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Nudleman v. Borough of Dickson City Police Dep't

November 6, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Munley


Before the court is defendants' motion for summary judgment (Doc. 25). Having been fully briefed, the matter is ripe for disposition.


This case grows out of a disagreement between the plaintiff and Dickson City, Pennsylvania police officers on November 26, 2004. On that date, Defendant Philip Davitt, a Dickson City Police Officer, pulled over a Millenium Packing Services, Inc. ("Millenium") truck for a taillight violation. (Defendants' Statement of Material Facts (Doc. 26) (hereinafter "Defendants' statement") at ¶ 1; Plaintiff's Answer and Counter-Statement of Facts in Opposition to Defendants' Statement of Material Facts (Doc. 30) (hereinafter "Plaintiff's statement" at ¶ 1).*fn1 Officer Davitt did not know that the truck was owned by Millennium when he stopped it. (Defendants' statement at ¶ 2). The parties agree that the taillights were not working properly. (Id. at ¶ 3). Darryl Sobol, the truck's driver, was later convicted of operating a motor vehicle without working taillights. (Id. at ¶ 4). He paid the fine associated with the offense. (Id.).

After Officer Davitt stopped Sobol, he requested that he be allowed to exit the vehicle to check the taillight and attempt to repair it. (Id. at ¶ 5). Officer Davitt permitted Sobol to do so. (Id.). Meanwhile, Officer Davitt used his police radio to report the traffic stop. (Id. at ¶ 6). Fellow Dickson City Police Officer Thomas Logan soon arrived to offer assistance. (Id.). Officer John Sobieski also arrived on the scene, but left after determining that Logan and Davitt were in control. (Id. at ¶ 7). Officer Davitt testified that he contacted the Pennsylvania State Police to request that a member of the Truck Inspection Unit with expertise in trucking regulations inspect the truck. (Id. at ¶ 8). No officer was available, though Officer Davitt testified that the trooper who answered his call informed him that he should not allow the truck on the interstate highway with a malfunctioning taillight. (Id.).

After Sobol's repairs to the taillight proved unsuccessful, he phoned a Milleunnium supervisor for assistance with the light. (Id. at ¶ 9). Dean Sposto, plaintiff's supervisor, called Plaintiff and ordered him to travel to the traffic stop to make the necessary repairs. (Id. at ¶ 10). Plaintiff is a former Dickson City Police Officer who filed a wrongful termination, discrimination and retaliation suit against Dickson City and its police department. (Id. at ¶ 11). He also had a pending worker's compensation claim against the Borough on the date in question. (Id.). Soon after receiving the call from Sposto, plaintiff arrived at the "busy public parking lot" of a local grocery store, scene of the stop. (Id. at ¶ 12). Plaintiff, who did not have training as a mechanic, had not before been sent to the field to fix a Millennium truck. (Id. at ¶ 13).*fn2

The parties disagree about the events that occurred after plaintiff arrived at the scene. Not in dispute, however, is the fact that the officers eventually took plaintiff into custody, issued him a citation for disorderly conduct, and then released him.*fn3 At some point during the incident, one or more of the officers spoke by cell phone with Defendant Stadniski, who is the Borough's Chief of Police. A magistrate judge eventually dismissed the charges against the plaintiff.

On July 6, 2005, plaintiff filed the instant complaint against the Police Department of the Borough of Dickson City, Chief Stadniski and Officers Davitt and Logan. (See Complaint (hereinafter "Complt.") (Doc. 1)). Count I of the complaint alleges that defendants retaliated against plaintiff for exercising his free speech right in a lawsuit against the Police Department and other Dickson City defendants. Count II contends that defendants violated plaintiff's Fourteenth Amendment Due Process rights by unlawfully depriving him of his liberty and reputation. Count III alleges that plaintiffs conspired to act under color of state law to deprive plaintiff of his rights under the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Count IV charges that defendants had arrested plaintiff falsely and violated his rights under federal law. Count V contends that this false arrest also violated plaintiff's rights under state law. Count VI alleges malicious prosecution which violated plaintiff's federal rights, and Count VII insists that such prosecution violated his rights under Pennsylvania law. Count VIII is a state law claim of assault and battery against defendants Davitt and Logan. Count IX claims false imprisonment, Count X intentional infliction of emotional distress, Count XI "supervisor" liability for Defendant Stadniski and Count XII defamation.

