial plausibility exists when the facts alleged allow for a reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct charged. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. The plausibility standard is not, however, a probability requirement: the pleading must show, not merely allege, that the pleader is entitled to relief. Id.; Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). Well-pleaded allegations in the complaint must nudge the claim “across the line from conceivable to plausible.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570.

         A two-pronged approach is thus used to examine the sufficiency of a complaint, which includes “any documents that are either incorporated into the complaint by reference or attached to the complaint as exhibits.” Blue Tree Hotels Inv. (Can.), Ltd. v. Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc., 369 F.3d 212, 217 (2d Cir. 2004). This examination is context-specific and requires that the court draw on its judicial experience and common sense. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. First, statements that are not entitled to the presumption of truth-such as conclusory allegations, labels, and legal conclusions-are identified and stripped away. See Id. Second, well-pleaded, non-conclusory factual allegations are presumed true and examined to determine whether they “plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.” Id. “Where the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, ” the complaint fails to state a claim. Id.

         B. Villar has sufficiently alleged Defendants' deliberate indifference.

         Villar alleges that Defendants are liable for failing to protect him because they knew of a risk to him, and failed to remedy it. Defendants argue that dismissal of Villar's claim is warranted because Villar has not sufficiently alleged their knowledge of such a risk, and therefore has not established their “deliberate indifference.” Villar argues that he has sufficiently alleged Defendants' knowledge by incorporating the King letter into his complaint.

         “[P]rison officials have a duty ... to protect prisoners from violence at the hands of other prisoners.” Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 833, 114 S.Ct. 1970, 1976, 128 L.Ed.2d 811 (1994). This includes inmate-on-inmate sexual assault. Id. (“Prison conditions may be restrictive and even harsh, but gratuitously allowing the beating or rape of one prisoner by another serves no legitimate penological objectiv[e]. … Being violently assaulted in prison is simply not part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society.”) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). Officials' failure to protect an inmate from a risk of assault can therefore be a violation of that inmate's constitutional rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Id. at 834; see also Darnell v. Pineiro, 849 F.3d 17, 29 (2d Cir. 2017); Taylor v. City of New York, No. 16 CIV. 7857 (NRB), 2018 WL 1737626, at *12 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 27, 2018).

         But alleging an inmate-on-inmate sexual assault, without more, does not state a claim for a constitutional violation. To state a claim for failure to protect, a plaintiff must allege (1) incarceration under conditions posing a substantial risk of harm, and (2) that the defendants acted, or failed to act, with deliberate indifference. James v. Westchester Cty., No. 13-CV-0019 NSR, 2014 WL 4097635, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 19, 2014); Nolen v. Goord, No. 02 CV 499, 2006 WL 448686, at *4 (W.D.N.Y. Feb. 17, 2006), aff'd, 218 Fed.Appx. 41 (2d Cir. 2007) (citing Farmer, 511 U.S. at 833-34).

         The requirements for establishing deliberate indifference differ between claims for Eighth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment violations. Under the Eighth Amendment, which applies to convicted prisoners, officials' failure to protect a prisoner constitutes cruel and unusual punishment when correction officials (1) are subjectively aware of an excessive risk to the prisoner's health or safety and (2) disregard that risk. ...

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