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Tassel v. Lawrence County Domestic Relations Section

September 22, 2009

LYNN A. VAN TASSEL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
LAWRENCE COUNTY DOMESTIC RELATIONS SECTION, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Nora Barry Fischer United States District Judge

Judge Nora Barry Fischer

MEMORANDUM OPINION

I. INTRODUCTION

This civil rights action arises from child support proceedings in the Court of Common Pleas of Lawrence County, Pennsylvania between pro se Plaintiff Lynn A. Van Tassel ("Plaintiff") and her former husband, Defendant Arthur R. Van Tassel ("Defendant Van Tassel"). She alleges that Defendant Van Tassel as well as Defendants Lawrence County Domestic Relations Section ("Domestic Relations"), Larry Troggio ("Troggio"), Jackie McBride ("McBride"), Jackie Bartberger ("Bartberger"), Charmagne Duzak ("Duzak"), the Honorable John W. Hodge ("Judge Hodge"), and James W. Manolis, Esquire ("Manolis") caused certain irregularities in those proceedings which have violated her constitutional rights under the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments. She also claims that Defendants Van Tassel and Manolis initiated a criminal complaint and filed a protection from abuse order against her in retaliation for her pursuing the collection of child support from Defendant Van Tassel. Presently before the Court are motions to dismiss filed by Judge Hodge and Domestic Relations (Docket No . 55), attorney Manolis, (Docket No. 51), and Defendant Van Tassel (Docket No. 53). Plaintiff has filed timely responses to the motions. (Docket Nos. 57, 58, 59, 60). Upon consideration of the parties' submissions, and for the following reasons, Defendants' motions to dismiss are granted.

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff is proceeding pro se, therefore, the factual allegations in her Amended Complaint are liberally construed as she is held to a less stringent standard than attorneys. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007); see also Washam v. Stesis, Civ. A. No. 08-3869, 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 7768, at *3 (3d Cir. Apr. 10, 2009). However, many of the lengthy and convoluted allegations in Plaintiff's 43 page Amended Complaint improperly consist of legal argument and factual assertions which this Court need not credit.*fn1 See Day v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, 233 Fed. Appx. 132, 133 n.3 (3d Cir. 2007)(not precedential)(citing Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997))(a district court "need not ... credit a pro se litigant's 'bald assertions' or 'legal conclusions.'"). Mindful of this standard, the Court turns to the allegations in the Amended Complaint.

Plaintiff and her former husband, Defendant Van Tassel, have an ongoing child support case in the Court of Common Pleas of Lawrence County, Pennsylvania, at Case No. 503 of 2003, D.R. (Docket No. 47 at ¶ 14). Defendant Van Tassel is subject to a child support order which requires him to make monthly support payments to Plaintiff for the benefit of their child.*fn2 Plaintiff contends that her husband was delinquent on support payments during 2007 and that she attempted to collect the support by using "the Act 58 remedies (Act 1997-58, as amended by Act 1998-127)" under the Pennsylvania support laws. (Id. at 1-2). Although not specified in the Amended Complaint, Plaintiff appears to be referring to certain amendments to 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 4352(d) and (d.1). Sections 4352(d) and (d.1) provide as follows:

(d) Arrears as judgments.--On and after the date it is due, each and every support obligation shall constitute a judgment against the obligor by operation of law, with the full force, effect and attributes of a judgment of court, including the ability to be enforced, and shall be entitled as a judgment to full faith and credit in this or any other state. Overdue support obligations of this or any other state which are on record at the county domestic relations section shall constitute a lien by operation of law against all real property owned by the obligor within the county as provided in subsection (d.1). ...

(d.1) Real property liens.--(1) Overdue support shall be a lien on real estate within the county in which the overdue support is on record at the county domestic relations section if:

(i) the underlying support action is pending in the county domestic relations section or is being enforced by the county domestic relations section;

(ii) notice of the existence of the support action is available to the public through a docket book or automated means; and

(iii) the county domestic relations section is able to determine the amount of overdue support by reference to its records and is able to provide the amount of the overdue support upon request.

(5) A lien arising from overdue support:

(i) shall automatically attach to after-acquired property owned by the obligor;

(ii) shall retain its priority without renewal or revival;

(iii) shall continue to encumber the property upon sale or other transfer;

(iv) shall not be divested upon a judicial sale or execution by a person with a lien with less priority;

(v) shall not attach to the interest of any other co-owner in the property;

(vi) shall expire 20 years after the due date of the last unsatisfied overdue support payment; and

(vii) may be released by the court as against abandoned or distressed real property at the request of a governmental unit in order to facilitate the property's sale and rehabilitation.