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the complaint (Doc. 8). After briefing this court issued a memorandum and order denying the motion in part and granting it in part. (Doc. 14). The courts decision dismissed counts II, VI and XII. After discovery, the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment (Doc. 25). Both sides briefed the issue, bringing the case to its present posture. Jurisdiction

As this case is brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985, we have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 ("The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States."). We have supplemental jurisdiction over the plaintiff's state law claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367.

Legal Standard

Granting summary judgment is proper 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 judgment as a matter of law. See Knabe v. Boury, 114 F.3d 407, 410 n.4 (3d Cir. 1997) (citing FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c)). "[T]his standard provides that the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986) (emphasis in original).

In considering a motion for summary judgment, the court must examine the facts in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion. Int'l Raw Materials, Ltd. v. Stauffer Chemical Co., 898 F.2d 946, 949 (3d Cir. 1990). The burden is on the moving party to demonstrate that the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could not return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248 (1986). A fact is material when it might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Id. Where the non-moving party will bear the burden of proof at trial, the party moving for summary judgment may meet its burden by showing that the evidentiary materials of record, if reduced to admissible evidence, would be insufficient to carry the non-movant's burden of proof at trial. Celotex v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). Once the moving party satisfies its burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party, who must go beyond its pleadings, and designate specific facts by the use of affidavits, depositions, admissions, or answers to interrogatories showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. at 324. Discussion

Defendants move for summary judgment on several grounds. We will address each of those grounds in turn.

A. Claims Against the Borough of Dickson City and the Dickson City Police Department

Defendants claim that the Borough and the Police Department cannot be liable to Count III of the plaintiff's complaint, which alleged that the defendants violated plaintiff's rights "pursuant to official policy, custom and practice of the Defendant, Police Department." (Complt. at ¶ 50). They argue that plaintiff has produced no evidence to demonstrate that the Borough had a policy, custom or practice that led officers to issue false or baseless citations as a form of retaliation. Defendants also contend that no evidence demonstrates that training for such officers was inadequate.

In order to prevail on Section 1983 claim against an entity like Dickson City, "a plaintiff seeking to impose liability on a municipality under § 1983 [must] identify a municipal 'policy' or 'custom' that caused the plaintiff's injury." Board of the County Commissioners of Bryan County, Oklahoma v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 403 (1997). Liability attaches either to an official policy or to a "custom" that constitutes a "practice . . . so widespread as to have the force of law." Id. at 404. A particular decision, like a decision to fire an employee, can give rise to municipal liability under Section 1983. A "'[p]olicy is made when a decisionmaker possessing final authority to establish municipal policy with respect to the action issues an official proclamation, policy or edict.'" Berg v. County of Allegheny, 219 F.3d 261, 275 (3d Cir. 2000) (quoting Kneipp v. Tedder, 95 F.3d 1199, 1212 (3d Cir. 1996) (internal quotation marks omitted)). In cases that involve the decision of an individual, the key question is whether that individual was a policymaker, which is "a question of state law." McGreevy v. Stroup, 413 F.3d 359, 367 (3d Cir. 2005).

Plaintiff contends that he has established municipal liability by showing that the decision to issue him a citation and take him into custody was one made by Defendant Stadniski, the Chief of Police for the Borough. He also argues that the policies that led to his arrest were established by the Chief, a policymaker, and thus represent official Borough policy.

At his deposition, Defendant Stadniski addressed his policymaking role in the Borough. He agreed with a statement that ascribed to him "a demonstrated history of forumlating policy as evidenced by his issuing of general directives on subjects such as Police complaints, of overall personnel administration responsibility, as evidenced by his effective involvement in suspensions and discharges, budget making, and in purchasing." (Deposition of William Stadniski, attached as Exhibit 2 to Plaintiff's Answer to Defendants' Statement of Facts (Doc. 30) (hereinafter "Stadniski Dep.") at 21). He also affirmed that his role as chief included work on "policy, personnel . . . [and] administrative decisions." (Id.).

Defendant Stadniski also testified that he had been telephoned by Officer Logan on the night of plaintiff's arrest. Logan told Stadniski that police had stopped a Millenium truck and that plaintiff had arrived on the scene. (Id. at 61-62). Plaintiff testified that Logan told him that Nudelman had been "acting like an idiot." (Id. at 62). According to the Chief, he told Logan that he should "treat [plaintiff] like you'd treat anybody else." (Id.). He ordered the officer to contact him when he finished with the call. (Id.). During his deposition, dispute appeared over how many times Stadniski spoke with Officers Logan and Davitt on that evening. (Id. at 79). While telephone records seemed to indicate ...

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