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Zion v. Nassan

October 21, 2010

DIANE ZION INDIVIDUALLY AND AS REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ESTATE OF NICHOLAS HANIOTAKIS. TAYLOR HANIOTAKIS, NIKKI HANIOTAKIS, BENJAMIN HANIOTAKIS, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
TROOPER SAMUEL NASSAN, SGT. TERRENCE DONNELLY, LT. DAVID HECKMAN, CAPT. SHELDON EPTEIN, COMMISSIONER FRANK PAWLOWSKI, MAJOR TERRY SEILHAMER INTHEIR INDIVIDUAL CAPACITIES, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Conti, District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION and ORDER

Background

Pending before this court are several motions for reconsideration. On December 29, 2009, defendant Trooper Samuel Nassan ("Nassan") filed a motion for sanctions pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11 (ECF No. 63). On January 26, 2010, three motions to dismiss were filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6): (1) motion to dismiss amended complaint filed by Nassan (ECF No. 71), (2) motion to dismiss amended complaint filed by defendant Sergeant Terrence Donnelly ("Donnelly") (ECF No. 70), and (3) motion to dismiss filed by defendants Commissioner Frank Pawlowski, Major Terry Seilhamer, Captain Sheldon Epstein, and Lieutenant David Heckman (collectively "supervisory defendants," and together with Nassan and Donnelly, "defendants") (ECF No. 73). All three motions to dismiss and the motion for sanctions related to the amended complaint (ECF No. 54) filed by plaintiffs Diane Zion, Taylor Haniotakis, Nikki Haniotakis, and Benjamin Haniotakis (collectively "plaintiffs").

On July 23, 2010, the court issued a memorandum opinion and order ("Mem. Op." (ECF No. 86)) denying the motions to dismiss and motion for sanctions. On August 5, 2010, Nassan filed a motion for reconsideration (ECF No. 87). On August 6, 2010, supervisory defendants filed a motion for reconsideration (ECF No. 88). On August 25, 2010, Donnelly filed a motion for reconsideration and to join Nassan's August 5, 2010 motion (ECF No. 89). All three motions for reconsideration relate to the memorandum opinion and order dated July 23, 2010. For the reasons that follow, the motions will be denied.

Legal Standard

A motion to reconsider "must rely on at least one of three grounds: 1) intervening change in controlling law, 2) availability of new evidence not previously available, or 3) need to correct a clear error of law or prevent manifest injustice." Waye v. First Citizen's Nat'l Bank, 846 F. Supp. 310, 313-14 (M.D. Pa. 1994), aff'd, 31 F.3d 1175 (3d Cir. 1994). Because of the interest in finality, at least at the district court level, motions for reconsideration should be granted sparingly; the parties are not free to relitigate issues the court has already decided. Rottmund v. Continental Assurance Co., 813 F. Supp. 1104, 1107 (E.D. Pa. 1992). Stated another way, a motion for reconsideration is not properly grounded in a request for a district court to rethink a decision it, rightly or wrongly, has already made. Williams v. Pittsburgh, 32 F. Supp. 2d 236, 238 (W.D. Pa. 1998). With regard to the third ground, litigants are cautioned to ""evaluate whether what may seem to be a clear error of law is in fact simply a point of disagreement between the Court and the litigant.'" Id. at 314 n.3 (citing Atkins v. Marathon LeTourneau Co., 130 F.R.D. 625, 626 (S.D. Miss. 1990)).

