United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
October 17, 2005.
CHADWICK D. PEPITON Plaintiff,
CITY OF FARRELL, PENNSYLVANIA, SOUTHWEST MERCER COUNTY REGIONAL POLICE DEPARTMENT, JOHN ROCOCCI, as an Individual and in his Official Capacity with the Southwest Mercer County Regional Police Department, MERCER COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA, LOWELL WILLIAMS, as an Individual and in his Official Capacity as the Public Defender for Mercer County, and JAMES P. EPSTEIN, as an Individual and in his Official Capacity as the District Attorney for Mercer County, Defendants.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: ARTHUR SCHWAB, District Judge
Defendants City of Farrell, Pennsylvania, Southwest Mercer
County Regional Police Department ["Police Department"], Police
Officer John Rococci of that Police Department, Mercer County,
Lowell Williams, and James P. Epstein bring motions to dismiss
Chadwick D. Pepiton's civil rights complaint (documents nos. 7,
11, 13). After careful consideration of defendants' motions and
plaintiff's stipulation of dismissal as to most of his claims,
this Court will dismiss Counts III, IV, V, and VI in their
entirety and Counts I, II, and VII in part.*fn1 II. Statement of Facts
The following facts appear in a light most favorable to the
Plaintiff alleges that on May 3, 2003, he was pulled over for
driving a motor vehicle with an expired inspection sticker.
Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Rococci pointed his weapon at
Plaintiff and unlawfully arrested him. Plaintiff alleges that
Defendant Rococci used excessive force in the carrying out the
arrest, and claims that he suffered a fractured right wrist, a
fractured left arm which required immediate surgery, and numerous
contusions and abrasions as a result.
At the ensuing pretrial hearing, defendant Williams, the Public
Defender for Mercer County, was appointed as plaintiff's defense
attorney, while defendant Epstein was prosecuting the case for
the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, acting in his official capacity
as District Attorney for Mercer County. Plaintiff claims that
prior to his preliminary hearing, defendants Rococci, Epstein,
and Williams held a meeting at the local magistrate judge's
office and conspired to bring false charges against plaintiff so
that he would not file suit against defendant Rococci and the
Police Department. Plaintiff claims defendant Williams instructed
Plaintiff to plead guilty to the charges which, he claims,
Williams knew were false. Plaintiff claims he was unaware of the
alleged back-room conversation and followed his attorney's advice
and pleaded guilty. Following the preliminary hearing, plaintiff
was convicted and placed on one year probation. III. Standards
In deciding a motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. Rule
12(b)(6), the Court accepts the well-pleaded factual allegations
of the complaint as true, and draws all reasonable inferences
therefrom in favor of the plaintiff. Armstrong Surgical Center,
Inc. v. Armstrong County Memorial Hospital, 185 F.3d 154, 155
(3d Cir. 1999). A claim should not be dismissed for failure to
state a claim unless it appears beyond a doubt that the
non-moving party can prove no set of facts in support of its
allegations which would entitle it to relief. Conley v. Gibson,
355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957); Marshall-Silver Construction Co. v.
Mendel, 894 F.2d 593, 595 (3d Cir. 1990).
In making this determination, the court must construe the
pleading in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.
Budinsky v. Pennsylvania Dept. of Environmental Resources,
819 F.2d 418, 421 (3d Cir. 1987). Further, the Federal Rules of Civil
Procedure require notice pleading, not fact pleading, so to
withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the plaintiff "need only make
out a claim upon which relief can be granted. If more facts are
necessary to resolve or clarify the disputed issues, the parties
may avail themselves of the civil discovery mechanisms under the
Federal Rules." Alston v. Parker, 363 F.3d 229, 233 n. 6 (3d
Cir. 2004), quoting Swierkiewicz v. Sorema, N.A., 534 U.S. 506,
512 (2002) ("This simplified notice pleading standard relies on
liberal discovery rules . . . to define facts and issues and to
dispose of unmeritorious claims.").
Viewed in the light of the forgoing liberal pleading standards,
this Court simply cannot say, at this early stage of the
proceedings, that plaintiff will be able to state no set of facts
in support of his Fourth Amendment claim for excessive force against
defendant Rococci at Count I, his Fourth Amendment claim against
defendants Rococci, the Police Department and City of Farrell at
Count II, and his Pennsylvania common law battery claim against
defendant Rococci at Count VII. This Court will dismiss Counts
III, IV, V, VI in their entirety and Counts I, II, and VII in
part, with prejudice.
Count I: Constitutional Claims Relating to the Lawfulness of
Plaintiff's Criminal Conviction Fail as a Matter Of Law
Plaintiff alleges deprivation of constitutional rights,
privileges, and immunities guaranteed by the Fourth, Sixth, and
Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and
brings his civil rights claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. No cause
of action exists under section 1983, however, for claims that
call into question the lawfulness of a plaintiff's conviction.
