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Media Alerts - Joan Kedra v. Richard Schroeter - Third Circuit
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December 1, 2017
  Joan Kedra v. Richard Schroeter - Third Circuit
Headline: Complaint Plead Sufficient Facts to Support that Officer Acted with Actual Awareness of a Substantial Risk of Serious Harm When he Shot and Killed Another Officer During a Firearms Training.

Area of Law: Civil Rights - State-Created Danger

Issue(s) Presented:

Whether deliberate indifference in the substantive due process context may be satisfied using an objective test.

Whether a complaint pleaded sufficient facts to support the inference that a police officer acted with actual awareness of a substantial risk of serious harm when he pointed his gun at a trainee at close range and deliberately pulled the trigger without checking whether the gun was loaded.

Brief Summary: Corporal Richard Schroeter shot and killed State Trooper David Kedra during a routine firearms training. Kedra's mother brought a civil rights complaint alleging that Schroeter had exposed Kedra to a state created danger in violation of his Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights. The district court held that Schroeder was entitled to qualified immunity and dismissed the complaint. Specifically, the district court found that the complaint was inadequate because it alleged that Schroeter had objective knowledge, rather than subjective knowledge, that the gun was loaded with the bullet that killed Kedra.

The Third Circuit noted that objective knowledge was not clearly established as a liability theory for deliberate indifference at the time of the shooting. However, the Third Circuit found that the complaint was sufficient under the subjective theory. The Third Circuit concluded that the obviousness of the risk in pointing a gun at a defenseless person and pulling the trigger without undertaking any safety check reflected Schroeter's conscious disregard of a substantial risk of serious harm.


Extended Summary: In September 2014, Corporal Richard Schroeter conducted a demonstration of the features and operation of the new model of a state police-issued handgun. Schroeter, a trained firearms instructor and police officer for twenty years, was aware of several firearm safety rules for instructors including: (1) a safety check of a gun before using it for training; (2) a safety check to see whether the gun was loaded; (3) must treat all guns as if they are loaded; (4) must never point the muzzle of a gun at another person; (5) must keep his finger off of the trigger unless he verifies that the gun is unloaded before pointing it at a safe target and pulling the trigger; and (6) must open the gun to visually and physically determine that it is unloaded before pulling the trigger. Schroeter violated each of these rules when he pointed the gun at Kedra and pulled the trigger. Kedra died as a result of the shooting. Schroeter pled guilty to five counts of reckless endangerment of another person.

Kedra's mother brought a civil rights complaint alleging that Schroeter had exposed Kedra to a state-created danger in violation of his Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights. This amendment does not impose an obligation on the state to protect its citizen. However, the Due Process clause includes an exception that holds an official liable if his conduct exposes an individual to a state-created danger. This claim requires proof of four elements: (1) the harm caused was foreseeable and fairly direct; (2) the state official acted with a degree of culpability that shocks the conscience; (3) the state and the plaintiff had a relationship such that the plaintiff was a foreseeable victim of the defendant's acts; and (4) the official affirmatively used his authority in a way that created a danger to the citizen or that rendered the citizen more vulnerable to danger than had he never acted.

Plaintiff alleged an objective theory of liability, which means that the official should have known of the substantial risk. In order to prove a state-created danger claim, the accuser must show that the accused had a mental state of "deliberate indifference," meaning that Schroeter was actually aware that his conduct carried a substantial risk of harm. Schroeter argued that the objective theory of liability was not clearly established at the time he pulled the trigger and therefore the complaint should be dismissed under the doctrine of qualified immunity. The district court agreed with Schroeter and dismissed the complaint with prejudice.

The Third Circuit reversed and held that Plaintiff adequately pleaded a state-created danger claim. The Court noted that qualified immunity "shields government officials from civil liability for constitutional violations if 'their actions could reasonably have been thought consistent with the rights they are alleged to have violated.'" Qualified immunity attaches if (1) the facts that the plaintiff has alleged make out a violation of a constitutional right, and (2) the right at issue was "clearly established" at the time of the defendant's alleged misconduct.

The Third Circuit noted that culpability changes in three different types of situations. In a higher-pressure environment, actual intent to harm is required because there is less time to react. In situations where action is required within hours or minutes, the Court requires an actor to disregard a great risk of serious harm. In situations where an actor is not required to make a hurried judgment, such as this case, deliberate indifference will satisfy the culpability requirement. The Third Circuit noted that deliberate indifference falls somewhere in between intent and negligence. Because the right at issue must be clearly established at the time of the violation, the Third Circuit looked to the state of the law at the time of the shooting in order to determine whether deliberate indifference could be satisfied using an objective test. At the time of the shooting, the objective test was not clearly established but the subjective test was.

Next, the Third Circuit looked to whether plaintiff complaint pleaded facts that could establish a subjective theory of liability. Although plaintiff did not plead outright what Schroeter should have known, she alleged facts that supported an inference of actual, subjective knowledge of a substantial risk of lethal harm. The Third Circuit noted that a plaintiff can plead deliberate indifference by reference to circumstantial and direct evidence. Circumstantial evidence can consist of: (1) evidence that the risk was obvious or a matter of common sense; (2) evidence that the actor had particular professional training or expertise; and (3) evidence that the actor was expressly advised of the risk of harm and the procedures designed to prevent that harm and proceeded to violate these procedures. Here, the court noted several pieces of circumstantial evidence such as the obvious risk of pointing a gun at another person and pulling the trigger, Schroeter's twenty years of experience and specialized training, and Schroeter's awareness and violation of the safety rules. The Third Circuit also pointed to Schroeter's guilty plea in his criminal trial as direct evidence of Schroeter's mental state. Under Pennsylvania law, his guilty plea admitted that he recklessly engaged in conduct which placed another person in danger of death or serious bodily injury with the mental state of conscious disregard of a substantial and unjustifiable risk.

The Third Circuit concluded that the obviousness of the risk in pointing a gun at a defenseless person and pulling the trigger without undertaking any safety check reflected Schroeter's conscious disregard of a substantial risk of serious harm. Therefore, the plaintiff's complaint was sufficient under the clearly established subjective theory of deliberate indifference.

The full opinion can be found at   http://www2.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/161417p.pdf

Panel: Fisher, Krause, and Melloy, Circuit Judges

Argument Date: December 5, 2016

Date of Issued Opinion: November 28, 2017

Docket Number: 16-1417

Decided: Reversed and remanded.

Case Alert Author: Emily Anderson

Counsel: Michael J. Quirk, Esquire and Gerald J. Williams, Esquire, Counsel for Appellant; Kevin R. Bradford, Esquire, Stephen R. Kovatis, Esquire and Claudia M. Tesoro, Esquire, Counsel for Appellee.

Author of Opinion: Circuit Judge Krause

Circuit: Third Circuit

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Mary E. Levy

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 12/01/2017 09:25 AM     3rd Circuit  

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