23 Pa.C.S. § 4352 (2008).

In general, Plaintiff claims that pursuant to these provisions and given her husband's alleged delinquency on the support payments, she was entitled to a judgment by operation of law*fn3 for all overdue support and, thereby, statutorily authorized to obtain a judgment against him for overdue support*fn4 and a lien against his real property. (See generally Docket No. 47). However, she alleges that Domestic Relations caused errors in the computation of the overdue support due, and that such errors were contained in two separate judgments which she obtained. (Id.). Her receipt and attempted enforcement of these judgments resulted in legal proceedings between her and Defendant Van Tassel, who was represented by attorney Manolis. (Id.). Most of the proceedings were before Judge Hodge, and Plaintiff complains that he made numerous incorrect legal rulings during the proceedings, including striking the judgments, canceling a sheriff's sale and imposing sanctions on her in the form of her husband's attorney's fees for attempting to use the Act 58 remedies. (Id.). She also maintains that Defendant Van Tassel and attorney Manolis acted improperly during those proceedings. (Id.). She avers that these and other actions of the Defendants violated her constitutional rights of substantive and procedural due process, equal protection under the laws and her right to freely access the courts. (Id.).

Plaintiff also contends that Defendant Van Tassel was delinquent in his child support payments for every month of 2007. (Id. at ¶ 15). Specifically, in March 2007, Plaintiff discovered that Defendant Van Tassel had withdrawn $76,909.00 from his retirement account in 2006 but had not included this amount as income for the calculation of child support in 2007. (Id. at ¶ 16). After a modification conference between the parties was held, an order was entered in October 2007 adding the monies withdrawn from Defendant Van Tassel's retirement account to his 2006 income and recalculating the support due in 2007.*fn5 (Id.). Later, in September 2007 and March 2008, Defendant Van Tassel refinanced real property that he owns and is located in Lawrence County. (Id). At the time of his refinancing of the property, he was delinquent on child support payments. (Id). Plaintiff contends that according to her interpretation of Pennsylvania law, the overdue child support constituted an automatic lien against the refinanced property. (Id. at ¶ 17). She avers that she was not paid the support owed and that her attempts to collect the support were unsuccessful, resulting in tumultuous litigation. (Docket No. 47 at ¶¶ 14-44).

On October 30, 2007, Plaintiff requested that Defendant Van Tassel pay the overdue support balance by December 3, 2007. (Id. at ¶ 18). She advised Defendant Van Tassel that if payment was not made by that date, she would seek other remedies against him. (Id.). Defendant Van Tassel did not pay the overdue support by that date. (Id.). Then, on December 10, 2007, Plaintiff contacted Defendant McBride, the Domestic Relations case officer assigned to her case, by telephone, and requested that he prepare a certificate of arrearages showing "overdue support 30 days or more overdue." (Id. at ¶ 19). The following day, December 11, 2007, she went to the Domestic Relations office, paid the applicable fee and was provided with a certificate of arrearages. (Id. at ¶ 20). She then took the certificate to the Lawrence County Prothonotary's Office, and had it converted to a judgment against Defendant Van Tassel's real property. (Id.). As a result, a Sheriff's Sale of Defendant Van Tassel's real property was scheduled to occur on January 16, 2008. (Id. at ¶ 22).

Subsequently, Plaintiff realized that the amount of support stated on the certificate was miscalculated. (Id. at ¶ 21). She thus avers that the certificate incorrectly included the entire amount of child support owed by Defendant Van Tassel (the entire case balance including current support, past-due support, overdue support and applicable fees) instead of only the overdue support which she had requested. (Id. at ¶¶ 21, 22). Plaintiff then alleges she immediately informed Domestic Relations of the inaccuracies in the certificate and was told by one of its employees that the certificate was produced in "the way our computer does it." (Id.). Further, she contacted Marcy at the Sheriff's office to inform them of the inaccuracies. (Id. at ¶ 22). She was told that the Sheriff's office would "double check" with Domestic Relations regarding the correct amount of overdue support on the morning of the Sheriff's Sale, which was scheduled for January 16, 2008. (Id.).

On January 8, 2008, Defendant Van Tassel, by and through his attorney, Manolis, filed a Petition to Correct Judgment related to the December 11, 2007 judgment which Plaintiff had procured. (Id. at ¶ 23). That petition was heard by Judge Hodge in Family Motions Court on January 8, 2008. (Id.). After conducting argument and without accepting any evidence from the parties, Judge Hodge struck the December 11, 2007 judgment, cancelled the January 16, 2008 sheriff's sale and remanded the case back to Domestic Relations for a hearing. (Id. at ¶ 24).

Plaintiff asserts several flaws in the January 8, 2008 prcoeedings. First, she claims that Defendant Manolis relied on inaccurate case law in support of his argument that the judgment should be stricken. (Id. at ¶ 24). Second, she maintains that, pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 1910.24(b), the Petition should have been heard by a conference or hearing officer and not by Judge Hodge in Family Motions Court. (Id. at ¶ 24). As a result, she claims that Judge Hodge did not have jurisdiction over the matter because he is a Lawrence County Court of Common Pleas Family Court Judge. (Id. at ¶ 24). Third, Plaintiff avers that Judge Hodge's decision was influenced by his pre-existing relationship with Defendant Van Tassel. (Id.).

