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Murphy v. Fields

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Columbia Division

March 5, 2018

Shakara Murphy, Plaintiff,
Benjamin Fields; Leon Lott; Richland County Sheriff's Department; Richland County; Richland School District Two; Robert Long; KaRon Webb, Defendants.



         The plaintiff, Shakara Murphy, filed this civil rights and personal injury action in the Richland County Court of Common Pleas. The defendants removed the action to this court on October 27, 2017. This matter is before the court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2) (D.S.C.) for a Report and Recommendation on Defendants Robert Long and KaRon Webb's partial motion to dismiss. (ECF No. 10.) Plaintiff filed a response in opposition to the motion (ECF No. 11), and Defendants Long and Webb filed a reply (ECF No. 12). Having reviewed the record presented and the applicable law, the court finds Defendants Long and Webb's partial motion to dismiss should be granted.


         The following allegations are taken as true for purposes of resolving the defendant's motion to dismiss. Plaintiff was a student at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina. (Compl. ¶ 16, ECF No. 1-1 at 8.) On October 26, 2015, Plaintiff attended her algebra class, which was taught by Defendant Robert Long. (Id.) At some point, Long observed Plaintiff holding her mobile phone, which he asked Plaintiff to put away, and Plaintiff complied by putting the phone in her book bag. (Id. ¶¶ 17-19.) Later in the same class, Long again accused Plaintiff having her phone out, but Plaintiff claimed she was merely looking down at her hands in her lap. (Id. ¶¶ 23-25, ECF No. 1-1 at 8-9.) Long demanded she surrender her phone to him, but when Plaintiff tried to explain that she did not have her phone out, Long contacted a school administrator, Defendant KaRon Webb, to come to his class and “deal with” Plaintiff. (Id. ¶¶ 26-29, ECF No. 1-1 at 9.)

         When he arrived, Webb did not investigate whether Plaintiff had used her cell phone as Long had accused her. (Id. ¶ 30, ECF No. 1-1 at 9.) Plaintiff asserted to Webb that she did not have her cell phone out, but Webb contacted Defendant Benjamin Fields, a school resource officer and sheriff's deputy. (Id. ¶ 32, ECF No. 1-1 at 10.) When Fields arrived in the classroom, he did not investigate whether Plaintiff actually had her phone out, and when Plaintiff asserted that her phone was not out, Fields tried to physically remove Plaintiff from her desk. (Id. ¶¶ 33-34, ECF No. 1-1 at 10.) As Plaintiff remained seated in her chair, Fields put his arm around her neck and, flipped her over backwards, out of her desk and chair. (Id. ¶¶ 35-36, ECF No. 1-1 at 10.) Fields then grabbed Plaintiff by her clothing and threw her body across the floor, before dragging her toward the classroom door. (Id. ¶¶ 37-38, ECF No. 1-1 at 10.) Finally, Fields put his knee into Plaintiff's back and handcuffed her in a manner that was painful to Plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 39, ECF No. 1-1 at 10.) Defendants Long and Webb were present in the classroom during the entirety of Plaintiff's arrest and did not intervene. (Id. ¶¶ 40-41, ECF No. 1-1 at 10.)

         Plaintiff now brings this action against the defendants, raising various federal civil rights and state tort claims. As to Defendants Long and Webb, Plaintiff raises claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for improper search and seizure, excessive force, and deprivation of due process, and state law claims of negligence, gross negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and false arrest and imprisonment. Plaintiff specifically raises claims of bystander liability against Long and Webb as to her § 1983 claims. (Id. ¶¶ 64-65, ECF No. 1-1 at 16.)


         A. Rule 12(b)(6) Standard

         A motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) examines the legal sufficiency of the facts alleged on the face of the complaint. Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 243 (4th Cir. 1999). To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, “[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). The “complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.' ” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). A claim is facially plausible when the factual content allows the court to reasonably infer that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. Id. When considering a motion to dismiss, the court must accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). The court “may also consider documents attached to the complaint, see Fed.R.Civ.P. 10(c), as well as those attached to the motion to dismiss, so long as they are integral to the complaint and authentic.” Philips v. Pitt Cty. Mem'l Hosp., 572 F.3d 176, 180 (4th Cir. 2009) (citing Blankenship v. Manchin, 471 F.3d 523, 526 n.1 (4th Cir. 2006)).

         B. Defendants Long and Webb's Motion to Dismiss

         Defendants Long and Webb move to dismiss Plaintiff's § 1983 claims against them because they are based on bystander liability. Specifically, Long and Webb argue bystander liability can apply only to law enforcement officers, and because they are not law enforcement officers, those claims should be dismissed.[1]

         “To succeed on a theory of bystander liability, a plaintiff must demonstrate that a law-enforcement officer ‘(1) knew that a fellow officer was violating an individual's constitutional rights; (2) had a reasonable opportunity to prevent the harm; and (3) chose not to act.' ” Stevenson v. City of Seat Pleasant, Md., 743 F.3d 411, 416 (4th Cir. 2014) (quoting Randall v. Prince George's Cty., Md., 302 F.3d 188, 203 (4th Cir. 2002)); see also Thomas v. Holly, 533 F. App'x 208, 221 (4th Cir. 2013). “The concept of bystander liability is premised on a law officer's duty to uphold the law and protect the public from illegal acts, regardless of who commits them.” Randall, 302 F.3d at 203.

         The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit's decision in Randall and other cases applying bystander liability show that the theory applies only to law enforcement officers because of their “duty to uphold the law and protect the public from illegal acts.” Id. The only federal court that appears to have considered whether bystander liability can apply to school personnel who are present for the arrest of a student found that bystander liability does not apply to them. See Rodriguez v. Parker, Civil Action No. 1:15-CV-181-P-BL, 2016 WL 4179799, at *6 (N.D. Tex. Apr. 27, 2016) (granting the defendant school principal's motion to dismiss the plaintiff's excessive force claim, finding bystander liability did not apply to school principals, and therefore, the defendant had no duty to intervene or stop a law enforcement officer from using excessive force), report and recommendation adopted by Rodriguez v. Parker, 2016 WL 4184437 (N.D. Tex. Aug. 5, 2016); cf. Smith v. City of Atlanta, Ga., Civil Action File No. 1:11-CV-765-TWT, 2013 WL 1189491, at *4 (N.D.Ga. Mar. 21, 2013) (originally denying the defendant assistant principal's motion to dismiss the plaintiff student's bystander liability claim for an unlawful detention, finding assistant principals share law enforcement responsibilities with police officers in schools, but later granting summary judgment in favor of the defendant, finding the defendant could not shorten the length of the plaintiff's detention). And while Plaintiff cites to two cases where other courts have not limited bystander liability to law enforcement officials, neither court extended bystander liability to school personnel, and both cases addressed only whether mental health facility nurses were entitled to qualified immunity. See Davis v. Rennie, 264 F.3d 86, 98 (1st Cir. 2001) (finding the nurse in a mental health facility was not entitled to qualified immunity on an involuntarily committed patient's excessive force claim, where the nurse observed other facility staff using excessive force against the patient, because the nurse should have been aware of cases holding that police and prison guards must intervene when their peers use excessive force); Durham v. Nu'Man, 97 F.3d 862, 868 (6th Cir. 1996) (“[T]he precedent holding police officers and correctional officers liable for failure to intervene was sufficient to place the nurse who caused the conflict on notice that she had a duty to protect plaintiff while under her charge[.]”). Consequently, the court finds Plaintiff fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted as to her § 1983 claims against Defendants Long and Webb, to the extent those claims are based on a theory of bystander liability.[2]

         RECO ...

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