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Wallace v. Powell

November 20, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Caputo


Presently before the Court are five (5) motions to dismiss: (1) Defendant Perseus House's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 170) on grounds of immunity for complying with a court order; (2) Defendant Vita's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 188) on grounds of absolute immunity as an "arm of the court;"*fn1 (3) Defendant Mark Ciavarella's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 210) on grounds of absolute judicial immunity; (4) Defendant Michael Conahan's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 216) on grounds of absolute judicial and legislative immunity; and (5) Defendant Luzerne County's Motion to Dismiss on grounds of immunity imputed from the other actors. These motions will be granted in part and denied in part as discussed below.


The individual and class action plaintiffs in this case bring federal and state law claims against a number of defendants for an alleged scheme involving the corruption of the Luzerne County Common Pleas and Juvenile Courts. The Plaintiffs' allegations relevant to the present motions are as follows:

Defendants Michael Conahan ("Conahan") and Mark Ciavarella ("Ciavarella") abused their positions as judges of the Luzerne County Court of Commons Pleas by accepting compensation in return for favorable judicial determinations. (Ind. Amend. Compl. ("Ind.") ¶ 30, Doc. 134; Class Action Amend. Compl. ("CA") ¶ 2, Doc. 136.) As part of this conspiracy, Conahan and Ciavarella acted with Defendants Robert Powell, Robert Mericle, Mericle Construction, Pennsylvania Child Care ("PACC"), Western Pennsylvania Child Care ("WPACC"), Pinnacle Group of Jupiter, LLC, Beverage Marketing of PA, Inc., Vision Holdings, LLC, and perhaps others. (Ind. ¶ 31.) The basic outline of the conspiracy was that Conahan and Ciavarella used their influence as judicial officers to select PACC and WPACC as detention facilities, and that they intentionally filled those facilities with juveniles to earn the conspirators excessive profits. (Id. ¶ 81.) In return, approximately $2.6 million was paid to Conahan and Ciavarella for their influence. (Id. ¶ 37.)

Conahan took official actions to remove funding from the Luzerne County budget from the Luzerne County facility, and he exerted influence to facilitate the construction, expansion, and lease of the PACC facility. (Ind. ¶ 34.) Conahan also signed a secret "Placement Guarantee Agreement" with PACC on behalf of Luzerne County. (Id. ¶ 41.) Conahan had "final decision-making authority with regard to Luzerne County's funding of the county-run River Street juvenile detention center." (Id.) Conahan also granted an injunction which prevented the results of an audit of the PACC facility by the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare from being disclosed to the public.*fn2

Ciavarella sentenced thousands of juveniles to detention in violation of their constitutional rights such as the right to counsel, the right to an impartial tribunal, and the right to a free and voluntary guilty plea. (CA ¶¶ 177-78.) Ciavarella acted "in his administrative capacity" when he began discussions with Powell about constructing a new facility. (Id. ¶ 650.) Conahan and Ciavarella also pressured court probation officers to make recommendations in favor of incarcerating juvenile offenders, even when they would have otherwise recommended release. (Ind. ¶ 67.; CA ¶ 679.) Conahan and Ciavarella also executed a number of schemes to conceal the unlawful proceeds of this conspiracy. (Ind. ¶ 35.) They failed to disclose their financial relationship to the other Defendants, and knowingly and intentionally filed materially false annual statements of financial interests. (Id. ¶ 60.)

Dr. Frank Vita ("Vita") contracted with Conahan and Ciavarella to be the exclusive provider of psychological evaluations for juvenile offenders. (Ind. ¶ 23.) Due to the large number of evaluations Vita was required to perform based upon this exclusive agreement, a backlog developed which necessitated that juveniles be detained and/or lodged at PACC and/or WPACC for extended periods while awaiting evaluations. (Id. ¶ 24.) Vita conspired to bring PACC and WPACC more fees by creating this backlog to lengthen the duration of the juvenile detentions. (Id. ¶ 25.)

Defendant Perseus House wrongly kept Plaintiff Samantha Humanik ("Humanik") in custody and subjected her to an unnecessary medical regimen against her will. (Ind. ¶ 158.) Humanik was incarcerated pursuant to a delinquency order signed by Ciavarella which stated that Humanik was to be detained for treatment. (Id.) Humanik was forcibly medicated and subjected to other cruel and unusual punishment while detained by Perseus House. (Id. ¶ 159.)

The present motions have been fully briefed and argued orally, and are now ripe for disposition.


Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of a complaint, in whole or in part, for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. FED. R. CIV. PRO. 12(b)(6). Dismissal is appropriate only if, accepting as true all the facts alleged in the complaint, a plaintiff has not pleaded "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face," Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007), meaning enough factual allegations "'to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of'" each necessary element, Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556); see also Kost v. Kozakiewicz, 1 F.3d 176, 183 (3d Cir. 1993) (requiring a complaint to set forth information from which each element of a claim may be inferred). In light of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), the statement need only "'give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'" Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007) (per curiam) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). "[T]he factual detail in a complaint [must not be] so undeveloped that it does not provide a defendant [with] the type of notice of claim which is contemplated by Rule 8." Phillips, 515 F.3d at 232; see also Airborne Beepers & Video, Inc. v. AT&T Mobility LLC, 499 F.3d 663, 667 (7th Cir. 2007).

