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Knowles v. Freed

December 3, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: William W. Caldwell United States District Judge


I. Introduction

Plaintiffs John and Joanne Knowles and Scott and Lisa Stanko filed this lawsuit on April 10, 2007, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that Defendants David Freed ("Freed") and George Kelly ("Kelly") violated their federal constitutional rights to free speech, to access the courts, and to be free of interference in one's familial relationship. Freed is the District Attorney for Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, and Kelly is a member of the Pennsylvania State Police ("PSP"). Plaintiffs also include state-law claims for libel and defamation against Defendants.

We are considering Defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint, or in the alternative, Freed's motion for a more definite statement. (docs. 6, 17). Kelly argues that the complaint should be dismissed based on res judicata and the state-law claims should be dismissed because they are barred by the Eleventh Amendment and state sovereign immunity. (doc. 19, pp. 3-6). Freed contends that he is entitled to absolute prosecutorial immunity, the doctrine of collateral estoppel precludes Plaintiffs from denying certain key facts, Plaintiffs' suit is time barred by the applicable statute of limitations, and Plaintiffs have not stated any valid constitutional claims. (doc. 7, pp. 6-18).

II. Background

Plaintiffs' lawsuit arises out of Defendants' alleged misconduct in an investigation into the sexual abuse of Plaintiffs' minor children at a school in Cumberland Valley School District and other locations. Previously, plaintiffs filed a lawsuit, K.K. ex rel. Knowles v. Weeks, No.1: CV-04-2290, 2007 WL 1455888 (M.D. Pa. May 15, 2007) ("Knowles I"), on behalf of their minor children against various defendants, including Kelly, alleging violations of their federal constitutional rights due to the sexual abuse. We granted summary judgment in Knowles I on May 15, 2007, to all named defendants, dismissed the claims against the unnamed defendants, and declined to exercise jurisdiction over the supplemental state-law claims. Id. at *16. During the period leading to the first lawsuit and this lawsuit, Freed was an assistant district attorney with the Cumberland County District Attorney's Office and Kelly was with the PSP and assigned to investigate the abuse allegations. Id. at *4.

Section 1983 provides a remedy against those who, under color of state law, deprive others of federally protected rights. In the instant case, Plaintiffs allege that "they were unlawfully harassed and intimidated in violation of their 1st and 14th Amendment rights by the defendants." (doc. 1, ¶ 1). Freed and Kelly allegedly interfered with their efforts to "expose government policies and activities that are unlawfully designed and conducted to protect the reputation of school districts." Id. ¶ 6. This interference, Plaintiffs argue, violated their constitutional rights. Id. ¶¶ 6-8.

III. Discussion

A. Standard of Review

In considering a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), we must accept as true any factual allegations in the complaint. Morrison v. Madison Dearborn Capital Partners III L.P., 463 F.3d 312, 314 (3d Cir. 2006). Although a court assumes all reasonable factual inferences in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the court should reject "unsupported allegations," "bald assertions," or "legal conclusions." Buchanan v. Gay, 491 F. Supp.2d 483, 491 (D. Del. 2007) (quoting Amiot v. Kemper Ins. Co., 122 Fed. Appx. 577, 579 (3d Cir. 2004)). We will grant the motion to dismiss if it is clear that relief could not be granted under "any set of facts that could be proven consistent with the allegations." Ramadan v. Chase Manhattan Corp., 229 F.3d 194, 195 (3d Cir. 2000) (quoting Alexander v. Whitman, 114 F.3d 1392, 1397-98 (3d Cir. 1997)). In addition to the complaint, we may also consider documents attached to or referenced in the complaint, matters of public record, and indisputably authentic documents. Pryor v. Nat'l Collegiate Athletic Ass'n, 288 F.3d 548, 560 (3d Cir. 2002).

Upon review of the briefs as well as the record, we will grant Defendants' motions to dismiss because a suit against Kelly is barred by the doctrine of res judicata and the applicable statute of limitations bars a suit against Freed. Additionally, we will decline jurisdiction over Plaintiffs' state-law claims.

B. Res Judicata Bars the Claims Against Kelly

A party raising a res judicata defense bears the burden of proving that it applies. United States v. Athlone Indus., Inc., 746 F.2d 977, 983 (3d Cir. 1984) (en banc) (citing Davis v. United States Steel Supply, 688 F.2d 166 (3d Cir. 1982) (en banc)). Res judicata includes two preclusion concepts: issue preclusion and claim preclusion. Id. at 983 n.4.

"The purpose of claim preclusion is to avoid piecemeal litigation of claims arising from the same events." Churchill v. Star Enter., 183 F.3d 184, 194 (3d Cir. 1999). The doctrine operates by precluding "the parties or their privies from relitigating issues that were or could have been raised" in a prior action in which the court reached a final judgment on the merits. Id. Courts give dispositive effect to the prior judgment "if 'a particular issue, although not litigated, could have been raised in the earlier proceeding.'" Id. (quoting Athlone, 746 F.2d at 984). The "central purpose" of claim preclusion is to require a plaintiff to set forth all claims which arise out of the same occurrence in a single suit. Churchill, 183 F.3d at 194. Claim preclusion is applicable if ...

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