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Allen v. Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

May 14, 2007


(Judge Conner)


This is a § 1983 civil rights action brought by Robert Lee Allen ("Allen") against certain state actors arising from their search of his property, seizure of his farm animals, and prosecution of him for purported violations of Pennsylvania's cruelty-to-animals statute. Presently before the court are motions to dismiss filed by defendants The Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Inc. ("PSPCA"), and Elizabeth Pennell Hopkins ("Hopkins") (Doc. No. 27), and by the Humane Society of Harrisburg Area, Inc. ("HSHA"), Deb Witmer ("Witmer"), and Jill Troutman ("Troutman") (Doc. No. 28). Also before the Court is a motion for oral argument (Doc. No. 36) filed by defendants HSHA, Witmer, and Troutman. For the reasons that follow, the motions to dismiss will be granted in part and denied in part, and the motion for oral argument will be denied as moot.


Investigation into and Subsequent Search of Allen's Farm

Robert Lee Allen is a farmer who, for the past thirty years, has also been in the business of purchasing and rehabilitating livestock and horses. (Doc. No. 20, ¶ 4.) The animals Allen typically acquires for rehabilitation purposes are underweight, in poor physical condition, and suffer from long-standing medical issues. (Id.) Some of the animals can be rehabilitated and resold, but others are euthanized, slaughtered, or auctioned for slaughter. (Id.)

On January 31, 2004, Witmer, an HSHA humane society police officer, received a telephone complaint regarding the condition of the horses and other livestock on Allen's farm. (Doc. No. 20-2, at 2.) The next day, Witmer and Hopkins, a PSPCA humane society police officer, visited Allen's property to investigate allegations that Allen's animals were malnourished and mistreated. (Id.; Doc. No. 20, ¶ 23.) During the visit, Hopkins expressed to Allen her opinion that the horses needed to be evaluated and treated by a veterinarian, and she and Allen agreed that a veterinarian would examine the animals on Tuesday, February 3, 2004. (Doc. No. 20, ¶¶ 23-25.) Neither Witmer nor Hopkins inquired how long Allen had owned the animals or what care and medications were being provided to them. (Id. ¶ 23.)

On February 2, 2004, Witmer applied for and obtained a warrant from Magisterial District Justice Schulenberger to search Allen's property and to seize certain described animals as well "any and all animals of any species which appear to be the subject of a violation of the Cruelty to Animals Statutes." (Doc. No. 20-2.) In the affidavit of probable cause, Witmer detailed the January 31, 2004, citizen's complaint as well as her own observations of certain animals during her visit to Allen's farm. (Id. at 2.) The affidavit included no information about Allen's willingness to cooperate with authorities, how long he owned the animals, what care and medication the animals were receiving, or whether some or all were exempt from the cruelty-to-animals statute because they were animals used in a normal agricultural operation. (Doc. No. 20, ¶¶ 25, 49(A)-(C).)

Hopkins and Witmer executed the warrant on February 2, 2004, a day when they knew Allen would be away from his farm, and seized eight horses, four goats, and two pigs from Allen's property. (Id. ¶¶ 24, 26.) Hopkins and Witmer also brought "twenty five assorted and unnecessary individuals and entities with them when they executed the search warrant." (Id. ¶ 27.) Allen contends that these third-parties had "no legitimate purpose in being present to trespass upon [his] property and invade his privacy." (Id.) According to the complaint, most of the animals were not seen by a veterinarian until several days after their removal from his farm. (Id. ¶ 28.)

Criminal Proceedings Against Allen in State Court

On February 10, 2004, Witmer filed approximately sixteen criminal citations against Allen alleging cruelty to animals in violation of 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5511(c).*fn2

(Doc. No. 20, ¶ 29.) Witmer withdrew the citations on March 17, 2004, and Hopkins filed new citations against Allen, alleging essentially the same offenses.*fn3 (Id. ¶¶ 30-31.) At the time Hopkins filed the citations, however, she was not properly registered as a humane society police officer in Cumberland County and, therefore, had no authority to file the citations, a fact elicited during the cross-examination of Hopkins at Allen's summary trial on the charges. (Id. ¶¶ 31-32.) On April 5, 2004, Magisterial District Justice Schulenberger, who was presiding over the summary trial, dismissed all of the citations against Allen because of this fatal flaw in Allen's prosecution. (Id. ¶ 33.) Defendants did not appeal this decision. (Id.)

