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Roger Becker v. Jeffrey M. Godboldte

May 24, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rambo J.


This case involves various federal civil rights and state tort claims resulting from an arrest and subsequent conviction of Plaintiff for driving under the influence ("DUI"). The conviction was overturned on appeal, and Plaintiff, Roger Becker ("Becker") brought suit against the arresting officer, Defendant State Trooper Jeffrey Godboldte ("Godboldte"). Before the court is Defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings. (Doc. 5.) For the reasons set forth below, the court will grant Defendant's motion.

I. Background

A. Facts

The following facts are taken directly from Plaintiff's complaint unless otherwise noted. On October 17, 2005, Plaintiff was driving a farm vehicle on a road in Springfield, York County, Pennsylvania.*fn1 (Doc. 1, Compl. ¶ 9.) While stopped to make a left turn, Plaintiff's vehicle was struck from behind, ejecting Plaintiff from the vehicle. (Id. ¶ 9.) Plaintiff was knocked unconscious and taken by ambulance to the emergency room at York Hospital, where he was treated for injuries. (Id. ¶¶ 10-11.) Defendant Godboldte arrived at the accident scene after Plaintiff had been transported to York Hospital, and did not observe Plaintiff driving nor did he observe Plaintiff at the scene of the accident. (Id. ¶¶ 13-14.) Defendant went to York Hospital to interview Plaintiff some time later. (Id. ¶ 14.) Defendant claims that he obtained Plaintiff's consent to have his blood alcohol content ("BAC") tested during this interview, but Plaintiff argues that Defendant failed to procure his signature on an O'Connell warning form, which would have indicated Plaintiff's consent. (Id. ¶¶ 15, 17.) At Defendant's request, York Hospital Medical staff performed a BAC test using blood previously drawn by the hospital for medical purposes. (Id. ¶¶ 18-19.) No warrant was issued for the BAC results. (Id. ¶ 21.) Plaintiff's BAC was found to be .158 percent and Defendant placed Plaintiff under arrest for driving under the influence.*fn2 (Id. ¶¶ 20, 22.)

Following his arrest, Plaintiff was incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill ("SCI-Camp Hill") beginning on November 10, 2005. (Id. ¶ 23.) A preliminary hearing was held on or around January 18, 2006. (Id. ¶ 24.) Plaintiff filed a motion to suppress the BAC test on or around March 24, 2006, however the motion was withdrawn pursuant to a plea agreement.*fn3 (Id. ¶ 25.) On April 11, 2006, Plaintiff pled guilty before York County Judge John H. Chronister to DUI and driving while his operator's privilege was suspended. (Id. ¶ 27.) Judge Chronister sentenced Becker to one to five years imprisonment for the DUI charge, and ninety days for driving while his operator's privilege was suspended, the sentences to run concurrently. (Id. ¶ 28.) The sentence began on May 25, 2006 and Becker was sent to SCI-Rockview. (Id. ¶ 29.) On or around March 16, 2007, Plaintiff filed a pro se motion for post-conviction collateral relief seeking to withdraw his guilty plea and resurrect his motion to suppress.*fn4 (Id. ¶ 30.) Plaintiff's requested relief was granted and on June 20, 2007, the Court of Common Pleas heard Plaintiff's motion to suppress the blood test. The motion was denied and a stipulated non-jury trial was held on August 13, 2007, after which Becker was found guilty of DUI. (Id. ¶ 32; Amended Answer ¶ 32 and Ex. F.) Plaintiff appealed and, on October 7, 2008, the Superior Court reversed the trial court's suppression order and vacated Becker's sentence, finding the blood test occurred without probable cause or Plaintiff's consent, reasoning that although Plaintiff was properly read the Implied Consent warning and consented to a blood test, a second blood test never occurred and, instead, blood that was withdrawn for other medical purposes prior to Plaintiff giving his consent was used to obtain his BAC. (Id. ¶ 33; Commonwealth v. Becker, No. 1527 MDA 2007 (Pa. Super. Ct. Oct. 7, 2008)). Plaintiff was released from SCI- Rockview on December 15, 2008, after his charges were nolle prossed following a hearing in the York County Court of Common Pleas. (Id. ¶ 34.)

B. Procedural History

On October 5, 2010, Plaintiff filed the instant complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging violations of his Fourth Amendment rights under the United States Constitution, and the Pennsylvania State Constitution. Specifically, Plaintiff's complaint asserts the following claims: (1) Fourth Amendment violations pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 (Count I); (2) violation of Article 1, Section 26 of the Constitution of Pennsylvania (Count II); (3) malicious prosecution (Count III); (4) abuse of process (Count IV)*fn5 ; and (5) intentional infliction of emotional distress ("IIED") (Count V).*fn6 On December 8, 2010, Defendant filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings arguing that these claims must be dismissed on the grounds that they are time-barred, that Defendant is entitled to sovereign immunity, and that Plaintiff's complaint fails to state claims upon which relief can be granted. (Doc. 5.) On January 21, 2011, Plaintiff filed a brief in opposition. (Doc. 10.) Defendant replied on February 5, 2011. (Doc. 13.) The motion is now ripe for disposition.

