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THOMAS v. LEACH

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania


September 3, 2004.

ELMER L. THOMAS
v.
STEVEN C. LEACH, et al.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: HARVEY BARTLE, III, District Judge

MEMORANDUM

This is an action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Defendants move to dismiss the complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

Plaintiff Elmer L. Thomas ("Thomas"), currently incarcerated in the State Correctional Institution at Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, has brought this action against his former defense attorney, Steven C. Leach ("Leach"), Assistant District Attorney, Jackson M. Stewart ("Stewart"), and Clerk at the Delaware County Office of Judicial Support, Donna Rode*fn1 ("Rode"). Thomas alleges the defendants conspired to deny him access to exculpatory police investigation reports. He seeks damages and injunctive relief. When considering a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, we accept as true all well-pleaded facts in the complaint and draw any reasonable inferences in plaintiffs' favor. See Hishon v. King & Spalding, 467 U.S. 69, 73 (1984); Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1384 (3d Cir. 1994). We may also accept as true matters of public record outside the complaint. Oshiver, 38 F.3d at 1385 n. 2 (citation omitted). We should grant the motion only if "it is clear that no relief could be granted under any set of facts that could be proved consistent with the allegations" contained in the complaint or if reliance on the public record prevents relief. Hishon, 467 U.S. at 73. In ruling on a motion to dismiss, we need not decide whether plaintiff will ultimately prevail. Higgins v. Beyer, 293 F.3d 683, 688 (3d Cir. 2002).

  Thomas was convicted in 1982 in the Court of Common Pleas of Delaware County, Pennsylvania, of arson and murder as a result of a fire that occurred at a residence. Def. Rode's Mot. to Dismiss, Doc. No. 6, June 18, 2004, Ex. B at 4. Subsequently, on February 20, 2003, Thomas filed a civil suit in the Court of Common Pleas of Delaware County against Leach asking the court to order the release of Thomas' criminal records held by the Office of the Public Defender. Def. Rode's Mot. to Dismiss, Doc. No. 6, June 18, 2004, Ex. A at 4. According to Thomas, on January 30, 2004, he discovered that the defendants collaborated to deny him access to an exonerating police investigation report of the fire that he had previously requested. Pl.'s Compl., Doc. No. 1, Apr. 5, 2004 at 4. On March 24, 2004, Thomas filed a Petition for Post Conviction Relief in the Court of Common Pleas of Delaware County seeking to gain access to the report. Def. Stewart's Mot. to Dismiss, Doc. No. 8, June 18, 2004, Ex. A.

  The court denied Thomas' petition for post-conviction relief. Def. Leach's Resp. to Pl.'s Mot. to Require Defs. to Release Investigation Report, Doc. No. 14, June 23, 2004 at 1. His appeal is currently pending in the Pennsylvania Superior Court. Id. Thomas has now filed the current § 1983 action with this court seeking similar relief.

  Defendants move to dismiss Thomas' complaint on numerous grounds, including the ground that this § 1983 action is an improper collateral attack on the validity of Thomas' state conviction. "42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides for liability on the part of any state actor who `subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States . . . to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and the laws.'" Leamer v. Fauver, 288 F.3d 532, 540 (3d Cir. 2002) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1983). Certain claims, however, "are not cognizable under that provision and must be brought in habeas corpus proceedings, which . . . contain exhaustion requirements." Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 482 (1994). "If a judgment in favor of the plaintiff would necessarily imply the invalidity of his conviction or sentence . . . the complaint must be dismissed. . . ." Id. at 487; accord Leamer, 288 F.3d at 540. In such a case, the claim "must be brought in habeas corpus proceedings." Heck, 512 U.S. at 481; accord Leamer, 288 F.3d at 540. State prisoners must first exhaust remedies in a state forum — something Thomas has not done. Heck, 512 U.S. at 480-81.

  Thomas relies on the case of Godschalk v. Montgomery County District Attorney's Office, 177 F. Supp. 2d 366 (E.D. Pa. 2001) to support his position that this court has authority to hear this case as a § 1983 claim and grant him his requested relief. We decline to follow that decision as inconsistent with Heck and Leamer. Moreover, Godschalk relied upon a case from the Eastern District of Virginia that was subsequently reversed by the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. See Harvey v. Horan, 119 F. Supp. 2d 581 (E.D. Va. 2000) (decision on motion to dismiss); Harvey v. Horan, No. CIV.A. 00-1123-A, 2001 WL 419142 (E.D. Va. Apr. 16, 2001) (decision on motion for summary judgment), rev'd, 278 F.3d 370 (4th Cir. 2002).

  In this case, awarding Thomas the relief he seeks — access to the exonerating police investigation report — is simply a step toward having his conviction ruled invalid. Similar to the plaintiff in Harvey, he is attempting to use this § 1983 action as a discovery device to access evidence for the purpose of overturning his state conviction. "Therefore, his claim is effectively a petition for a writ of habeas corpus," Harvey, 278 F.3d at 378, which requires that he first exhaust his state court remedies. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1)(A).

  Because we find that Thomas has not exhausted his state remedies, we need not address the other grounds of defendants' motions to dismiss.

  For all the foregoing reasons, we will grant the motions of defendants to dismiss plaintiff's complaint. ORDER

  AND NOW, this day of September, 2004, for the reasons set forth in the accompanying Memorandum, it is hereby ORDERED that the motions of the defendants Steven C. Leach, Jackson M. Stewart, and Donna Rode (incorrectly denominated in the complaint as "Donna Rhode") to dismiss plaintiff's complaint are GRANTED.


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