United States District Court, Western District of Pennsylvania
August 1, 1991
PAUL J. MCARDLE, PLAINTIFF,
MICHAEL J. TRONETTI AND STEVEN REILLY, DEFENDANTS.
Conventional wisdom provides that "just because you are
paranoid, it doesn't mean that they aren't out to get you."
And so it goes with the travails of plaintiff Paul McArdle,
Esquire. Mr. McArdle has been diagnosed as a paranoid
schizophrenic, and although he ardently challenges that
diagnosis at every opportunity, his tale is an apophasistic
account of no less than seven otherwise venerable citizens who
abused, harassed and persecuted him for no reason whatsoever.
Among them are the two defendants, Dr. Tronetti and Mr.
Reilly. By the conventional wisdom we cannot say that he was
not maltreated, but under the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure
12(b)(6) and 42 U.S.C. § 1983, we must hold that he has not yet
stated a claim. The sagacity of the opening aphorism is neatly
demonstrated, however, when it is recognized that McArdle has
not failed to state a claim because he was not wronged, but
because the defendants here were cloaked with an immunity that
allowed them to act with impunity.*fn1 We summarize Mr.
McArdle's own portrait of his tribulations below.
First, he presented himself at the office of Erie's Mayor,
Joyce Savocchio, where she mistreated him with respect to some
parking tickets. Then he was "falsely charged"*fn2 with
disorderly conduct by a police officer based on his conduct at
the Mayor's office. The charges lead to a hearing before a
magistrate which "resulted in a misfinding of guilt." Then, on
"appeal," the implacable Judge Shad Connelly of the Court of
Common Pleas unconstitutionally increased the penalty to the
maximum allowed (90 days). At the same time, though he was
"surely not warranted" in doing so, Judge Connelly ordered
that McArdle undergo psychiatric evaluation in prison. McArdle
entered Erie County Jail on November 8, 1990, and soon
thereafter, the mephistophelian osteopath, Dr. Tronetti,
conducted a twenty minute interview from which he diagnosed
Mr. McArdle as paranoid and schizophrenic. Naturally, "he was
grossly in error in even suggesting that McArdle was afflicted
with psychiatric disease." "My pulse, as yours," we almost
hear McArdle bemoan, "doth temperately keep time, And makes as
healthful music. It is not madness That I have utter'd: bring
me to the test." Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, scene iv, line
140. In spite of his protestations, psychoactive medication
was promptly prescribed by the osteopath, and when McArdle
refused to take it, he was transferred to a cell-only lock-up
and Tronetti's trusted
adjuvant and prison counsellor, Steven Reilly, instituted
commitment proceedings based upon allegations with "absolutely
no ground in fact." Commitment hearings were held in front of
Lee Fuller, Esq., according to McArdle, "a supposed master."
But, as could by now be expected, Mr. Fuller was also a
pernicious character unjustifiably hostile to Mr. McArdle; he
"cut short McArdle's interrogation on matters plainly relevant
and material to the issues raised by the petition." Judge
Connelly issued an order based on the hearing and McArdle was
transferred from Erie County Jail to the Warren State Hospital
on December 13, 1990.*fn3
Notwithstanding a seemingly fanciful quality in the
chronicle of these iniquities, the conduct of the defendants
may well have been grossly substandard. Though we do not
consider affidavits or other evidence in reaching our decision
on this, a 12(b)(6) motion, the court notes that the affidavit
of Dr. Jonathan Himmelhoch, a full professor of psychology at
the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine as well as a
scholar and author of over 65 articles, offers a thoroughly
scathing indictment of Tronetti's methods, his diagnosis, as
well as his professional competence. Even if Dr. Himmelhoch is
correct, however, McArdle's current allegations do not defeat
the immunity which shelters both defendants.
Mr. McArdle is an attorney representing himself in this
action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He claims that Reilly and
Tronetti purposefully conspired to have him wrongfully
committed, and that such actions violated his "rights to due
process of law and equal protection of the laws."*fn4
Defendants have each moved to dismiss plaintiff's complaint
pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) and accordingly, we accept all
allegations and make all inferences in favor of Mr. McArdle.
Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6); D.P. Enterprises v. Bucks County
Community College, 725 F.2d 943, 944 (3d Cir. 1984); Conley v.
Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 78 S.Ct. 99, 2 L.Ed.2d 80 (1957). The
motions are based primarily on the ground that Tronetti and
Reilly are protected by the absolute witness immunity of
Briscoe v. LaHue, 460 U.S. 325, 103 S.Ct. 1108, 75 L.Ed.2d 96
(1983). We agree with the defendants and we will grant their
motions. As we explain below, however, the facts as alleged
might give rise to claims under the Eighth Amendment to the
To recover under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, plaintiff must demonstrate
(1) that the defendant acted under color of state law, and (2)
that such actions deprived plaintiffs of a constitutionally
protected right. Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 101 S.Ct.
1908, 68 L.Ed.2d 420 (1981); Riley v. Jeffes, 777 F.2d 143, 145
(3d Cir. 1985). The crux of McArdle's complaint is that Reilly
and Tronetti conspired to adduce false testimony and diagnoses
in order to lock him up in a mental institution. We may safely
assume that both defendants acted under color of state law and
that McArdle possessed a protected liberty interest in
remaining in the prison rather then a mental institution. See
Vitek v. Jones, 445 U.S. 480, 493-94, 100 S.Ct. 1254, 1263-64,
63 L.Ed.2d 552 (1980); Washington v. Harper,
494 U.S. 210, 110 S.Ct. 1028, 108 L.Ed.2d 178 (1990).
According to McArdle, the deprivation here was effected by
means of unscrupulous diagnostic technique and false testimony
at a commitment hearing. Normally, a state actor's deliberate
use of false testimony to secure a restriction on a person's
freedom violates due process. E.g., Mooney v. Holohan,
294 U.S. 103, 55 S.Ct. 340, 79 L.Ed. 791 (1935); Napue v. Illinois,
360 U.S. 264, 79 S.Ct. 1173, 3 L.Ed.2d 1217 (1959). But see Freeman
v. Rideout, 808 F.2d 949 (2d Cir. 1986); Hanrahan v. Lane,
747 F.2d 1137 (7th Cir. 1984).*fn5 That, of
course, is an entirely different question from whether the
responsible parties are subject to financial liability for
causing the due process violation. In fact, even if they
worked the denial of due process, the defendants here are
protected from financial liability by the amalgam of three
overlapping principles of immunity: witness immunity, see
Briscoe, supra, quasi-judicial immunity, see Butz v. Economou,
438 U.S. 478, 98 S.Ct. 2894, 57 L.Ed.2d 895 (1978), and
prosecutorial immunity. See Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409,
96 S.Ct. 984, 47 L.Ed.2d 128 (1976); Burns v. Reed, ___ U.S.
___, 111 S.Ct. 1934, 114 L.Ed.2d 547 (1991).
In order to allay any incentive for witnesses to shade the
truth or equivocate on tough questions, section 1983 embraces
"absolute immunity from subsequent damage liability for all
persons — governmental or otherwise — who were integral parts
of the judicial process." Briscoe, 460 U.S. at 335, 103 S.Ct.
at 1115. "[E]very consideration of public policy requires that
[witnesses] should be as fearless in testifying as the judge
and jury are independent in weighing their testimony." Williams
v. Hepting, 844 F.2d 138, 141 (3d Cir. 1988). The primacy of
the truth-finding function is obviously equally valid in all
manner of judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings including the
medical evaluation and civil commitment hearing at issue here.
On this ground alone, the defendants are absolutely immune.
Defendants did not act merely as witnesses, however. Dr.
Tronetti undertook his evaluation of McArdle at the request of
the Court of Common Pleas, and Mr. Reilly instituted the
commitment proceedings as a direct result thereof. Although a
somewhat adversarial commitment hearing took place, Dr.
Tronetti spoke from a position of trust. He was hand picked by
the final decision-maker to evaluate McArdle, and thus his
testimony was infused with an air of official credibility. It
is quite apparent that Judge Connelly issued the commitment
order predominately on the strength of Tronetti's
recommendation. Accordingly, the two defendants were part of
the truth deciding apparatus — more like a judge, a
prosecutor, a special master or other functionary of the court,
than like a routine witness. See, e.g., Moses v. Parwatikar,
813 F.2d 891, 893 (8th Cir. 1987); Miner v. Baker, 638 F. Supp. 239,
241 (E.D.Mo. 1986).
In Gardner by Gardner v. Parson, 874 F.2d 131 (3d Cir. 1989),
the Third Circuit held that a guardian ad litem was entitled to
absolute immunity, though it was careful to point out its
disagreement with the Sixth Circuit, namely that not all such
guardians are entitled to absolute immunity. Id. at 145.
