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Walker v. Wentz

February 15, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Conner


Plaintiff Larry Lee Walker ("Walker") maintains this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging various infringements of his civil rights. Walker alleges that the impoundment of his automobiles and his arrest and prosecution for defiant trespass resulted in violations of his First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Presently before the court are defendants' motions to dismiss (Docs. 20, 22). The motion (Doc. 20) of defendants City of York, William B. Wentz, and Steven Buffington asserts that Walker's claims must be dismissed because he pled guilty to the defiant trespass charges, thereby precluding him from asserting the instant civil rights claims arising from his prosecution. All defendants' motions (Docs. 20, 22) seek a more definite statement of the facts alleged in the complaint. For the reasons the follow, both motions will be granted in part and denied in part.

I. Statement of Facts*fn1

On May 28, 2005, defendant Officer William Wentz ("Wentz") placed four notices on vehicles situated on Walker's property and enclosed with a chain link fence. (Doc. 16 ¶ 12.) The notices required Walker to remove the vehicles within five days and stated that they would be towed at his expense if he failed to do so. (Id. ¶ 13.) The rationale for requiring Walker to remove the vehicles is unclear, and the notices allegedly stated only that "This car is parked on private property." (Id. ¶ 13, 15.)

On June 2, 2005, the fifth day after issuance of the notices, Walker had not relocated the vehicles. (Id. ¶ 15.) Wentz, accompanied by defendant Steven Buffington ("Buffington"),*fn2 visited Walker's property and observed that the vehicles remained unmoved. (Id.) Walker and Buffington summoned defendant Darrah's Autobody ("Darrah's") to remove the automobiles. An employee of Darrah's arrived in a tow truck, opened the chain link fence, and began towing the vehicles. (Id. ¶¶ 15, 27)

Walker observed Darrah's removing his vehicles, and approached Wentz and Buffington, who were standing nearby. (Id. ¶ 16.) Buffington responded to Walker's ensuing questions by issuing Walker a building code citation for a loose electric cable on the exterior of Walker's home and for a lack of water service to the property. (Id. ¶ 17.) Buffington also sought permission to conduct a walk-through inspection of the interior of Walker's home, a request that Walker refused. (Id. ¶¶ 19-20.) Walker informed Wentz and Buffington that he intended to contact a lawyer to discuss the legality of their conduct. (Id. ¶ 21.) Wentz replied that Walker was free to speak with a lawyer but that Walker was required to vacate his property within five minutes, apparently due to the building code violations.*fn3 (Id. ¶ 22.) Walker retreated indoors to secure his home, and approximately three minutes later the police entered the premises to apprehend him, breaking the glass in his rear door to gain access. (Id.) Walker fled through the front door, where Wentz arrested him. (Id. ¶¶ 22-23.) Wentz transported Walker to York City Hall. Walker was handcuffed for approximately three hours, after which he was charged with defiant trespass for remaining within his home after it was declared unfit for human habitation by virtue of the building code violations. (Id. ¶¶ 23-24; Doc. 36, Ex. 1 at 9).*fn4

Within two weeks of this incident, Wentz visited Walker's property a second time. (Doc. 16 ¶ 26.) During this visit, Wentz again arrested Walker for occupying an unfit residence, and Walker lost consciousness while being transported in Wentz's police vehicle. (Id.; Doc. 36, Ex. 2 at 7.) Wentz took Walker to the hospital, where Walker received treatment for unspecified injuries. (Doc. 16 ¶ 26.) Walker was charged with a second count of defiant trespass, and both counts were consolidated for trial before a Pennsylvania magisterial district judge. (Doc. 36, Ex. 1 at 7; Doc. 36, Ex. 2 at 6-7.) Walker was found guilty on both counts. (Doc. 36, Ex. 1 at 5; Doc. 36, Ex. 2 at 4; Doc. 36, Ex. 3 at 3.) A summary appeal of both convictions to the court of common pleas concluded with Walker pleading guilty to all charges. (Doc. 36, Ex. 3 at 3, 5.)

The instant action was commenced in December 2006 and an amended complaint was filed in January 2007. The second amended complaint, which is subject to the pending motions, followed in April. The complaint raises a myriad of constitutional claims, though it is unclear which defendants are alleged to have violated which constitutional doctrines. The complaint generally claims that the City of York, Wentz, and Buffington violated his First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights by impounding his vehicles, arresting him, and bringing criminal charges. (See id. ¶¶ 8-9, 11.) He advances Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment deprivations by Darrah's relating to the impoundment of his vehicles. (See id. ¶¶ 8-11.) Walker contends that the City of York has engaged in systemic policy of removing automobiles "for the benefit of [the city's] vendors," and he claims African Americans are the object of these practices more frequently than Caucasian individuals. (Id. ¶ 28-29.) He further avers that on one unspecified occasion, Wentz threatened him with $1,000 fine unless he transferred title to one of his vehicles to Darrah's. (Id. ¶ 30).

Peppered throughout the complaint are references to specific constitutional doctrines, including excessive force, unlawful search and seizure, malicious prosecution, substantive due process, procedural due process and First Amendment retaliation. However, the complaint does not state which specific constitutional infractions each defendant allegedly committed, nor does it state whether the infractions are associated with Walker's first arrest, second arrest, or another instance.

II. Standard of Review

Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides for the dismissal of complaints that fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6). When ruling on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the court must "accept as true all factual allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom, and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Kanter v. Barella, 489 F.3d 170, 177 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting Evancho v. Fisher, 423 F.3d 347, 350 (3d Cir. 2005)). Although the court is generally limited in its review to the facts in 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. 1994); see also In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1426 (3d Cir. 1997).

Federal notice pleading rules require the complaint to "give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Sershen v. Cholish, No. 3:07-CV-1011, 2007 WL 3146357, at *4 (M.D. Pa. Oct. 26, 2007) (quoting Erickson v. Pardus, --- U.S. ---, 127 S.Ct. 2197, 2200 (2007)). The plaintiff must present facts that, if true, demonstrate a plausible right to relief. See FED. R. CIV. P. 8(a) (stating that the complaint should include "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief"); Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, ---U.S. ---, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1965 (2007) (requiring plaintiffs to allege facts sufficient to "raise a right to relief above the speculative level"); Victaulic Co. v. Tieman, 499 F.3d 227, 234 (3d Cir. 2007). Thus, courts should not dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim if it "contain[s] either direct or inferential allegations respecting all the material elements necessary to sustain recovery under some viable legal theory." Montville Twp. v. Woodmont Builders LLC, No. 05-4888, 2007 WL 2261567, at *2 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting Twombly, --- U.S. at ---, 127 S.Ct. at 1969). Under this liberal pleading standard, courts should generally grant plaintiffs leave to amend their claims before dismissing a complaint that is merely deficient. See Grayson v. Mayview State Hosp., 293 F.3d 103, 108 (3d Cir. 2002); Shane v. Fauver, 213 F.3d 113, 116-17 (3d Cir. 2000).

III. Discussion

Defendants argue that Walker's complaint should be dismissed because his claims are precluded by his convictions and guilty plea to the defiant trespass charges against him. In the alternative, plaintiffs move for a more definite statement of Walker's claims, contending that the complaint is insufficient to inform ...

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