United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania
September 3, 2004.
ELMER L. THOMAS
STEVEN C. LEACH, et al.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: HARVEY BARTLE, III, District Judge
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.