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Eletcher v. City of New London

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

February 21, 2017

ALBERTHA FLETCHER and DONNA SMITH, Administrators of the Estate of Lashano Gilbert Plaintiffs,
CITY OF NEW LONDON, et al. Defendants.


          Michael P. Shea, U.S.D.J.

         I. Introduction

         This case arises out of the death of a young man named Lashano Gilbert, who died in police custody on October 4, 2014, in New London, Connecticut. The plaintiff named in the original complaint was the Estate of Lashano Gilbert (the “Estate”), and the complaint has since been amended to substitute Albertha Fletcher and Donna Smith, the Estate's administrators. Plaintiffs bring claims against ten police officers and the City of New London (“Police Defendants”) for wrongful death, negligence, and violations of the Fourteenth Amendment. They also bring claims of medical malpractice and wrongful death against a doctor, Deirdre Cronin-Vorih, who examined Mr. Gilbert in the Lawrence and Memorial Hospital emergency room hours before his death, as well as against Lawrence and Memorial Hospital and Lawrence and Memorial Corporation (“Hospital Defendants”).

         The Police Defendants, Hospital Defendants, and Dr. Cronin-Vorih have all filed motions to dismiss the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, because the original complaint was improperly filed in the name of the “Estate of Lashano Gilbert” rather than in the name of its administrators. (ECF Nos. 57, 5862, 63, 64.) The Hospital Defendants and Dr. Cronin-Vorih separately assert that the complaint against them should be dismissed for lack of an adequate medical opinion letter. (ECF Nos. 26, 29.) And the Hospital Defendants claim that they cannot be held liable for Dr. Cronin-Vorih's actions because the complaint does not adequately allege that she was their agent. (ECF No. 29.) Finally, Dr. Cronin-Vorih and the Hospital Defendants filed motions to sever the case against them from the case against the Police Defendants. (ECF Nos. 39, 40.) For the reasons set forth below, I DENY all motions, except that I dismiss the claims against Lawrence and Memorial Corporation because the plaintiffs conceded that there is no basis on which to hold that entity liable and stated at oral argument that they intended to drop Lawrence and Memorial Corporation from the complaint.

         II. Background

         According to the allegations in the operative complaint, dated November 11, 2016, Lashano Gilbert was a young medical doctor[1] from the Bahamas who arrived in New London, Connecticut, on the evening of October 2, 2014, to stay with his aunt. (ECF No. 56 ¶¶ 3, 8-11.) On October 3, 2014, at approximately 7:00pm, Mr. Gilbert jumped through the window of a car that was stopped at a red light, speaking unintelligibly and making stabbing motions at the driver. (Id. ¶¶ 12-21.) The driver called 911, the police arrived, and officers shot Mr. Gilbert with a taser at least twice. (Id. ¶¶ 21-28.) The police officers then brought Mr. Gilbert to Lawrence and Memorial Hospital. (Id. ¶¶ 34-35.) Throughout his time with the police, during transport, and in the hospital, Mr. Gilbert was in an obvious state of delirium. (Id. ¶¶ 25-26, 29-33, 36-39, 47, 54.) The delirium included talking to himself in an unidentifiable language, flailing his body, and describing hallucinations such as that a ghost jumped out of a cemetery and went into his stomach. (Id.)

         In the hospital emergency room, Mr. Gilbert was seen by emergency room doctor Deidre Cronin-Vorih and other medical professionals. (Id. ¶¶ 36, 40.) They observed that he had a fever, fast heart rate, and hypertension, in addition to the erratic behavior, but did not perform blood work, a toxicology screen, a CT scan, a lumbar puncture, or a psychiatric evaluation. (Id. ¶¶ 45-53.) At approximately 10:00 pm, Mr. Gilbert was discharged back into police custody, where he continued to behave in an erratic and delirious manner. (Id. ¶¶ 55-56.) The officers did not seek further medical treatment. (Id. ¶¶ 57, 62, 69-70.)

