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Brannan v. West

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Southern Division

March 22, 2018

MARIE ANTOINETTE BRANNAN, as administratrix for the Estate of Logan Goodman, Plaintiff,
v.
JAMES C. WEST, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER

          WILLIAM H. STEELE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss First Amended Complaint (doc. 20), plaintiff's Motion to Allow Limited Discovery (doc. 24), and plaintiff's Motion to Conduct Discovery (doc. 27). The Motions have been briefed and are now ripe for disposition.

         I. Background.

         This action arises from the death of Logan Goodman on March 24, 2017, while incarcerated at the Saraland Jail operated by the City of Saraland, Alabama. According to the well-pleaded allegations of the First Amended Complaint, Goodman was serving a brief sentence on a conviction for marijuana possession. (Doc. 17, ¶ 4.) Prior to March 24, 2017, Goodman had no history of mental instability, depression or suicidal behavior, nor had he ever exhibited symptoms of suicidal ideation. (Id., ¶ 14.) Yet at approximately 4:34 p.m. that day, jail staff discovered Goodman alone and unconscious in his cell, having apparently hanged himself by a bedsheet tied to the door. (Id., ¶¶ 13, 15, 17-18.) Mobile County EMS was notified immediately, arriving on the scene at 4:45 p.m. (Id., ¶ 13.) Goodman was transported to a local hospital, where he died three days later. (Id., ¶¶ 13, 17-18.)

         On its face, the First Amended Complaint imputes sinister conduct to defendants and suggests that Goodman's death was the result of foul play. In particular, the pleading alleges that Saraland Police Detective Bryan Mims “conducted an intense and threatening interrogation” of Goodman on March 23, 2017, one day before the purported suicide attempt, on allegations of receiving contraband (cigarettes). (Id., ¶ 11.) On March 24, 2017, mere minutes before Saraland Police Department staff called emergency medical personnel to the jail for Goodman's suicide attempt, Saraland Police Sergeant Billy O'Dell called Marie Brannan and advised that she was being charged with promoting prison contraband, second degree, presumably in relation to Goodman (although the pleading does not make such a linkage explicit). (Id., ¶ 12.) The First Amended Complaint also points to the observations of inmate Gregory Murphy that Goodman's demeanor was “completely upbeat as always” immediately before the purported suicide attempt, and further states that the attending physician opined that a bedsheet could not have made the ligature marks on Goodman's neck, and that Goodman had a defensive wound on his neck from a fingernail showing that he had attempted to struggle free. (Id., ¶¶ 11, 15.) Roughly two hours after the purported hanging, Saraland Police officials notified Goodman's mother that he was “okay” when in fact the opposite was true. (Id., ¶ 16.) Based on these facts, plaintiff's pleading theorizes that Goodman “never did attempt suicide, ” but that Detective Mims and Sergeant O'Dell, perhaps with the participation of others, “may have used excessive force to extract information from” Goodman while interrogating him. (Id., ¶ 25.)

         On the strength of these and other allegations, Marie Antoinette Brannan, the administratrix of Goodman's Estate, brought this action against defendants Saraland Police Chief James C. West, Detective Mims, Sergeant O'Dell, and the City of Saraland. The individual defendants are named solely in their individual capacities. Brannan asserts the following causes of action: (i) a claim against the individual defendants under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violating the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments by being deliberately indifferent to Goodman's serious health needs and medical emergency (Count I); (ii) a § 1983 claim against defendant Chief West for violating the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments by implementing or maintaining Saraland Jail policies or practices in a manner that directly resulted in the individual defendants' deliberate indifference to Goodman's serious health needs (Count II); (iii) a § 1983 claim against defendant City of Saraland for violating the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments by failing to protect Goodman's right to be free from neglect, mistreatment, cruel and unusual punishment, abuse, and failure to address his serious medical needs (Count III); and (iv) a state-law wrongful death claim against all defendants for breaching their duty of care to protect Goodman from harm and injury, and negligently permitting him to suffer from inadequate care in their custody, resulting in his death (Count IV).

         Defendants now move to dismiss the First Amended Complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), Fed.R.Civ.P., on the ground that Brannan's pleading fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Plaintiff counters by moving for a purportedly “limited” discovery period, after which plaintiff proposes that defendants be permitted to renew their dispositive motion pursuant to Rule 56, Fed.R.Civ.P.

         II. Analysis.

         In their Motion to Dismiss and accompanying brief, defendants invoke the Twombly / Iqbal pleading standard, and forcefully argue that the First Amended Complaint falls short. To withstand Rule 12(b)(6) scrutiny and satisfy the minimum pleading requirements prescribed by Rule 8(a), a plaintiff must plead “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face, ” so as to “nudge[] [her] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007). “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, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) (citation omitted). “This necessarily requires that a plaintiff include factual allegations for each essential element of his or her claim.” GeorgiaCarry.Org, Inc. v. Georgia, 687 F.3d 1244, 1254 (11th Cir. 2012). Thus, minimum pleading standards “require[ ] more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. As the Eleventh Circuit has explained, Twombly / Iqbal principles demand that a complaint's allegations be “enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Speaker v. U.S. Dep't of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 623 F.3d 1371, 1380 (11th Cir. 2010) (citations omitted). “To survive a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the complaint does not need detailed factual allegations, ... but must give the defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff's claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Randall v. Scott, 610 F.3d 701, 705 (11th Cir. 2010) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). The allegations “must ... state a claim for relief that is plausible-and not merely possible-on its face.” Almanza v. United Airlines, Inc., 851 F.3d 1060, 1066 (11th Cir. 2017).

