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Carl Romanelli v. William Deweese

June 1, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Caputo


Carl Romanelli filed this complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that the defendants deprived him of First and Fourteenth Amendment rights when they challenged his nomination paper to run for the U.S. Senate. Because the paper was invalidated in accordance with state law, Romanelli was not deprived of his constitutional rights and thus does not state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

I. Background*fn1

Romanelli aspired to run for U.S. Senator in the 2006 General Election. As a Green Party candidate, he could be nominated to the ballot by having a sufficient number of electors sign his nomination paper. Under Pennsylvania's election code, "the number of qualified electors of the State signing such nomination paper shall be at least equal to two per centum of the largest entire vote cast for any elected candidate in the State at large at the last preceding election at which State-wide candidates were voted for." 25 Pa. Stat. 2911(b). Under this Section, Romanelli was required to obtain 67,070 valid signatures. In re Nomination Paper of Rogers, 914 A.2d 457, 458 n.2 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2007).

After obtaining the requisite elector signatures, a candidate files the nomination paper with the Secretary of the Commonwealth. Id. at § 2913. Once received and filed, the nomination paper can be challenged in court by petition. Id. at § 2937. The challenge must be filed "within seven days after the last day for filing [the] nomination [ ] paper," and must "specifically set[ ] forth the objections." Id. If the court finds the nomination paper fails to contain "a sufficient number of genuine signatures of electors entitled to sign [the paper], . . . it shall be set aside."

Given that a filed nomination paper must be challenged within seven days after it is filed, it is no simple task to invalidate a petition containing thousands of signatures. The Pennsylvania House Democratic Caucus did not look favorably upon Romanelli's potential candidacy because it feared he would divert votes from the Democratic nominee, Robert P. Casey, Jr.

The Caucus decided to challenge Romanelli's petition in advance of its filing, and put out a call for volunteers to assist the effort. On August 1, 2006, Romanelli filed his nomination paper consisting of 3,704 pages containing 94,544 signatures. The Caucus paid $3,704 to obtain a copy of the nomination paper that same day. An initial meeting was held in the office of William DeWeese, then the majority leader, with as many as thirty staffers in attendance. At the meeting, the attendees were instructed on how to review the nomination paper and obtain and compile the information needed to challenge the signatures. The staffers were told it was important to the Caucus leadership that Romanelli not appear on the November ballot; to this end, the staffers were told not to worry about leave, but to focus on reviewing the signature pages as soon as possible. Staffers and Caucus leadership worked around the clock on the petition challenge, at their Caucus workplaces, using Caucus computers, all while being paid by the Commonwealth with taxpayer money. To research information on electors whose signatures appeared on Romanelli's nomination paper, Caucus employees used the computer program Constituent Tracking Service. This program tracked voter registration information but was designed and intended for legitimate legislative use and not for challenging the candidacy of a political opponent.

The Caucus's use of state resources to fund the nomination paper challenge violated state law. Nevertheless, seven days after its filing, the Caucus challenged Romanelli's nomination paper. The petition detailed inadequacies in the nomination paper petition pages and individual signatures. The petition included global challenges to 1,782 petition pages that contained 45,918 signatures and a total of 69,692 "individual line" signature challenges.

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court found that the challenge had merit and set aside Romanelli's nomination paper on September 26, 2006. Nearly two years later, on July 10, 2008, Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett announced that the grand jury presentment and indictment of those involved in various campaign improprieties, including Romanelli's nomination paper challenge. The scandal became known as "Bonusgate," and encompassed the illegal use of state money and resources on political campaigns.

Romanelli brought suit in federal court on July 12, 2010 against various individuals who were employed by the Caucus, Michael Manzo, and the Pennsylvania Democratic Party.

Romanelli brings his claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He asserts that the defendants violated his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The nub of Romanelli's complaint is that the challenge to his nomination paper was enabled by violating state law (i.e., by using public servants paid by the state to challenge the nomination paper); therefore the defendants' illegal actions "directly affected" what Romanelli refers to as his ability "to run for federal office in an unimpa[i]red fashion." He claims that the defendants' "tax-funded challenge" to Romanelli's ballot access violated his rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The following two groups of defendants have moved to dismiss: first, Bob Caton, William DeWeese, Karen Steiner, and the Pennsylvania House Democratic Caucus (collectively, the Caucus Defendants) (Doc. 32); and the Pennsylvania Democratic Party (PDP) (Doc. 44).

The defendants argue that Romanelli's claims merit dismissal because they are barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, the defendants did not act under color of state law, Romanelli failed to properly plead a conspiracy, his claims are time-barred and subject to estoppel, the complaint fails Rule 8(a)'s "short and plain statement" requirement, and no federal right is at stake. The defendants attach to their motions various state court filings, orders, and opinions, which are matters of public record, and are therefore properly considered on a motion to dismiss.

Because the Rooker-Feldman argument calls the Court's subject matter jurisdiction into question, it will be addressed first. Because it turns out that there is no bar to the Court's subject matter jurisdiction, the merits of the complaint will be addressed.

Because Romanelli did not oppose the motion to dismiss, the Caucus Defendants move to have their motion treated as unopposed pursuant to Local Rule 7.6 and to have the complaint dismissed on this ground. This motion will be denied, but the complaint will be dismissed for failure to state a claim under § 1983.

Romanelli moves for leave to amend; this motion will be denied as futile. The Caucus Defendants move for sanction. The Court will deny this motion.

II. Discussion

A. Legal Standard on a Motion to Dismiss

"A pleading that states a claim for relief must contain . . . a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a). The statement required by Rule 8(a)(2) must give the defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff's claim is and the grounds upon which it rests. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007). Detailed factual allegations are not required. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). However, mere conclusory statements will not do; "a complaint must do more than allege the plaintiff's entitlement to relief." Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 211. Instead, a complaint must "show" this entitlement by alleging sufficient facts. Id. "While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1950 (2009).

"[A] complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1949 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). "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." Id. "The plausibility standard is not akin to a 'probability requirement,' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id. "When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief." Id. at 1950.

When considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Court's role is limited to determining whether a plaintiff is entitled to offer evidence in support of her claims. See Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974). The Court does not consider whether a plaintiff will ultimately prevail. See id. A defendant bears the burden of establishing that a plaintiff's complaint fails to state a claim. See Gould Elecs. v. United States, 220 F.3d 169, 178 (3d Cir. 2000).

In deciding a motion to dismiss, the Court should consider the allegations in the complaint, exhibits attached to the complaint, and matters of public record. See Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993). The Court may also consider "undisputedly authentic" documents when the plaintiff's claims are based on the ...

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