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Whitfield v. City of Philadelphia

November 19, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Eduardo C. Robreno, J.


Before this Court are Rufus Whitfield's 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("Section 1983") claims against the City of Philadelphia, Lynne Abraham ("Abraham"), the Philadelphia District Attorney, and Catherine Marshall ("Marshall"), Chief of the Appeals Unit of the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office (collectively "Defendants"). Whitfield contends that Defendants' decision to appeal the vacatur of his illegal prison sentence on "technical procedural grounds" violated his constitutional rights under the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Defendants filed the instant motion to dismiss Whitfield's complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.*fn1 Defendants' motion will be granted.


On May 12, 1992, Rufus Whitfield pleaded guilty to various theft related offenses and was sentenced in the Court of Common Pleas, Philadelphia County to a term of imprisonment and parole/probation. (Complaint ¶ 4; Commonwealth v. Whitfield, CP 9106-2344 (Phila. Ct. Com. Pl. May 1, 2003)("Lynn Op.") 2.) After serving a portion of that sentence, Whitfield was released on parole. On February 19, 1997, however, Whitfield's parole was revoked and he was ordered to serve the balance of his May 1992 sentence. (Lynn Op. at 1-2.) At that time, the sentencing judge acknowledged that Whitfield's term of probation "maxes out on January 8, 1998." (Complaint ¶ 5; Defs.' Mot. Dismiss Ex. 2.)

On September 26, 2001, Whitfield was back before the Court of Common Pleas, Philadelphia County, charged with probation/parole violation resulting from his conviction for the unauthorized use of a motor vehicle. On that day, Whitfield was sentenced to a three and one half to seven year term of imprisonment for the probation/parole violation. (Complaint ¶ 7; Lynn Op. at 2.) At the time of Whitfield's sentencing, the sentencing judge, Judge Lynn, was unaware that the term of probation, which formed the underlying basis for the three and one half to seven year sentence, had in fact expired more than three years earlier, on January 8, 1998. (Complaint ¶ 7.)*fn3

Whitfield's subsequent motion to vacate the September 26, 2001 sentence on the grounds of illegality was denied on March 28, 2002.*fn4 (Lynn Op. at 2; Defs.' Mot. Dismiss at 3.) Whitfield filed a timely appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. (Lynn Op. at 2.) Upon learning of Whitfield's appeal, Judge Lynn ordered that testimony from Whitfield's sentencing proceedings in 1992, 1997, and 2001 be transcribed. (Lynn Op. at 2-3.) On May 24, 2002 and June 10, 2002, while Whitfield's appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court was pending, attorneys from the Defenders Association of Philadelphia wrote to Judge Lynn claiming that Whitfield was being illegally detained. (Complaint ¶ 9; Lynn Op. at 2.)*fn5

On September 30, 2002, Judge Lynn received the notes of testimony from the February 19, 1997 sentencing hearing. (Complaint ¶ 10.) Upon receiving these notes, the Judge ordered them faxed to the District Attorney's Office, along with copies of the May 24, 2002 and June 10, 2002 letters from Whitfield's attorneys. These materials were "faxed to Jim Lawrenson, a paralegal in the appeals unit of the District Attorney's Office" with a note that "directed the District Attorney's Office to inform [the] Court of their position in this matter as soon as possible." (Lynn Op. at 3; Complaint ¶ 10.) In a subsequent opinion, Judge Lynn noted that his chambers [was] made aware, via telephone, that Catherine Marshall, Chief, Appeals Unit of the District Attorney's Office, was given the . . . fax by Mr. Lawrenson." (Lynn Op. at 3; Complaint ¶ 11.)*fn6

On October 10, 2002, Judge Lynn issued an order vacating Whitfield's September 26, 2001 sentence, noting that at the time of the sentencing, "this court inadvertently believed the defendant [Whitfield] was still on its probation. This court has recently obtained the notes of testimony from February 19, 1997 hearing wherein it is indicated that defendant [Whitfield] would be finished with the courts probation on January 8, 1998 . . . . the sentence imposed by this court upon defendant [Whitfield] on September 26, 2001 is therefore illegal and is vacated." (Complaint ¶ 14, Ex. A.) On October 18, 2002, Whitfield withdrew the pending appeal of his sentence in the Pennsylvania Superior Court. (Defs.' Mot. Dismiss Ex. 4.)

