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Livingstone v. North Belle Vernon Borough

July 31, 1996





On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania

D.C. No. 91-00059 Argued January 25, 1996

Before: COWEN and SAROKIN, Circuit Judges and POLLAK, District Judge *fn*

POLLAK, District Judge.

(Filed July 31, 1996)


This is the second time that this matter has come before this court.

Appellants Frances and Joseph Livingstone commenced this civil rights suit, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Section(s) 1983, in January, 1991 against defendants North Belle Vernon Borough, Fayette City Borough, Washington Township, Officer Darhl Snyder, Officer Raymond Moody, and Officer Frank E. Monack. The defendants moved for summary judgment, asserting that the Livingstones' claims were barred by an agreement said to have been made in 1990 in which the Livingstones waived any civil claims in exchange for the termination of a criminal prosecution of Frances Livingstone. (Agreements like this one, in which a criminal defendant waives potential civil claims in exchange for the dismissal of the case against her, are called "release-dismissal agreements.")

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants. In Livingstone v. North Belle Vernon Borough, 12 F.3d 1205 (3d Cir. 1993) (in banc) ("Livingstone I"), this court reversed, finding that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the Livingstones had concluded the release-dismissal agreement voluntarily. 12 F.3d at 1214. In that opinion, we also observed that the agreement raised a number of other possible legal questions, including whether its enforcement would be in the public interest and whether it was invalidated by the municipalities' failure to formally ratify it.

On remand, the district court granted partial summary judgment in favor of the defendants as to the latter two questions, finding that the agreement's enforcement would be in the public interest and that no formal ratification was necessary. The district court then conducted a jury trial devoted to the single question whether the Livingstones had concluded the release-dismissal agreement voluntarily. The jury found that the Livingstones did indeed voluntarily conclude the release-dismissal agreement. Accordingly, the district court ordered that judgment be entered in favor of the defendants and against the Livingstones as to all of the Livingstones' claims. This appeal followed.

I. Factual Background and Procedural History

A. Livingstone I.

In Livingstone I, we compendiously summarized this case's elaborate factual and procedural history. It seems efficient to reproduce that summary here verbatim. (Except as noted, all footnotes and all emendations are from Livingstone I.)

This civil suit filed by Frances and Joseph Livingstone against the police officers and municipalities arose from the conduct of the police officers on the night of January 12-13, 1989, at the Livingstone home in Washington Township, Pennsylvania. During a family argument between Carrie Livingstone, age twenty-two, who was unmarried and living at her parents' home with her fourteen-month-old son, and Joseph, her father, Mr. Livingstone struck Carrie on the face, causing her lip to split and bleed. Carrie ran out of the house and to the community ambulance service across the street, where an employee called the police. When Officer Frank Monack arrived, Carrie told him that her father had struck her and that her parents were holding her son without her consent.

Monack, who was at that time an officer in the Washington Township Police Department and is now Chief of Police, radioed for assistance pursuant to an intermunicipal police cooperation agreement. Raymond Moody, who was and is the Chief of Police for the Borough of Fayette City, and Darhl Snyder, an officer in the North Belle Vernon Police Department, responded. They proceeded to the Livingstone home where Mr. Livingstone permitted them to enter for the purpose, he later testified, of discussing possible criminal charges against him arising out of the incident. Following a brief discussion, Monack and Snyder accompanied Mr. Livingstone outside, and Monack told him to go to the nearby police station to make a statement. *fn1 No charges were filed against Mr. Livingstone that evening or at any later time.

Monack and Snyder then reentered the Livingstone household, this time in search of Carrie's son and admittedly without a warrant or court order. *fn2 Mrs. Livingstone had retreated to the back bedroom with her grandson, and had locked and barricaded the door. When she refused to open the door, Monack picked the lock and then tried to push the door open. From the partially opened door, Mrs. Livingstone hit him with a fishing rod and scratched him. Monack and Snyder broke the door down to enter the room, and then Monack told Mrs. Livingstone she was under arrest.

Mrs. Livingstone testified that both men struck her, causing her to lose consciousness and sustain bruises, lacerations, lost teeth, and head injuries. According to defendants, they used force only for the purpose of getting handcuffs on her after she struck the officer, and a stun gun to subdue her because she was screaming and kicking. Snyder held her down while Monack used the gun. Mrs. Livingstone claims that Monack then said "you want a thrill, I'll give you a thrill" and applied the stun gun between her legs. A medical examination conducted at the hospital that night notes a burn in the vulval area.

The officers removed Mrs. Livingstone, handcuffed, from the house. She states that they dragged her outside and dropped her several times, banging her head, and then left her lying in cold muddy water for hours. The officers claim that her thrashing caused them all to fall, and that she refused to get up.