The following day -- April 6, 2004 -- Hopkins filed fifteen new criminal citations with Judge Schulenberger, despite the judge's statement the previous day that she would not hear the charges again. (Doc. No. 20, ¶¶ 35-36.) Hopkins withdrew the charges on April 8, 2004, only to file a new set of fifteen citations alleging essentially the same offenses the same day.*fn4 (Id. ¶ 37.) Over Allen's objections that this second proceeding violated his right to be free from double jeopardy, Magisterial District Justice Bender held a summary trial and convicted Allen of all fifteen charges. (Id. ¶ 38.) Judge Bender ordered that Allen forfeit possession of the seized animals and make restitution to the Commonwealth in the amount of $7,600. (Doc. No. 27, Ex. E, at 62; Doc. No. 28, Ex. B, at 24.)

Allen appealed his conviction to the Court of Common Pleas of Cumberland County. In an order and opinion issued April 15, 2005, President Judge Hoffer concluded that Allen's second summary trial was held in violation of 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 109 (2004), which codifies the principles of double jeopardy under state law: "[J]eopardy attached to the first summary trial and, therefore, the dismissal prohibited the Commonwealth from subjecting [Allen] to another trial on the same charges." (Doc. No. 20-3, at 3, 7-8.)

Allen's Attempts in State Court to have His Property Returned

Despite Allen's successful appeal of his convictions, Hopkins, PSPCA, and HSHA refused to return Allen's animals (Doc. No. 20, ¶ 41), prompting him to file a motion seeking their return pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 588.*fn5 (Doc. No. 20, ¶ 42.) On January 10, 2006, a hearing was held on Allen's Rule 588 motion before Judge Oler of the Cumberland County Court of Common Pleas, who granted the motion "to the extent that the Commonwealth is to compensate [Allen] the amount of $750 for the property seized." (Doc. No. 20, ¶ 43; Doc. No. 27, Ex. G; Doc. No. 28, Ex. D.) To explain the award of compensatory damages in lieu of the return of any remaining livestock, Judge Oler opined "that to the extent any of the animals have been successfully restored to health their locations do not appear of record*fn6 and their quality in terms of personal property will have been so significantly changed as not to be equivalent to the property seized." (Doc. No. 27, Ex. G; Doc. No. 28, Ex. D.)

Allen appealed Judge Oler's decision to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. (Doc. No. 20, ¶ 47; Doc. No. 51-2, Ex. G.) On appeal, Allen complained, inter alia, that Judge Oler erred "in finding that [Allen] would be fully compensated by an award of $750.00 when, in fact, the seized animals are alive and able to be returned to [him]," as required by the plain language of Rule 588 and "in not finding that the property seized by the Commonwealth and owned by [Allen] were non-contraband in nature pursuant to the Rules of Criminal Procedure." (Doc. No. 51, at 5, 12, Ex. G.)

In a non-precedential superior court decision issued December 29, 2006, a panel composed of Judges Musmanno, Todd, and Tamilia concluded that the trial court had erred, but nevertheless affirmed the monetary award. (Doc. No. 71, at 14, 18.) The court explained:

[B]ecause we conclude that the animals seized did, in fact, constitute derivative contraband, in that they were the subject of an unlawful act under 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 5511(c), we find that the trial court erred in concluding that they were not contraband; thus, [Allen] was entitled to nothing and, a fortiori, is entitled to no relief on appeal. However as the Commonwealth did not appeal the trial court's award [of $750.00], we will not disturb it. (Id. at 18.) Allen's petition for allowance of appeal of this order to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is currently pending. (Doc. No. 73, Ex. C.)

