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Wicks v. Lycoming County

February 2, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Conner


This civil rights case stems from allegations of plaintiffs, Steven A. Wicks and Caroline Wicks (the "Wicks"), that numerous officials, judicial officers and employees of Lycoming County, Pennsylvania conspired and retaliated against them for exposing public corruption within the county. Specifically, the Wicks claim First Amendment retaliation in the form of being denied access to the courts, and deprivation of their Fourteenth Amendment rights to equal protection when officials lost their case files. Presently before the court is a motion to dismiss all claims. (docs. 10 & 13) For the reasons that follow, the motion will be granted.

I. Statement of Facts

Even under a generous reading, the complaint is largely devoid of factual allegations. Instead, it consists of conclusory statements and bald assertions. However, we glean from the four corners of the complaint that the Wicks were involved in several lawsuits in Lycoming County. At some point, the plaintiffs voiced concern over purportedly rampant public corruption. As a consequence of their endeavors to "expose" this corruption, members of the Lycoming County judiciary, various public officials and employees allegedly engaged in a conspiracy to prevent plaintiffs from gaining access to the courts. Complaint ¶ 25. The alleged result of this conspiracy was destruction of the Wicks's case files. The complaint does not allege when these actions occurred, where the events took place or who lost the case files, but it does allege that the plaintiffs became aware of these facts on June 27, 2007.

The Wicks commenced this action on June 6, 2009. Defendants William Burd and Lycoming County filed motions to dismiss on August 12, 2009. The remaining defendants filed motions to dismiss on August 18, 2009. Lycoming County argues that the plaintiffs failed to plead a policy or custom of the county resulted in the Wicks' injuries. Defendant Burd argues that the complaint lacks factual allegations indicating he violated the plaintiffs' constitutional rights. Finally, defendants Brown, Anderson and Way argue that absolute and quasi- judicial immunity protect them from liability. The parties have fully briefed these issues, which are now ripe for disposition

II. Standard of Review

Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) authorizes dismissal of a complaint for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Under Rule 12(b)(6), we must "accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief." Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008)). While a complaint need only contain "a short and plain statement of the claim," Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2), and detailed factual allegations are not required, Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1964, 167 L.Ed.2d. 929 (2007), a complaint must plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Id. at 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955 at 1974. "The plausibility standard is not akin to a 'probability requirement,' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, - - - U.S. - - - -, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009)(quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556, 127 S.Ct. at 1965.) "[L]abels and conclusions" are not enough, Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 127 S.Ct. at 1964-65, and a court "'is not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.'" Id., 127 S.Ct. at 1965 (quoted case omitted). Thus, "a judicial conspiracy claim must include at least a discernible factual basis to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal." Capogrosso v. The Supreme Court of New Jersey, 588 F.3d 180, 184 (3d Cir. 2009)(per curiam)

In resolving the motion to dismiss, we thus "conduct a two-part analysis." Fowler, supra, 578 F.3d at 210. First, we separate the factual elements from the legal elements and disregard the legal conclusions. Id. at 210-11. Second, we "determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a "'plausible claim for relief.'" Id. at 211 (quoted case omitted).

III. Discussion

The Wicks bring their constitutional claims exclusively under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a provision of the United States Code that 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 party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress . . . .

Id. Section 1983 is not a source of substantive rights, but instead provides a remedy for violations of federal rights. Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 145 n.3, 99 S.Ct. 2689 (1979). To establish a claim under this section, the plaintiff must show a deprivation of a "right secured by the Constitution and the laws of the United States . . . by a person acting under color of state law." Kneipp v. Tedder, 95 F.3d 1199, 1204 (3d Cir. 1996) (quoting Mark v. Borough of Hatboro, 51 F.3d 1137, 1141 (3d Cir. 1995)). Thus, the initial step in evaluating a contention raised pursuant to § 1983 is "to identify the exact contours of the underlying right said to have been violated and to determine whether the plaintiff has alleged a deprivation of a constitutional right at all." Kaucher v. County of Bucks, 455 F.3d 418, 423 (3d Cir. 2006) (quoting Nicini v. Morra, 212 F.3d 798, 806 (3d Cir. 2000)).

In order to show First Amendment retaliation, a plaintiff must prove: "(1) constitutionally protected conduct, (2) retaliatory action sufficient to deter a person of ordinary firmness from exercising his constitutional rights, and (3) a causal link between the constitutionally protected conduct and the retaliatory action." Thomas v. Independence Twp., 463 F.3d 285, 296 (3d Cir. 2006); See also Eichenlaub v. Twp. of Indiana, 385 F.3d 274, 282 (3d Cir. 2004). Additionally, a party who alleges a violation of its right to access the courts must show an actual injury. Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 350, 116 S.Ct. 2174 (1996)(discussing access to the courts in prisoner litigation). Actual injury can be shown by the "loss or rejection of a legal claim." Oliver v. Fauver, 118 F.3d 175, 177 (3d Cir. 1997); see also Jacobs v. Beard, 172 ...

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