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Christopher Cooper v. City of Chester Police Officer Steven T. Byrne Police

December 5, 2011


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


I. Introduction

The action arises out of an incident in which City of Chester police officer Steven Byrne ("Officer Byrne") allegedly shot Plaintiff Christopher Cooper ("Plaintiff") in the back and then entered into a conspiracy with Officer Patrick Mullen ("Officer Mullen") to cover-up this use of force by arresting Plaintiff and initiating prosecution against him on false charges. Plaintiff also names as defendants the City of Chester ("the City") and Police Chief Darren Alston ("Police Chief Alston").*fn1 Plaintiff alleges causes of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for conspiracy and violations of his constitutional rights of access to the courts and freedom from excessive use of force, as well as a municipal liability claim arising under Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). He also asserts several state law claims including false arrest, malicious prosecution, false light and defamation.*fn2 Presently before the Court is Defendants' Partial Motion to Dismiss. ECF No. 9.For the reasons discussed below, the Court will GRANT Defendants' Motion in part and DENY it in part.

II. Factual and Procedural Background

Plaintiffs's Complaint alleges the following pertinent facts, which the Court must accept as true for purposes of Defendants' Motion to Dismiss. On February 5, 2011, while in uniform and on duty as a police officer for the City of Chester, Pennsylvania, Officer Byrne shot Plaintiff in close range, in the back, with a handgun. Compl. ¶¶ 13, 15.Plaintiff suffered and continues to suffer grave injury as a result. Compl. ¶ 16.Officer Byrne signed an Affidavit of Probable Cause stating that his use of force against Plaintiff was justified because Plaintiff "aimed a dark object towards the officer with both hands." Compl. ¶ 18(h). Plaintiff, however, had not aimed anything at Officer Byrne nor did he have a firearm in his possession at any relevant point. Compl. ¶ 19. Law enforcement searched the area and found no firearm or shell casings, nor did they find any gun powder on Plaintiff. Compl. ¶21-22.

Officers Byrne and Mullen authored a Criminal Complaint and Affidavit of Probable Cause against Plaintiff, charging him with criminal conspiracy, possession of a controlled substance (marijuana), and possession of drug paraphernalia. Compl. ¶ 23. More than three months after the shooting incident, these Officers again authored a Criminal Complaint and Affidavit of Probable Cause against Plaintiff, charging him with possession of a firearm without a license, recklessly endangering another person, aggravated assault, simple assault, and criminal conspiracy. Compl. ¶ 26. These charges were false: at no relevant time did Plaintiff (1) possess marijuana or drug paraphernalia; (2) enter into a conspiracy related to possession of drugs or drug paraphernalia; or (3) possess or recklessly endanger another person with a firearm. Compl. ¶¶ 24, 27. Officers Byrne and Mullen intentionally arrested and prosecuted Plaintiff for crimes he did not commit to cover-up or justify the shooting or to punish Plaintiff for exercising his rights. Compl. ¶ 78. These charges were eventually withdrawn and dismissed, respectively, due to lack of evidence. Compl. ¶¶ 25, 28. After the charges were dismissed, Defendants had the false charges published repeatedly in local newspapers. Compl. ¶¶ 100, 105(b).

On October 12, 2011, Defendants moved for partial dismissal of Plaintiff's claims, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). ECF No. 9.Plaintiff responded on November 2, 2011. ECF No. 10. Defendant declined to file a reply brief.

III. The Parties' Contentions

Defendants move to dismiss only Plaintiff's (1) conspiracy, (2) access to the courts,*fn3 (3) invasion of privacy/false light, and (4) defamation claims, as well as (5) all claims asserted against Police Chief Alston.*fn4 In the alternative, Defendants move for a more definite statement pursuant to Rule 9 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

In support of their Motion to dismiss Plaintiff's access-to-the-courts claim, Defendants argue that Plaintiff has not alleged facts that demonstrate that any cover-up impeded his right of access to the judicial process or that he was denied information or evidence to mount his defense. Defs. Br. at 14-15. Plaintiff responds that he has a constitutional right to defend himself without fear of retaliation or intimidation. Pl. Br. at 11. He argues that he has properly alleged that the Defendant police officers falsified police reports in an attempt to prevent him from exercising his constitutional right to avail himself of the court system. Pl. Br. at 13.

Defendants further argue that Plaintiff's conspiracy claim must fail because he has not sufficiently pleaded facts to show Defendants had an agreement to violate Plaintiff's civil rights. Defs. Br. at 5-7. In response, Plaintiff cites paragraphs of his Complaint in which he stated that Defendants "entered into a conspiracy" and acted "in concert and conspiracy" to violate his rights. Pl. Br. at 16-17.

With respect to Plaintiff's false light and defamation claims, Defendants contend that Plaintiff's claim cannot stand because (1) there are no such federal causes of action and (2) has not alleged that any of the individual defendants publicly disclosed Plaintiff's private information. Defs. Br. at 16. Plaintiff responds that he brings these claims under state law only, and has sufficiently stated a claim by alleging that Defendants had local newspapers publish the false charges against Plaintiff even after the charges were dismissed, which constitutes publicity that places the Plaintiff in a false light before the public. Pl. Br. at 14-15.*fn5

IV. Legal Standards

A. Jurisdiction and Venue

This Court has jurisdiction over Plaintiff's federal claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331, and the civil rights claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1343(a)(3). This Court also has supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiff's state-law claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a). Venue is proper in this district pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b).

B. Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim

Under the notice pleading requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), a complaint must contain only "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." To survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the complaint must plead sufficient factual allegations, that, taken as a whole, state a facially plausible claim to relief. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). A complaint satisfies the threshold of facial plausibility if "the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). "Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements," are insufficient to establish plausible allegations to survive the motion. Id. at 1949 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).

In analyzing the complaint, the court must "'accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief.'" Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008)). However, the court may disregard any legal conclusions in the complaint. Id. at 210-11 (citing Iqbal, at 1949).

Generally, the district court may consider only the facts alleged in the complaint and its attachments on a motion to dismiss. Jordan v. Fox, Rothschild, O'Brien & Frankel, 20 F.3d 1250, 1261 (3d Cir. 1994). The court may also take into consideration "an undisputedly authentic document that a defendant attaches as an exhibit to a motion to dismiss if the plaintiff's claims are based on the ...

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