The Supreme Court has held that section 1983 claims which
expressly or implicitly challenge the lawfulness of a plaintiff's
conviction must be dismissed pursuant to Heck v. Humphrey,
512 U.S. 477 (1994). The only constitutional claim alleged in Claim I
which does not imply the invalidity of plaintiff's conviction
is the Fourth Amendment claim against Defendant Rococci relating
to the use of excessive force.
Accordingly, the Court will dismiss plaintiff's Sixth and
Fourteenth Amendment claims against defendant Rococci, pursuant
to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), failure to state a claim upon which
relief can be granted. The only claim in Count I to survive is
the Fourth Amendment claim against defendant Rococci related to
the use of excessive force. Count II: Constitutional Claims Relating to the Lawfulness of
Plaintiff's Criminal Conviction Fail as a Matter Of Law
Plaintiff alleges a conspiracy and violation of constitutional
rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments under a theory
of respondeat superior liability. Complaint ¶ 69. However, a
section 1983 claim against a governmental entity under a theory
of respondeat superior, will not lie. Monell v. Dep't of Soc.
Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 691 (1978). A municipality cannot be held
liable solely as an employer, because there is no respondeat
superior theory of municipal liability in section 1983 actions.
Id. Plaintiff's claims under respondeat superior therefore
fail against defendants Police Department and City of Farrell.
Plaintiff agrees to the dismissal of these claims pursuant to
Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Therefore, the
Court will dismiss plaintiff's claims under respondeat superior
liability against these defendants pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P.
12(b)(6). The claims against defendants Police Department and
City of Farrell survive only insofar as defendant Rococci may
have used excessive force pursuant to Police Department and/or
City of Farrell custom, practice, or policy.
Count III: All Claims for False Arrest Fail as a Matter of Law
Because There Was Probable Cause to Make a Lawful Arrest
Plaintiff alleges that by placing him under arrest, defendant
Rococci violated his right to be free from unlawful detention.
Plaintiff's Complaint, however, states he was stopped for driving
a motor vehicle with an expired inspection sticker. Complaint ¶
25. The United States Supreme Court has held that the
Fourth Amendment does not forbid a warrantless arrest for a minor
criminal offense, such as a misdemeanor seatbelt violation
punishable only by a fine. Atwater v. City of Lago Vista,
532 U.S. 318, 354 (2001) ("If an officer has probable cause to believe that an individual has committed even a very minor
criminal offense in his presence, he may, without violating the
Fourth Amendment, arrest the offender."). As explicitly stated in
his Complaint, plaintiff was driving a motor vehicle with an
expired inspection sticker, an act which violates 75 Pa.C.S. §
4703, "Operation of Vehicle Without Official Certification of
Inspection," a misdemeanor punishable, upon conviction, to a fine
of up to $25.00. 75 Pa.C.S. § 4703 (h)(2).
As plaintiff committed a traffic violation in the presence of
defendant Rococci, the officer had probable cause to make the
arrest, and the arrest was lawful and reasonable under the
Fourth Amendment. Plaintiff agrees to dismissal of Count IV in its
entirety, pursuant to Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Civil
Procedure, and the Court will dismiss plaintiff's
Fourth Amendment claims for False Arrest against defendant Rococci
pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6).
Count IV: All Constitutional Claims Against Defendants
Epstein, Williams, and Rococci that Imply the Invalidity of
Plaintiff's Conviction Fail Under Section 1983 and Heck
Plaintiff alleges a number of Fourth, Sixth, and
Fourteenth Amendment claims against defendants Epstein, Williams, and
Roccoci. Due to the "favorable termination requirement" of
Heck, however, section 1983 claims challenging the validity of
plaintiff's conviction cannot stand. Plaintiff agrees to the
dismissal of Count IV in its entirety, pursuant to Rule 41 of the
Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and the Court will therefore
dismiss these claims against defendants Epstein, Williams, and
Roccoci pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). Count V: All Constitutional Claims Against Defendants Epstein,
Williams, Rococci, Mercer County, City of Farrell, and Police
Department that Imply the Invalidity of Plaintiff's Conviction
Fail Under § 1983 and Heck
Plaintiff alleges a number of Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment
claims against Rococci, Williams, Epstein, Mercer County, City of
Farrell and Police Department. Due to the "favorable termination
requirement" of Heck, however, section 1983 claims which imply
the invalidity of plaintiff's conviction cannot stand. Plaintiff
agrees to the dismissal of Count V in its entirety, pursuant to
Rule 41 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and the Court
will therefore dismiss the claims at Count V.
