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Schultz v. Wilson

December 4, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Christopher C. Conner United States District Judge

(Judge Conner)


This civil rights case arises from police activity at the wedding reception of plaintiffs Jessica Stouffer ("Jessica") and Robert Stouffer ("Robert"). Jessica and Robert allege violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and of their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Presently before the court are the motion for summary judgment (Doc. 45) of defendant Pennsylvania State Trooper Robert Gebhart*fn1 ("Gebhart") and the motion for summary judgment (Doc. 50) of defendants Charles McGeehan ("McGeehan") and Fraternal Order of Eagles 1562 ("the Eagles").*fn2 For the reasons that follow, the motions will be granted.

I. Statement of Facts*fn3

This case presents a true matrimonial horror for plaintiff-bride Jessica Stouffer. Plaintiffs' claims arise from an altercation that erupted on August 17, 2002, at the wedding reception of Jessica and her newly wedded husband, Robert. (Doc. 57 ¶ 3; Doc. 67 ¶ 1; Doc. 72 ¶ 3; Doc. 76 ¶ 1.) Jessica and her mother had reserved the Eagles Lodge in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania for the reception, which approximately one hundred people attended. (Doc. 57 ¶ 3; Doc. 67 ¶ 1; Doc. 72 ¶ 3; Doc. 74, Ex. 2 at 9; Doc. 76 ¶ 1.) The guest list included immediate family members, extended relatives, parents' friends, and the couple's friends accompanied by significant others. (Doc. 74, Ex. 2 at 13-14, 16; Doc. 47, Ex. 6 at 3, 5; Doc. 74, Ex. 7 at 1-2; Doc. 74, Ex. 8 at 3.)

The Eagles are a local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, an international charitable and community organization. (Doc. 74, Ex. 5 at 10.) The Lodge holds a license to serve liquor from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. (Id. at 11.) The license listed Charles McGeehan, who was secretary of the Eagles and a trustee, as the manager of the Lodge bar at the time of the events of this case. (Id.) The Eagles do not hold the Lodge open to the general public, and only Eagles members may gain access to the bar or use Lodge facilities. (Doc. 74, Ex. 3 at 13.) The Lodge bar was open to both wedding guests and Eagles members on the night of the reception. (Doc. 74, Ex. 2 at 11.)

The reception commenced at approximately 4:00 p.m. (Id. at 9.) McGeehan was present at the bar, as were a number of other individuals unassociated with the reception. (Doc. 74, Ex. 3 at 8; Doc. 74, Ex. 5 at 11, 28.) No manager was on duty. (Doc. 74, Ex. 5 at 12.) McGeehan had not intended to supervise the bar area that evening, but in the absence of a manager, he asserted supervisory authority in his role as trustee.*fn4 (Id. at 12-13.) McGeehan believed that the reception would end by 8:00 p.m. (Id. at 16.) Apparently, the manager who had accepted Jessica's reservation did not specify an ending time, and the reception continued until well after 8:00 p.m.*fn5 (Doc. 74, Ex. 2 at 18-19; Doc. 74, Ex. 5 at 16.)

As the evening progressed, loud music with heavy bass began to play in the reception hall, and McGeehan purportedly referred to it as "nigger music."*fn6 (Doc. 74, Ex. 3 at 21-22.) He also received several complaints from others in the bar about the volume and asked the disc jockey to turn it down several times. (Doc. 74, Ex. 2 at 15; Doc. 74, Ex. 5 at 26-27.) Each time the disc jockey complied, and, ultimately, the bass component of the music was completely turned off. (Doc. 74, Ex. 2 at 15-16.) Between 9:30 and 10:00, Robert approached McGeehan to ask if the wedding guests could continue to use the reception hall past 10:00 p.m. (Doc. 74, Ex. 1 at 17; Doc. 74, Ex. 5 at 17; Doc. 67 ¶ 2; Doc. 76 ¶ 2.) McGeehan refused, and the situation escalated. (Doc. 74, Ex. 1 at 17; Doc. 74, Ex. 5 at 17; Doc. 67 ¶ 3; Doc. 76 ¶ 3.) Robert and McGeehan, both of whom had been consuming alcohol,*fn7 engaged in a heated exchange about the length of the reception during which McGeehan purportedly insulted Robert, referring to him as "little boy."*fn8 (Doc. 74, Ex. 1 at 17.) Robert then turned away and moved toward the door. (Id. at 19.) As he did so, he was punched in the back of the head. (Id. at 19; Doc. 74, Ex. 3 at 7.) He could not identify who hit him, but he nevertheless "spun around with an open hand and hit somebody." (Doc. 74, Ex. 1 at 20; accord Doc. 57 ¶ 8; Doc. 67 ¶ 4; Doc. 72 ¶ 8; Doc. 74, Ex. 3 at 7; Doc. 76 ¶ 4.) The individual was later identified as John Nichols ("Nichols"), a Eagles member and friend of McGeehan who was also Robert's unseen assailant. (Doc. 74, Ex. 3 at 7.) Robert looked to see whom he had struck and was confronted by McGeehan, Nichols, and a third individual. (Doc. 74, Ex. 1 at 21.) During the ensuing confrontation an unidentified male voice cried, "Someone call the cops," and McGeehan did so amidst the ordeal. (Doc. 74, Ex. 3 at 6; Doc. 74, Ex. 5 at 18.) Other patrons in the bar were eventually able to pacify the men, but not before Robert inflicted a noticeable facial injury on Nichols. (Doc. 57 ¶ 8; Doc. 67 ¶¶ 4, 15; Doc. 72 ¶ 8; Doc. 74, Ex. 3 at 8-9; Doc. 76 ¶¶ 4, 15.)

