990 F.2d 789 (3rd Cir. 1993), 92-1573, Searles v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transp. Authority

Docket Nº:individuals, Appellant in No. 92-1573,
Citation:990 F.2d 789
Party Name:Hester Lee SEARLES, Individually, as Administrator of the Estate of Metz John Searles, Deceased, and on behalf of a class of similarly situated
Case Date:April 27, 1993
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

Page 789

990 F.2d 789 (3rd Cir. 1993)

Hester Lee SEARLES, Individually, as Administrator of the

Estate of Metz John Searles, Deceased, and on

behalf of a class of similarly situated

individuals, Appellant in No. 92-1573,



Hester Lee SEARLES, Individually, as Administrator of the

Estate of Metz John Searles, Deceased, and on

behalf of a class of similarly situated

individuals, Appellant in No. 92-1574,


J. Clayton UNDERCOFLER; Frank W. Jenkins; Mary C. Harris;

Thomas M. Hayward; Richard E. Kurtz; H. Patrick Swygert;

Andrew L. Warren; Louis J. Gambaccini; Howard J. Roberts,

Jr.; Charles W. Thomas; R.O. Swindell; Patrick

Nowakowski; Richard L. Fasy; Joseph Russell; John T.

Prader; Sandra E. Peopples; George Spence; Jeff

McCormick; Hal S. Davidow; W. Eric Vogel; R.M.

Hergenrader; Charles Baum; Stephen C. Stitsworth; Henry

David, Jr.; Gerald P. Lynch, Jr.; Anthony Theodoro;

William Swent; William C. Glenn; Dominic Principe; Gino

Roman; Carmen Digaetano; William Gulden; Dennis Miller;

Robert Burrell; Miguel Moncayo; Gene Yee; Larry Jackson;

R. Lyman; Paul Gary El; James Sweeney; Robert Perazzo;

Richard Lineman; Joseph Farkus, Individually and in their

Official Capacities.

Nos. 92-1573, 92-1574.

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

April 27, 1993

Argued Feb. 22, 1993.

Sur Petition for Rehearing May 21, 1993.

Page 790

Stewart L. Cohen, Kessler & Cohen, Philadelphia, PA, William D. Marvin, Morris M. Shuster (argued), Shuster & Marvin, Bala Cynwyd, PA, for appellants.

David P. Bruton (argued), Drinker, Biddle & Reath, Perry S. Bechtle, LaBrum & Doak, Philadelphia, PA, for appellees.



SEITZ, Circuit Judge.


Plaintiff, Hester Lee Searles, individually and in her capacity as administratrix of the estate of her husband, filed the first of two complaints on October 28, 1991, seeking damages for the fatal injuries sustained by her husband in the derailment of a Market/Frankford Elevated ("El") railcar on March 7, 1990. 1 The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority ("SEPTA") which operates the El was the named defendant in the first complaint. On February 20, 1992, plaintiff filed a second complaint against a number of individual SEPTA employees and officers. Both complaints contain similar allegations.

The derailment occurred after a motor that had fallen from the bottom of a moving railcar struck a switch and caused the rear wheels of the car in which decedent was traveling to go onto a different track than the front wheels of that car. The car, which was then travelling on two different tracks, struck the pillars that separated the tracks. As a result, decedent was killed.

Plaintiff alleges that defendants failed to secure the motor properly and also failed to discover the alleged dangerous condition despite numerous purported maintenance inspections. Plaintiff asserts liability based upon SEPTA's alleged "policy or custom of following a maintenance inspection and repair program ... which was grossly negligent, in reckless disregard for the safety of the public, and ... continued with deliberate indifference to the rights of others." Plaintiff also asserts that one or more of the individual defendants "adopted and approved" this policy. Plaintiff alleges that "[a]s a result of defendants' acts or omissions, defendants deprived persons in SEPTA's care as users of public transportation of safe and continued enjoyment of life, and liberty without due process of law, entitling plaintiff to bring th[ese] action[s] pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983."

Defendants filed identical motions to dismiss the two complaints for failure to state a claim for which relief could be granted. The district court, in a consolidated memorandum and order, granted both motions to dismiss. Subsequently, plaintiff filed timely appeals from the district court's order.

The district court had jurisdiction over these Section 1983 actions to redress an alleged violation of constitutional rights under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 (1988) and 28 U.S.C. § 1343(a)(3) (1988). We have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 (1988) over these appeals from the district court's order granting defendants' motions to dismiss. Our review is plenary. See Ditri v. Coldwell Banker Residential Affiliates, Inc., 954 F.2d 869, 871 (3d Cir.1992).