Count VI: Plaintiff's Malicious Prosecution Claim is Barred
Due To His Guilty Plea and Applicable Immunities
Malicious prosecution is a common law intentional tort that, in
Pennsylvania, is established where the defendant "instituted
proceedings against the plaintiff 1) without probable cause, 2)
with malice, and 3) the proceedings must have terminated in favor
of the plaintiff." McKibben v. Schmotzer, 700 A.2d 484, 492
(Pa. Super 1997).
Plaintiff cannot establish as a matter of law that proceedings
terminated in his favor for the simple reason that he pleaded
guilty to criminal charges, was sentenced, and served that
sentence. A conviction from a guilty plea is equivalent to a
conviction from trial-by-jury under Pennsylvania law. Haefner v.
Burkey, 626 A.2d 519, 521 (1993); Commonwealth, Dept. of
Transp. v. Mitchell, 535 A.2d 581, 585 (Pa. 1987). Proceedings
did not terminate in plaintiff's favor and he is barred from
establishing malicious prosecution as a matter of law. See
Donahue v. Gavin, 280 F.3d 371, 379 (3d Cir. 2002) (favorable
termination of a criminal proceeding in Pennsylvania results, inter alia, where the prosecutor formally
abandons the proceedings ("nolle prosequi" or "nol pros"), the
indictment or information is quashed, a criminal defendant is
acquitted, or the accused receives a final order in his or her
favor by a trial or appellate court).
Additionally, defendant Epstein, as the District Attorney, is
entitled to absolute immunity under Pennsylvania law. Durham v.
McElynn, 772 A.2d 68, 70 (Pa. 2001). Defendants Mercer County
and City of Farrell are immune to tort actions in Pennsylvania
under the Political Subdivision Tort Act, which states that "no
local agency shall be liable for any damages on account of any
injury to a person or property caused by any act of the local
agency or an employee thereof or any other person."
42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8541. There are eight enumerated exceptions in
42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8542(b) that allow liability against a local agency under the
Act, but intentional torts are not among them. Plaintiff agrees
to the dismissal of Count VI in its entirety, pursuant to Rule 41
of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Therefore, the Court
will dismiss plaintiff's common law malicious prosecution claims
against defendants Rococci, Williams, Epstein, Mercer County,
City of Farrell, and Police Department pursuant to
Count VII: Defendant City of Farrell and Defendant Police
Department are Immune from Plaintiff's Civil Battery Claim
Defendant City of Farrell is immune to plaintiff's common law
battery claim for the reason just stated: the City is immune to
state tort claims and battery is not one of the enumerated
exceptions to immunity under the Political Subdivision Tort Act.
42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8541. Defendant Police Department, as a
governmental "local agency," enjoys the same immunity. A
municipal employee may be stripped of his immunity when he
engages in conduct that is found to constitute "willful misconduct," which may be
the case here for defendant Rococci. 42 Pa.C.S. § 8550.
Therefore, the Court will dismiss plaintiff's battery claim
against defendants City of Farrell, Police Department, and
Rococci in his official capacity, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P.
12(b)(6), but the battery claim survives against defendant
Rococci in his individual capacity.
Punitive Damages are Not Available Against Municipal
Defendants and Rococci in his Official Capacity, as a Matter of
In each count of his complaint, plaintiff requests an award of
punitive damages. Plaintiff agrees in his response "to the
complete release of defendants James Epstein, Lowell Williams,
and Mercer County."
As for the remaining defendants, punitive damages are not
available against a municipality under section 1983. City of
Newport v. Fact Concerts, 452 U.S. 247, 267-71 (1981). Municipal
officials and employees in their capacities as officers of a
borough or other municipality are likewise immune from section
1983 punitive damages. See Brandon v. Holt, 469 U.S. 464,
472-73 (1985) (section 1983 claims against public servants in
their official capacities are, in effect, suits against the
government entity itself); Lakits v. York, 258 F.Supp. 2d 401
(E.D.Pa. 2003) (citations omitted). Plaintiff is therefore
precluded from recovering punitive damages from the municipal
defendants or Rococci in his official capacity, and plaintiff
agrees to the dismissal of these claims. The claim for damages
against defendant Rococci in his individual capacity survives. V. Conclusion
For the reasons discussed above, the Court will dismiss Counts
III, IV, V, VI in their entirety and Counts I, II, and VII in
part. The only claims remaining are plaintiff's Fourth Amendment
claim for excessive force against defendant Rococci at Count I,
his Fourth Amendment claim against defendants Police Department
and City of Farrell at Count II, and his Pennsylvania common law
battery claim against defendant Rococci at Count VII.
An appropriate order will be entered.
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