In deciding a motion to dismiss, the Court should consider the allegations in the complaint, exhibits attached to the complaint, and matters of public record. See Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993). The Court may also consider "undisputedly authentic" documents when the plaintiff's claims are based on the documents and the defendant has attached copies of the documents to the motion to dismiss. Id. The Court need not assume the plaintiff can prove facts that were not alleged in the complaint, see City of Pittsburgh v. W. Penn Power Co., 147 F.3d 256, 263 & n.13 (3d Cir. 1998), or credit a complaint's "'bald assertions'" or "'legal conclusions,'" Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997) (quoting In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1429-30 (3d Cir. 1997)). "While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1950 (2009).


Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, "'every person' who acts under color of state law to deprive another of a constitutional right shall be answerable to that person in a suit for damages." Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 417 (1976). Despite these broad terms, the Supreme Court has held consistently that the Section 1983 did not abolish long-standing common law immunities from and defenses to civil suits. McArdle v. Tronetti, 961 F.2d 1083, 1084 (3d Cir. 1992) (citing Burns v. Reed, 500 U.S. 478(1991)). Such common law immunities also apply to RICO and state law actions. Slater v. Jokelson, No. 96-cv-672, 1997 WL 164236, at *8 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 26, 1997) (no evidence of legislative intent to abrogate judicial immunity in civil RICO statute); see Pullman v. Allen, 466 U.S. 552, 529 (1984) (The Supreme Court has indicated that its cases "have proceeded on the assumption that common-law principles should not be abrogated absent clear legislative intent to do so."). "[T]he official seeking absolute immunity bears the burden of showing that such immunity is justified for the function in question." Burns v. Reed, 500 U.S. 478, 486 (1991). The present motions to dismiss address three types of absolute immunity: judicial, quasi-judicial, and legislative. Finally, the extension of immunity to a municipality for the actions of an "immune" employee will also be discussed.

I. Absolute Judicial Immunity

A. Background

The doctrine of judicial immunity has long been recognized in both the American and English legal systems. See Jeffrey Shaman, Judicial Immunity from Civil and Criminal Liability, 27 SAN DIEGO L. REV. 1 (1990).

As a historical matter, the doctrine of judicial immunity arose in response to the creation of the right of appeal. In the tenth and eleventh centuries in England, when no right of appeal existed, losing litigants could challenge unfavorable judgments on the ground that they were false. The litigant was entitled to both the nullification of a false judgment and a fine (known as an amercement) against the judge who had rendered it. As the right to appeal became available, it replaced amercements against judges, and gradually the doctrine of judicial immunity developed. . . . [O]nce appeal became available, judicial immunity was gradually accepted under the common law. In the seminal case of Floyd v. Barker, decided by Lord Coke in 1607, judicial immunity was established for judges who served on English courts of record. In that decision, Lord Coke discussed for the first time what are now considered some of the modern policies that underlie the doctrine of judicial immunity. Judicial immunity serves the following purposes according to Lord Coke:

(1) It insures the finality of judgments; (2) it protects judicial independence; (3) it avoids continual attacks upon judges who may be sincere in their conduct; and (4) it protects the system of justice from falling into disrepute.

Id. at 3.

The doctrine of judicial immunity provides that judges are immune from suit for their judicial acts so long as the judicial acts are not in the "clear absence of jurisdiction." Bradley v. Fisher, 80 U.S. 335, 351 (1871). The first major application of judicial immunity by the United States Supreme Court occurred in Bradley. Attorney Joseph Bradley brought suit against Judge George Fisher after the judge effectively disbarred him for rude and contemptuous behavior in the courtroom. Id. at 344-45. The Supreme Court found that this sanction was too harsh, but that the doctrine of judicial immunity shielded Judge Fisher from any monetary liability. Id. at 357. After discussing the decision in Floyd v. Barker, the Court stated that "[j]udges of courts of superior or general jurisdiction are not liable to civil actions for their judicial acts, even when such acts are in excess of their jurisdiction, and are alleged to have been done maliciously or corruptly." Id. at 351. Bradley alleged that immunity was not appropriate because Fisher "wantonly, corruptly, arbitrarily, and oppressively" acted to remove him from the practice of law without any notice. Id. at 338. The Court stated that "[n]or can this exemption of the judges from civil liability be affected by the motives with which their judicial acts are performed. The purity of their motives cannot in this way be the subject of judicial inquiry." Id. at 348.

In Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547 (1967), reversed on other grounds in Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982), the Supreme Court held that judicial immunity applies to actions under ยง 1983. In that case, the plaintiffs were members of a group of white and African-American Episcopal clergymen who attempted to use segregated facilities at an interstate bus terminal in Jackson, Mississippi in 1961. Id. at 549. They brought suit against local police officers and a municipal police justice for false imprisonment after they were convicted of disturbing the peace. Id. The plaintiffs alleged that the judge's findings of guilt and sentences were based upon racial discrimination. Id. at 551. The Court again stated that "[judicial] immunity applies even when the judge is accused of acting maliciously and corruptly, and it is not for the protection or benefit of a malicious or corrupt judge, but ...

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