The District Attorney's Office appealed the October 10, 2002 vacatur to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, arguing that the order was a "nullity" because the trial court acted without proper jurisdiction. (Id.) On August 22, 2003, the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the trial court's decision to vacate Whitfield's sentence. (Id. Ex. 6.) The District Attorney's Office then petitioned the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for an allowance of appeal, which was granted on April 7, 2004. (Id. Ex. 7.) The Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard argument in the case on October 12, 2004, but did not render its decision until October 16, 2007. A deeply divided Court held that while the trial court lacked jurisdiction to vacate Whitfield's sentence, the vacatur was proper given the trial court's inherent power to correct patent and obvious mistakes. Pa. v. Christopher Holmes & Rufus Whitfield, 933 A.2d 57, 66 (Pa. 2007).*fn7 In so holding, the Court recognized the tension between 42 Pa.C.S. § 5505, which provides a limited 30-day window during which a trial court has jurisdiction to modify or rescind an order (provided that the order in question has not been appealed), and the inherent power of the court to correct patent errors of law. Id. From the date of the first appeal by the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office of the October 10, 2002 vacatur order, to the day of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision on October 16, 2007, Whitfield remained incarcerated.*fn8

In Counts One and Two of his Second Amended Complaint, Whitfield alleges that both Abraham and Marshall are liable as supervisors*fn9 under Section 1983 for acting "under color of state law" to "continue[] criminal prosecutions against the plaintiff on charges of probation and/or parole violations after receiving notice that said charges were unfounded" (Complaint ¶¶ 43, 61), and for following a policy of "failing to correct [the] unconstitutional conduct of their subordinates" (id. ¶¶ 41, 59). In addition, Whitfield alleges that Abraham and Marshall "failed in their duty to investigate" his illegal incarceration and "instead made the unlawful administrative decision to continue to prosecute the matter and to appeal the Court's Order of October 10, 2002 on technical procedural grounds knowing that, as a result, they would directly cause plaintiff to remain incarcerated in violation of his Constitutional rights." (Id. ¶ 20.)*fn10 In Count Three of the Complaint, Whitfield alleges that the City of Philadelphia is liable under Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978), for establishing a "policy and practice" of "prosecut[ing] persons with suspected probation and/or parole violations in a reckless manner" and "encourag[ing] its employees to prosecute its cases without regards for the civil rights of persons." (Complaint ¶¶ 70, 73.)

Defendants argue that Abraham and Marshall are shielded from liability in their individual capacities by "the doctrine of absolute prosecutorial immunity" because the appeal at issue was unquestionably related to their role as advocates, not administrators. (Defs.' Mot. Dismiss at 16.) Defendants also argue that this absolute prosecutorial immunity bars any finding of supervisory liability against Abraham and Marshall. (Id. at 16-17.) Moreover, Defendants contend that, even in the absence of absolute immunity, Abraham and Marshall are entitled to qualified immunity for their decision to appeal the vacatur. (Id. at 18.) Finally, Defendants argue that the allegations in the complaint are insufficient to state a claim for municipal liability against the City of Philadelphia. (Id. at 21.)


A. Motion to Dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6)

In deciding a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, the Court must "accept as true all allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom, and view them in the light most favorable to the non-moving party."

DeBenedictis v. Merrill Lynch & Co., Inc., 492 F.3d 209, 216 (3d Cir. 2007) (quotation omitted); Maisonet v. City of Phila., No. 06-4858, 2007 WL 1366879, at *4 (E.D. Pa. May 7, 2008) (granting motion to dismiss on absolute prosecutorial immunity grounds). The Court need not, however, "credit either bald assertions or legal conclusions in a complaint when deciding a motion to dismiss." DeBenedictis, 492 F.3d at 215 (quoting Evancho v. Fisher, 423 F.3d 347, 351 (3d Cir. 2005)). Rather, for the purposes of Rule 12(b)(6), the complaint's factual allegations "'must be enough to raise the right to relief above the ...

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