         At the police station, Mr. Gilbert and police officers had a physical altercation. (Id. ¶ 75.) The officers subdued and shackled Mr. Gilbert. (Id. ¶¶ 76-77.) After he was subdued and shackled, nine police officers continued to apply force to him. (Id. ¶¶ 78-79, 81.) They also shot Mr. Gilbert with tasers and sprayed him with pepper spray. (Id.) Mr. Gilbert told the officers that he could not breathe, but they ignored him, continuing to apply pressure and wrapping a towel around his face. (Id. ¶¶ 80-83.) Mr. Gilbert died in the early morning hours of October 4, 2014, in police custody. (Id. ¶¶ 84-84, ECF No. 61-1 at 12.) The Connecticut Chief Medical Examiner ruled the death a homicide, identifying the cause of death as “Physical Altercation (Restraint, Electric Shock, and Oleoresin Capscicum) During Acute Psychosis Complication Sickle Cell Hemaglobinopathy.” (ECF No. 56 ¶ 88.)

         On October 20, 2014, the New London Probate Court appointed Albertha Fletcher and Donna Smith as co-administrators of Mr. Gilbert's estate. (ECF No. 61-1 at 2, 9-10.) On February 16, 2016, the initial complaint in this case was filed, naming “Estate of Lashano Gilbert” as the plaintiff. (ECF No. 1.) The complaint was later amended to name Ms. Fletcher and Ms. Smith as the plaintiffs. (ECF No. 56.) The defendants have responded with motions to dismiss (ECF Nos. 26, 29, 57, 58, 62, 63, 64)[2] as well as motions to sever the case of the Hospital Defendants and Dr. Cronin-Vorih from the case of the Police Defendants (ECF Nos. 39, 40). I held oral argument on several of these motions on November 14, 2016. (ECF No. 60.)

         III. Rule 12(b)(1) Motions to Dismiss

         A. Legal Standard

         A motion to dismiss for lack of subject jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1) should be granted “when the district court lacks the statutory or constitutional power to adjudicate” the case. Makarova v. United States, 201 F.3d 110, 113 (2d Cir. 2000). For example, “[i]f plaintiffs lack Article III standing, a court has no subject matter jurisdiction to hear their claim.” Cent. States Se. & Sw. Areas Health & Welfare Fund v. Merck-Medco Managed Care, L.L.C., 433 F.3d 181, 198 (2d Cir. 2005).

         B. Discussion

         All defendants argue that this case must be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. They claim that the Estate of Lashano Gilbert lacked capacity and lacked standing, and that these defects cannot be cured by substituting the Estate's administrators. I disagree: while the Estate lacked capacity and was not the real party in interest, it did have standing, and substitution is warranted under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 17(a)(3).

         1. Standing, real party in interest, and capacity defined

         To begin with, it is worth delineating three distinct concepts involved here: “standing, ” “real party in interest, ” and “capacity.” For a plaintiff to have standing under Article III's case-or-controversy requirement, the plaintiff must have suffered an “injury in fact” that is “fairly traceable to the challenged action of the defendant” and “it must be likely, as opposed to merely speculative, that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision.” Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560-61 (1992) (citations, quotation marks, and alterations omitted). Standing issues go to a court's subject matter jurisdiction and may be raised at any time.

         On the other hand, the “real party in interest principle embodied in Rule 17 ensures that only a person who possesses the right to enforce a claim and who has a significant interest in the litigation can bring the claim.” Cortlandt St. Recovery Corp. v. Hellas Telecommunications, 790 F.3d 411, 420 (2d Cir. 2015) (citation, quotation marks, and alteration omitted). “The purpose of the rule is to prevent multiple or conflicting lawsuits by persons such as assignees, executors, or third-party beneficiaries, who would not be bound by res judicata principles.” Id. at 421 (citation and quotation marks omitted). Not every party with standing is a real party in interest, although real parties in interest usually have standing. Wright & Miller, 6A Fed. Prac. & Proc. Civ. § 1542 (3d ed.).

         Finally, capacity to sue or be sued under Rule 17(c) involves a party's personal right to litigate in federal court. For example, “it is possible to be the real party in interest and yet lack capacity to sue because a person has become mentally incompetent or is an infant.” Id. Unlike issues of subject matter jurisdiction, which can be raised at any time, lack of capacity must be raised “by a specific denial, which must state any supporting facts that are peculiarly within the party's knowledge.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 9(a).

         2. The Estate lacked capacity and was not the real party in interest

         I agree with the defendants that the Estate of Lashano Gilbert lacked capacity to sue or be sued when it filed the initial complaint in this case. Except in situations not involved her, “[c]apacity to sue or be sued is determined… by the law of the state where the court is located.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 17(b). Under Connecticut law, “[a]n estate is not a legal entity. It is neither a natural nor artificial person, but is merely a name to indicate the sum total of the assets and liabilities of the decedent or incompetent. Not having a legal ...

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