Plaintiff moved for reconsideration of the January 8, 2008 order in Family Motions Court the following week citing the above arguments. (Id. at ¶ 25). Her motion for reconsideration was denied by Judge Hodge. (Id).

In the interim, on January 10, 2008, Plaintiff obtained a second certificate of arrearages, which certified arrearages of $653.73 as of December 31, 2007. (Id. at ¶ 26). The certificate was prepared by Defendant Bartberger, the Enforcement Supervisor at Domestic Relations. (Id.). Plaintiff avers that the calculation of arrearages on this certificate was also incorrect as the amount represented on the certificate included "past due support as well as overdue support and fees." (Id.). Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Bartberger later admitted that Domestic Relations had "screwed up" when preparing this certificate. (Id.).

On February 20, 2008, a hearing on the amount of child support owed by Defendant Van Tassel was held in front of Defendant Duzak, a hearing officer in the Domestic Relations office. (Id. at ¶ 27). Subsequently, Defendant Duzak issued an order on March 3, 2008 ("March 3rd Order") regarding the matters presented during the February 20, 2008 hearing. (Id.). Plaintiff maintains that the March 3rd Order incorrectly referred to the support owed by Defendant Van Tassel as "past-due support" instead of "overdue support."*fn6 (Id.).

Accordingly, Plaintiff states she contacted attorney Manolis regarding the March 3, 2008 Order on March 7, 2008. (Id. at ¶ 28). At that time, she explained to Manolis that the March 3, 2008 Order was for "overdue support" and "offered an opportunity for his client, Defendant [Van Tassel], to pay prior to entering a second judgment against him." (Id.).

Plaintiff then alleges that sometime after her contact with attorney Manolis, he had "discussions" with Defendant Troggio, the Director of Domestic Relations, regarding Defendant Van Tassel's compliance with the support order at that time. (Id. at ¶ 29). She also avers that attorney Manolis contacted Helen Morgan, at the Prothonotary's office in Lawrence County, and represented to her that Defendant Van Tassel was in full compliance with the child support order on March 11, 2008. (Id. at ¶ 30). Morgan in turn allegedly contacted Domestic Relations to verify Manolis' representation. (Id.). In response, Troggio faxed a letter to Morgan which stated that Defendant Van Tassel was in compliance with the current child support order. (Id. at ¶ 29).

Plaintiff maintains that the content of the March 11, 2008 letter from Troggio to Morgan was inaccurate, "fraudulent" and a "deliberate corruption or distortion of the record." (Id. at ¶¶ 29, 30). She claims that while Defendant Van Tassel was current with all support payments at that time, he was not in compliance with the requirement that he accurately report his most recent employment.*fn7

(Id. at 29). Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Van Tassel reported on October 12, 2007 (the date that the child support order was issued) that he had been employed since October 6 or 8, 2007 but that upon further consultation with Domestic Relations, Defendant Bartberger advised her that Defendant Van Tassel was, in fact, employed on September 19, 2007. (Id.).

Again, under Plaintiff's interpretation of Pennsylvania child support law, Defendant Van Tassel's reporting of an incorrect date of employment made him non-compliant with the child support order. (Id.). As a consequence, she contends that all arrearages should have converted by operation of law to "overdue support," which would then be immediately collectible by her. (Id.). She also claims that Domestic Relations never reported Defendant Van Tassel's non-compliance with the order and did not update its computer system with this information, preventing her from collecting the "overdue support" to which she was allegedly entitled. (Id.).

Several events occurred on March 12, 2008. Plaintiff contacted the Domestic Relations office to acquire yet another certificate of arrearages. (Id. at ¶ 30). In so doing, she specifically requested that Troggio write the words "overdue support" on the certificate. (Id.). She did this because she had been informed by the Prothonotary's office that someone from the law offices of Verterano & Manolis had threatened a lawsuit against them if they accepted another certificate of arrearages from Plaintiff which did not show "overdue support." (Id.). Plaintiff then took the certificate to the Prothonotary and received another judgment (the "second judgment"). (Id.). After the second judgment was filed, Defendant Van Tassel filed for a demand hearing (de novo) regarding the March 3, 2008 Order issued by hearing officer Duzak, seeking to vacate the order. (Id.).