On January 13, 1989, the morning after the altercation, Mrs. Livingstone was charged by Monack, on behalf of the Washington Township Police Department, with disorderly conduct, aggravated assault, terroristic threats, resisting arrest, and interference with custody. At a preliminary hearing on April 18, 1989, Mrs. Livingstone was held over for a jury trial on all but the terroristic threats charge, and the aggravated assault charge was reduced to simple assault.

The trial in Fayette County Court of Common Pleas began on February 13, 1990, with attorney Thomas R. Ceraso representing Frances Livingstone and Jack R. Heneks, Jr., an Assistant District Attorney, representing the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Carrie Livingstone testified for the prosecution, followed by Monack, Snyder, Moody, Police Chief Robert Matthews of Washington Township, and Evelyn Rehe of the community ambulance service. The Commonwealth rested, and Mrs. Livingstone demurred to all of the charges. The demurrer was granted on the charge of interference with custody on the ground that there were no facts showing danger to the child, but was denied as to the other charges.

Thereafter, Joseph Livingstone and his son, James, testified for the defense. Before Mrs. Livingstone was to take the stand (and presumably would have testified about her claims with regard to police use of a stun gun on her private parts), the trial judge, Judge Cicchetti of the Court of Common Pleas, met with Heneks and Ceraso to discuss whether the matter could be resolved. *fn3 After settlement negotiations, a conference was held in camera with Judge Cicchetti. Present were Moody, Monack, Matthews (now deceased), the Livingstones, Ceraso, and Heneks.

Ceraso summarized the arrangement by stating that the defense would move for a judgment of acquittal after James Livingstone finished his testimony; that expenses for the physical damage to the Livingstone house and for Mrs. Livingstone's reasonable medical care would be paid; and that once those bills were paid, the Livingstones would release any civil claims. Ceraso stated on the record:

there will be an agreement on the part of my client, Mrs. Livingston[e], and also her husband, Joe Livingston[e], who is present, that upon payment of reasonable medical bills that w[e]re associated with the incident that occurred, based on my forwarding those to Washington Township with confirmation, together with bills reflecting damage incurred at the household of Mr. and Mrs. Livingston[e], that Washington Township will cause the same to be paid. At the time of final payment of those bills, there will be a full and complete release signed with reference to any civil action on the part of Mr. and Mrs. Livingston[e]. It's also my understanding that at that time there will also be a release signed by Washington Township, or any of its proper officials, or any member of the police force necessary to release Mr. and Mrs. Livingston[e] from any liability . . . . App. at 1109.

In response to the judge's inquiry, the parties voiced an expression of assent. The court asked whether "you all think this is in the best interest for everyone" and Matthews, Monack, and Heneks said they did. App. at 1112. When they returned to the courtroom, Ceraso moved for a judgment of acquittal on the criminal charges against Mrs. Livingstone, which the court granted.

It is undisputed that the settlement agreement was never reduced to writing. The Livingstones never submitted for payment any medical bills or household repair bills, and no payments have been made. The Board of Supervisors of Washington Township took no action to officially ratify the agreement until almost two years after the conference in chambers, and only then after this suit was started. *fn4 There is no evidence that the other two municipal defendants, North Belle Vernon Borough and Fayette City Borough, have ever taken any action to ratify any putative settlement.

On January 14, 1991, almost a year after the criminal trial, the Livingstones filed this action against the police officers and the three employer municipalities. The complaint consisted of seven claims: a federal claim filed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Section(s) 1983 (1988), and state law claims alleging assault and battery, malicious prosecution, malicious abuse of process, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and conversion.

The defendants filed motions to dismiss or, in the alternative, for summary judgment. The district court referred the case to a magistrate judge, who ordered the parties to engage in discovery [footnote omitted] and to submit briefs and materials in support of the motions.

In their briefs in support of summary judgment, defendants argued that the suit was barred by the release-dismissal agreement reached during the in camera conference before Judge Cicchetti. The Livingstones claimed that they never intended to waive their rights to sue, pointing out that the agreement was never reduced to writing and that Washington Township never made the contemplated payments. They also contended that the agreement was never properly entered into by the municipalities, as the Washington Township Board of Supervisors never formally approved it and the other boroughs' governing bodies never considered it, and that the agreement was invalid and unenforceable under Pennsylvania law.

On April 8, 1992, the magistrate judge submitted a Report and Recommendation recommending that summary judgment be granted for the defendants on the basis of the releasedismissal agreement. Although the court acknowledged that Washington Township may not have formally approved the agreement, it noted that two supervisors, a quorum, had approved it, thereby satisfying Pennsylvania law. Without comment on the absence of the other municipalities and officers from the agreement, the magistrate judge concluded that plaintiffs had contracted with all of the defendants, and thus the plaintiffs' civil suit was barred; that the agreement comported with due process because the plaintiffs understood that they were waiving their rights to assert future civil claims and had entered into the release voluntarily; and that there was sufficient consideration because the plaintiffs, in exchange for the surrender of their potential civil claims, had secured the dismissal of the criminal charges and a promise by the defendants not to sue them.

