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Eckman v. Lancaster City

September 30, 2010

IVY JO ECKMAN; ADRIAN SANCHEZ; AND ALTHEA SANCHEZ, PLAINTIFFS
v.
LANCASTER CITY; POLICE OFFICER C. LUCIANO; POLICE OFFICER JOSEPH GRAZCYK; POLICE OFFICER JAMES FATTA; AND POLICE OFFICER DAMON GREATHOUSE, DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: James Knoll Gardner, United States District Judge

OPINION

The matter before the court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment Pursuant to Rule 56(c), Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which motion was filed October 6, 2009.*fn1 Plaintiffs' Response in Opposition to Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment Pursuant to Rule 56(c) was filed November 17, 2009.*fn2 Oral Argument was held before my former colleague, Honorable Thomas M. Golden on January 22, 2010.*fn3

This is a civil rights action brought by plaintiffs Ivy Jo Eckman, Adrain Sanchez and Althea Sanchez against defendants Lancaster City, C. Luciano, Joseph Grazcyk, James Fatta and Damon Greathouse, who are police officers employed by the City of Lancaster, Pennsylvania following the arrest of plaintiffs by defendants in 2005.

Plaintiffs claim that they were falsely arrested and subject to malicious prosecution when they became embroiled in what was ultimately a civil dispute regarding the ownership of a 1992 Oldsmobile Bravada. Plaintiffs bring state and federal claims for false arrest and malicious prosecution, a federal due process claim for failure to investigate, and claims for punitive damages under Pennsylvania state law. They also seek attorneys' fees.

SUMMARY OF DECISION

For the following reasons, I grant summary judgment to all parties regarding all claims of plaintiffs Adrian Sanchez and Althea Sanchez. I also grant the motion for summary judgment regarding all claims of plaintiff Ivy Jo Eckman against defendants Joseph Graczyk and James Fatta, and grant summary judgment concerning plaintiff Eckman's claim against defendant Damon Greathouse for failure to investigate.

Because there are disputes concerning issues of material fact which remain regarding the existence of probable cause to arrest Ivy Jo Eckman in July 2005, I deny summary judgment concerning her claims for false arrest, malicious prosecution and punitive damages against defendant Greathouse. Because I cannot conclude as a matter of law that defendant Greathouse reasonably but mistakenly believed he had probable cause to arrest Ms. Eckman in July 2005, he is not entitled to qualified immunity at this time. Therefore, Ms. Eckman's case against Sergeant Greathouse must be resolved by a jury.

Because the parties have stipulated that defendants Lancaster City and Officer Carlos M. Luciano, Jr. should be dismissed from this lawsuit*fn4 , the sole remaining claims in this case are plaintiff Ivy Jo Eckman's claims against defendant Sergeant Damon Greathouse for false arrest (Counts I and V), malicious prosecution (Counts IV and V), punitive damages (Count VII) and attorneys' fees (Count VIII).

COMPLAINT

The Civil Action Complaint contains eight counts and asserts the following claims: a § 1983 false arrest claim on behalf of plaintiff Eckman against the defendant-officers (Count I); a § 1983 false arrest claim on behalf of plaintiff Althea Sanchez against the four defendant-officers (Count II); a failure to investigate claims on behalf of all three plaintiffs against the four defendant-officers (Count III); claims of malicious prosecution on behalf of all three plaintiffs against the four defendant-officers (Count IV); pendant state law claims of false arrest and malicious prosecution on behalf of all three plaintiffs against the four defendant-officers (Count V); § 1983 municipal liability claims on behalf of all three plaintiffs against defendant Lancaster City (Count VI); claims for punitive damages on behalf of all three plaintiffs against the four defendant-officers (Count VII); and claims for § 1988 attorneys' fees and costs on behalf of all plaintiffs against all defendants (Count VIII).

JURISDICTION

Jurisdiction in this case is based upon federal question jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

VENUE

Venue is proper pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b) because the events giving rise to plaintiffs' claims allegedly occurred in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which is within this judicial district.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On October 30, 2008, a Civil Action Complaint was filed by plaintiffs in this matter in the Court of common Pleas of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

On November 19, 2008 defendants filed a Petition for Removal in this court (Document 1), removing this civil action from state court to federal court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1446(a)-(c). On November 25, 2008 defendants filed an answer to plaintiffs' Civil Action Complaint denying all liability and asserting various affirmative defenses, including immunity under federal and state law.

