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Gerhart v. Commonwealth

August 13, 2009

STANLEY GERHART, ET AL. PLAINTIFFS
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, ET AL. DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Golden, J.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiffs Stanley Gerhart and Judith Gerhart have filed a Complaint alleging, among other things, that their constitutional rights were violated when two Pennsylvania State Police troopers evicted them from their mobile home without a lawful court order. Defendants Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State Police, and State Trooper Maurice Minnifield ("Defendants") have filed the instant Motion to Dismiss. (Doc. No. 2). For the following reasons, the Motion is granted in part and denied in part.*fn1

FACTUAL BACKGROUND*fn2

Plaintiffs, along with their minor child, resided in a mobile home located on real property in Northampton, Pennsylvania. (Compl. ¶ 7). While Plaintiffs resided at this mobile home, the real property affixed to the home was sold at a sheriff's sale to Inez Rogers ("Rogers"). (Id.). On December 30, 2006, two uniformed troopers from the Pennsylvania State Police, Defendants Maurice Minnifield and John Doe ("State Troopers"), arrived at the location of Plaintiffs' mobile home in a marked Pennsylvania State Police vehicle. (Id. ¶ 8). Defendants Minnifield and Doe then demanded that Plaintiffs immediately and permanently vacate their mobile home. (Id.). The State Troopers also notified Plaintiffs that the mobile home would be padlocked to prevent re-entry. (Id.). Though Plaintiffs questioned the authority of the State Troopers, Plaintiffs complied with their demands. (Id. ¶ 9). With the help of various neighbors, Plaintiffs then collected their belongings and left the premises. (Id.). As a result of the eviction, Plaintiffs "were rendered homeless." (Id.). Plaintiffs believe that their mobile home was subsequently destroyed. (Id. ¶ 10). Plaintiffs allege that Defendants Minnifield and Doe "evicted the Plaintiffs from their home without any lawful Court Order or other proper authority" and "provided no opportunity to the Plaintiffs to have the matter addressed in a court of proper jurisdiction before their eviction." (Id. ¶¶ 11-12). Plaintiffs further claim that Defendants Minnifield and Doe acted "at the behest and solicitation of . . . Inez Rogers, who requested that Minnifield and Doe remove the Plaintiffs from their home in order to avoid the necessity of securing a lawful Court Order for the Plaintiffs' eviction." (Id. ¶ 13).

Plaintiffs' nine-count Complaint alleges that Defendant State Troopers Minnifield and Doe violated the following: (1) Article 1, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures (Count One); (2) the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures, actionable here under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count Two); and (3) the Fourteenth Amendment's command that no person be deprived of liberty and property without due process of law, actionable here under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count Three). Plaintiffs also claim that Minnifield, Doe, and Rogers conspired to deprive Plaintiffs of their rights under the United States Constitution, actionable here under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3) (Count Four). Further, Plaintiffs allege that Minnifield, Doe, and Rogers, in violation of state law, engaged in conspiracy (Count Five), wrongfully evicted Plaintiffs (Count Six), and trespassed against Plaintiffs (Count Seven). Finally, Plaintiffs allege that the Pennsylvania State Police and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania violated Plaintiffs' rights under the United States Constitution, actionable here under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Counts Eight and Nine).*fn3

STANDARD

"To survive a motion to dismiss [under Rule 12(b)(6)], a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949, 1953 (2009) (internal quotations and citations omitted) (holding that the pleading standard articulated in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), applies to "all civil actions" and noting that "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice"). In ruling on a motion to dismiss, the court must accept all factual allegations as true and draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiffs' favor. Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, Inc. v. Mirage Resorts, Inc., 140 F.3d 478, 483 (3d Cir. 1998). A court shall not inquire into "whether the plaintiffs will ultimately prevail, only whether they are entitled to offer evidence to support their claims." Nami v. Fauver, 82 F.3d 63, 65 (3d Cir. 1996). Thus, "a complaint will not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Johnsrud v. Carter, 620 F.2d 29, 33 (3d Cir. 1980).

ANALYSIS

I. Sections 1983 and 1985 Claims Against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania State Police, and State Troopers in Their Official Capacities (Counts Two, Three, Four, Eight, and Nine)

Plaintiffs have asserted Section 1983 and Section 1985 claims against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania State Police, and Defendant State Troopers in their official capacities. These claims cannot survive.

Section 1983 only imposes liability on "persons," and Section 1985(3) only imposes liability on "two or more persons" who conspire together. 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985(3). For the purposes of Section 1983, state agencies and state officers in their official capacities are immune from liability because they are not considered "persons" within the meaning of the statute. Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 70-71 (1989); see also Wagner v. Pa. Capitol Police Dep't, No. 07-1310, 2009 WL 453281, at *5 (M.D. Pa. Feb. 23, 2009) ("Removing the case to federal court does not change the fact that a state cannot be sued under Section 1983 for monetary damages."). Similar immunity from liability exists for actions brought under Section 1985. See Boykin v. Bloomsburg Univ. of Pa., 893 F. Supp. 378, 394 (M.D. Pa. 1995) ("[T]he states' immunity has not been abrogated for actions brought under §§ 1981, 1985, and 1986."), aff'd, 91 F.3d 122 (3d Cir. 1996), cert. denied, 519 U.S. 1078 (1997). State police departments and state troopers are considered state agencies and state officials. See Burnsworth v. PC Lab., No. 05-811, 2008 WL 4372861, at *7 (W.D. Pa. Sept. 19, 2008) ("[The] Pennsylvania State Police is not suable under Section 1983 because it is not a person within the meaning of Section 1983 . . ."). Plaintiffs concede that the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Willbars all Section 1983 and Section 1985 claims against the Commonwealth, the State Police, and the State Troopers in their official capacities. (Pls.' Br. at 4; Pls.' Resp. ¶ 1). Accordingly, Plaintiffs' Section 1983 claims against the Pennsylvania State Police and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in Counts Eight and Nine respectively will be dismissed. See Setser v. Pennsylvania, No. 07-0398, 2007 WL 1412248, at *1 (M.D. Pa. May 10, 2007) (dismissing Section 1983 claims against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania "as legally frivolous").*fn4 Further, Counts Two, Three, and Four will be dismissed only to the extent that these counts assert Section 1983 and Section 1985 claims against Defendants Minnifield and Doe in their official capacities.

II. Qualified Immunity: Fourth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment Claims Against State Troopers in Their Individual Capacities, Actionable Here Under Section 1983 (Counts Two and Three)

Defendants contend that Plaintiffs have not sufficiently pled causes of action against the State Troopers in their individual capacities for violations of Plaintiffs' constitutional rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, actionable here under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, because the doctrine of qualified immunity bars such claims. (Defs.' Br. at 12-14). The Court disagrees.*fn5

Government officials are immune from suit in their individual capacities unless, taken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury, (1) the facts alleged show the officer's conduct violated a constitutional right and (2) the right was clearly established at the time of the objectionable conduct. Giles v. Kearney, 571 F.3d 318, 325 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001)). Put another way, an officer performing his discretionary functions is "shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as [his] conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Curley v. Klem, 298 F.3d 271, 277 (3d Cir. 2002) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)).*fn6 This doctrine provides not only a defense to liability, but immunity from suit. See Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 227 (1991). The court may use its discretion to determine "which of the two prongs of the qualified immunity ...


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