Objections were filed but the district court adopted the magistrate judge's opinion as its own and granted summary judgment for all defendants. This timely appeal followed. Livingstone I, 12 F.3d at 1206-09.

With this background history as predicate, the court in Livingstone I then proceeded to review the elements of proof for a showing of voluntariness, finding that the parties seeking to enforce the release-dismissal agreement bore the burden of showing that the Livingstones' assent was "voluntary, deliberate and informed." 12 F.3d at 1211. We concluded that the defendants had not met this burden with the certainty called for on summary judgment, given that Mrs. Livingstone was confused as to the terms of the release-dismissal arrangement, that the claimed release-dismissal agreement was never written down, and that the asserted agreement Ä assuming there was a meeting of the minds Ä was made, if at all, during a brief and ambiguous oral colloquy. See id. at 1211-14. Accordingly, we reversed the grant of summary judgment and directed that the case be remanded for further proceedings.

B. Post-Livingstone I Proceedings

Following remand, the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment challenging the Livingstones' complaint on a variety of grounds other than the release-dismissal agreement. Their motions were referred to a magistrate judge, whose Report and Recommendation ("R&R") the district court then adopted without substantive comment. In accordance with the recommendations of the magistrate judge, the district court ordered that (1) summary judgment be entered in favor of all defendants as to the Livingstones' claims of malicious prosecution, abuse of process, and invasion of privacy; *fn5 and (2) summary judgment be entered in favor of Officer Moody as to the assault and battery claims. The district court denied summary judgment as to the Livingstones' constitutional claims, their claims of assault and battery against Officers Monack and Snyder, their claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress, and their conversion claim. App. at 326, 352.

The Livingstones then filed a motion for partial summary judgment renewing two arguments that they had already unsuccessfully made to the district court in the first round of the litigation. These arguments were that the release-dismissal agreement was unenforceable because (a) the municipalities had not ratified it, as (assertedly) required by Pennsylvania law, and (b) the release-dismissal agreement had been concluded in a manner which violated "the Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure and public policy." App. at 355. *fn6 The defendants responded with cross-motions for partial summary judgment that asserted that no ratification was necessary, because the Livingstones had failed to submit their medical bills to Washington Township for payment. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants on both the ratification question and the public-interest question.

The district court then conducted a jury trial limited to one question, whether the Livingstones voluntarily entered into the release-dismissal agreement. After several days of trial, including extended testimony by Thomas R. Ceraso (Mrs. Livingstone's lawyer at her criminal trial), the jury found that the Livingstones did indeed enter into the agreement voluntarily. Accordingly, the district court entered judgment in favor of the defendants and against the Livingstones. The Livingstones moved for a new trial, for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, and to amend the court's judgment to require Washington Township to pay household damages and medical bills to the Livingstones (apparently in order to enforce the terms of the release-dismissal agreement). These motions were denied, and this appeal followed.

On appeal, the Livingstones assert that the district court (1) erred in finding that the agreement was valid and enforceable even though the municipalities had not ratified it; (2) erred in ruling that the enforcement of the agreement was in the public interest as a matter of law; and (3) made a number of errors at the voluntariness proceeding. *fn7 We will discuss these questions in that order.

As to the second and third of these arguments, the district court, appellants, and appellees all assume that identical legal standards govern the enforcement of the release-dismissal agreement as to the Livingstones' section 1983 claims and as to their state-law claims. However, as we suggested in Livingstone I, see 12 F.3d at 1209 n.6, this is not necessarily the case. Federal common law governs the enforceability of the release-dismissal agreement as to the Livingstones' section 1983 claims, while we must look to Pennsylvania law to assess the enforceability of the agreement as to their state-law claims. Thus, the legal standards applicable to the Livingstones' state-law claims will be discussed separately.

II. Jurisdiction and Standard of Review

We have appellate jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. Section(s) 1291. As to the municipal ratification and public-interest questions, on which the district court granted summary judgment, our review is plenary. See Erie Telecommunications Inc. v. City of Erie, 853 F.2d 1084, 1093 (3d Cir. 1988). The appellants also assert that, at the voluntariness proceeding, the district court (1) gave an incorrect jury instruction, (2) erred in declining to give a requested jury instruction, and (3) made a number of incorrect evidentiary rulings. To the extent that appellants claim that a jury instruction failed to state the proper legal standard, our review is plenary. See Government of Virgin Islands v. Isaac, 50 F.3d 1175, 1180 (3d Cir. 1995). To the extent that appellants contest the district court's refusal to give particular jury instructions, our review is for abuse of discretion. See id. The evidentiary rulings that the appellants challenge are all discretionary rulings of the type that we review for abuse of discretion. This includes rulings as to the relevance of evidence and as to its prejudicial effect, see In re Japanese ...

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