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Walter v. Pike County

November 29, 2006

SUSAN L. WALTER, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
PIKE COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA, AND THE PIKE COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Caputo

MEMORANDUM

Presently before the Court are three motions for summary judgment. (Docs. 56, 59-1, and 63-1.) For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motions will be granted in part and denied in part. Defendants' motion for summary judgment as to Plaintiffs' substantive due process claim will be denied. Defendants' motion for summary judgment as to Plaintiffs' procedural due process claim will be granted. Defendants Westfall Township, Pike County, and the Pike County District Attorney's Office are entitled to assert the defense of municipal immunity and will be released as named defendants in this action. Defendants DeSarro and Jacobs are not entitled to absolute immunity as to their investigative roles in the elicitation of a confession from Joseph Stacy. Defendant Mitchell is not entitled to the defense of qualified immunity for any of his actions taken in this case. Defendants DeSarro and Jacobs are entitled to assert the defense of qualified immunity as to their failure to warn the Walter family of the danger posed by Joseph Stacy in the period leading up to the murder of Michael Walter. These Defendants are not entitled to the qualified immunity defense, however, for their involvement in the elicitation of the confession from Joseph Stacy.

This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331*fn1 ("federal question jurisdiction" and 28 U.S.C. § 1367*fn2 ("supplemental jurisdiction" over related state-law claims).

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Michael Walter was shot and killed by Joseph Stacy in Port Jervis, New York on July 5, 2002. (Doc. 6 ¶ 22.) Mr. Stacy plead guilty to second degree murder on July 18, 2003. Mr. Stacy had a prior criminal history. Mr. Stacy served six years in prison for a 1961 manslaughter conviction for shooting his then girlfriend in October of 1960. (Doc. 6 ¶ 26.) In 1990, Mr. Stacy was convicted of simple assault for pointing a gun at a person, though this conviction was later reversed on appeal. (Doc. 6 ¶¶ 29, 34.) Mr. Walter and Mr. Stacy served together on the Westfall Township Planning Board. (Doc. 6 ¶ 25.) In August of 2001, three of the Walters' female children, ages six, nine, and thirteen, stayed at the Stacy residence while the Walters attended to family business out of state. During their stay at the Stacy residence, the six year-old and the nine year-old were sexually and/or otherwise indecently assaulted by Mr. Stacy. (Doc. 6 ¶¶ 40, 41.)

The girls told Mrs. Walter about the assault, who then informed the Westfall Township Police Department and the Pike County District Attorney's Office. (Doc. 6 ¶ 42.) Timothy Mitchell, then the Chief of Police for Westfall Township, responded to the Walter residence and assured them that he was extensively trained in handling child abuse cases and was capable of handling the instant matter. (Doc. 6 ¶ 42, Doc. 64 ¶ 11) Mr. Mitchell was also at that time a member of the Pike County Child Abuse Task Force. (Doc. 57 ¶ 2.) Also responding to the Plaintiffs' home was Bruce DeSarro, an Assistant District Attorney for Pike County. The Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint alleges that Mr. Mitchell at this time assured the Walters that if criminal charges were pursued against Mr. Stacy, the Walters would be protected. (Doc. 6 ¶ 43.) Mrs. Walter's deposition testimony claims that Mr. Mitchell replied "yes" when queried whether the Walter family would be protected if they pursued criminal charges against Mr. Stacy. (Walter Dep. 78:13, May 24, 2005.) On the other hand, Mr. Mitchell expresses doubt, but apparently is not certain, that Mrs. Walter was even present during this exchange. (Mitchell Dep. 86, October 14, 2004.) Bruce DeSarro stated that Mrs. Walter was present for this discussion. (DeSarro Dep. 72:5-6, February 23, 2005.) In any case, Mr. Mitchell denies that any protection was ever offered to the Walter family. (Mitchell Dep. 158-59.) Mr. DeSarro testified that he did not recall any discussion of or agreement for protection to be provided to the Walters. (DeSarro Dep. 93:13.) The Walters allegedly decided to pursue criminal charges against Mr. Stacy based on an assurance of safety (Doc. 6 ¶ 44), but Defendants claim that the Walters understood the danger they might be placing themselves in and decided to pursue the charges regardless. (Doc. 57 ¶ 7, Doc. 64 ¶¶ 14, 16.) Further, Mr. Mitchell contends that the Walter family later took actions evidencing--as perceived by Mr. Mitchell--the realization that they were not being protected from Mr. Stacy, and were not entitled to such protection. (Doc. 57 ¶¶ 20-22, 24.) An example in support of this perception held by Mr. Mitchell was a letter sent by Mr. Walter to District Justice Charles Lieberman--dated August 21, 2001--in which he expressed his belief that Mr. Stacy was a risk to the Walter family and the community and that there existed "no guarantee of protection" from Mr. Stacy for his family while he was at work. The letter, which requested that bail be denied to Mr. Stacy pending the prosecution of the assault charges, continues, "I feel this [that Mr. Stacy may have weapons and will use them] is a reasonable and foreseeable risk and you have time to prevent this danger" and is signed "With [u]rgency". (Doc. 57, p. 16.) Mr. Mitchell further supports this perception that the Walters did not believe they were entitled to protection by stating that the Walters took additional precautions such as not allowing their children to walk home from the bus stop and prohibiting their children from going on overnight trips. (Doc. 57 ¶ 22; Walter Dep. 114-15.)

