McDougald v. Spinnato, Civil No. ELH-17-2898

CourtUnited States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Maryland)
Writing for the CourtEllen L. Hollander United States District Judge
PartiesVERDESSA MCDOUGALD, et al., Plaintiffs, v. DETECTIVE MICHAEL SPINNATO, et al., Defendants
Decision Date15 March 2019
Docket NumberCivil No. ELH-17-2898

VERDESSA MCDOUGALD, et al., Plaintiffs,

Civil No. ELH-17-2898


March 15, 2019


This case arises from the tragic death of 38-year-old Tyree Woodson ("Mr. Woodson" or the "Decedent"), while at the Southwestern District Police Station of the Baltimore City Police Department ("BPD"). The Decedent's mother, plaintiff Verdessa McDougald, has filed an Amended Complaint, individually and as Personal Representative of the Estate of Mr. Woodson, asserting a variety of claims against Detective Michael Spinnato, Sergeant Sterling Price, Detective Earl Thompson, Detective "Mathew" Pow, Detective "Mathew" Dzambo,1 Detective Kevin Carvell, Detective Jeffrey Converse (the "Officer Defendants"), and former BPD Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, individually and in their official capacities. ECF 22.2

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Plaintiff has structured her Amended Complaint into two "Cases," each with multiple counts Id. Case 1 presents wrongful death claims on behalf of plaintiff, in her individual capacity, and Case 2 presents survival claims on behalf of plaintiff as Personal Representative of Mr. Woodson's Estate.3 In Case 1, plaintiff asserts two counts. Count I contains a claim for Wrongful Death for Gross Negligence lodged against the Officer Defendants. Case I, Count II asserts a "Monell Claim,"4 under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, for "wrongful death for negligent supervision, training, retention and custom or policy of deliberate indifference," lodged against Batts as well as the Officer Defendants. In Case 2, plaintiff, as Personal Representative of the Decedent's Estate, asserts three counts. Count I is a Survival Action for Gross Negligence, lodged against the Officer Defendants under Md. Code, § 7-401 of the Estates and Trusts Article ("E.T."), and Maryland Code, § 6-401 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article ("C.J."). Count II asserts a Monell claim, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against Batts and the Officer Defendants. Count III contains a

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Survival Action for funeral expenses, pursuant to E.T. § 7-401, apparently lodged against all defendants.5

The Officer Defendants have moved to dismiss the Amended Complaint under Rule 12(b)(6), for failure to state a claim (ECF 25), supported by a memorandum of law. ECF 25-1 (collectively, "Officer Defendants' Motion). Curiously, plaintiff failed to file an opposition to the Officer Defendants' Motion. However, I will consider plaintiff's opposition (ECF 18) to the Officer Defendants' earlier motion to dismiss (ECF 16) as the opposition to the second motion to dismiss. And, I shall also consider the Officer Defendants' earlier reply. ECF 19. Defendant Batts filed a separate motion to dismiss the Amended Complaint (ECF 31), also for failure to state a claim, along with a memorandum of law. ECF 31-1 (collectively, the "Batts Motion"). Plaintiff opposes the Batts Motion (ECF 35) supported by a memorandum (ECF 35-1) (collectively, "Batts Opposition") and an exhibit. Batts has replied. ECF 36 ("Batts Reply").

No hearing is necessary to resolve the pending motions. See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2018). For the reasons that follow, I will grant the Batts Motion, and I will grant in part and deny in part the Officer Defendants' Motion.

I. Factual and Procedural Background6

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Mr. Woodson was shot in his left foot on July 25, 2014. ECF 22, ¶¶ 3, 10. On August 5, 2014, at about 10:45 a.m., Sergeant Sterling Price and Detective Earl Thompson, members of the BPD Warrant Apprehension Task Force, encountered Mr. Woodson and his mother as they exited their home in Baltimore. ECF 22, ¶¶ 3, 7, 8. They told Mr. Woodson that he was needed for questioning, and to provide a victim/witness statement regarding the recent incident in which Mr. Woodson was the victim of a shooting. Id. ¶¶ 8-10.

Plaintiff asserts that the officers' claim that they needed to obtain a statement from Mr. Woodson was a ruse, because an arrest warrant had been issued for Mr. Woodson in connection with the shooting of Jerome McDougald. ECF 22, ¶ 3.7 In any event, Mr. Woodson and Ms. McDougald asked about the length of time of the interview, id. ¶ 11, and the officers "promised" that Mr. Woodson would be returned home "safely" in just "a few hours . . . ." Id. ¶ 12. At that point, the officers handcuffed Mr. Woodson, without searching him for weapons, and placed him in the back of the police cruiser. Id. ¶¶ 13-15. The failure to search under such circumstances violated BPD General Order J-13, which mandated "a thorough search of all arrestees . . . ." Id. ¶ 15.

The "unmarked" police vehicle arrived at the Southwestern District Police Station at about 11:05 a.m. Id. ¶ 17. Mr. Woodson was removed from the vehicle, still handcuffed, and entered the police station. Id. ¶¶ 18, 19. Again, he was not searched, as required by General Order J-13. Id. ¶ 19.