Discussion

Defendants argue the court erred in denying their motions to dismiss and motion for sanctions with respect to the claims asserted by plaintiffs arising from the death of Nicholas Haniotakis ("Mr. Haniotakis").*fn1 In the memorandum opinion, the court determined that, accepting the factual allegations raised in the amended complaint as true, plaintiffs established a plausible § 1983 claim for excessive force, in violation of Mr. Haniotakis's Fourth Amendment rights under the United States Constitution. The court reasoned the amended complaint did not contain allegations which would provide a basis for qualified immunity with respect to Nassan and Donnelly at that time. With respect to plaintiffs' claim pursuant to § 1983 against supervisory defendants, the court concluded plaintiffs alleged sufficient facts that if proven and believed could establish supervisory defendants violated Mr. Haniotakis's civil rights by acting with deliberate indifference to, or tacit authorization of, Nassan's conduct. With respect to Nassan's motion for sanctions, the court concluded Geoffrey N. Fieger, who is counsel for plaintiffs, under the circumstances did not violate Rule 11.

Defendants argue the memorandum opinion contains clear errors of fact, which caused the court to make clear errors of law.*fn2 Specifically, defendants contend the court misstated the position of defendants with respect to whether Mr. Haniotakis' car was "stopped" at the time Nassan and Donnelly opened fire. (Nassan's Mot. for Recons. ("Nassan's Mot.") (ECF No. 87) at 2.) Defendants assert the court erred when it "applied the presumption of truthfulness" to the "stopped" allegation because it "overlooked the facts proven by the police photographs" attached to Nassan's motion for sanctions. (Id. at 2, 10.) Because the court made these erroneous findings, defendants argue, the court applied incorrect legal standards to determine whether Nassan and Donnelly's actions were reasonable under the circumstances. (Id. at 14.) Defendants argue the court erred because it did not conduct Rule 11 hearings and because it treated the sanctions issues separately from the motions to dismiss. Finally, defendants assert the errors of fact led the court to postpone a determination of the qualified immunity issue.*fn3

Plaintiffs respond that defendants' arguments ignore the requirement that, at the motion to dismiss stage, factual allegations in the complaint must be accepted by the district court as true and the court must view the facts in a light most favorable to plaintiffs. (Pls.' Br. in Opp'n to Nassan's Mot. for Recons. ("Pls.' Br.") (ECF No. 90) at 5.) Plaintiffs argue defendants' "factual arguments are more appropriately reserved for a Rule 56 motion after discovery." (Id.) Plaintiffs assert the court properly held it would not consider defendants' photographs and other exhibits attached to Nassan's motion for sanctions in ruling upon the motions to dismiss, "since their consideration would convert the motions to dismiss into motions for summary judgment." (Id. at 8; Mem. Op. at 12 n.4.) Plaintiffs argue the photographs used by defendants do not depict the scene at the time of the shooting, or where the officers or vehicles were in relation to each other. (Pls.' Br. at 9.) Plaintiffs contend the photographs are not dispositive of whether Mr. Haniotakis posed a risk of harm to the officers or others, or whether his car was stopped at the time of the shooting. (Id.)

Defendants fail to show the availability of new evidence not previously available or an intervening change in controlling law to support the motions for reconsideration. Defendants' motions for reconsideration, therefore, are best understood as premised on a need to correct a clear error of law or to prevent manifest injustice. Defendants, however, did not meet this burden.

I. Timeliness of Donnelly's Motion for Reconsideration

The court does not view the instant motions for reconsideration as the "functional equivalent" of a Rule 59(e) motion seeking to alter or amend judgment. Plaintiffs filed an objection to Donnelly's motion for reconsideration as untimely because it was filed beyond Rule 59(e)'s twenty-eight-day time period following the court's order on July 23, 2010. (See Pls.' Mot. to Strike (ECF No. 93) ¶ 7.) On August 25, 2010, Donnelly filed his motion for reconsideration -- thirty-three days after the memorandum opinion and order dated July 23, 2010. Donnelly indicated his intent to join Nassan's motion for reconsideration dated August 5, 2010. (Donnelly Mot. for Recons. (ECF No. 89) ¶ 3.)

The Western District of Pennsylvania does not have a local rule requiring motions for reconsideration to be filed within a particular time period. Because the pending motions for reconsideration are not subject to the filing requirements under Rule 59(e) and plaintiffs point to no prejudice to ...


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