II. Legal Standard

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c), once the pleadings are closed, a party may move for judgment on the pleadings "within such time as to not delay the trial." FED. R. CIV. P. 12(c).*fn7 The standard of review for a motion for judgment on the pleadings is identical to that of the motion to dismiss under Federal Rule 12(b)(6). Turbe v. Gov't of Virgin Islands, 938 F.2d 427, 428 (3d Cir. 1991) (citations omitted); Cannon v. United States, 322 F. Supp. 2d 636, 636 (W.D. Pa. 2004); Katzenmoyer v. City of Reading, 158 F. Supp. 2d 491, 496 (E.D. Pa. 2001). The only notable difference between these two standards is that the court in a motion on the pleadings reviews not only the complaint but also the answer and any written instruments and exhibits attached to the pleadings. 2 MOORE'S FED. PRACTICE CIVIL § 12.38 (2004); Prima v. Darden Restaurants, Inc., 78 F. Supp. 2d 337, 341-42 (D.N.J. 2000). Despite this difference, courts in this circuit have consistently stated that the distinction between the two standards is "merely semantic." Christy v. We The People Forms & Serv. Ctrs., 213 F.R.D. 235, 238 (D.N.J. 2003); see Smith v. City of Philadelphia, 345 F. Supp. 2d 482, 485 (E.D. Pa. 2004) ("A motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) is treated using the same standard as a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).") (citing Regalbuto v. City of Philadelphia, 937 F. Supp. 374, 376-77 (E.D. Pa. 1995)).

In deciding a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the court is required to accept as true all of the factual allegations in the complaint, Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007), and all reasonable inferences permitted by the factual allegations, Watson v. Abington Twp., 478 F.3d 144, 150 (3d Cir. 2007), viewing them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, Kanter v. Barella, 489 F.3d 170, 177 (3d Cir. 2007). Phillips v. County of Allegheny, et al., 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008). If the facts alleged are sufficient to "raise a right to relief above the speculative level" such that the plaintiff's claim is "plausible on its face," a complaint will survive a motion to dismiss. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 570 (2007); Phillips, 515 F.3d at 234; Victaulic Co. v. Tieman, 499 F.3d 227, 234 (3d Cir. 2007); Stevenson v. Carroll, 495 F.3d 62, 66 (3d Cir. 2007). See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, ___U.S.___, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (explaining a claim has "facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged"). Further, when a complaint contains well-pleaded factual allegations, "a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief." Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1950. However, a court is "not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation." Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). "Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements do not suffice." Id. at 1949 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).

Finally, in the Third Circuit, a court must grant leave to amend before dismissing a civil rights complaint that is merely deficient. See, e.g., Fletcher-Harlee Corp. v. Pote Concrete Contractors, Inc., 482 F.3d 247,252 (3d Cir. 2007); Weston v. Pennsylvania, 251 F.3d 420, 428 (3d Cir. 2001); Shane v. Fauver, 213 F.3d 113, 116-17 (3d Cir. 2000). "Dismissal without leave to amend is justified only on the grounds of bad faith, undue delay, prejudice, or futility." Alston v. Parker, 363 F.3d 229, 236 (3d Cir. 2004).

III. Discussion

A. Fourth Amendment (Count I)

Plaintiff brings claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of the Fourth Amendment. Specifically, Plaintiff claims that Defendant "lacked reasonable suspicion to suspect that Becker had consumed alcoholic beverages prior to the accident" and "lacked probable cause to seize Becker's BAC results." (Compl. ¶¶ 37-38.) Read broadly and in a light most favorable to Plaintiff, the court will interpret Count I to include claims of unreasonable search and seizure and false arrest in violation of the Fourth Amendment.*fn8

Claims arising under Section 1983 are governed by the applicable state personal injury statute of limitations. Dique v. N.J. State Police, 603 F.3d 181, 187-88 (3d Cir. 2010); Sameric Corp. of Del. v. Philadelphia, 142 F.3d 582, 599 (3d Cir. 1998). In Pennsylvania, the statute of limitations for personal injury torts is two years. Cassell v. City of Philadelphia, 350 F. App'x 611, 613(3d Cir. 2009); Knoll v. Springfield Twp. Sch. Dist., 763 F.2d 584, 585 (3d Cir. 1985) (citing 42 PA. CONS. STAT. ANN. § 5524 (Purdon Supp. 1984)). Federal law, however, dictates when a Section 1983 cause of action accrues. Raffensberger v. Moyer, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 29938, *8-9 (E.D. Pa. March 29, 2010) (citing MacNamara v. Hess, 67 F. App'x 139, 143 (3d Cir. 2003)). Generally speaking, a "section 1983 cause of action accrues when the plaintiff knew or should have known of the injury upon which its action is based." Sameric, 142 F.3d at 599. Moreover, "the statute of limitations upon a § 1983 claim seeking damages for a false arrest in violation of the Fourth Amendment, where the arrest is followed by criminal proceedings, begins to run at the time the claimant becomes detained pursuant to legal process." Wallace v. Kato, 548 U.S. 384, 397 (2007); see also Dique, 603 F.3d at 187-88. Similarly, "[w]hen the plaintiff alleges that he or she has been subjected to an unreasonable search and/or seizure conducted in plaintiff's presence, courts will generally find that the plaintiff knew of the injury, and thus the cause of action accrued, on the day the search and/or seizure took place." Raffensberger, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 29938, *8-9 (citing MacNamara, 67 F. App'x at 143).

Plaintiff initiated this action on October 5, 2010. By using any of the possible accrual dates, it is clear that Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment claims are time-barred. For example, Plaintiff alleges that the improper seizure of his BAC results occurred on October 17, 2005. (Compl. ΒΆΒΆ 9-20, 38.) Thus, the two-year statute of limitations on Plaintiff's improper seizure claim began running on October 17, 2005, and would have expired October 17, 2007, almost three years prior to the filing of the instant complaint. To the extent that the complaint asserts a Fourth Amendment false imprisonment claim, the Plaintiff avers that he was first "arrested" on October 17, 2005 and was incarcerated on November 10, 2005. (Id. ...

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