Plaintiffs, in their Amended Complaint, claim that Messrs. Mitchell and DeSarro, along with Douglas Jacobs, the District Attorney for Pike County, and William Tracy Todd, a detective/sheriff for Pike County, formulated a plan to get Mr. Stacy to admit that he sexually assaulted the Walter children. The plan called for Mr. Walter to invite Mr. Stacy to the Walter home under false pretenses and then get Mr. Stacy to admit to the assault. (Doc. 6 ¶¶ 46-48.) Defendants, on the other hand, claim that the idea to lure Mr. Stacy to the Walter home in order to elicit a confession from him was the creation of Michael Walter. (Doc. 57 ¶ 11.) Mrs. Walter's deposition testimony states that Mr. Walter had conceived of the idea of inviting Mr. Stacy over to the Walter home--where he would be then arrested--in order to avoid a potential gun-battle at the Stacy home. She also testified, however, that Mr. Mitchell had to gain approval for the plan from the District Attorney's office, which he quickly was able to do. (Walter Dep. 102.)

On August 16, 2001, Mr. Stacy went to the Walters' home and admitted to Mr. Walter--while the two were speaking outside of Mr. Mitchell's presence--that he had assaulted Mr. Walter's daughters. (Doc. 6 ¶ 54.) Mr. Stacy soon after made the same admission to Mr. Mitchell, who then arrested Mr. Stacy. (Doc. 6 ¶¶ 55.) Mr. Mitchell admitted that he did not search Mr. Stacy for weapons before allowing him to speak to Mr. Walter in private. (Mitchell Dep. 122:15, October 14, 2004.) Plaintiffs claim that it was part of the Defendants' alleged plan to have Mr. Walter speak to Mr. Stacy alone in order to elicit a confession. (Doc. 6 ¶¶ 52, 54.) However, Mr. Mitchell testified that he never intended for Mr. Walter to be involved in the interrogation of Mr. Stacy. (Mitchell Dep. 120:13, 121-22, October 14, 2004.)

Immediately after Mr. Stacy was taken into custody on August 16, 2001, a search warrant was executed at the Stacy home. (Doc. 6 ¶ 61.) The search revealed twelve guns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. (Doc. 6 ¶ 62.) Mr. Stacy's arrest was reported extensively in the local media. (Doc. 6 ¶ 64.) Mr. Stacy was shortly thereafter released on bail.

According to Mr. Mitchell, on the day he first spoke with Mr. Walter about the sexual assaults, August 14, 2001, Mr. Walter mentioned that Mr. Stacy had made statements in the past about 'picking off' [shooting] the [Planning Board of] Supervisors if they made an unfavorable vote [in an unrelated matter the two were involved in as members of the Planning Board]. (Mitchell Dep. 286:18, October 15, 2004.) Mitchell's response to this comment was to request police protection for a number of subsequent Planning Board meetings. (Mitchell Dep. 288:11.)