Local police quickly responded to McGeehan's call, and tumult ensued. According to plaintiffs, officers entered the reception with firearms drawn, and at least one wore a gas mask. (Doc. 74, Ex. 2 at 27-28.) "[P]eople [were] yelling and screaming," (Doc. 74, Ex. 3 at 13), and the scene was "just a bunch of mayhem" with "[e]verybody . . . trying to figure out what was going on," (Doc. 74, Ex. 10 at 8-9; see also Doc 74, Ex. 2 at 111-12). One witness recounted that "a groomsman[] fl[ew] across the gift table," but the witness could not identify the source of the groomsman's momentum. (Doc. 74, Ex. 8 at 8-9.) Another recalled "there [being] a lot of confusion," (Doc. 74, Ex. 9 at 6), with "people coming in . . . from everywhere," (id.).

Trooper Gebhart, who was in plain clothes, entered the scene after local police had arrived. (Cf. Doc. 67 ¶ 11; Doc. 76 ¶ 11.) Gebhart was directed into the reception hall by a bartender and another responding officer. (Doc. 67 ¶¶ 11-14; Doc. 76 ¶¶ 11-14.) En route to the hall, he encountered McGeehan and the injured Nichols. (Doc. 67 ¶ 15; Doc. 76 ¶ 15.) The pair informed him of the evening's events and stated that the wedding guests had stayed beyond the period for which the reception hall was reserved. (Doc. 67 ¶ 17-19; Doc. 76 ¶ 17-19.) Gebhart walked into the reception hall, turned on the lights to secure everyone's attention and allegedly barked: "[Y]ou need to get the fuck out." (Doc. 67 ¶ 20; Doc. 74, Ex. 1 at 32; Doc. 74, Ex. 2 at 25; Doc. 74, Ex. 11 at 95, 109; Doc. 76 ¶ 20.) Subsequently, Robert overheard Gebhart mutter: "Where's the groom[?] I want a piece of him."*fn9

(Doc. 74, Ex. 1 at 32.) Gebhart approached Robert, who responded: "[W]ho the hell are you?" (Id. at 32-33.) Something then distracted Gebhart because he then moved away from Robert without further confrontation. (Id. at 33-34.)

The police restored order, and the wedding celebrants disbanded. By the end of the evening, Robert was handcuffed and arrested, but not by Gebhart. (Id. at 34.) Police released Robert later that evening without transporting him to the police station. (Id.) He was convicted of disorderly conduct and simple assault before a district justice, and his summary appeal to the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas failed. (Doc. 57 ¶ 14; Doc. 72 ¶ 14; Doc. 74, Ex. 1 at 35-37.) The police handcuffed at least three other people during the ordeal at the Eagles Lodge. (Doc. 74, Ex. 6 at 15-16, 24; Doc. 74, Ex. 11 at 53, 57) Two of them were placed under arrest, including plaintiff Lance Schultz ("Lance").*fn10 (Doc. 74, Ex. 11 at 57).

Jessica and Robert filed a complaint in the instant case on August 17, 2004. Plaintiffs aver that defendants' conduct throughout the evening was motivated by racial animus for their wedding guests, some of whom are African American. (Id. at 80.) None of the plaintiffs or individual defendants are members of a racial minority. (Doc. 57 ¶¶ 1-2, 4; Doc. 72 ¶¶ 1-2, 4.) Jessica never discussed the racial composition of the guest list with the Eagles when reserving the Lodge, and both McGeehan and Gebhart testified that they did not specifically notice that any of the wedding guests were African American. (Doc. 57 ¶ 3; Doc. 58, Ex. E at 32; Doc. 72 ¶ 3; Doc. 74, Ex. 5 at 34.) Plaintiffs nevertheless contend that defendants McGeehan and the Eagles violated 42 U.S.C. § 1981 by requesting police assistance at the Lodge. They claim that McGeehan, Gebhart, and the Eagles violated their First Amendment right of association when defendants dispersed the wedding celebration due to racial motivation.*fn11 Lance and Jessica also brought claims for excessive force and malicious prosecution under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. These claims have been settled or voluntarily dismissed and are not subject to the pending motions. (See Docs. 61, 85.) The parties have thoroughly briefed the remaining issues, which are now ripe for decision.

II. Standard of Review

Through summary adjudication the court may dispose of those claims that do not present a "genuine issue as to any material fact," and for which a jury trial would be an empty and unnecessary formality. See FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c). It places the burden on the non-moving party to come forth with "affirmative evidence, beyond the allegations of the pleadings," in support of its right to relief. Pappas v. City of Lebanon, 331 F. Supp. 2d 311, 315 (M.D. Pa. 2004); FED. R. CIV. P. 56(e); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). This evidence must be adequate, as a matter of law, to sustain a judgment in favor of the non-moving party on the claims. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250-57 (1986); Matsushita Elec. ...

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