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Crouse v. South Lebanon Township

October 22, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Conner


Plaintiff George Thomas Crouse ("Crouse") brings this civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against defendants South Lebanon Township, South Lebanon police officer James Gross ("Gross"), and Galen Boyd ("Boyd"), Crouse's former landlord. Crouse advances several contentions associated with his arrest and three-month incarceration in March 2006. In addition, Crouse sets forth an action for municipal liability, and seeks redress under state tort law. South Lebanon Township and Gross have filed a motion for summary judgment on Crouse's constitutional claims. (See Doc. 18.) For the reasons that follow, the motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

I. Statement of Facts*fn1

This case arises from what was essentially a landlord-tenant dispute. Boyd owns a large tract of land at 302 Iona Road in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. (Doc. 20 ¶ 1; Doc. 22 ¶ 1.) The property boasts several residential structures, a shop warehouse, barn, and a pole building. (See Doc. 20 ¶ 2; Doc. 22 ¶ 2.) In 2004, Boyd entered a verbal lease agreement with Crouse, under which Crouse became a commercial tenant of the shop warehouse in exchange for $500 in monthly rent or an equivalent value in physical labor. (See Doc. 18, Ex. 2 at 69; Doc. 20 ¶ 5; Doc. 22 ¶ 5.) Crouse used the warehouse space to operate an auto repair garage. (See Doc. 18, Ex. 2 at 57-58.) He also slept on a sofa in the shop several nights per week. (See Doc. 18, Ex. 1 at 18; id., Ex. 2 at 67-68.)

In January 2006, the landlord-tenant relationship began to deteriorate. (See Doc. 18, Ex. 1 at 41; id., Ex. 2 at 92, 204.) Crouse alleges that Boyd began to harass him by, inter alia, removing Crouse's tools from the shop without permission, interfering with Crouse's telephone reception, informing Crouse's veterinarian that Crouse was a "drunkard," and half-seriously threatening Crouse with gun violence.*fn2

(See Doc. 18, Ex. 2 at 204-08.) On February 15, 2006 Boyd served Crouse with a written notice of eviction, which read, in pertinent part: "You are hereby banned from these premise[s] as of 4:00 p.m. on Feb. 15, 2006 and will not be allowed to return for any reason to the premise at [302] Iona Road." (Doc. 18, Ex. 4.) Boyd also distributed a copy of the letter to the South Lebanon police department, where it was posted on a clipboard on the office wall.*fn3 (Doc. 20 ¶ 16; Doc. 22 ¶ 16.)

Crouse did not vacate the property after receipt of the eviction letter, nor did he make any preparations to do so. (See Doc. 18, Ex. 1 at 32.) Instead, landlord and tenant commenced a three-week period of mutual, escalating harassment of one another. Boyd accuses Crouse of "short[ing] out" his telephone lines; hot-wiring his electrical box; and stealing 115 quarters and an electric shaver from inside his home. (See Doc. 18, Ex. 1 at 32-36.) For his part, Crouse claims that Boyd interfered with his telephone lines; improperly deactivated his electricity; and parked large vehicles directly in front of the shop warehouse doors to block Crouse's ingress and egress. (See Doc. 18, Ex. 2 at 99-101, 209-10.) Boyd contacted the South Lebanon police "four or five times" during this three-week period, precipitating at least two site visits by South Lebanon police officers. (See Doc. 18, Ex. 1 at 39-40, 47-48, 56; Doc. 21, Ex. 6.) Officers encouraged Crouse and Boyd to "avoid each other until their civil actions are resolved,"*fn4 and Boyd alleges that on one occasion, the police drew a line on the property and ordered the two men to remain on their respective sides. (See Doc. 18, Ex. 1 at 56, 86.)

On March 3, 2006, one of the residential buildings on Boyd's property unexpectedly caught fire. (Doc. 18, Ex. 1 at 56.) The unit occupied by Scott Oswald ("Oswald"), another of Boyd's tenants, was severely burned as a result. (See Doc. 18, Ex. 2 at 120.) Two days later, Oswald was attempting to vacate the burnt unit of his belongings and requested Crouse's assistance in moving his property. (Id.) When Crouse followed Oswald into his apartment, Boyd immediately contacted the South Lebanon police to complain that Crouse was trespassing. (Doc. 18, Ex. 1 at 61-62.)

