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Strause v. Starner

August 31, 2009

HEIDI STRAUSE, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS
v.
THOMAS STARNER, DEFENDANT



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

MEMORANDUM

The plaintiffs, Heidi Strause and Jose Casals, were stopped by the defendant, Hatfield Township Police Officer Thomas Starner, because he mistakenly believed they were in a stolen vehicle. Officer Starner drew his weapon, removed Casals from the vehicle, and placed him in the back of his police cruiser. After some period of time, Starner realized he had made a mistake and told Casals and Strause they were free to go.

Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983,*fn1 Strause and Casals brought this suit alleging violations of their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights under the United States Constitution. Starner has moved to dismiss all claims. After considering the parties' memoranda, I will grant the motion in part and deny it in part.

I. Introduction

On February 14, 2009 around 2:50 p.m., Strause and Casals were traveling in a vehicle being driven by Casals. (Compl. ¶ 6.) Officer Starner was on duty and initiated a vehicle stop of the car Casals and Strause were riding. (Id. ¶¶ 8--9.) Starner drew his weapon and removed Casals from the vehicle. (Id. ¶ 10.) After frisking Casals, Starner placed him in the back of the police cruiser. (Id. ¶¶ 11--12.) After some period of time, Starner released Casals and Strause and told them he had made a mistake. (Id. ¶ 13.) Later allegations in the complaint state Starner made a data entry error, which caused him to believe the vehicle was stolen. (Id. ¶¶ 29--30.)

The complaint consists of three counts. Count I is brought by Casals and alleges he was illegally seized. (Id. ¶¶ 15--21.) Count II is brought by Strause and alleges she was illegally arrested. (Id. ¶¶ 22--27.) Count III is brought by both plaintiffs and alleges they were subject to race discrimination. (Id. ¶¶ 28--35.)

II. Standard of review

A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted examines the legal sufficiency of the complaint. Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957). The factual allegations must be sufficient to make the claim for relief more than just speculative. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 US 544, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1965 (2007). In determining whether to grant a motion to dismiss, a federal court must construe the complaint liberally, accept all factual allegations in the complaint as true, and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. Id. See also D.P. Enters. v. Bucks County Cmty. Coll., 725 F.2d 943, 944 (3d Cir. 1984).

The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure do not require a plaintiff to plead in detail all of the facts upon which he bases his claim. Conley, 355 U.S. at 47. Rather, the Rules require a "short and plain statement" of the claim that will give the defendant fair notice of the plaintiff's claim and the grounds upon which it rests. Id. The "complaint must allege facts suggestive of [the proscribed] conduct." Twombly, 127 S.Ct. at 1969. Neither "bald assertions" nor "vague and conclusory allegations" are accepted as true. See Morse v. Lower Merion School Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997); Sterling v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transp. Auth., 897 F. Supp. 893 (E.D. Pa. 1995). The claim must contain enough factual matters to suggest the required elements of the claim or to "raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of" those elements. Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Twombly, 127 S.Ct. at 1965)).

III. Discussion

The complaint's recitation of the facts is sparse and provides only the slightest outline of the factual basis of the claims. After construing the complaint's allegations in the plaintiffs' favor to the reasonable extent possible, I will deny the motion with respect to Count I (illegal seizure) and grant it with respect to Counts II (illegal arrest) and III (race discrimination).

A. Count I - Illegal seizure

I will deny the motion with respect to Count I. The complaint contains sufficient facts to support a claim that Starner's actions may have converted this traffic stop to a de facto ...


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