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Mitchell v. Luckenbill

January 5, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Vanaskie


This case arises out of a hit-and-run accident that was reported to Pennsylvania State Police Troopers William J. Luckenbill, Jr. and David Guenther in the early morning hours of October 13, 2002. After the troopers obtained a plate number and description of the vehicle and driver who allegedly left the scene, the troopers identified Steve Mitchell as the owner of the vehicle and went to the Mitchell residence to question him about the incident. The parties largely dispute the facts that follow. It is, however, undisputed that Steve Mitchell was forcefully arrested that night. Plaintiffs, Steve Mitchell, his wife Robin Mitchell, and their children Storm and Bria Hasenauer, brought the current action against Troopers Luckenbill and Guenther, alleging that numerous state and constitutional rights were violated as a result of the incident.

Defendants have moved for partial summary judgment. (Dkts. 82 & 83.)*fn1

Defendants' summary judgment motions will be granted in part. Plaintiffs admit that their claims against the troopers in their official capacity are barred and their claims pursuant to the Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments are without merit. After review of the facts in a light most favorable to Plaintiffs it is further evident that Plaintiffs' state law claims are barred by sovereign immunity. Plaintiffs' Fourteenth Amendment claims will be dismissed as the due process, excessive force, and illegal entry claims are more properly brought as Fourth Amendment claims; Plaintiffs have proffered no evidence in support of their equal protection claim and thus that claim will be dismissed as well. Plaintiffs Storm Hasenauer and Robin Mitchell's Fourth Amendment excessive force claims will be dismissed because Plaintiffs are unable to identify who allegedly pushed Storm and the force used against Mrs. Mitchell was reasonable under the circumstances. Plaintiffs' Fourth Amendment illegal entry claim survives summary judgment as does Bria Hasenauer's Fourth Amendment excessive force claim.


"On October 12, 2002, Troopers [William] Luckenbill and [David] Guenther were assigned to the Schuylkill Haven barracks and were working the midnight shift, from 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m." (Defendants' Statement of Undisputed Material Fact ("DSUMF"), Dkt. 93, at ¶ 1.) At some point after 2:00 a.m., Mr. Richard Searle arrived at the barracks and reported that he had been the victim of a hit and run accident. (Id. at ¶ 2.) Trooper Luckenbill was assigned as the investigating officer. (Id. at ¶ 3.) Trooper Luckenbill interviewed Mr. Searle and examined the damage to the rear of Searle's vehicle. (Id. at ¶ 3.) Mr. Searle provided Trooper Luckenbill with a description of the truck that had hit him, and he indicated that the truck had Pennsylvania license plate YKW 4601. (Id. at ¶ 4.) Research determined that the license plate was issued to a truck registered to Steve Mitchell. (Id. at ¶ 5.) Trooper Luckenbill had interacted with Mr. Mitchell on at least two prior occasions. (Id. at ¶ 6.) Mr. Searle gave a description of the man who was driving the truck that Trooper Luckenbill believed matched Mr. Mitchell. (Luckenbill Dep., Dkt. 94-5, at 11.)*fn2

Troopers Luckenbill and Guenther went to the Mitchell home. (DSUMF, Dkt. 93, at ¶ 8.) The troopers identified the truck described by Searle, with the corresponding license plate, in the Mitchell driveway. (Id. at ¶ 9.) The troopers felt the hood of the truck, which was still warm, and observed that there was damage to the truck that was consistent with the damage to Searle's truck and consistent with Searle's description of the damage to the truck. (Id. at ¶ 10.) Upon inspection of the vehicle the troopers noticed that "two pieces of metal on the underside of Mr. Mitchell's truck matched damage done to the back of Mr. Searle's car -- they were both 2 feet, 9 inches apart -- and a piece of plastic and paint matching Mr. Searle's car were found on Mr. Mitchell's truck." (Id. at ¶ 11.) The troopers also noticed that the fog lights of Mr. Mitchell's truck were hanging, damage that had been described by Mr. Searle. (Id. at ¶ 12.) The troopers approached the side door of the house and it was Trooper Luckenbill's intention to interview Mr. Mitchell in relation to the crash and whether he had been driving the vehicle that night. (Luckenbill Dep., Dkt. 94-5, at 10.) It was Trooper Luckenbill's belief that investigating the hit and run was an urgent matter that called for the questioning of Mr. Mitchell in the middle of the night. (Id. at 10.)

