• A Showing of “Deliberate Indifference” is Insufficient to Allege a Substantive Due Process Violation
  • June 22, 2012
  • Law Firm: Semmes Bowen Semmes A Professional Corporation - Baltimore Office
  • Virginia Slaughter v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, Case No.: 10-2436 (4th Cir., June 7, 2012)

    In this case, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s grant of Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss for failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted. The Court concluded that the “deliberate indifference” standard, absent a showing of government custody, is not sufficient to “rise to the level of a constitutional violation.”

    Racheal Wilson, a recruit for Baltimore City Fire Department died during a “live burn” training exercise. Her survivors and estate (Plaintiffs) brought suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which provides a civil action for the deprivation of rights by the government, against the Mayor and City Council and Baltimore City Fire Department and several officials (Defendants) alleging that the Baltimore City Fire Department violated Wilson’s substantive due process rights by staging the training exercise with “deliberate indifference” to Wilson’s safety. Specifically, they alleged that the conditions and circumstances created by the fire department were “willful violations of nationally-recognized safety standards for live burn training exercises.” Plaintiffs did not allege that the fire department intended to harm the recruits.

    The District Court granted Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss because Wilson was not in the government’s custody at the time of the training exercise. She had the option of declining to participate in the exercise. The Court found that the “deliberate indifference” standard only applied to situations where the aggrieved party was in the government’s custody. Absent a showing of government custody, there must be allegations of an intent to harm.

    Plaintiffs argued that the “deliberate indifference” standard also applies to situations where the government created the danger and therefore, the allegations were sufficient as pleaded. Defendants contended that there must be a showing that the government intended to injure Wilson without reason. As there was no showing of such intent, Defendants reasoned, the Plaintiffs failed to state a claim on which relief can be granted.

    The Fourth Circuit agreed with the Defendants and the District Court. The Court reasoned that due process protects the individual against “arbitrary action” of the government and that “arbitrary action” encompasses only the most shocking and egregious official conduct. To reach this standard, a party must allege conduct intended to injure that is unjustifiable by any government interest. The Court found that to treat the fire department’s conduct as a substantive due process violation would constitutionalize a state tort claim. Such an action is not to be taken lightly and should only occur in the rarest of cases.

    The Court acknowledged that a lower level duty of culpability may result in a substantive due process violation in cases where the government is taking care of individuals who have already been deprived of their liberty. An employee of the government, however, is not deemed to be “in government custody” because they can walk away from the job at any time. In response to Defendant’s claim that the culpability standard should be lowered when the government creates the dangerous situation, the Court stated that due process does not impose upon a municipality the duty to provide their employees with a safe workplace or warn them against risks. The Court reasoned that if a State-created danger was acknowledged in this case, the Court would be injecting federal authority into playground incidents, class fieldtrips, and even ballet practice sessions.

    The Fourth Circuit granted Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss. Plaintiff’s Complaint did not allege that the Baltimore City Fire Department staged the live burn training exercise with the purpose of causing harm to the recruits. Thus, the Complaint fell short of alleging a substantive due process violation.