In June of 2002, as his trial for the assaults was approaching, Mr. Stacy's behavior became increasingly threatening and was directed towards Messrs. Walter, Mitchell, and Jacobs. The Amended Complaint states that the threatening conduct included stalking witnesses, inquiring as to home addresses, and being present on the Walters' street for no apparent reason. (Doc. 6 ¶ 73.) Mr. Mitchell testified that he believed Mr. Stacy was stalking him and had inquired about his home address. (Mitchell Dep. 244:8, 219:21.) Scott Frazer, a local realtor, testified that Mr. Stacy had asked him for Mr. Mitchell's home address. (Frazer Dep. 65:10, October 13, 2004.) Plaintiffs contend that in response to these actions, the Pennsylvania State Police were asked to protect Mr. Mitchell, and Mr. Jacobs arranged for armed protection for himself, including at his private law practice. (Doc. 6 ¶ 77.) Mr. Mitchell states that on Tuesday, July 2, 2002, one day after he witnessed Mr. Stacy stalking him outside of his office, he had arranged for approximately six to eight Pennsylvania State Police Troopers to be positioned outside of the building in case Mr. Stacy returned. He further contends that one of these troopers was positioned in Mr. Jacob's law office on that day because there was a good line of sight to where Mr. Mitchell's vehicle was located. (Mitchell Dep. 290.) Mr. Mitchell stated that he did not believe that either Mr. Jacobs or Mr. DeSarro planned for personal security to protect themselves from Mr. Stacy, nor was any protection provided to them by the Township. (Mitchell Dep. 291.) Mr. Mitchell further testified that additional security measures were taken at his police station, and that they were implemented in response to the threat posed by Mr. Stacy. (Mitchell Dep. 291:9.)

Plaintiffs allege that because the situation was becoming increasingly hazardous, Mr. Mitchell took leave from his job on or about Wednesday, July 3, 2002 and left the Pike County vicinity. (Doc. 6 ¶ 81.) Mr. Mitchell contends that he had a vacation already planned for that week, and decided to leave less than a day early for it. (Mitchell Dep. 240:16.) Because of the alleged stalking, Messrs. DeSarro and Mitchell attempted to have Mr. Stacy's bail revoked, but this request was denied by the magistrate judge.

On July 5, 2002, Mr, Stacy drove to Mr. Walter's place of employment at the Port Jervis Auto Mall in Port Jervis, New York, and shot him several times, fatally wounding Mr. Walter. (Doc. 6 ¶¶ 85-87.)

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

On September 25, 2003, Plaintiffs filed a civil action complaint against named Defendants, alleging substantive and procedural due process violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and wrongful death and survival actions under Pennsylvania state law. (Doc. 1.) On October 30, 2003, Plaintiffs filed their First Amended Complaint, maintaining all of the counts against Defendants alleged in the original complaint. (Doc. 6.)

Between October 17, 2003 and December 9, 2003, the various Defendants filed motions to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (Docs. 11, 12, 17, 21, 26.)

On August 20, 2004, the Court issued an order granting in part and denying in part Defendants' motions to dismiss. (Doc. 41.) Most significantly, this order granted Defendants' motions to dismiss with respect to Count III of the Amended Complaint, which encompassed the Plaintiffs' claims for wrongful death and survival actions under Pennsylvania state law. Also, the Court granted Defendants Pike County and Westfall Township's motion to dismiss with respect to the assertion that punitive damages are not recoverable against municipalities and municipal agencies. Additionally, the Court granted Defendant Westfall Township Police Department's motion to dismiss with respect to the assertion that dismissal of the Plaintiffs' § 1983 claim was proper. Finally, the Court granted in part Defendants Douglas J. Jacobs and Bruce DeSarro's motion to dismiss with respect to the assertion that they were entitled to absolute immunity from suit for their decisions regarding re-arrest or revocation of bail of Mr. Stacy; and granted in part Defendant Pike County District Attorney's Office's motion to dismiss with respect to the assertion that it was not subject to liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for its prosecutorial acts. (Doc. 41, pp. 24-25.)

On July 15, 2005, Defendant Timothy Mitchell filed a motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 56.) On this same date, Defendants Pike County, Pennsylvania, Pike County District Attorney's Office, Douglas J. Jacobs, Bruce DeSarro, and William Tracy Todd filed a motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 59-1.) Also on this date, Defendants Westfall Township and Timothy Mitchell in his official capacity as a Westfall Township employee filed a motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 63-1.) All of the Defendants--accompanied with the aforesaid motions--filed Statements of Material Facts as to Which There are No Genuine Issues to be Tried. (Docs. 57, 60, and 64, respectively.) The parties later filed supplemental and reply briefs in support of their respective positions. (Docs. 71, 72, 80, 85, 86, 87, 97, 100.) It is the aforementioned three motions of July 15, 2005 that will be addressed herein. These motions are fully briefed and ripe for disposition.

LEGAL STANDARD

Summary judgment is appropriate if "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c). A fact is material if proof of its existence or nonexistence might affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable substantive law. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

Where there is no material fact in dispute, the moving party need only establish that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Where, however, there is a disputed issue of material fact, summary judgment is appropriate only if the factual dispute is not a genuine one. See id. at 248. An issue of material fact is genuine if "a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id.

