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Rose v. Mahoning Township

March 31, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: (Judge Munley)


Before the court for disposition are motions to dismiss filed by various defendants in this case involving claims of civil rights violations. The motions have been briefed and are ripe for disposition.


Plaintiff James E. Rose, Jr., is an adult African-American who resides in Allentown, Pennsylvania. (Doc. 1, Complaint ¶ 1). On Friday, November 17, 2006, plaintiff purchased three (3) Rottweiler puppies from Defendants Ralph and Jessica Fahringer at their home in Lehighton, Pennsylvania. (Id. at ¶ 25). When he arrived home, plaintiff realized that the puppies he had were smaller than the puppies he had selected at the Fahringers. (Id. at ¶ 30). He concluded that he was the victim of a bait-and-switch perpetrated due to racism. (Id.). The next day, he went to the Fahringer's house with two other men, Craig Strickland and Sam Strickland, to return the puppies. (Id. at 35-39). Craig went to the Fahringers' door to announce that they were there to return the dogs. (Id. at 39). Ralph Fahringer pointed a rifle out of the doorway of the residence and told plaintiff, "Just put the dogs in the driveway and get . . . off my property." (Id. at 40). Fahringer cocked the gun and aimed it directly at the plaintiff. (Id. at 41). After leaving the dogs in the driveway, (evidently), the men backed out of the driveway and plaintiff dialed 911. (Id. at 43). The 911 dispatcher told plaintiff to return to the area of the Fahringer's house and wait for police to arrive. (Id.).

Twenty seconds after the 911 call ended, Defendant Mertz arrived at the scene with officers from three other municipalities, Defendants Keith R. Gehring, Matthew Arner and Frank Buonaiuto. (Id. at 44). Mertz told the other officers to search plaintiff, his companions and their vehicle while he went to speak with the Fahringers. (Id. at 45). The search was conducted. (Id. at 45). No weapons were found on the men, but they were detained in inclement weather outside Fahringer's house for several hours awaiting the return of Defendant Mertz. (Id. at 47). Due to a bad heart, one working lung and high blood pressure, plaintiff was physically unable to stand for such a long period of time. (Id.). The detaining officer repeatedly told plaintiff that Officer Mertz would return soon and then plaintiff would be free to go. (Id.).

While the plaintiff and his companions were detained, Defendant Mertz and Defendant Mark Zenko, police chief of Mahoning Township, conferred with Carbon County Assistant District Attorney Jean A. Engler, by telephone. (Id. at 53). Engler directed Mertz to arrest plaintiff and his companions and not to arrest Fahringer. (Id.).

Plaintiff asserts that the Fahringers were using their residence and business as a criminal enterprise to cheat and defraud the public by selling sickly and/or mentally retarded dogs. (Id. at 55). In doing so, they committed the crimes of theft by deception, fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud. Engler and Mertz became co-conspirators with the Fahringers, according to the plaintiff, in committing these crimes. (Id.).

Plaintiff asserts that Engler exhibited racism in having him and his companions arrested without even listening to their side of the story. (Id. at 56). Plaintiff and his companions were taken to the Mahoning Township Police Department, and their truck was impounded. (Id. at 58). Upon questioning by the police, plaintiff indicated that he believed that Fahringer would lie to the police in order to keep the $900 plaintiff had paid for the dogs. (Id. at 61).

Defendant Mertz charged plaintiff with Harassment, Terroristic Threats and Defiant Trespass. (Id. at 69). Plaintiff was taken to a magistrate who also exhibited racism and bigotry according to the plaintiff. (Id. at 66-67).

Eventually, plaintiff was placed in a jail cell with inadequate heat. The temperature was no more than forty-five (45) degrees and an air vent blew cold air directly onto plaintiff. (Id. at 73). Plaintiff contends that the inhumane conditions and the false arrest formed a type of torture that ultimately led plaintiff to plead guilty. (Id. at 77).