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Mr. Woodson was placed into a prisoner holding cell in a secure area of the station. Id. ¶ 21. Detective Kevin Carvell handcuffed Mr. Woodson's right hand to a cement wall. Id. ¶¶ 20, 21. While in the holding cell, Mr. Woodson was in the presence of other inmates and police employees. Id. ¶ 23.

At about 12:15 p.m., Detective Matthew Dzambo advised Mr. Woodson that he should use the private bathroom outside the holding cell. Id. ¶¶ 25-26. Detective Dzambo then escorted Mr. Woodson into the private bathroom, without a search. Id. ¶¶ 26-28. At approximately 2:40 p.m., Mr. Woodson again asked to use the bathroom. Id. ¶ 29. Detectives Pow and Converse removed Mr. Woodson's handcuffs and allowed him first to smoke a cigarette "out back," using a cigarette and lighter that Mr. Woodson removed from his front pants pocket. Id. ¶¶ 30-31. Despite the officers' awareness that Mr. Woodson had the cigarette and the lighter, which are contraband for a detainee, they still did not search Mr. Woodson. Id.

After the bathroom and cigarette break, Detectives Pow and Converse escorted Mr. Woodson to a secure area for questioning, without searching him. Id. ¶ 32. They questioned Mr. Woodson about items recovered during the execution of a search warrant at Mr. Woodson's home approximately one hour earlier. Id. ¶ 33. They also interrogated Mr. Woodson about activities of the Black Guerrilla Family ("BGF") gang, and acknowledged that Mr. Woodson's "possible testimony against a purported BGF member will put his life in jeopardy . . . ." Id. According to plaintiff, the officers "threatened Mr. Woodson's life and safety with the reality that BGF gang members will retaliate against him for purportedly snitching." Id. ¶ 3.

The interrogation "visibly change[d]" Mr. Woodson's "demeanor and temperament from 'very respectful' to extreme fear for his safety, extreme fear of the BGF, extreme fear for the immediate safety of his family, crying and fear of going away for a long time." Id. ¶ 34. Mr.

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Woodson acknowledged that he was a BGF member, and he asked the officers about relocating his family to protect them from BGF. Id. ¶ 35. The officers allowed Mr. Woodson to make a phone call to his girlfriend, during which Detectives Pow and Converse heard Mr. Woodson crying and telling her, "'the police found the gun and he was going to jail, that he would be gone for a long time.'" Id. ¶ 36.

After Mr. Woodson called his girlfriend, he again asked to use the private bathroom. Id. ¶ 37. Detective Pow escorted Mr. Woodson to the private bathroom, uncuffed and without searching him, and allowed him to enter the private stall. Id. ¶¶ 38-39. While in the bathroom (id. ¶ 39), Detective Pow heard a "'pop.'" Id. ¶ 40. When Pow opened the bathroom stall, he saw Mr. Woodson, "slumped back on the left side of the stall." Id.

Officer D. Mattingly entered the bathroom and saw Detective "Hollinsworth,"8 who was "standing at the stall." Id. ¶ 42. He observed that Mr. Woodson had a single gunshot wound to his head. Mattingly also saw a single shell casing at the right side of Mr. Woodson's feet. Id. ¶ 43. Mr. Woodson was "alleged to have been seated on the toilet with his arms at his sides." Id.

In addition, Mattingly saw a single gunshot hole in the ceiling bathroom, above the Decedent. Id. ¶ 44. And, Mattingly observed a Glock 23 behind a trash can, "where Detective Hollinsworth stated he had placed hit [sic]." Id. ¶ 46; see also id. ¶ 45. The medics who responded determined that Mr. Woodson had a pulse. Id. ¶ 47. But, "moments later," upon removing Mr. Woodson from his seated position on the toilet to begin treatment, they pronounced him dead. Id. ¶ 48; see also id. ¶ 47. An autopsy and police investigation classified the manner of death as

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suicide. Id. ¶ 51. Postmortem toxicologic testing was negative for alcohol and positive for tramadol and morphine. Id.

II. Legal Standards

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a defendant may test the legal sufficiency of a complaint by way of a motion to dismiss. In re Birmingham, 846 F.3d 88, 92 (4th Cir. 2017); Goines v. Valley Cmty. Servs. Bd., 822 F.3d 159, 165-66 (4th Cir. 2016); McBurney v. Cuccinelli, 616 F.3d 393, 408 (4th Cir. 2010), aff'd sub nom., McBurney v. Young, 569 U.S. 221 (2013); Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 243 (4th Cir. 1999). A Rule 12(b)(6) motion constitutes an assertion by a defendant that, even if the facts alleged by a plaintiff are true, the complaint fails as a matter of law "to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." See In re Birmingham, 846 F.3d at 92.

Whether a complaint states a claim for relief is assessed by reference to the pleading requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2). That rule provides that a complaint must contain a "short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2). The purpose of the rule is to provide the defendants with "fair notice" of the claims and the "grounds" for entitlement to relief. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twom...

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