At some point after the Troopers knocked on the side door, Mrs. Mitchell answered. "Mrs. Mitchell knew it was the police by how they were knocking and the fact that they had flashlights." (DSUMF, Dkt. 93, at ¶ 16.) Mrs. Mitchell opened the door and the troopers, in uniform, identified themselves as police officers. (Id. at ¶¶ 17-18.) Trooper Luckenbill asked to speak with Mr. Mitchell and Mrs. Mitchell closed the door to see if he was available. (Id. at ¶¶ 19-20.) The troopers waited outside on the porch after Mrs. Mitchell closed the door. (Id. at ¶ 21.) Mr. Mitchell was asleep on the couch but Mrs. Mitchell was unable to rouse him. (Id. at ¶ 22.) "Mrs. Mitchell returned to the door, opened it again and told the troopers that she was unable to wake Mr. Mitchell up." (Id. at ¶ 23.) After telling the troopers this, Mrs. Mitchell again closed the door and attempted to wake Mr. Mitchell a second time. (Id. at ¶ 24.) The troopers again waited outside on the porch and Mrs. Mitchell again returned and told the troopers that she was unable to wake Mr. Mitchell. (Id. at ¶¶ 25-26.) At this point, the parties materially disagree as to what happened next. It is Plaintiffs' position that, "[a]s Mrs. Mitchell attempted to close the door, one of the troopers pushed it open." (Id. at ¶ 53.)

During the course of these events, Mrs. Mitchell's daughter, Storm Hasenauer was present. "Storm does not know which officer pushed the door open or whether just one or both of the troopers touched the door." (Id. at ¶ 54.) When the door was opened, Storm was pushed aside and she fell to the ground. (Id. at ¶ 55.) The push was described as a "get-out-of-the-way push" by Mrs. Mitchell. (Id. at ¶ 56.) Storm does not know which trooper shoved her or if both troopers pushed her. According to Mrs. Mitchell, only one of the officers shoved Storm out of the way. (Id. at ¶¶ 57-58.) "Storm had no bruises and received no medical treatment." (Id. at ¶ 60.) Mrs. Mitchell testified that at this point she yelled at the troopers to "get out." (Robin Dep., Dkt. 94-2, at 14.)

Defendants' version of the events is significantly different. Trooper Luckenbill testified that the second time Mrs. Mitchell came to the door she seemed upset, concerned. She said she was unable to wake Steve up, that she had tried to wake him up and he wouldn't wake up. She walked back in the house, left the door open. We walked in right behind her and stood in the kitchen and she went back in to try and wake him up again. (Luckenbill Dep., Dkt. 94-5, at 11.) Trooper Luckenbill admitted that he never asked if he could come in the house and that it was not a clear invitation, but that he took leaving the door open as an invitation, and since it appeared to him that she seemed concerned, the troopers didn't know if there was an injury to Mr. Mitchell from the crash. (Id. at 11.) The troopers entered the house in the middle of the night and for at least part of the time that the troopers were in the house, only dim lights were on. (DSUMF, Dkt. 93, at ¶ 33.)

Plaintiffs aver that after the troopers entered the house they began beating Mr. Mitchell after he put his hands up to block the light from the flashlight from his face. (Robin Dep., Dkt. 94-2, at 14.) The troopers, however, aver that when they approached Mr. Mitchell he put his fists up and took two swings at the troopers before they began trying to place Mr. Mitchell under arrest. (Luckenbill Dep., Dkt. 94-5, at 13.)

The parties do agree that during the course of the struggle Trooper Luckenbill applied pepper spray to Mr. Mitchell's face. (Id.) Trooper Luckenbill remembers squeezing the canister once but Mr. Mitchell continued to fight and curse.*fn3 (Id. at 14.) After administering the pepper spray, the troopers were able to secure Mr. Mitchell with handcuffs. (Id.) Mrs. Mitchell testified that the troopers repeatedly told Mr. Mitchell that they were going to handcuff him, but he repeatedly made statements along the lines of "no, you're not, get out of my house."*fn4 (Robin Dep., Dkt. 94-2, at 20.)

During the course of the encounter Mrs. Mitchell attempted to get between Mr. Mitchell and the troopers while they were struggling with him. (DSUMF, Dkt. 93, at ¶ 34.) At that point, Mrs. Mitchell was thrown onto a loveseat by one of the troopers. (Id. at ¶ 35.) "Mrs. Mitchell had a single bruise on her hip as a result of being thrown into the loveseat." (Id. at ¶ 37.) Although Mrs. Mitchell is uncertain as to which trooper pushed her, "Trooper Guenther acknowledges that he is the one that pushed Mrs. Mitchell back when she tried to intervene." (Id. at ¶¶ 36 & 40.) "Trooper Luckenbill never touched Mrs. Mitchell, but recalls Trooper Guenther motioning her to stay back or get back." (Id. at ¶ 38.)

