The opinion of the court was delivered by: Opinion BY Judge Simpson
Submitted: March 25, 2011
BEFORE: HONORABLE RENEE COHN JUBELIRER, Judge HONORABLE ROBERT SIMPSON, Judge HONORABLE JAMES R. KELLEY, Senior Judge
This case has its origin in requests by Petitioner Joseph P. Guarrasi (Plaintiff) to obtain certain "public judicial documents" under the Right-To-Know Law (RTKL)*fn1 related to earlier criminal proceedings against him in the Court of Common Pleas of Bucks County (Bucks Common Pleas). In July, 2010, Plaintiff, a former attorney and state prison inmate, filed a petition for review in our original jurisdiction seeking declaratory relief against seven Bucks County judges, officials or employees (Respondents or Defendants), who are designated as open-records officers or appeals officers for RTKL purposes.*fn2 Plaintiff, representing himself, seeks an order that (a) declares his common law and constitutional rights of access to the requested documents, and (b) requires Defendants to forward these documents to him. Plaintiff also seeks a declaration that Defendants violated his common law, statutory and constitutional rights by denying him access to these documents. Plaintiff also seeks additional declaratory relief against past and present Bucks Common Pleas judges.
Presently before the Court are Defendants' preliminary objections. Defendants Devlin Scott, Cepparulo and Praul (Judicial Defendants) challenge the legal sufficiency of Plaintiff's averments on multiple grounds. Defendants Heckler, Lackman, Diaz and Armitage (County Defendants) join in Judicial
Defendants' demurrer. County Defendants, citing Guarrasi v. Gibbons, Civ. A. No. 07-5475, 2008 WL 4601903 (E.D. Pa. 2008), a federal district court memorandum decision, also assert the doctrine of res judicata bars Plaintiff's civil rights and constitutional rights claims. For the reasons that follow, we sustain Defendants' preliminary objections and dismiss Plaintiff's complaint with prejudice.
A. Convictions; Private Criminal Complaint
A brief history of the events precipitating Plaintiff's petition for review is helpful.*fn3 In 2005, Plaintiff pled nolo contendre to attempted homicide.
He also pled guilty to attempted aggravated assault, attempted kidnapping, attempted false imprisonment, attempted burglary and solicitation to commit insurance fraud. Bucks Common Pleas sentenced Plaintiff to a period of incarceration in state prison. See Guarrasi v. Carroll, 979 A.2d 383 (Pa. Super. 2009). The evidence against Plaintiff included various recorded conversations intercepted by an informant pursuant to a Bucks Common Pleas judge's order authorizing the interception of oral communications under the Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act (Wiretap Act), 18 Pa. C.S. §5701-82.
In 2007, Plaintiff filed a private criminal complaint against Timothy Carroll, the detective who investigated his criminal case. See Guarrasi v. Carroll. Plaintiff alleged Carroll violated various criminal statutes and the Wiretap Act. Id. The complaint alleged the detective tampered with the evidence by intentionally destroying or altering recorded conversations. Id.
However, the Bucks County District Attorney's Office (District Attorney) disapproved Plaintiff's complaint. Plaintiff appealed to Bucks Common Pleas, which denied his appeal. Ultimately, following a remand hearing, the Superior Court affirmed. Id.
B. Guarrasi v. Carroll (604 M.D. 2009)
In 2009, pursuant to Section 5726 of the Wiretap Act, 18 Pa. C.S. §5726, Plaintiff filed a petition for review in this Court's original jurisdiction seeking dismissal or removal of Bucks County Detectives Carroll and Michael Mosiniak, and former Assistant District Attorney Thomas G. Gambardella, for violations of the Wiretap Act. Although the case remains pending against Carroll and Mosiniak, this Court granted summary judgment in favor of Gambardella. See Guarrasi v. Carroll, (Pa. Cmwlth., No. 604 M.D. 2009, filed September 21, 2010) (per curiam).
C. Guarrasi v. Gibbons (Civil Rights Act; Conspiracy)
Proceeding in forma pauperis, Plaintiff also filed a civil rights action in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania against 29 defendants. They included the District Attorney, various police officers, and even his criminal defense attorneys. He asserted numerous claims under 42 U.S.C. §§1981, 1982, 1983, 1985 and 1986 connected to the criminal case. In a memorandum opinion, the District Court, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §1915(e)(2), dismissed the vast majority of Plaintiff's civil rights claims as frivolous. See Guarrasi v. Gibbons, 2008 WL 4601903 at *11. The Court did allow three 42 U.S.C. §1983 claims for the transfer of real property and deprivation of personal property against several defendants to proceed. Id.