Defendant Van Tassel, through attorney Manolis, responded to Plaintiff's second judgment by presenting a Petition for Special Relief in Family Motion Court on March 28, 2008. (Id. at ¶ 31). The Petition requested that the Court strike the second judgment and award Defendant Van Tassel attorney's fees at Plaintiff's expense due to her conduct in filing multiple judgments against him. (Id. at ¶¶ 31, 32). A hearing was held in motions court before Judge Hodge, who heard argument from Plaintiff and Manolis, and then struck the second judgment and scheduled a hearing for May 6, 2008. (Id. at ¶ 32). Thereafter, the hearing was continued until May 8, 2009, and the matter was combined with Defendant Van Tassel's request for a demand hearing from the March 3, 2008 Order and his petition for attorney's fees. (Id).

The May 8, 2008 hearing was held as scheduled.*fn8 After the hearing, on June 23, 2008, Judge Hodge issued an opinion and order addressing the three combined cases.*fn9 (Id.). The opinion details the factual background of the cases and the testimony received at the May 8, 2008 hearing, including that of Plaintiff and two Domestic Relations employees, Tanya Hromyak and Kathleen Hogue. (See generally Docket No. 56-2). Regarding Plaintiff's testimony, Judge Hodge specifically found that Plaintiff admitted that she filed a praecipe for judgment on December 11, 2007 knowing that the calculations of support contained therein were incorrect, and that she filed a second praecipe for judgment on March 12, 2008 after she was aware that Defendant Van Tassel had requested a de novo hearing appealing the hearing officer's March 3, 2008 order. (Id. at 10, 18). As a result, Judge Hodge found that Plaintiff's entry of both judgments was improper, entered an order striking the judgments and awarded attorney's fees to Defendant Van Tassel and against Plaintiff in the amount of $2,385.00 pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S.A. §§ 2503(7) and 2503(9).*fn10 (Id. at 14, 15, 20-21). Considering Plaintiff's testimony and conduct, Judge Hodge held "that the Plaintiff has been acting in this litigation in a very spiteful manner, that her conduct is sufficiently within the requirement of a suit brought 'vexatiously,' and, as such, [Defendant Van Tassel] is entitled to an award of attorney's fees." (Docket No. 56-2).

Here, Plaintiff alleges that several errors were made by Judge Hodge in the June 23, 2008 Order. First, the order was issued "out of time" because Pa.R.C.P. 1910.11(i) states that if a demand for a hearing is filed in an action for support that the "court shall hear the case and enter a final order in the matter within sixty (60) days from the date of the written demand for hearing. . ." but the order was not entered until ninety days after the initial demand. (Docket No. 47 at ¶ 32). Second, the order was incorrectly issued with all three cases captioned together, which prevented her appeal. (Id. at ¶ 34). Third, Judge Hodge deliberately misrepresented the outcome of a previous case and, in doing so, corrupted the record and denied Plaintiff her right to an appeal. (Id. at ¶ 41). Fourth, Judge Hodge misapplied the applicable Pennsylvania statutes in awarding attorneys' fees to Defendant Van Tassel. (Id. at ¶ 42). Finally, Plaintiff alleges that these actions were taken by Judge Hodge in concert with Defendant Manolis to protect their friend, Defendant Van Tassel, and to retaliate against Plaintiff for litigating the child support action. (Id.).

On June 30, 2008, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Reconsideration of the June 23, 2008 Order, which was denied by Judge Hodge on the same day. (Id. at ¶ 35). Thereafter, on July 24, 2008, Plaintiff filed an appeal to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, which was summarily denied as untimely. (Id. at ¶¶ 36, 38). Plaintiff then filed a "Petition for Allowance to Appeal and a Motion to Stay Ancillary to Appeal" in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, both of which were summarily denied on February 2, 2009.*fn11 (Id. at ¶¶ 39,40).

A. Count I - 42 U.S.C. § 1983 - Due Process of Law Under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment v. All Defendants

At Count One, Plaintiff alleges that her rights to substantive and procedural due process were violated by the actions of the Defendants. Specifically, she claims that she has a property interest in the overdue support owed to her and in the sanction of $2,385 which was imposed by virtue of the June 23, 2008 Order. (Docket No. 47 at ¶ 48). She also contends that her damages were proximately caused by the conduct of the Defendants. The alleged unconstitutional conduct includes: * Domestic Relations failed to collect overdue support when Defendant Van Tassel refinanced real estate in September 2007 and March 2008;

* Domestic Relations, Defendant Van Tassel and Manolis prematurely discontinued reporting overdue support to the credit bureaus and falsified documents in connection with the refinancing of real estate by Defendant Van Tassel;

* Domestic Relations mislabeled its Order of March 3, 2008 as "past due support" rather than "overdue support";

* Domestic Relations failed to correct its inaccurate certifications of overdue support and denying any wrongdoing regarding these certifications;

* Domestic Relations failed to "comply[ ] with state mandates regarding overdue support for cases that are 31 to 60 days overdue";

* Judge Hodge issued orders "outside the court's jurisdiction" and "beyond the scope of the Rules of Civil Procedure in striking the Judgment and ...


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