Mrs. Mitchell described the scene in the house as "extreme chaos." (Id. at ¶ 32.) "The girls were screaming and carrying on and ranting and raving and I [Mrs. Mitchell] was crying and carrying on and ranting and raving." (Robin Dep., Dkt. 94-2, at 16.) Additionally, Mrs. Mitchell testified that her husband was telling the troopers to keep "the F out of my house, get the F out of my house." (Id.)

Troopers Luckenbill and Guenther arrested Mr. Mitchell. (DSUMF, Dkt. 93, at ¶ 29.)

After he was handcuffed the troopers allegedly dragged Mr. Mitchell out of the house. (Robin Dep., Dkt. 94-2, at 25.) The Mitchells' other daughter, Bria, "followed the troopers as they took Mr. Mitchell out of the house after he was handcuffed, and stood at the end of the Mitchell driveway." (DSUMF, Dkt. 93, at ¶ 41.) Prior to this point, neither trooper had any physical contact with Bria. (Id. at ¶ 42.) "The troopers repeatedly told Bria to go back in the house and she refused." (Id. at ¶ 43.) Bria was crying and yelling. (Id. at ¶¶ 44-45.) Additional troopers from the Hamburg barracks arrived on the scene. (Id. at ¶ 46.) "Trooper Luckenbill then came over to Bria, picked her up by the upper arms and slammed her into Mr. Mitchell's truck." (Id. at ¶ 47.) Bria looked at Trooper Luckenbill and twice told him to put her down and Trooper Luckenbill responded both times with "No." (Id. at ¶ 48.) "Bria then said 'I'm going to ask you one more time to put me down or you'll never have kids again because I will kick you so hard in your genitals you won't be able to squirt.'" (Id. at ¶ 49.) Trooper Luckenbill put Bria down. (Id. at ¶ 50.) Bria had a bump on the back of her head and her arms were sore as a result of Trooper Luckenbill's actions. (Id. at ¶ 51.) Bria did not go to the hospital as a result of those injuries. (Id. at ¶ 52.)

The troopers placed Mr. Mitchell in the patrol vehicle and placed a tie rope restraint on his feet because he tried to kick Trooper Guenther when they were attempting to put him in the vehicle. (Luckenbill Dep., Dkt. 94-5, at 14.) He was brought to a hospital where Mr. Mitchell and the troopers received care for the injuries sustained during the course of the incident.

On October 12, 2004, Plaintiffs filed the current action alleging violation of state and federal constitutional rights. (Comp., Dkt. 1.) A motion to dismiss was filed on March 25, 2005 (Dkt. 14), that this Court granted in part on July 29, 2005. (Dkt. 25.) Plaintiffs were granted leave to amend their Complaint, and on August 18, 2005, an amended complaint was filed. (Dkt. 27.) Discovery closed on January 26, 2009. On February 27, 2009, Defendants filed the pending motions for summary judgment. (Dkt. 82; Dkt. 83.) The issues have been fully briefed and are ripe for review.


A. Standard of Review

Summary judgment should be granted when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and... the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). A fact is "material" if proof of its existence or non-existence might affect the outcome of the suit under applicable law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). "Facts that could alter the outcome are material facts." Charlton v. Paramus Bd. of Educ., 25 F.3d 194, 197 (3d Cir. 1994). "[S]ummary judgment will not lie if the dispute about a material fact is 'genuine,' that is, if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

Initially, the moving party must show the absence of a genuine issue concerning any material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). All doubts as to the existence of a genuine issue of material fact must be resolved against the moving party, and the entire record must be examined in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. White v. Westinghouse Elec. Co., 862 F.2d 56, 59 (3d Cir. 1988), abrogated on other grounds, Hazen Paper Co. v. Biggins, 507 U.S. 604 (1993). Once the moving party satisfies its burden, the nonmoving party "must present affirmative evidence in order to defeat a properly supported motion for summary judgment." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 257. Mere conclusory allegations or denials taken from the pleadings are insufficient to withstand a motion for summary judgment once the moving party has presented evidentiary materials. Schoch v. First Fidelity Bancorporation, 912 F.2d 654, 657 (3d Cir. 1990). Rule 56 requires the entry of summary judgment if there was adequate time for discovery and a party "fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party" bears the burden of proof at trial. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322.

Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment proffers eight specific bases for summary judgment. Defendants aver they are entitled to summary judgment on the following claims: 1) the claims against them in their official capacity; 2) the state law claims; 3) the Fourth Amendment illegal entry claim; 4) the Fourth Amendment unreasonable force claims of Mrs. Mitchell and Bria; 5) Storm's Fourth Amendment unreasonable force claim; 6) the Fourteenth Amendment unreasonable force and illegal entry claims; 7) Mr. ...

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