United States District Court, D. Colorado
JUDITH SARNELLA, as personal representative of the estate of Deovalente Sarnella, deceased, Plaintiff,
ERIC KUHNS, PHILLIP MEDLIN, and JEFFERSON COUNTY SHERIFF DEPARTMENT, Defendants.
A. BRIMMER CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
matter comes before the Court on defendants' Motion to
Dismiss [Docket No. 12]. The Court has jurisdiction pursuant
to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
allegations in plaintiff's Complaint and Jury Demand
[Docket No. 1] are to be taken as true in considering a
motion to dismiss. Brown v. Montoya, 662 F.3d 1152,
1162 (10th Cir. 2011).
September 2, 2015, Deovalente Sarnella
(“Sarnella”) was outside his townhouse in Golden,
Colorado, when a neighbor called the police to request a
mental health welfare check. Docket No. 1 at 1, ¶¶
1-2. Defendants Eric Kuhns (“Kuhns”) and Phillip
Medlin (“Medlin”), who are deputy sheriffs with
defendant Jefferson County Sheriff's Department
(“Department”), responded. Id. at 1-2,
¶¶ 3, 9. Kuhns confronted Sarnella outside the
house. Id. at 2, ¶¶ 5-7. Sarnella
exhibited unusual behavior. Id. at 2, ¶ 6.
Kuhns, Medlin, and Sarnella went into Sarnella's home,
where Sarnella asked the deputies for help. Id.
¶¶ 8, 10. Sarnella reached into a cabinet.
Id., ¶ 11. Not knowing what was in the cabinet,
Kuhns and Medlin forcefully restrained Sarnella face down on
his stomach and with his hands behind his back. Id.
¶¶ 11-13. The deputies knew that Sarnella was
suffering from a mental health condition. Id.,
¶ 14. The deputies then took Sarnella outside and laid
him face down on the grass. Id., ¶ 15. Sarnella
died. Id., ¶ 17. Paramedics arrived and were
unable to revive Sarnella at the scene or at St.
Anthony's Hospital. Id. at 3, ¶¶
26-29. An autopsy indicated that Sarnella's cause of
death was anoxic encephalopathy secondary to a cardiac
arrest. Id., ¶ 30.
mother filed this lawsuit on April 4, 2018 in her capacity as
the personal representative of Sarnella's estate.
Id. Plaintiff asserts three claims under 42 U.S.C.
§ 1983: negligence, wrongful death, and
“depriv[ing] [Sarnella] of his life which is his right
and privilege guaranteed under federal law or the U.S.
Constitution.” Id. at 4-7, ¶¶ 41-55.
Defendants filed a motion to dismiss. Docket No. 12.
Defendants argue that: (1) the Department is not a
“proper, suable entity;” (2) the negligence and
wrongful death claims against defendants Kuhns and Medlin are
time-barred; and (3) defendants Kuhns and Medlin are entitled
to qualified immunity on the constitutional claim.
Id. at 3-15.
survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the
Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a complaint must allege
enough factual matter that, taken as true, makes the
plaintiff's “claim to relief . . . plausible on its
face.” Khalik v. United Air Lines, 671 F.3d
1188, 1190 (10th Cir. 2012) (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v.
Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “[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 shown-that the pleader is entitled to
relief.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679
(2009) (internal quotation marks and alteration marks
omitted); see also Khalik, 671 F.3d at 1190
(“A plaintiff must nudge [his] claims across the line
from conceivable to plausible in order to survive a motion to
dismiss.” (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570)).
If a complaint's allegations are “so general that
they encompass a wide swath of conduct, much of it innocent,
” then plaintiff has not stated a plausible claim.
Khalik, 671 F.3d at 1191 (quotations omitted). Thus,
even though modern rules of pleading are somewhat forgiving,
“a complaint still must contain either direct or
inferential allegations respecting all the material elements
necessary to sustain a recovery under some viable legal
theory.” Bryson v. Gonzales, 534 F.3d 1282,
1286 (10th Cir. 2008) (alteration marks omitted).
Whether the Department is a Separate Entity
argue that the Department is not a separate legal entity
capable of being sued. Docket No. 12 at 3-4. Plaintiffs offer
no argument to rebut defendants' assertion. “Under
Colorado law municipalities and counties, not their various
subsidiary departments, exist as ‘bodies corporate and
politic' empowered to ‘sue and be sued.'”
Stump v. Gates, 777 F.Supp. 808, 816 (D. Colo.
1991), aff'd, 986 F.2d 1429 (10th Cir. 1993)
(citing Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 31-15-101(1)(a) and
30-11-101(1)(a)); see also Lindsey v. Thomson, 275
Fed.Appx. 744, 777 (10th Cir. 2007) (unpublished) (observing
that sheriff's departments and police departments are not
usually considered legally suable entities). Therefore, the
Department is not a proper defendant, and the Court will
dismiss all claims against the Department.
argue that defendants Kuhns and Medlin (“the
officers”) are entitled to qualified immunity. Docket
No. 12 at 7-13.
the defense of qualified immunity, “government
officials performing discretionary functions generally are
shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their
conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or
constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have
known.” Harlow v. Fitzgerald,457 U.S. 800,
818 (1982). An assertion of qualified immunity “creates
a presumption that [a defendant is] immune from suit.”
Perea v. Baca, 817 F.3d 1198, 1202 (10th Cir. 2016).
“To overcome this presumption, [a plaintiff] must show
that (1) the officers' alleged conduct violated a
constitutional right, and (2) it was clearly established at
the time of the violation, such that ‘every reasonable
official would have understood,' that such conduct
constituted a violation of that right.” Id.
(quoting Mullenix v. Luna, 136 S.Ct. 305, 308
(2015)). Upon a public official's assertion of a
qualified immunity defense, plaintiff bears a “heavy
burden” under a two-pronged analysis. Buck v. City
of Albuquerque,549 F.3d 1269, 1277 (10th Cir. 2008).
Under the first prong of the analysis, the plaintiff is
required to “establish that the defendant's actions
violated a constitutional or statutory right.”
Smith v. Cochran,339 F.3d 1205, 1211 (10th Cir.
2003) (quoting Holland ex rel. Overdorff v.
Harrington,268 F.3d 1179, 1185 (10th Cir. 2001)). The
determination of whether a violation occurred under the first
prong of the qualified immunity analysis turns on substantive
law regarding that right. See Casey v. City of Fed.
Heights,509 F.3d 1278, 1282-83 (10th Cir. 2007). Under