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Geraldine Wray v. Michael C. Painter

March 28, 2011

GERALDINE WRAY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL C. PAINTER, DEFENDANT.



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

OPINION

I. INTRODUCTION

This case arises out of what Plaintiff Geraldine Wray claims was an illegal arrest and seizure of her dog by Defendant Michael Painter on February 6, 2009. About a year prior to this seizure, Plaintiff entered into an oral agreement with Maurisa Payne, who is not a party to the present litigation, to train, socialize, and medically certify her pedigree English Spaniel show dog named "Razzle Dazzle." Mrs. Payne gave custody of Razzle to Plaintiff in accordance with the agreement. Following this initial agreement, the relationship between Plaintiff and Mrs. Payne deteriorated. On numerous occasions, Mrs. Payne requested to see Razzle, but Plaintiff failed to allow it. In order to retrieve her dog, on February 6, 2009 Mrs. Payne contacted the Police Department of the Borough of Hamburg in Berks County, Pennsylvania. Defendant Painter was the Chief of Police of the Borough of Hamburg. Defendant met with Mrs. Payne and thereafter seized the dog from Plaintiff and returned it to Mrs. Payne. The circumstances surrounding the seizure of the dog form the factual basis of this lawsuit.

Before the Court are Cross Motions for Summary Judgment (Doc. Nos. 24, 26). Plaintiff moves for summary judgment on liability only and claims that the sole triable issue is the amount of damages to which she is entitled. (Doc. No. 25.) Defendant asserts he is entitled to summary judgment because (1) Plaintiff has failed to establish a property interest in the dog-the subject of the illegal seizure claim-and therefore cannot establish that the seizure was unlawful, and (2) Defendant acted reasonably as a matter of law and is thereby protected by qualified immunity. For reasons that follow, the Court will deny both Motions in their entirety.

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On December 7, 2009, Plaintiff initiated this lawsuit against Defendant Painter by filing a Complaint (Doc. No. 1) pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging an "illegal arrest and seizure" in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. On December 30, 2009, Defendant filed a Motion to Dismiss and Memorandum of Law in Support of the Motion. (Doc. Nos. 4, 5.) Plaintiff filed a Response in Opposition to the Motion to Dismiss on January 11, 2010. On March 5, 2010, Judge Thomas M. Golden, to whom this case had been assigned, granted the Motion "to the extent that Plaintiff allege[d] a claim under the Fourteenth Amendment and [sought] punitive damages from Defendant in his official capacity." (Doc. No. 8.) Judge Golden denied the Motion in all other respects, permitting the Section 1983 claim to proceed insofar as Plaintiff alleged a Fourth Amendment violation and sought punitive damages against Defendant in his individual capacity. (Doc. Nos. 7, 8.) On March 18, 2010, Defendant filed an Answer to the Complaint. (Doc. No. 10.)

On August 11, 2010, this case was assigned to this Court for all further proceedings. (Doc. No. 20.) On December 15, 2010, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment and a Brief in Support, including a Statement of Undisputed Facts and several exhibits (Doc. Nos. 24, 25). The same day, Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment and Memorandum of Law in Support of the Motion (Doc. No. 26). On January 5, 2011, each party submitted a Response in Opposition to the Motion for Summary Judgment of the opposing party (Doc. Nos. 27, 28, 29). The Court held oral argument on the Motions on February 22, 2011. The Motions for Summary Judgment are now ripe for disposition.

III. STATEMENT OF FACTS

A. Events Preceding the February 6, 2009 Seizure of the Dog

Defendant Michael C. Painter is the Chief of Police of the Borough of Hamburg, Berks County Pennsylvania. (Doc. No. 25-1 ¶ 2; Deposition of Michael Painter, Doc. No. 26, Ex. E at 5:19-6:4.) On February 6, 2009, Defendant met with Maurisa Payne, who wished to lodge a formal complaint with the police department about a dog, an English Spaniel "show dog" named Razzle Dazzle, that she claimed was improperly taken from her. (Doc. No. 25-1 ¶ 3; Doc. No. 26, Ex. E at 8:11-23.) During her meeting with Defendant, Mrs. Payne explained that she had been friends with Plaintiff Geraldine Wray for eight years. (Deposition of Maurisa Payne, Doc. No. 26, Ex. C at 16:10-18:1; Doc. No. 26, Ex. E at 14:11-15:15.) In April 2008, Plaintiff and Mrs. Payne agreed that Plaintiff would train, socialize, and medically certify Razzle. (Doc. No. 26, Ex. C at 21:4-24:10, 26:11-30:7; Doc. No. 26, Ex. E at 13:25-14:16.) Mrs. Payne transferred possession of the dog to Plaintiff in accordance with the agreement.

Following Mrs. Payne's initial agreement with Plaintiff, their relationship deteriorated. (Doc. No. 26, Ex. C at 30:8-42:6.) On numerous occasions Mrs. Payne requested and made plans to see her dog, but each time Plaintiff failed to appear with the dog as planned. (Doc. No. 25-1 ¶ 4; Doc. No. 26, Ex. C at 30:8-42:6; Ex. E at 14:17-14:16.) When Mrs. Payne met with Defendant on February 6, 2009, she produced documentation from the American Kennel Club ("AKC") showing that the dog was registered in her name alone and an email in which Plaintiff acknowledged that Razzle was not her dog.*fn1 (Doc. No. 26, Ex. C at 47:1-11; Ex. E at 14:17-17:23; see also Doc. No. 26, Ex. B at 1.)