On October 6, 2009 a Stipulation of Counsel, executed by counsel for all parties, was filed (Document 17). On October 9, 2009 an Order was entered by my former colleague, Honorable Thomas M. Golden (Document 19), approving the stipulation and dismissing the following claims with prejudice:

1. The § 1983 claims asserted against the individual defendants (Officers Fatta, Graczyk, Greathouse and Luciano) in their official capacities as those claims merge, as a matter of law with the § 1983 claims asserted against the City of Lancaster;

2. The Fourteenth Amendment claims asserted in Counts I and II against the individual defendants and Count VI against the City of Lancaster;

3. The Monell*fn5 claims (§ 1983 municipal liability for non-constitutional policy, practice of custom) asserted against defendant, City of Lancaster in Count VI of the Civil Action Complaint;

4. Any and all claims for violation of plaintiffs' rights under the Pennsylvania Constitution; and

5. The claims for punitive damages against the four individual defendants in their official capacities asserted in Count VII of the Civil Action Complaint.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

In considering a motion for summary judgment, the court must determine whether "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). See also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 247, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2509-2510, 91 L.Ed.2d 202, 211 (1986); Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation v. Scottsdale Insurance Company , 316 F.3d 431, 443 (3d Cir. 2003). Only facts that may affect the outcome of a case are "material". In making this determination, the "evidence of the non-movant is to be believed", and all reasonable inferences from the record are drawn in favor of the non-movant. Anderson , 477 U.S. at 255, 106 S.Ct. at 2513, 91 L.Ed.2d at 216.

Although the movant has the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of genuine issues of material fact, the non-movant must then establish the existence of each element on which it bears the burden of proof. See Watson v. Eastman Kodak Company , 235 F.3d 851, 857-858 (3d Cir. 2000). Plaintiffs cannot avert summary judgment with speculation or by resting on the allegations in their pleadings, but rather they must present competent evidence from which a jury could reasonably find in their favor. Ridgewood Board of Education v. N.E. for M.E. , 172 F.3d 238, 252 (3d Cir. 1999); Woods v. Bentsen , 889 F.Supp. 179, 184 (E.D.Pa. 1995).

FACTS*fn6

Based upon the pleadings, record papers, depositions, exhibits, defendants' statement of material facts in support of summary judgment, and plaintiffs' counter statement of material facts in opposition to summary judgment; and accepting all of plaintiffs' evidence as true and drawing all reasonable inferences from the record in favor of plaintiffs, as required by the foregoing standard of review, the pertinent facts for purposes of the motion for summary judgment are as follows.

Events of April 25, 2005

On April 25, 2005, defendant Officer Joseph Graczyk of the Lancaster Police responded to a call from City Self Storage reporting that a car had been stolen from the storage facility's lot. (Def. 3). Officer Graczyk spoke to Jeff Covert, a City Self Storage employee, and Sandra Rosario, the purported owner of the car. ( Id. ) Mr. Covert told Officer Graczyk that the car, a 1992 Oldsmobile Bravada, had once belonged to plaintiff Ivy Jo Eckman, who rented storage space at City Self Storage. (Def. 4).

Mr. Covert showed Officer Graczyk paperwork indicating that City Self Storage had sold Ms. Eckman's car at auction in February 2005 because she failed to pay rent on the space in which the vehicle was stored. (Def. 5). The auction violated Pennsylvania law concerning the sale of vehicles in storage, because it took place less than 15 days after the publication of the first advertisement of the sale in local newspapers (Pl. 66), and because the advertisement failed to describe the car adequately.

Officer Graczyk also spoke with Philomena Sanchez, Ivy Jo Eckman's prospective sister-in-law, who had contacted the Lancaster County Dispatcher's office. (Def. 6; Pl. 71). Philomena Sanchez told the Officer that she and Ms. Eckman had gone to City Self Storage upon learning that Ms. Eckman's car had been auctioned. (Def. 6).

Ms. Eckman's fiancee, Patrick Sanchez, had gone to City Self Storage earlier in April to pay off the past-due rent amount, and began to suspect that the storage facility had improperly sold Ms. Eckman's car (Pl. 6). When Ms. Eckman discussed the situation with Mr. Covert at City Self Storage, Mr. Covert agreed that the vehicle had been sold, but said that he would try to get it back. (Pl. 6).

Ms. Eckman did not receive notices from City Self Storage regarding its intent to auction the vehicle. (Pl. 7). However, Mr. Covert gave Ms. Eckman permission to remove the vehicle from City Self Storage. (Pl. 9).

