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Ortiz v. Delaware River Port Authority

May 17, 2010

CECILIA ORTIZ, ROSA MARTINEZ, PETE CRESPO, AND HECTOR SIERRA, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
DELAWARE RIVER PORT AUTHORITY, ANTHONY LUKOSIUS, JOHN DAMICO, KRISTA STELLA, JANE DOE, CITY OF PHILADELPHIA, SERGEANT SPRIGGS, NORTH BAR AND LOUNGE, BADCO RLS, LLC, LISA KENNARD, AND RICHARD DONATO, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Buckwalter, S.J.

MEMORANDUM

Currently pending before the Court is Plaintiffs' Rule 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss Defendant John D'Amico's Counterclaim for Defamation. For the following reasons, the Court grants Plaintiffs' Motion.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiffs filed this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action for alleged violations of their constitutional rights and related state law torts committed by Defendants associated with Delaware River Port Authority, Philadelphia Police, and North Bar and Lounge during an altercation at North Bar on July 18, 2009. In his Counterclaim asserted pursuant to Rule 13(a), Defendant D'Amico alleges that Plaintiffs' defamed him under 42 Pa. C.S.A. § 8343(a) by making knowingly false statements about him in the course of Delaware River Port Authority's ("DRPA") investigation of its officers' conduct during the July 18, 2009 altercation. (Countercl.¶¶ 2-10.) Defendant D'Amico further alleges that these statements harmed his professional and personal reputation. (Id..)

Following the July 18, 2009 incident at North Bar and Lounge, Plaintiffs began their efforts to hold Defendants accountable for Defendants' alleged role in the altercation. On August 3, 2009, Plaintiffs filed private criminal complaints in Philadelphia Municipal Court against Defendants Lukosius and D'Amico. (Pls.' Mot. to Dismiss 2; CR-09-08-03-9506 (D'Amico); CR-09-08-03-9507 (Lukosius).) That same day, Plaintiffs Crespo, Martinez, and Ortiz filed citizen complaint forms with DRPA regarding the conduct of Defendants Lukosius and D'Amico during the July 18 incident. Plaintiffs attached photographs to their citizen complaints of the injuries Martinez and Ortiz allegedly sustained at the hands of Defendants. (Countercl., Ex. A, DRPA Internal Investigation Report, at 56.)

After receiving and reviewing the citizen complaint forms and related photographs, DRPA Chief McClintock requested that Sergeant Raymond Paterno conduct an internal investigation into these complaints. (Id.) Sergeant Paterno's investigation consisted of a review of the citizen complaints, the aforementioned photographs, and medical paperwork submitted by Plaintiffs Crespo, Martinez, and Ortiz, as well as interviews of Plaintiffs Crespo, Martinez, Ortiz and Sierra; Defendants D'Amico, Lukosius, Stella, Kennard, and Donato; Sharon Gahagan (a friend of Defendant D'Amico's); and certain non-interested individuals. (Id. at 58.)

During their respective interviews with Sergeant Paterno, Plaintiffs each provided their own narratives of the events that transpired on the night of July 18, 2009. It is the transcripts of these interviews and the content of the DRPA citizen complaints that comprise the allegedly defamatory statements asserted in the Counterclaim.

A few months after DRPA initiated its internal investigation, Plaintiffs filed the instant action in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County. On December 21, 2009, with the consent of the necessary parties, DRPA removed the case to this Court on the basis of federal question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331.*fn1 Defendant D'Amico filed his Answer and Counterclaim on December 23, 2009. Plaintiffs filed their Motion to Dismiss the Counterclaim shortly thereafter, on December 28, 2009. Defendants, in turn, filed their Response in Opposition on January 6, 2010, which was followed by the final briefing on the Motion, Plaintiffs' January 7, 2010 Reply Memorandum.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

A Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss tests the legal sufficiency of a pleading. FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6). The starting point in analyzing a pleading is Rule 8(a), which requires that a pleading, at a minimum, consist of "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." FED. R. CIV. P. 8(a). Regardless of its exact form, however, a pleading "must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face'" in order to withstand a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, - U.S. -, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). When read in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, a pleading that provides sufficient facts to "allow[] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged" meets the required level of "facial plausibility." Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949; see also Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009) (according to the dictates of Iqbal, extending the 12(b)(6) standard of review established in Twombly to all civil pleadings). On the other hand, "[a] pleading that offers 'labels and conclusions' or 'a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.'" Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). All together then, in evaluating a pleading's sufficiency in relation to a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, a "District Court must accept all of [a pleading's] well-pleaded facts as true" and draw all reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, "but may disregard any legal conclusions[,]" in determining whether the plaintiff has a "'plausible claim for relief.'" Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210-211 (quoting Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949-50).

IV. DISCUSSION

In their Motion to Dismiss the Counterclaim for Defamation, Plaintiffs argue that the statements they made in the course of DRPA's internal investigation into Defendants Lukosius and D'Amico's conduct during the July 18, 2009 altercation at North Bar and Lounge enjoy an "absolute privilege" under Pennsylvania law, and thus cannot serve as the basis for a defamation claim. The Court agrees that Pennsylvania's absolute privilege protecting statements made preliminary to or in the course of a judicial proceeding applies to the statements at issue, and thus the Court grants Plaintiffs' Motion to Dismiss the Counterclaim.

Defamation is a state law claim rife with First Amendment implications. Federal courts addressing a state law defamation claim must determine first whether the statements at issue are defamatory under the state's law, and then if so, whether the First Amendment precludes recovery. See Tucker v. Fischbein, 237 F.3d 275, 281 (3d Cir. 2001); see also Moore v. Vislosky, 240 Fed. Appx. 457, 462-67 (3d Cir. 2007) (discussing Pennsylvania and Supreme Court caselaw on the intersection of the First Amendment and defamation claims). In the present case, the Court only performs the first step of this analysis, as Pennsylvania law*fn2 disposes of the defamation claim without recourse to First Amendment jurisprudence.

Under Pennsylvania law, the elements of a defamation claim are defined by statute. The statute provides that a plaintiff attempting to state a ...


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