Gross arrived approximately fifteen minutes later accompanied by an officer of the Cornwall Borough named Troxell. (Doc. 18, Ex. 2 at 124, 127; id., Ex. 5 at 14; Doc. 20 ¶ 23; Doc. 22 ¶ 23.) Boyd informed the officers that Crouse was inside Oswald's apartment, and that Crouse was "trespassing." (Doc. 18, Ex. 6 at 15.) Although Gross had never personally interacted with Crouse, he was familiar with the deteriorating landlord-tenant situation, as well as the eviction letter that Boyd had delivered to the police department and which was posted on the police department's clipboard. (See Doc. 18, Ex. 6 at 7-9, 43.)

As Gross entered Oswald's apartment to investigate, Crouse was descending the stairs holding a black plastic trash bag. (Id. at 18; Doc. 20 ¶¶ 25-26; Doc. 22 ¶¶ 25-26.) Gross asked Crouse what he was doing, prompting the latter to aver that he was "helping the subjects who had lived in the upstairs portion of the residence." (Doc. 18, Ex. 6 at 19.) Crouse further explained that Oswald requested his assistance and invited him into the apartment. (Doc. 18, Ex. 2 at 128, 130.) Oswald was standing nearby and apparently confirmed that Crouse was present as an invitee.*fn5 (See id. at 130.) Gross then queried whether Crouse was current on his rent; Crouse replied that he was not, and Gross informed him that he was trespassing. (Doc. 20 ¶ 29; Doc. 22 ¶ 29; see Doc. 18, Ex. 2 at 129.)

At this point, Crouse became argumentative and the volume of his voice increased. He insisted that he was not trespassing. (See Doc. 18, Ex. 2 at 128-29; id., Ex. 6 at 26.) Gross purportedly rejected this protest out of hand, stating, "you know what, I'm tired of this, we are tired of coming here, someone is going to jail and it's going to be you."*fn6 (Doc. 18, Ex. 2 at 130.) Crouse was subsequently arrested and charged with "felony three criminal trespass."*fn7 (Doc. 20 ¶¶ 30-31; Doc. 22 ¶¶ 30-31; see Doc. 18, Ex. 6 at 32.) He was arraigned, unable to post bail, and spent the following three months jailed in the Lebanon County Correctional Facility. (See Doc. 18, Ex. 2 at 19-21, 140, 222.) Crouse was thereafter released and the charges were dismissed by the district attorney. (See id. at 149-50.)

Crouse commenced the instant suit on July 6, 2007, alleging violations of his constitutional rights under § 1983. Specifically, Crouse contends that he was unlawfully arrested, falsely imprisoned, maliciously prosecuted, and deprived of procedural due process, all in contravention of § 1983. He advances each of these claims against both South Lebanon Township and Gross. In addition, Crouse maintains a state tort claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress against his former landlord, Boyd. Defendants South Lebanon Township and Gross filed a motion for summary judgment on September 17, 2008, asserting that Crouse has failed to produce sufficient evidence to support his claims. Gross also invokes the doctrine of qualified immunity as a shield from suit. The parties have fully briefed these issues, which are now ripe for disposition.

II. Standard of Review

Through summary adjudication the court may dispose of those claims that do not present a "genuine issue as to any material fact" and for which a jury trial would be an empty and unnecessary formality. See FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c). The burden of proof is upon the nonmoving party to come forth with "affirmative evidence, beyond the allegations of the pleadings," in support of its right to relief. Pappas v. City of Lebanon, 331 F. Supp. 2d 311, 315 (M.D. Pa. 2004); FED. R. CIV. P. 56(e); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). This evidence must be adequate, as a matter of law, to sustain a judgment in favor of the non-movant on the claims. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250-57 (1986); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-89 (1986); see also FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c), (e). Only if this threshold is met may the cause of action proceed. Pappas, 331 F. Supp. 2d at 315.

III. Discussion

Section 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code offers private citizens a means to redress violations of federal law by state officials. See 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The statute provides, in pertinent part, as follows:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the ...

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