         Defendants maintain that none of Brannan's claims pleaded in the First Amended Complaint comport with this legal standard. Specifically, as to Count I (deliberate indifference against individual defendants), defendants argue that Brannan's pleading is devoid of factual allegations identifying an act or omission of any defendant that resulted in Goodman's death, or any facts showing deliberate indifference to Goodman's serious medical needs.[1] As to Count II (supervisory liability against Chief West) and Count III (municipal liability against the City), defendants contend that the First Amended Complaint is deficient because it fails to plead an underlying constitutional violation, fails to identify a policy or custom that caused Goodman's death, fails to allege facts showing that any such policy or custom was maintained with deliberate indifference to Goodman's constitutional rights, and the like. For Count IV (wrongful death), defendants seek dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) because they assert that this claim lacks any facts plausibly showing that Goodman's death was the proximate, foreseeable result of defendants' conduct.

         In response, plaintiff does not quarrel with the proposition that the First Amended Complaint fails to pass muster under Twombly / Iqbal. She advances no argument to the contrary. Indeed, by her own admission, Brannan “does not dispute that many of the facts in question … are conclusory statements that would not ordinarily rise to the level necessary to create facial plausibility for all of her claims.” (Doc. 24, ¶ 2.) As such, plaintiff effectively concedes that her First Amended Complaint, as pleaded, is inadequate. For the reasons set forth in defendants' supporting memorandum (doc. 20, at 6-35), the undersigned agrees with that assessment. In the Twombly / Iqbal line of decisions, the Supreme Court required a baseline level of factual specificity for pleadings to satisfy Rule 8. The First Amended Complaint does not meet that minimum threshold. Plaintiff does not suggest otherwise.

         Nonetheless, Brannan seeks to excuse the shortcomings in her pleading by insisting that she cannot meet her obligations under the Twombly / Iqbal standard unless she is permitted to engage in discovery. As Brannan puts it, “in order to make any further and specific factual allegation against the defendants as is the case here, Plaintiff must be able to conduct some or, at the very least, limited discovery.” (Doc, 24, ¶ 5.) In that regard, Brannan complains that she is “at a factual disadvantage” because information concerning Goodman's death and the ensuing investigation is in the exclusive possession of defendants. (Id., ¶ 6.) She remarks that “private parties are not normally privy to the inner workings of a police investigation, ” and protests that “[w]ithout limited discovery, it is nearly impossible to know more” than she has already pleaded. (Id., ¶ 7.) On the basis of these stated concerns about information asymmetry and factual disadvantages, Brannan moves in two separate filings (docs. 24, 27) for leave of court to conduct “limited” discovery. She proposes a 120-day discovery period consisting of the following: (i) initial disclosures and written discovery limited to 10 interrogatories and 10 requests for production or requests for admissions; (ii) subpoenas of the Mobile County Sheriff's Office investigative file for Goodman's death;[2] (iii) depositions of parties concerning “the nature of the events surrounding decedent's death, ” or the corporate representative of the City of Saraland; (iv) depositions of any inmate witnesses; and (v) depositions or affidavits from hospital physicians, retained experts or the department of forensic science. (Doc. 27, at 3-4.) Plaintiff further proposes that upon completion of such discovery, defendants be granted an opportunity to renew their Rule 12(b)(6) Motion as a Motion for Summary Judgment, after which the litigation may move forward. (Id. at 3.)

         Brannan's plan, then, would be to sidestep the Twombly / Iqbal pleading requirements until such time as she has the benefit of discovery to shore up the factual predicate of her claims. She reasons that proceeding in this manner would be fair and reasonable because the investigative facts on which her claims rest are in defendants' possession at this time. The fundamental difficulty with Brannan's proposed course of action is that the Supreme Court in Twombly and Iqbal was expressly motivated by the concern that “[d]iscovery imposes costs - not only on defendants but also on courts and society.” 16630 Southfield Ltd. Partnership v. Flagstar Bank, F.S.B., 727 F.3d 502, 504 (6th Cir. 2013). Indeed, “a significant premise underlying Twombly and Iqbal is that a plaintiff ought not get a ticket to discovery - with its attendant burden and expense - unless the plaintiff can allege facts sufficiently supporting a claim.” Southern-Owners Ins. Co. v. Whitley Contracting, Inc., 2014 WL 11512364, *1 (N.D. Fla. July 9, 2014).[3] The preliminary, 120-day Rule 12(b)(6) discovery round championed by Brannan would stand at cross-purposes to the Supreme Court's stated objectives in fashioning the rules of Twombly and Iqbal.

         More to the point, Brannan's proposal is in derogation of settled law. The rule in this Circuit is that “discovery follows the filing of a well-pleaded complaint. It is not a device to enable the plaintiff to make a case when his complaint has failed to state a claim.” Carter v. DeKalb County, Ga., 521 Fed.Appx. 725, 728 (11th Cir. June 4, 2013) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Indeed, the Supreme Court has stressed that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure do “not unlock the doors of discovery for a plaintiff armed with nothing more than conclusions, ” and that where a “respondent's complaint is deficient under Rule 8, he is not entitled to discovery, cabined or otherwise.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678-79 & 686. Myriad authorities have expressly rejected plaintiffs' requests for initial discovery prior to evaluating a pleading under the standards established by Iqbal and Twombly.[4] Thus, the protocol that Brannan proposes has been routinely turned aside by federal courts throughout the country as incompatible with the rule that discovery is available to a plaintiff only after her complaint satisfies the threshold requirements of Rule 8 and Twombly ...


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