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GATTER v. ZAPPILE

October 7, 1999

WILLIAM GATTER AND MARIE PARROTT GATTER, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
RICHARD ZAPPILE, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Katz, Senior District Judge.

  MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

This suit arises out of the prosecution of William Gatter, a former Philadelphia police sergeant, for perjury before a grand jury. Gatter was later acquitted of the charge. The complaint alleges causes of action against remaining defendants James Danbach,*fn1 Special F.B.I. Agent, and James Williamson, Special Deputy Marshal, for violations of Gatter's civil rights, malicious prosecution, false arrest, infliction of emotional distress, abuse of process, conspiracy, and loss of consortium. Before the court now is defendants' motion for summary judgment.

I. Background*fn2

Danbach and Williamson were members of the Joint Task Force on Police Corruption and were involved in the investigation of a Philadelphia police officer, Michael Vassallo. One of the matters under investigation was the allegation that Vassallo had beaten an arrestee, Lawrence Jones. This allegation was made by Jones and two police officers, John McGrath and Cynthia O'Leary.*fn3 According to the officers, they reported the incident to Gatter, who was the supervisor at the site of the arrest. All three officers testified regarding this alleged assault in 1997 before the grand jury investigating Vassallo. At the time of his appearance before the grand jury, Gatter was not a target of Danbach and Williamson's investigation. Gatter's testimony, which was that he could not recall receiving any complaint regarding Vassallo, was at odds with that of McGrath and O'Leary, and this difference formed the basis of a perjury indictment against Gatter. After proceeding to trial, Gatter was acquitted of all charges.

Gatter's suit is predicated upon his theory that Danbach, Williamson, and other members of the Joint Task Force and/or Internal Affairs pursued the investigation as part of a deliberate campaign against Vassallo. See Compl. ¶ 25. Gatter alleges that Danbach and Williamson knew or should have known that McGrath and O'Leary were lying because their testimony regarding the assault was not supported by police records. See Pl. Opp. Mem. at 4.*fn4 According to Gatter, his prosecution for perjury was punishment for his refusal to give false testimony implicating Vassallo before the grand jury. See Compl. ¶ 26.

II. Discussion*fn5

As is discussed below, none of the plaintiffs' causes of action survive summary judgment.

A. Malicious Prosecution and False Arrest

1. Failure to Show Lack of Probable Cause

Probable cause is a necessary element for Gatter's malicious prosecution and false arrest claims. In order to sustain a claim of malicious prosecution, Gatter must show that the defendants (1) initiated the proceedings against him (2) without probable cause and (3) with malice and (4) that the proceedings terminated in his favor. See Cosmas v. Bloomingdales Bros., Inc., 442 Pa. Super. 476, 660 A.2d 83, 85 (1995); Hilfirty, 91 F.3d at 579 (applying the elements of the Pennsylvania common law tort in a section 1983 malicious prosecution claim). Similarly, to prevail on his false arrest allegations, Gatter must show that the defendants lacked probable cause. See Renk v. City of Pittsburgh, 537 Pa. 68, 641 A.2d 289, 293 (1994) (noting that a false arrest claim is defeated if there was probable cause to make the arrest); Groman v. Township of Manalapan, 47 F.3d 628, 634 (3d Cir. 1995) (requiring a showing that the police lacked probable cause in order for the plaintiffs to prevail on their section 1983 false arrest claim).

While the existence of probable cause is generally a jury question, it may be appropriate for summary judgment where "the uncontroverted facts could not lead a reasonable person to find that probable cause was lacking." Telepo v. Palmer Township, 40 F. Supp.2d 596, 611 (E.D.Pa. 1999); accord Deary v. Three Un-Named Police Officers, 746 F.2d 185, 192 (3d Cir. 1984) (holding that a probable cause determination is appropriate for summary judgment where there are no genuine issues of material fact and no credibility issues). A showing of probable cause requires "proof of facts and circumstances that would convince a reasonable, honest individual that the suspected person is guilty of a criminal offense." Lippay v. Christos, 996 F.2d 1490, 1502 (3d Cir. 1993); accord Amicone v. Shoaf, 423 Pa. Super. 281, 620 A.2d 1222, 1224 (1993). A grand jury indictment is affirmative evidence of probable cause. See Rose v. Bartle, 871 F.2d 331, 353 (3d Cir. 1989) (noting that under both common law and section 1983 claims for malicious prosecution, a grand jury indictment constitutes prima facie evidence of probable cause which may be rebutted by evidence that it was procured by corrupt means); see also Kalina v. Fletcher, 522 U.S. 118, 129, 118 S.Ct. 502, 139 L.Ed.2d 471 (1997) (noting that a grand jury indictment satisfies the Fourth Amendment's requirement that an arrest warrant must be based on probable cause). But see Montgomery v. DeSimone, 159 F.3d 120, 125 (3d Cir. 1998) (rejecting the Restatement and common law rule that a conviction, subsequently overturned, raises a rebuttal presumption of probable cause in section 1983 malicious prosecution actions).

The evidence before the court could not lead a reasonable juror to conclude that the investigation of Gatter lacked probable cause. His testimony before the grand jury regarding Vassallo conflicted with that of McGrath and O'Leary. Gatter testified before the grand jury that he did not recall receiving a complaint from McGrath and O'Leary regarding Vassallo, but that if he had received such a complaint, he would have remembered it. See Def. Ex. 8 at 14-15 (Grand Jury Test. of Gatter). McGrath and O'Leary, on the other hand, each testified that they complained to Gatter regarding Vassallo's assault on Jones. See Def. Ex. 5 at 17-18 (Grand Jury Test. of McGrath); Def. Ex. 6 at 11-12 (Grand Jury Test. of O'Leary). Subsequent to and based solely upon Gatter's testimony, the U.S. Attorney's Office decided to pursue an indictment against him. See Def. Ex. 4 (Aff. of Anthony Wzorek, Ass't U.S. Att'y). The contrast between Gatter's testimony and that of McGrath and O'Leary is sufficient for a reasonable person to conclude that there was probable cause to believe that Gatter had knowingly made a materially false declaration. See 18 U.S.C. § 1623. The grand jury's subsequent indictment of Gatter for perjury is also evidence of this probable cause.

In response, Gatter alleges that Danbach and Williamson should have known that McGrath and O'Leary were lying and that the defendants ignored information suggesting that the officers were not credible. See Def. Ex. 3 at 99-103 (Dep. of Gatter); Pl. Opp. Mem. at 7. According to Gatter, McGrath and O'Leary's story regarding the assault was inconsistent with documentary evidence, thus undermining the officers' credibility. For example, the officers testified that they did not transport Jones to the station house, see Def. Ex. 5 at 18; Def Ex. 6 at 12, but police records indicate that they did transport him. See Def. Ex. 3 at 48. Gatter also alleges that, according to police records, Jones showed no signs of a beating ...


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