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Barr v. County of Clarion

February 23, 2010


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


I. Introduction

This is a civil rights action initiated by Jason Barr ("Plaintiff") against the County of Clarion ("Clarion"), Probation/Parole Officer Elizabeth B. Graham ("Graham"), and five John Does (collectively "Defendants"). According to Plaintiff's complaint, the five John Does were all employed by Clarion in its Department of Adult Probation and Parole, and "personally involved in the issuance of a bench warrant for and arrest of [Plaintiff]." (Docket No. 1 ¶ 6). Plaintiff has brought the present action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1988, claiming that his rights under the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments were violated when the Defendants amended his criminal sentence without proper notice or an opportunity to be heard, causing him to spend "nearly [three] years under illegal and improper supervision, including [over] 180 days in prison." (Id. ¶¶ 1, 29).

In Count I of the Complaint, Plaintiff seeks to hold Graham and the five John Does individually liable for their actions leading to the alleged illegal modification of his sentence, which caused his additional supervision and time in jail. (Id. ¶¶ 30-38.) Count II of the Complaint seeks to hold Defendant Clarion County subject to municipal liability for policies and customs the county "developed and maintained.which caused the deprivation of [Plaintiff's] constitutional rights." (Id. ¶¶ 39-44.) Finally, Count III of the Complaint seeks to hold Does 1-5 and Clarion County subject to "supervisory liability." (Id. ¶¶ 45-52.) Defendants have filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 35), arguing that Plaintiff's claims fail as a matter of law. Upon consideration of the parties' submissions, and for the following reasons, Defendants' motion (Docket No. 35) will be GRANTED.

II. Factual Background

The majority of the facts in this matter are agreed to by the parties, as most are a matter of public record stemming from the Plaintiff's legal proceedings. Unless otherwise indicated, the parties do not contest the following facts.

On October 27, 1998, Plaintiff was convicted of forgery and theft by unlawful taking in the Clarion County Court of Common Pleas. (Docket Nos. 31 ¶ 1; 37 ¶ 1; 32-2 at 2). On November 4, 1998, Judge Charles R. Alexander sentenced Plaintiff to seven years of probation for these crimes. (Docket Nos. 31 ¶ 4; 37 ¶ 4; 32-2 at 2-3). Plaintiff's probation was subject to various conditions.*fn1 (Docket No. 32-6 at 2-3). Among these conditions, Plaintiff was required to obtain permission from his probation officer prior to changing his residence, to comply with all laws, and to notify his probation officer within 48 hours of any arrest. (Id.). On July 18, 2001, Plaintiff was arrested in Paint Township, Somerset County for driving under the influence and possession of marijuana. (Docket Nos. 31 ¶ 10; 37 ¶ 10; 32-8 at 2-3). On November 21, 2001, the Clarion County Department of Adult Probation and Parole sent Plaintiff a notice informing him of violations of his probation, i.e. his DUI arrest. (Id.) In addition to his DUI/drug possession arrest, Plaintiff violated his probation by failing to: obtain permission prior to changing his residence; notify his probation officer of his arrest; and, pay fines, costs, and restitution imposed by the court. (Id.).

On December 11, 2001, Defendant Graham, Plaintiff's probation officer, informed Plaintiff that the district attorney's office was recommending that Plaintiff's current probation be revoked and he receive a term of imprisonment and an additional five years of probation. (Docket Nos. 31 ¶ 12; 37 ¶ 12; 32-9 at 12). Prior to Plaintiff's revocation hearing on December 20, 2001, Defendant Graham spoke with the district attorney and Plaintiff's counsel and understood that all parties agreed to Plaintiff receiving five additional years of probation. (Docket Nos. 31 ¶ 14; 37 ¶ 14; 32-5 at 6). During the Gagnon II hearing,*fn2 the prosecuting attorney read aloud the sentencing recommendations, including the five year probation term and a term of imprisonment not to exceed two years minus one day, with credit for time served, and Plaintiff's attorney agreed with this recommendation. (Docket No. 32-10 at p. 4, l.15-p. 6, l.2). At the conclusion of the hearing, Judge Arner dictated the Order of Sentence in court, but this dictated order was not part of the hearing transcript. (Id. at p. 7, l.4). Ultimately, the final written Order of Sentence did not include a term of probation after Plaintiff's prison sentence. (Docket Nos. 31 ¶ 21; 37 ¶ 21; 32-11 at 2-3).