Defendants assert, and the district court concluded, that dismissal of the complaints in these cases was compelled by the Supreme Court's decision in Collins v. City of Harker Heights, Texas, --- U.S. ----, 112 S.Ct. 1061, 117 L.Ed.2d 261 (1992). Plaintiff finds this case distinguishable. Accordingly, we turn to a detailed review of the Collins decision and a comparison of the complaint in that case with plaintiff's complaints in these cases.

  1. Collins v. City of Harker Heights

    In Collins, the Section 1983 action plaintiff was the wife of a city sanitation worker who died of asphyxia after being overcome by sewer gas. Liability was predicated on a violation of substantive due process. 2 The policy asserted in Collins was a "custom and policy of not training [city] employees

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    about the dangers of working in sewer lines and manholes, not providing safety equipment at job sites, and not providing safety warnings." Id. at ----, 112 S.Ct. at 1064. The constitutional right asserted was the decedent's "constitutional right to be free from unreasonable risks of harm to his body, mind and emotions and a constitutional right to be protected from the city['s] custom and policy of deliberate indifference toward the safety of its employees." Id.

    The Collins Court set forth a two-part analysis to be followed "when a § 1983 claim is asserted against a municipality: (1) whether plaintiff's harm was caused by a constitutional violation, and (2) if so, whether the city is responsible for that violation." Id. at ----, 112 S.Ct. at 1066. The Court assumed, without deciding, that the allegations in the complaint were sufficient to meet the second requirement. Accordingly, the Court focused on whether the complaint alleged a constitutional violation of the decedent's right to substantive due process.

    In considering whether a constitutional violation had been alleged, the Court expressed its "reluctan[ce] to expand the concept of substantive due process because guideposts for responsible decisionmaking in this uncharted area are scarce and open-ended." Id. at ----, 112 S.Ct. at 1068. Thus, the Court stressed the importance of "judicial self-restraint" when considering alleged violations of substantive due process. Id.

    The Collins Court noted that the plaintiff had not alleged a "wilful violation" of her husband's rights or that the city's agents "deliberately harmed" him. The Court characterized plaintiff's allegation as saying that: "the city deprived [her husband] of life and liberty by failing to provide a reasonably safe work environment." Id. at ----, 112 S.Ct. at 1069. 3 It then stated:

    Fairly analyzed, her claim advances two theories: that the Federal Constitution imposes a duty on the city to provide its employees with minimal levels of safety and security in the workplace, or that the city's "deliberate indifference" to [decedent's] safety was arbitrary Government action that must "shock the conscience" of federal judges.

    Id. at ----, 112 S.Ct. at 1069 (quoting Rochin v. California, 342 U.S. 165, 172, 72 S.Ct. 205, 209-10, 96 L.Ed. 183 (1952)).

    The Court first considered whether the Constitution imposed a duty on the city to provide its employees with minimal levels of safety and security in the workplace. It stressed that the Fourteenth Amendment was designed to prevent government oppression rather than to "guarantee ... certain minimal levels of safety and security." Id. (quoting DeShaney v. Winnebago County Dep't of Soc. Servs., 489 U.S. 189, 195, 109 S.Ct. 998, 1003, 103 L.Ed.2d 249 (1989)). The Court stated that plaintiff's claim was "unprecedented" and "quite different from" cases where the Court recognized "a duty to take care of those who have already been deprived of their liberty"--the so-called special relationship or custodial cases. Id. The Court concluded that the decedent had not been deprived of his liberty because he had "voluntarily accepted ... an offer of employment." Id. at ----, 112 S.Ct. at 1070. Accordingly, the Court concluded that the Constitution "does [not] guarantee municipal employees a workplace that is free of unreasonable risks of harm." Id.

    Having rejected the first theory, the Court turned to whether the city's alleged deliberate indifference to decedent's safety was arbitrary government action that shocked the conscience of federal judges. The Court had no difficulty rejecting this second theory. The Court noted:

    [Plaintiff's] claim is analogous to a fairly typical state law tort claim: The city breached its duty of care to her husband by failing to provide a safe work environment. Because the Due Process Clause "does not purport to supplant traditional tort law in laying down rules of conduct

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    to regulate liability for injuries that attend living together in society," we have previously rejected claims that the Due Process Clause should be interpreted to impose federal duties that are analogous to those traditionally imposed by state tort law.

    Id. (quoting Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 332-33, 106 S.Ct. 662, 665-66, 88 L.Ed.2d 662 (1986)). The Court then based its refusal to find "the city's alleged omission ... as arbitrary ... on the presumption that the administration of Government programs is based on...

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