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Sarnella v. Kuhns

United States District Court, D. Colorado

March 8, 2019

JUDITH SARNELLA, as personal representative of the estate of Deovalente Sarnella, deceased, Plaintiff,
v.
ERIC KUHNS, PHILLIP MEDLIN, and JEFFERSON COUNTY SHERIFF DEPARTMENT, Defendants.

          ORDER

          PHILIP A. BRIMMER CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This 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.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The 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).

         On 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.

         Sarnella's 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.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         To 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).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Whether the Department is a Separate Entity

         Defendants 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.[1]

         B. Qualified Immunity

         Defendants argue that defendants Kuhns and Medlin (“the officers”) are entitled to qualified immunity. Docket No. 12 at 7-13.

         Under 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 ...


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