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David Ward and Jocelyn Ward v. Frank Noonan; Colonel Jeffrey Miller; Corporal John M. Yencha; Trooper

December 7, 2011

DAVID WARD AND JOCELYN WARD, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
FRANK NOONAN; COLONEL JEFFREY MILLER; CORPORAL JOHN M. YENCHA; TROOPER JAMES DUGHI; TROOPER ROBERT HUTCHINSON; TROOPER JEFFREY CREEDEN; TROOPER JOHN KERN; TROOPER BRIAN FEDOR; TROOPER BENJAMIN BIGGUS; TROOPER THOMAS BLAIR; BOROUGH OF CANTON; CHIEF DOUGLAS SEELEY, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS CAPACITY AS CHIEF OF THE CANTON BOROUGH POLICE DEPARTMENT; BOROUGH OF TOWANDA; SERGEANT JOHN STROZYK, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS CAPACITY AS AN OFFICER OF THE TOWANDA BOROUGH POLICE; OFFICER JAMES L. HART, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS CAPACITY AS AN OFFICER OF THE TOWANDA BOROUGH POLICE DEPARTMENT; DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Caputo

MEMORANDUM

Plaintiffs David and Jocelyn Ward bring this suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1988, alleging constitutional violations and tort claims under state law. The Defendants in this action are troopers with the Pennsylvania State Police ("PSP"), an officer with the Canton Borough Police Department ("CBPD") and the borough itself, and two officers with the Towanda Borough Police Department ("TBPD") and the borough itself. Defendants Benjamin Biggus, Thomas Blair, Jeffrey Creeden, James Dughi, Brian Fedor, Robert Hutchison, John Kern, Jeffrey Miller, Frank Noonan, and John Yencha (the "PSP Defendants") move for judgment on the pleadings. Defendants James Seeley and the Borough of Canton (the "Canton Defendants") move to dismiss. Defendants James Hart, John Strozyk, and the Borough of Towanda (the "Towanda Defendants") separately move to dismiss.

Mr. Ward did not state a claim under § 1983 against any PSP Defendant other than James Dughi and failed to state a claim against any Defendant under the Fourteenth Amendment; further, the PSP Defendants are immune from state tort suits. Therefore, the PSP Defendants' motion will be granted.

Mr. Ward also failed to state a claim under § 1983 or the Fourteenth Amendment against the Canton Defendants, and § 1988 is not a separate cause of action, so the Canton Defendants' motion will be granted.

Finally, the Towanda Defendants' motion will be granted in part because Mr. Ward failed to state a claim under § 1983 or the Fourteenth Amendment against James Hart and the Borough of Towanda, and he failed to state a punitive damages claim against John Strozyk. But because Mr. Ward stated a claim under § 1983 against John Strozyk and it is premature to consider the issue of qualified immunity, the Towanda Defendants' motion will be denied in part.

I. Background

The facts as alleged in the Wards' complaint are as follows: Just after midnight on May 24, 2009, Plaintiff Jocelyn Ward's vehicle was stopped at a DUI checkpoint on State Road Fourteen in Canton Borough, Pennsylvania. The checkpoint was set up and operated jointly by the PSP, the CBPD, and the TBPD. The Chief of the CBPD, Defendant Douglas Seeley, had requested the establishment of the checkpoint. It was supervised by Defendant Corporal John Yencha and was staffed by the other individual Defendants, all members of the PSD, CBPD, and TBPD.

Ms. Ward's husband, David Ward, was a passenger in the vehicle when it was stopped. Mr. Ward was sitting in the front passenger seat wearing shorts and a t-shirt with cut-off sleeves. It was clearly visible that he was wearing his seatbelt and was not carrying any weapons.

During the vehicle stop, Mr. Ward made several vulgar statements. In response, Defendant Trooper James Dughi placed Mr. Ward under arrest for disorderly conduct. He ordered Mr. Ward out of the vehicle, but Mr. Ward could not exit immediately because of his seatbelt. Instead of waiting for Mr. Ward to unbuckle his seatbelt and get out of the car, Trooper Dughi began attempting to forcibly remove Mr. Ward using pain compliance techniques. Mr. Ward was eventually able to remove his seatbelt and begin exiting the vehicle.

As Mr. Ward got out of the car, Trooper Dughi tasered him. While tasering Mr. Ward, Trooper Dughi instructed him to get on the ground. Mr. Ward dropped to the ground, then Defendant Sergeant Jack Strozyk grabbed his head in order to force him to the ground. Trooper Dughi then tasered Mr. Ward again. Mr. Ward was lying on the ground, held down by two law enforcement agents, when Trooper Dughi tasered him a third time. All three uses of the taser occurred within a period of twenty-two seconds, and each time, Mr. Ward was immobilized and suffered excruciating pain. At no point during the course of events did Mr. Ward resist or act aggressively toward Trooper Dughi or any other law enforcement agent at the checkpoint. The force used at the time of arrest caused several injuries to Mr. Ward, resulting in the disability of his right arm.

Mr. Ward was handcuffed, removed from the scene, and charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. On April 27, 2010, Mr. Ward had a jury trial at which he was found not guilty of all charges.

The Wards filed suit in the Middle District of Pennsylvania on May 17, 2011; they amended their complaint on May 23, 2011. Mr. Ward brings claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1988, alleging violations of his constitutional rights to freedom from unreasonable seizure, excessive force, unlawful arrest, and malicious prosecution; freedom to be secure in his person and property; due process of the law; and freedom of speech. He also brings tort claims of assault, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution. The Wards together bring claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress and loss of consortium. As a remedy, they seek compensatory and punitive damages as well as attorneys fees and costs.

The PSP Defendants moved for judgment on the pleadings on July 28, 2011. The Canton Defendants moved to dismiss on July 28, 2011. The Towanda Defendants moved to dismiss on July 28, 2011. The motions have been fully briefed and are ripe for disposition.

II. Discussion

A. Legal Standard

1. Motion to Dismiss

The Canton and Towanda Defendants have filed motions to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Rule 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of a complaint, in whole or in part, for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Dismissal is appropriate only if, accepting as true all the facts alleged in the complaint, a plaintiff has not pleaded "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face," Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007), meaning enough factual allegations "'to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of'" each necessary element, Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). The pleading standard of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8 does not require "detailed factual allegations," but "[a] pleading that offers 'labels and conclusions' or a 'formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1959 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). "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).

Thus, when determining the sufficiency of a complaint, a court must undertake a three-part inquiry. See Malleus v. George, 641 F.3d 560, 563 (3d Cir. 2011). The inquiry involves: "(1) identifying the elements of the claim, (2) reviewing the complaint to strike conclusory allegations, and then (3) looking at the well-pleaded components of the complaint and evaluating ...


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