Instead the court applied the "functional approach," its only
criterion being the extent to which the subject of the claimed
immunity acted as an "integral part of the judicial process."
Id. at 146 (citation omitted).*fn6 As noted, Dr. Tronetti's
diagnosis was more than an integral part of the judicial
process; it was well nigh its only substantial component. With
so much resting upon Dr. Tronetti's professional judgment it is
essential to the endeavor of truth that he remain free to
exercise his best professional faculties "unembarrassed by the
fear of damage suits." Barr v. Matteo, 360 U.S. 564, 571, 79
S.Ct. 1335, 1339, 3 L.Ed.2d 1434 (1959). Otherwise, the law
encourages those in Dr. Tronetti's position to subordinate the
the safe.*fn7 Such reasoning is as sound with respect to
Reilly's decision to institute proceedings, as it is with
respect to Tronetti's investigative, diagnostic and
testimonial functions. Accordingly, Reilly and Tronetti should
be accorded absolute immunity for any conduct relative to the
commitment hearing. See Gardner, 874 F.2d at 131; Kurzawa v.
Mueller, 732 F.2d 1456 (6th Cir. 1984); Babcock v. Tyler,
884 F.2d 497 (9th Cir. 1989); Myers v. Morris, 810 F.2d 1437 (8th
Cir. 1987); Moses, 813 F.2d at 891; Miner, 638 F. Supp.
at 241. Cf. Snell v. Tunnell, 920 F.2d 673 (10th Cir. 1990);
Stem v. Ahearn, 908 F.2d 1 (5th Cir. 1990).
Plaintiff concedes as much, but contends that he is not
challenging the testimonial acts. Instead he claims that an
illegal conspiracy was afoot to violate his due process rights.
We agree with all the authority we have located in holding that
alleging a conspiracy to falsely testify does not abrogate
absolute immunity. Holloway v. Walker, 765 F.2d 517, 523 (5th
Cir. 1985); Moses, 813 F.2d at 893; Ashelman v. Pope,
793 F.2d 1072, 1078 (9th Cir. 1986) (en banc); Dykes v.
Hosemann, 776 F.2d 942, 946 (11th Cir. 1985). Were we to hold
otherwise, absolute immunity would mean little. The difference
between the conspiracy to perjure and its actual offenses is
minuscule if not undetectable, and thus such a rule would
entirely defeat the immunity by a mere device of pleading.
There is no advantage and little difference between allowing
conspiracy to abrogate immunity and repealing the immunity
itself. We can find no justification for either. Accordingly,
defendants' motions to dismiss will be granted by the
The investigative and testimonial acts of the defendants
cannot be the basis of liability. However, Dr. Tronetti and
Mr. Reilly also confronted the plaintiff in their other
capacities, to wit, their capacities as prison officials. The
Supreme Court has made clear that "deliberate indifference to
the serious medical needs of prisoners constitutes the
unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain, . . . proscribed by
the Eighth Amendment." Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 104, 97
S.Ct. 285, 291, 50 L.Ed.2d 251 (1976). Thus, perhaps the Eighth
Amendment rather than the Due Process Clause provides the
protection plaintiff seeks. Moreover, in their capacities as
prison officials, the defendants are protected only by
qualified immunity. See Hynson v. City of Chester,
827 F.2d 932, 934 (3d Cir. 1987). Viewed critically, the damage done
here is alleged to have resulted from grossly negligent and
extremely deficient diagnostic procedures and treatment
prescriptions. It is conceivable that plaintiff could "produce
opinions of medical experts which assert that the official's
actions were so grossly contrary to accepted medical practices
as to amount to deliberate indifference." Howell v. Evans,
922 F.2d 712 (11th Cir. 1991).
McArdle has not made any such claim, and by stating that one
is "conceivable" we do not express any opinion on its
potential merits — not even that it could survive a motion to
dismiss. We state merely that if any wrong is actionable here,
it is the diagnosis
and treatment of the alleged psychiatric problem, and not the
process by which decisions were reached.
Having found that the complaint as currently written states
no federal claim, we decline to exercise our jurisdiction over
the remaining pendant state-law causes of action. 28 U.S.C.A.
§ 1367(c)(3) (1991 Supp.); Carnegie-Mellon University v.
Cohill, 484 U.S. 343, 108 S.Ct. 614, 98 L.Ed.2d 720 (1988).
Accordingly, plaintiff's entire complaint will be dismissed.