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Edwards v. City of Easton

September 10, 2009


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


Plaintiff, a pro se litigant, has sued various defendants that were involved in his 2006 arrest and detention for criminal trespass and criminal mischief. One defendant has filed an answer, and the rest have submitted motions to dismiss. Because Plaintiff is proceeding pro se, his complaint will be generously interpreted.

In 2002, Plaintiff leased commercial space in Easton, PA for his company, Value in Partnership Development Company, LLC (VIPDC). Over the next several years, Plaintiff ran a shipping business on the premises and also prepared to open a gift shop there. During that time, Plaintiff developed animosity with his neighbor, Defendant Gary Ringhoff; in early March 2006, Plaintiff called the police to settle their dispute over parking-spaces behind the store. For reasons that are unclear at present, Easton's Code Enforcement Office issued a "use prohibited" notice on March 10, 2006, requiring Plaintiff to vacate his building within 48 hours. One week later, Mr. Ringhoff allegedly called the police and reported a burglary at Plaintiff's premises.

Officer Herncane, an Easton police officer, responded to the call and found Plaintiff in the building's parking lot. Plaintiff allegedly provided Officer Herncane with documentation that established his right to be there and showed his ongoing dispute with Mr. Ringhoff. Around that time, both Mr. Ringhoff and Defendant's landlord, Ms. Rachel Haddad, arrived. They told the police that Plaintiff was no longer a tenant at the building and that Plaintiff had broken into it. Officer Herncane then placed Plaintiff under arrest. It appears that another Police Officer, John Zielinski, was also present for some or all of these events. Officer Zielinski is named as a defendant in Plaintiff's complaint, but Plaintiff has not perfected service on him.

After the arrest, Plaintiff was held on $10,000 bail, and he attended a preliminary hearing in May 2006. At the hearing, Defendants Haddad, Ringhoff, and Officer Zielinski testified to the facts in the police report. Plaintiff asserts that Haddad and Ringhoff gave false testimony, and that Officer Zielinski "deliberately failed to present exculpatory evidence" of the various documents that Plaintiff showed Officer Herncane. Approximately seven months later, the Northampton County District Attorney entered a nolle prosequi in Plaintiff's case, citing insufficient evidence and the victim's refusal to testify. Plaintiff was released, and he filed his complaint in March 2008.

As an initial matter, Plaintiff cannot proceed on behalf of his company, VIPDC. A corporation can only litigate its rights through a licensed attorney; it cannot represent itself pro se or through one of its officers. Simbraw, Inc. v. U.S., 367 F.2d 373, 373 (3d Cir. 1966); Curbison v. U.S. Gov't of New Jersey, 242 Fed. Appx. 806, 808--09 (3d Cir. 2007). To the extent that Plaintiff asserts claims on behalf of VIPDC, they will be dismissed. If Plaintiff still wishes to pursue VIPDC's claims, then he may obtain counsel and file an amended complaint within 30 days of dismissal.

I. The City of Easton Defendants

The City of Easton and Police Officer Herncane ("City Defendants") have moved to dismiss all of Plaintiff's claims against them. For the reasons that follow, I will grant the City Defendants' motion in part and deny it in part.

A. Plaintiff's Probable Cause-based Claims Both

Plaintiff and the City Defendants acknowledge that Plaintiff's claims of false arrest, malicious prosecution, and abuse of process (Counts I, II, III, XIII, XIV, and XV) all hinge on the issue of whether the police lacked probable cause for Plaintiff's arrest. Probable cause requires a "fair probability" that a particular suspect committed the crime at issue. See Wright v. City of Philadelphia, 409 F.3d 595, 602 (3d Cir. 2005). This standard does not require police to correctly assess credibility or conflicting evidence at the scene, but it does require police to act only on evidence that is "reasonably trustworthy." Id. at 602--03.

Here, Plaintiff has sufficiently pleaded that the police lacked probable cause to arrest him. Plaintiff alleges that the officers wrongly relied on Mr. Ringhoff and Ms. Haddad because their statements were not reasonably trustworthy. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that he provided a police report which showed Mr. Ringhoff's animosity toward him, and he provided a valid lease addendum, which showed his ongoing tenancy at the premises. Construing the complaint broadly, and accepting all of Plaintiff's factual allegations as true, he has met the lenient pleading standards of the Federal Rules.

Defendants also argue that Plaintiff's municipal liability claim (Count V) fails because he has not sufficiently alleged a constitutional violation. Because I rule that Plaintiff has adequately pleaded a lack of probable cause, he has also stated a valid claim for municipal liability. Plaintiff's complaint sufficiently alleges that his unlawful arrest was caused by a failure to train and supervise the officers.

The City Defendants challenge Plaintiff's conspiracy claims (Counts IV, XIX, and XX) on the grounds that Plaintiff 1) has not alleged an underlying constitutional violation or underlying tort, 2) improperly alleges a § 1983 conspiracy with private citizens as the co-conspirators, and 3) has failed to include specific factual allegations to support a conspiracy. I have already ruled that Plaintiff has sufficiently pleaded a lack of probable cause, and Defendants' remaining two arguments are unpersuasive.

For purposes of a § 1983 claim, a private citizen is considered a state actor if he acted together with or has obtained significant aid from state officials. Angelico v. Lehigh Valley Hosp., Inc., 184 F.3d 268, 277 (3d Cir. 1999). A private citizen does not become a state actor by merely providing information to a police officer, but if a police officer acts at the request of a private individual, then § 1983 liability may attach. See Abbott v. Latshaw, 164 F.3d 141, 147--48 (3d ...

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