The Instant Litigation

Allen commenced this suit on February 1, 2006 (Doc. No. 1), and he filed an amended complaint on April 28, 2006 (Doc. No. 20).*fn7 Allen's amended complaint sets forth three counts: Count I is a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against all defendants; Count II is a state-law claim for malicious prosecution against all defendants; and Count III is a claim under § 1983 against the PSPCA and HSHA for inadequate training and supervision. (Doc. No. 20.) However, within these three counts (and particularly Count I), Allen alleges numerous distinct violations of his Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights arising from defendants' search of his property, seizure and retention of his farm animals, and repeated efforts to criminally prosecute him. (Id.) Allen arguably sets forth a state-law defamation claim, based upon his allegations that defendants communicated defamatory statements about him to others while acting on behalf of the PSPCA and/or HSHA (id. ¶ 39), and a state-law civil conspiracy claim, based upon his averments that various defendants conspired to cause his injuries (see id. ¶¶ 16, 21, 56). Allen seeks actual, consequential, treble, and punitive damages, as well as damages for pain and suffering, inconvenience, attorneys' fees, and "such additional relief as this Honorable Court may deem appropriate." (Id. at 16, 18, 21.)

On May 15, 2006, defendants moved to dismiss Allen's amended complaint on numerous grounds (Doc. Nos. 27, 28) and shortly thereafter filed supporting briefs and sought oral argument on the motions (Doc. Nos. 35, 36, 38). Allen subsequently filed his opposition. (Doc. Nos. 49, 50.) Defendants filed reply briefs (Doc. Nos. 53, 54), and the court permitted Allen to file sur-reply briefs (Doc. Nos. 58, 60, 61). Following the superior court's affirmation of the $750 award on Allen's Rule 588 motion, defendants were permitted to file supplemental briefs in support of their motions (Doc. Nos. 69, 70, 71, 72), to which Allen responded (Doc. Nos. 73, 74). Defendants subsequently filed supplemental reply briefs (Doc. Nos. 78, 80), the last of which was filed on April 13, 2007. Thus, the motions to dismiss have been fully briefed and are ripe for disposition.


A motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint, Kost v. Kozakiewicz, 1 F.3d 176, 183 (3d Cir. 1993), and is properly granted when, taking all factual allegations and inferences as true, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Markowitz v. Northeast Land Co., 906 F.2d 100, 103 (3d Cir. 1990). Although the court is generally limited in its review to the face of the complaint, it "may also consider matters of public record, orders, exhibits attached to the complaint and items appearing in the record of the case." Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1384 n.2 (3d. Cir. 1997); see also In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1426 (3d Cir. 1997).

The moving party bears the burden of showing that no claim has been stated. Johnsrud v. Carter, 620 F.2d 29, 33 (3d Cir. 1980). Thus, the moving party must show that the plaintiff has failed to "set forth sufficient information to outline the elements of his claim or to permit inferences to be drawn that those elements exist." Kost, 1 F.3d at 183 (citations omitted). The court, in turn, must "examine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief." Hill v. Borough of Kutztown, 455 F.3d 225, 233 (3d Cir. 2006) (quoting Delaware Nation v. Pennsylvania, 446 F.3d 410, 415 (3d Cir. 2006)). In so doing, the court "need not credit a complaint's 'bald assertions' or 'legal conclusions[.]'" Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906, 908 (3d Cir. 1997). Rather, a court must only determine "whether the claimant is entitled to offer evidence to support the claims." Pennsylvania Psychiatric Soc. v. Green Spring Health Servs., Inc., 280 F.3d 278, 283 (3d Cir. 2002) (citing In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d at 1420).

Additionally, the court notes that there is no heightened pleading standard in § 1983 actions; rather, the general and less stringent requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8 apply. See Leatherman v. Tarrant County Narcotics Intelligence & Coordination Unit, 507 U.S. 163, 168 (1993); Alston v. Parker 363 F.3d 229, 233 (3d Cir. 2004) ("[A] heightened pleading requirement for civil rights complaints no longer retains vitality under the Federal Rules.").


A. The Rooker-Feldman doctrine

Before discussing the merits of Allen's claims, the court will address the threshold issue of jurisdiction. See U.S. Express Lines Ltd. v. Higgins, 281 F.3d 383, 389-90 (3d Cir. 2002) (noting the "duty of the federal courts to examine their subject matter jurisdiction at all stages of the litigation"). Defendants argue that under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine this court lacks jurisdiction over Allen's constitutional claims relating to the deprivation and retention of his animals. (See, e.g., Doc. No. 38, at 40-42; Doc. No. 35, at 34-36.) For ...

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