II. Present Case (Guarrasi v. Devlin Scott)
In August, 2010, Plaintiff filed his "Petition for Review For Declaratory Judgment--Common Law--First Amendment--Article 1 Right of Access to Public Judicial Documents," also in this Court's original jurisdiction. Plaintiff's petition avers that Defendants willfully denied him access to the following public documents:
A. Judge Kenneth G. Biehn's signed and subscribed Oath of Office Document.;
B. Judge Kenneth G. Biehn's genuine and authenticated signature.;
C. The Resignation Letters of Judge Kenneth J. Biehn and Former President Judge David W. Heckler (now District Attorney of Bucks County).;
D. The case assignment/work schedule of Judge Kenneth
G. Biehn and President Judge David W. Heckler for the date of 2/23/2004.;
E. The document designating Judge Kenneth G. Biehn the [sic] President Judge David W. Heckler's designee for the 2/23/2004 Intercept Authorization Order in BCCCP No.'s 253 MISC 2004, 254 MISC 2004, and 5423-2004.;[*fn4 ]
F. "All salient documents", made public by the unsealing Order of 11/15/2004 in BCCCP No.'s 253 MISC 2004, 254 MISC 2004, and 5423-2004.
Pet. for Review at ¶¶16A-F (footnote added). Plaintiff avers that Defendants' failure to provide these documents violated his common law right of access and various constitutional rights, including a First Amendment right of access. See, e.g., Pet. for Review at ¶¶62-67.
Plaintiff requests the following relief. In Count I, Plaintiff requests an order (a) declaring his common law and constitutional rights of access to the requested documents, and (b) directing Defendants to immediately forward these documents to him. Id. at ¶85. In Count II, Plaintiff requests a declaration that Defendants violated his common law, statutory and constitutional rights "by selectively denying Plaintiff access to the requested records, and by ... combining and concealing documents, records and information from ... Plaintiff through deception and a lack of candor ...." Id. In Count III, Plaintiff requests an order declaring Defendants "wrongfully retaliated against Plaintiff" for exercising his constitutional rights. Id. at ¶89.
In Count IV, Plaintiff requests an order declaring that then-President Judge Heckler did not designate Judge Biehn as the common pleas judge to authorize an oral interception as required by Section 5704(2)(iv) of the Wiretap Act on February 23, 2004. Id. at ¶91. In Count V, Plaintiff seeks an order declaring the removal of Defendant Devlin Scott from her position as Bucks Common Pleas Right-To-Know Appeals Officer because of an impermissible conflict of interest due to her position as President Judge. Id. at ¶93. In Count VI, Plaintiff seeks an order declaring the entire Bucks Common Pleas' bench has a conflict of interest in regard to all matters involving Plaintiff and therefore must be recused and a change of venue ordered. Id. at ¶95. In Count VII, Plaintiff requests an order (a) declaring the custom of Bucks Common Pleas judges to allow non-judicial personnel to sign judges' names to orders unconstitutional and (b) voiding all documents so signed. Id. at ¶97.
B. Preliminary Objections
Judicial Defendants filed preliminary objections in the nature of demurrers challenging the legal sufficiency of Plaintiff's claims.*fn5 County Defendants also object to the legal sufficiency of Plaintiff's claims and incorporate by reference Judicial Defendants' legal arguments.
Defendants contend: Plaintiff fails to set forth a cognizable common law or constitutional right of access claim for the requested documents; Plaintiff's request for the documents is precluded by the exclusivity of the RTKL; Plaintiff failed to exhaust his statutory appeals under the RTKL; Plaintiff's requested relief is an impermissible collateral attack on his criminal convictions; Commonwealth Court may not order the recusal of all Bucks Common Pleas judges or remove Defendant Devlin Scott as Bucks Common Pleas' RTKL Appeals Officer; immunity bars Plaintiff's claims against Judicial Defendants; and, Commonwealth Court lacks jurisdiction to either regulate who signs Bucks Common Pleas' orders or to declare prior Bucks Common Pleas' orders void.
County Defendants further aver the records Plaintiff requested simply do not exist. They also contend the doctrine of res judicata precludes any claim for civil rights or constitutional rights violations. Citing the U.S. District Court's decision in Guarrasi v. Gibbons, County Defendants assert Plaintiff fully and fairly litigated his civil rights and constitutional claims in federal court. Therefore, he is precluded from re-litigating those claims in the present case. Hillgartner v. Port Auth. of Allegheny County, 936 A.2d 131 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2007).