During their discussion on April 25, 2005, Philomena Sanchez also told Officer Graczyk that her brother, plaintiff Adrian Sanchez, had driven the car off of the City Self Storage lot. (Def. 6). When Adrian Sanchez drove the car away from City Self Storage, he believed that Ms. Eckman was the owner of the vehicle. (Pl. 8, 9). He left the car at Philomena Sanchez's house. (Pl. 9). Ms. Eckman later moved the car to an undisclosed location in Lancaster County. (Eckman Dep. 76).

Officer Graczyk ran the license plate and vehicle identification number ("VIN") of the car through the database of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation ("PennDOT") and learned that the car was registered to Sandra Rosario. (Def. 10). At the time, Officer Graczyk did not know the law regarding the proper sale of vehicles by storage facilities. (Pl. 70). After consulting with defendant Sergeant Damon Greathouse, who believed that there was enough probable cause to charge Adrian Sanchez, Officer Graczyk prepared a criminal complaint against Adrian Sanchez charging him with Theft by unlawful taking or disposition.*fn7 (Def. 7, 11).

The affidavit of probable cause included the following information:

1. Officer Officer Graczyk responded to a call regarding an auto theft at City Self Storage. He spoke to Sandra Rosario and Jeff Covert, who reported that an unidentified white or Hispanic man had driven off with the vehicle. Ms. Rosario produced paperwork showing that she had purchased the vehicle from City Self Storage. Mr. Covert noted that the car had been seized by City Self Storage because the previous owner, Ivy Jo Eckman, had failed to pay storage fees. Mr. Covert produced paperwork that showed that the car had been "legally" sold at auction. Officer Graczyk checked the VIN with PennDOT, and found that the car was indeed registered to Ms. Rosario.

2. Mr. Covert reported that earlier that day, Ivy Jo Eckman and Philomena Sanchez had come to City Self Storage to dispute the validity of the auction of the Oldsmobile. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Covert saw an unidentified man drive off in the car.

3. Officer Graczyk noted that Philomena Sanchez had called the police to report that the car had been improperly sold at auction. Officer Graczyk called Philomena Sanchez, and asked who had driven the car away from City Self Storage. Philomena Sanchez identified her brother, Adrian Sanchez, as the driver.

Events Between April 25, 2005 and May 7, 2005 After reclaiming the car from City Self Storage with the help of plaintiff Adrian Sanchez, plaintiff Ivy Jo Eckman paid off the balance on her auto loan with Transouth/ Citifinancial . (Pl. 10). She received a copy of the title on May 2, 2005. (Greathouse Dep. Exh. 4).

She also retained an attorney, Samuel Mecum, Esquire, who prepared a letter to City Self Storage on her behalf regarding her title to the car. (Pl. 10). The letter advised the storage company of flaws with the auction of the car, and recommended that the storage company resolve the matter by persuading Ms. Rosario to title the car back to Ivy Jo Eckman. (Greathouse Dep. Exh. 3).

At some point, Philomena Sanchez visited the police station and presented defendant Sergeant Damon Greathouse with a copy of the title. (Greathouse Dep. 15).*fn8

A District Justice reviewed Officer Graczyk's affidavit of probable cause and criminal complaint and issued a warrant for the arrest of Adrian Sanchez on May 4, 2005. (Def. 12). Prior to the service of the warrant, Sergeant Greathouse had been in touch with Adrian Sanchez by telephone. (Def. 19). Sergeant Greathouse alleges that he explained to Adrian Sanchez that the car was registered to Sandra Rosario, who had purchased it at auction. ( Id. Sergeant Greathouse contends that he explained to Adrian Sanchez that "he could not just take the car off of a lot which belonged to another individual." ( Id. ) Adrian Sanchez discussed with Sergeant Greathouse whether the car had been legally sold by City Self Storage, and offered to assist the police if they established that the car was not, in fact, owned by Ms. Eckman. (Pl. 11).

Prior to his arrest, Adrian Sanchez took the following steps to investigate the case on his own: contacting an attorney for PennDOT; obtaining a copy of the auction notice used by City Self Storage; and procuring a copy of PennDOT guidelines regarding the sale of vehicles by storage facilities. (Pl. 12). A PennDOT attorney advised Adrian Sanchez that, because of the lien on the vehicle, Sandra Rosario should not have been issued a new title to the car. ( Id.

Sergeant Greathouse also continued his investigation during this time, receiving information from other sources about the car, its title, and its sale by the storage company. He received a copy of Attorney Mecum's letter to City Self Storage, which asserted ...


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