After taking this information from Mrs. Payne, Defendant drove to the home of Plaintiff. (Doc. No. 26, Ex. E at 18:6-8.) When he knocked on the door no one answered. (Id. at 18:9-10.) However, in response to Defendant's knock, two English Spaniels began barking, and Defendant was able to see both dogs through a large window at the front of the house. (Id. at 18:9-19:4.) Defendant deduced that one of the dogs was Razzle. (Id. at 19:1-8.)

Having concluded that Plaintiff was not at home, Defendant asked Mrs. Payne, who had followed him to Plaintiff's home in her own car, for Plaintiff's phone number, which she gave him. (Doc. No. 26, Ex. C at 58:5-9.) Mrs. Payne stood next to Defendant while he called Plaintiff. When Defendant reached Plaintiff by telephone, he identified himself and informed Plaintiff that he had information that a dog named Razzle belonging to Mrs. Payne was in her possession and that he intended to retrieve the dog and return the dog to Mrs. Payne. (Doc. No. 26, Ex. C at 59:11-14; Ex. E at 20:16-18.) In their depositions, both Plaintiff and Mrs. Payne stated that during this phone conversation, Defendant informed Plaintiff that if she failed to produce the dog he would seek an arrest warrant. Plaintiff recalled that Defendant said he would seek a felony arrest warrant. (Deposition of Plaintiff, Doc. No. 26, Ex. D at 14:6-8; Ex. C at 60:20-22.) During his deposition, Defendant stated that he did not tell Plaintiff he was investigating a felony or otherwise use the word "felony." (Doc. No. 26, Ex. E at 21:6-15.) He further stated, "I didn't tell her anything about a felony or an arrest. I didn't know what was going to happen at that point." (Id.)

In response to Defendant's questions regarding the location of the dog, Plaintiff stated that the dog ran away. (Doc. No. 26, Ex. C. at 59:19-60:1; Ex. D at 15:3-6; Ex. E at 21:24-22:1.) Defendant asked Plaintiff whether she had filed a police report about the missing dog and Plaintiff responded she had not. (Doc. No. 26, Ex. C. at 59:19-60:1; Ex. D at 14:13-17, 15:3-11; Ex. E at 21:24-22:3.) At this point the conversation ended. Plaintiff then called the Hamburg Police Department to confirm that the person with whom she had spoken was a law enforcement official and not "Ms. Payne putting somebody up to doing this." (Doc. No. 26, Ex. D at 15:23-25.)

Defendant and Mrs. Payne returned to the Hamburg Police Station. (Doc. No. 26, Ex. C at 61:15.) Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff called Defendant and again stated that the dog was missing. (Id. at 62:14.) Defendant then informed Mrs. Payne he was unsure if he would be able to retrieve the dog that day and suggested that Mrs. Payne return to her home, which she did. (Id. at 63:3-64:19.)

Later that day, Defendant compiled the information given to him from Mrs. Payne. After creating a sequence of events and reviewing his notes, Defendant decided he would file criminal charges. (Doc. No. 26, Ex. E at 26:2-9.) He typed up an Affidavit of Probable Cause, charging Plaintiff with theft by unlawful taking and receiving stolen property. Given the estimate of the value of the dog as a "show dog," the charges would be classified as felonies under the Pennsylvania Crimes Code. (Id. at 27:7-12.) In his deposition, Defendant explained that he did not proceed to file the charges with a local judge. Had he filed the charges, he would have obtained warrants for the arrest of Plaintiff and for the search of her home. He gave two reasons for not filing the charges and creating a court case. (Id. at 31:9.) First, he stated that he did not need a warrant to arrest Plaintiff on felony theft charges because he had probable cause to arrest her. (Id. at 31:9-18.) Second, he had "compassion for somebody that had a dog." (Id. at 31:24.) If he filed the felony theft charges, they would appear on Plaintiff's record; if he could avoid that from happening, he would try to do so. (Id. at 31:19-33:17.)

B. Defendant's Account of the Events of the Evening of February 6, 2009

Later that evening, Defendant returned to Plaintiff's home wearing his police uniform. (Doc. No. 26, Ex. E at 27:15-16; 33:20; 43:10-11.) One or two of his colleagues, Officer Cramer and possibly Officer Doug Williams, followed Defendant in a separate vehicle.*fn2 (Id. at 42:12-43:11.) When he arrived at Plaintiff's home, he and Officer Cramer approached the front door and Defendant knocked. (Id. at 42:5-8.) Defendant could not recall who answered the door, but stated that he was "kind of thinking" it was Plaintiff's husband. (Id. at 42:21-43:1.) Whoever it was, that person invited him in to the "vestibule area" of the home. (Id. at 42:12.)

Once inside, Defendant spoke with Plaintiff and her husband, explaining that he had a warrant for her arrest.*fn3 (Doc. No. 26, Ex. E at 44:11-14.) He explained that he would take

Plaintiff to arraignment court and that Plaintiff's husband could come too, but he would have to follow in his own vehicle. (Id. at 44:14-20.) Plaintiff was asked to get her coat. (Id. at 44:21-23.) Plaintiff had offered to show Defendant paperwork as proof that she was lawfully in possession of the dog. Since she had lied to Defendant regarding the whereabouts of the ...


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