Plaintiff's son and his attorney arrived at the jail with bail money at 3:00 a.m. (Id. at 78) On February 1, 2007, plaintiff pled guilty to harassment, although he contends that he made no harassing actions on the day in question. (Id. at 79). He was fined $300 and was made to pay $136 in court costs. (Id.). All the police officers involved are white as are the Fahringers. (Id. at 80). Plaintiff alleges that Mahoning Township has a practice and policy of racism and indifference to plaintiff's civil rights and liberties. (Id. at 81, 82).

Based upon these facts, the plaintiff instituted the instant seven-count complaint. The complaint raises the following causes of action: Count I, against Mertz and Mahoning Township Police Department for violation of civil rights under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1982 and 1983; Count II, against Mertz, Engler, Mahoning Township Police Department, Carbon County, Gehring, Arner, Buonaiuto, Ralph Fahringer and Jessica Fahringer, for conspiracy to violate civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1985; Count III, supervisory liability against Mahoning Township, Mahoning Township Police Department, Carbon County, Zenko, Keiper, Eidem, Blocker, Snyder, Stawnyczyj and Engler; Count IV, against Ralph and Jessica Fahringer for fraud, conversion and trespass to chattels; Count V, against Mertz, Engler, Mahoning Township Police Department, Gehring, Arner, Buonaiuto, Ralph Fahringer and Jessica Fahringer for conspiracy to commit fraud, conversion and trespass to chattels; Count VI, breach of contract against Ralph and Jessica Fahringer and Count VII, interference with contractual rights and conspiracy to commit breach of contract against Mertz, Engler, Mahoning Township Police Department, Gehring, Arner, Buonaiuto, Ralph Fahringer and Jessica Fahringer. All the defendants have filed motions to dismiss.


As this case is brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for civil rights violations, 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.

Motions to dismiss were filed by: Carbon County and Jean Engler; Matthew Arner; Roger A. Gehring, identified in complaint as "Officer Keith R. Gehring"; Officer Frank Buonaiuto; Mahoning Township, Mahoning Township Police Department, Officer Audie M. Mertz, Police Chief Mark Zenko, Bruce L. Keiper, Charles R. Eidem, Dawn L. Blocker, Patricia Snyder and George Stawnyczyj. We will address each motion separately.

Standard of Review

When a 12(b)(6) motion is filed, the sufficiency of a complaint's allegations are tested. The issue is whether the facts alleged in the complaint, if true, support a claim upon which relief can be granted. In deciding a 12(b)(6) motion, the court must accept as true all factual allegations in the complaint and give the pleader the benefit of all reasonable inferences that can fairly be drawn therefrom, and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997).


We will discuss the motions in seriatim.

I. Motion of Defendants Carbon County and Engler

Defendants Carbon County and Assistant District Attorney Jean Engler have filed a joint motion to dismiss. We will discuss each defendant separately.

A. Carbon County

Carbon County moves to dismiss the action as against it on the basis that it cannot be held vicariously liable for the actions of an assistant district attorney, that is Defendant Engler. In his brief in opposition to the motion to dismiss, plaintiff indicates that he withdraws his claims against Carbon County based solely on Defendant Engler's actions. (Doc. 13, Brief in Opposition at pg. 8). Therefore, defendant's motion will be granted to that extent.

Plaintiff indicates, however, that he has other claims against Carbon County for conspiracy to violate civil rights and supervisory liability that are not based solely upon the actions of Defendant Engler. These claims assert that the conditions at the county prison and at the office of a county magisterial district judge were a violation of the plaintiff's rights. Defendant Carbon County does not address these issues in its brief or motion. Therefore, the case against it will be dismissed only to the extent that it is based upon the actions of Defendant Engler.

B. Defendant Engler

Defendant Engler moves to dismiss the case on the basis that she is entitled to absolute immunity for her decisions to initiate and ...

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