On February 6, 2002, upon noticing that Plaintiff's sentence did not include a probation term following release from prison, Defendant Graham wrote to Judge Arner's stenographer to determine whether or not the probation term was in her notes. (Docket Nos. 31 ¶¶ 22-23, 37 ¶¶ 22-23; 32-13). In response, the stenographer called Graham and told her that her notes indicated that the district attorney recommended a five year consecutive probation term, but it was not included in the order.*fn3 (Docket Nos. 32-9 at 14). Graham's notes of the Gagnon IIhearing state that Judge Arner agreed with the Assistant District Attorney's recommendation of revoking probation and imposing a jail sentence "followed by 5 years probation."*fn4 (Id. at 12). According to Defendants, at this time, the Clarion County Court of Common Pleas had a standard practice that when probation officers had questions regarding a probationer, they were to send a memo to the judge and allow him to act upon that information as the judge saw fit. (Docket No. 31 ¶ 25). Plaintiff argues that this practice was "adopted as a custom, practice or policy of Clarion County's Department of Adult Probation and Parole." (Docket No. 37 at ¶ 25). Upon learning that the probation term was in the Assistant District Attorney's recommendation, Graham wrote a letter on February 20, 2002 to Judge Arner bringing the perceived discrepancy to his attention, and asking if he had any objection to signing an amended Order of Sentence that included the five year probation term, which she attached to the memo. (Docket Nos. 31 ¶¶ 27-28; 37 ¶¶ 27-28; 32-15). Judge Arner signed the amended order on February 25, 2002. (Docket Nos. 31 ¶ 29; 37 ¶ 29; 32-16).

While serving this consecutive probation term, Plaintiff was detained twice for probation violations, on November 7, 2005 and July 17, 2006, and he served 188 days in prison as a consequence of these violations. (Docket Nos. 31 ¶¶ 36-38, 40; 37 ¶¶ 36-38, 40). On August 14, 2006, Plaintiff filed a pro se Petition to Vacate Illegal Sentence in the Clarion County Court of Common Pleas, which Judge Arner denied. (Docket No. 37-4). On October 10, 2006, Plaintiff again filed a Petition to Vacate Illegal Sentence, this time with the help of the Clarion County Public Defender's Office.*fn5 (Docket Nos. 31 ¶ 42; 37 ¶ 42; 32-24). Judge Arner granted this petition on October 13, 2006, which reinstated the original Order of Sentence that omitted the consecutive probation term. (Docket No. 31 ¶¶ 45-46; 37 ¶¶ 45-46). In his ruling on this second petition, Judge Arner held that under Pennsylvania law, a sentence cannot be amended after thirty days unless there is a patent or obvious error, which he did not find in the present case. (Docket Nos. 31 ¶ 46; 37 ¶ 46; 32-27 at 3).

III. Procedural History

Plaintiff filed his Complaint against Defendants on June 24, 2008. (Docket No. 1). Defendants filed their Answer on August 27, 2008. (Docket No. 8). On September 22, the parties agreed to submit to a mediation session conducted by Scott G. Dunlop, Esq.*fn6 (Docket No. 11). This mediation session was conducted on October 31, 2008, and the parties were unable to reach a settlement. (Docket No. 16). The parties conducted no discovery in preparation for this mediation session and declined to schedule a follow-up session. (Id.). The parties later participated in a settlement conference on March 11, 2009 but again were not able to reach a settlement. (Docket No. 31). After four motions to extend discovery were filed, upon two of which both parties agreed, discovery closed on August 3, 2009. (Docket Nos. 19, 21, 25, 27). Defendants then filed this Motion for Summary Judgment on September 30, 2009, along with their Brief in Support and Concise Statement of Material Facts. (Docket Nos. 29-32). Plaintiff filed his Reponse on November 1, 2009, along with his Brief in Opposition and Concise Statement of Material Facts. (Docket Nos. 35-37). Thereafter, Defendants filed a Response to Plaintiff's Concise Statement of Material facts on November 10, 2009. (Docket No. 39). Being fully briefed, Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment is now ripe for disposition.

IV. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is appropriate under Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure "if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure of material on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). In deciding a summary judgment motion, the court must "'view the evidence... through the prism of the substantive evidentiary burden' to determine 'whether a jury could reasonably find either that the plaintiff proved his case by the quality and quantity of evidence required by the governing law or ...

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