Where there is a material fact in dispute, the moving party has the initial burden of proving that: (1) there is no genuine issue of material fact; and (2) the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See CHARLES ALAN WRIGHT & ARTHURR. MILLER, FEDERALPRACTICE AND PROCEDURE: CIVIL 2D § 2727 (2d ed. 1983). The moving party may present its own evidence or, where the nonmoving party has the burden of proof, simply point out to the Court that "the nonmoving party has failed to make a sufficient showing of an essential element of her case...." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986).

All doubts as to the existence of a genuine issue of material fact must be resolved against the moving party, and the entire record must be examined in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See White v. Westinghouse Elec. Co., 862 F.2d 56, 59 (3d Cir. 1988). Once the moving party has satisfied its initial burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to either present affirmative evidence supporting its version of the material facts or to refute the moving party's contention that the facts entitle it to judgment as a matter of law. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 256-57.

The Court need not accept mere conclusory allegations, whether they are made in the complaint or a sworn statement. Lujan v. Nat'l Wildlife Fed'n, 497 U.S. 871, 888 (1990). In deciding a motion for summary judgment, "the judge's function is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 249.

DISCUSSION

The United States Supreme Court has said that only in very rare situations will a state's failure to protect someone amount to a constitutional violation, even if the state's conduct is grossly negligent. Rivera v. Rhode Island, 402 F.3d 27, 30 (1st Cir. 2005) (citing Collins v. City of Harker Heights, 503 U.S. 115, 125). The Supreme Court has cautioned that "[t]he doctrine of judicial self-restraint requires [courts] to exercise the utmost care whenever [they] are asked to break new ground in this field." Id. Based on the applicable record, the Court concludes that this case presents a unique factual scenario in which the state's failure to act in some fashion to protect--or at least warn--the Walter family may have established a constitutional violation.

Defendants have failed to satisfy their initial burden of proving that there is no genuine issue of material fact as to any of the four requisite prongs of the state-created danger exception to the general rule that the government is not responsible for harm inflicted by third parties on individuals that are not in government custody. Accordingly, Defendants' motions for summary judgment as to Count I of the Amended Complaint will be denied.

Defendants have, however, satisfied their burden of proving that there is no genuine issue of material fact as to the existence of a special relationship, under Pennsylvania law, between Michael Walter and the state actors in question, that would create a property right in police protection. Accordingly, Defendants' motions for summary judgment as to Count II of the Amended Complaint will be granted.

Defendants Westfall Township, Pike County, and the Pike County District Attorney's Office are entitled to assert the defense of municipal immunity and will be released as named defendants in this action. Defendants DeSarro and Jacobs are not entitled to absolute immunity as to their investigative roles in the elicitation of a confession from Joseph Stacy. Defendant Mitchell is not entitled to the defense of qualified immunity for any of his actions taken in this case. Defendants DeSarro and Jacobs are entitled to assert the defense of qualified immunity as to their failure to warn the Walter family of the danger posed by Joseph Stacy in the period leading up to the murder of Michael Walter. Defendants DeSarro and Jacobs are not entitled to the qualified immunity defense, however, for their involvement in the elicitation of a confession from Joseph Stacy on August 16, 2001.

Plaintiffs' Surviving Claims

The plaintiffs have, inter alia, two major federal causes of action that have survived the order issued by this court, dated August 20, 2004, granting in part the Defendants' earlier motions to dismiss. (Doc. 41.) These are (1) a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action for substantive due process violations; and (2) a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action for procedural due process violations. These actions will be discussed separately, each considered through the lens of the analysis applicable to motions for summary judgment.

I. Substantive Due Process

The Plaintiffs' first cause of action is based upon a violation of substantive due process. Plaintiffs allege that Defendants acted under color of law and that their actions deprived Mr. Walter of his rights and privileges secured under the United States Constitution and by statute. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has recognized a "state-created danger" exception to the general rule that the government is not responsible for harm inflicted by third parties on individuals that are not in government custody. This exception applies where "discrete, grossly reckless acts [are] committed by the state or state actors using their peculiar positions as state actors, leaving a discrete plaintiff vulnerable to foreseeable injury." Mark v. Borough of Hatboro, 51 F.3d 1137, 1153 (3d Cir. 1995). The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has outlined four factors that must be met before the state-created danger exception applies: (1) the harm ultimately caused was a foreseeable and fairly direct result of the state's actions*fn3; (2) the state actor acted with a degree of culpability that shocks the conscience*fn4; (3) there existed some relationship between the state and the plaintiff such that "the plaintiff was a foreseeable victim of the defendant's acts," or a "member of a discrete class of persons subjected to the potential harm brought ...


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