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George B. Keahey v. Bethel Township

February 15, 2012

GEORGE B. KEAHEY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
BETHEL TOWNSHIP, PENNSYLVANIA , ET AL.,
DEFENDANTS.



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

MEMORANDUM

Currently pending before the Court is the Motion of Defendants Bethel Township, Pennsylvania, et al. ("the Township")*fn1 to Dismiss Plaintiff's Amended Complaint. For the following reasons, the Motion is granted in part and denied in part.

I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

This action stems from a series of incidents that occurred between the Plaintiff, George B. Keahey ("Plaintiff" or "Keahey") and several police officers of the Bethel Township Police Department in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. According to the facts set forth in the Amended Complaint, on November 25, 2009, several police officers arrived at Keahey's home in response to a 911 call made by his wife, Wendy Keahey ("Wendy").*fn2 (Am. Compl. ¶ 17.) Keahey was sitting alone in his sun room when several officers approached the house and demanded entry. (Id. ¶ 20.) Plaintiff complied with their request. (Id. ¶¶ 20, 22.) Plaintiff asserts that, at the time, his wife was visibly intoxicated from drugs and alcohol to the point of being unable to stand. (Id. ¶ 23.) Plaintiff, a licensed attorney in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, therefore requested that the officers make note of this in their police report, but was told to "mind his own business." (Id. ¶¶ 24, 32.) At Wendy's request, the police officers then removed Keahey from his home, placed him in the back of a marked patrol car with no door handles, and drove off of his property. (Id. ¶¶ 25--26.) The officers eventually deposited Plaintiff in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant in another township, where he was left in the rain without a jacket or socks. (Id. ¶ 27.)

The following day, November 26, 2009, Keahey attempted to return to his home, but Wendy refused to allow him on the premises. (Id. ¶ 29.) Plaintiff therefore left the property in a 2003 Ford F-150 truck ("the truck") that had been purchased during the course of his marriage to Wendy, which he claims was lawfully registered to and insured by him. (Id. ¶ 30.) Plaintiff thereafter received a telephone call on his personal cell phone from several police officers, who threatened to arrest him for unauthorized use of the truck if he did not immediately return it to Wendy. (Id. ¶ 31.) The officers also apparently issued a stop-and-seize order over the police radio network instructing other police units to stop and seize the truck if they encountered it. (Id. ¶ 33.) Keahey did not return the truck. (Id. ¶ 34.) The next day, the District Attorney of Delaware County allegedly informed the officers that Keahey was in lawful possession of it and entitled to use it, and that Wendy would need to file a civil petition through her divorce attorney if she wished to gain possession of the truck. (Id.)

Approximately two months later, however, Wendy "stole" the truck while it was parked in front of a home on a private road where Plaintiff was attending a social event. (Id. ¶ 35.) Several of Keahey's personal items were inside the truck at the time, including his wallet, identification, credit cards, suit jacket, business cell phone, and numerous confidential legal documents and files related to his legal practice. (Id. ¶¶ 36--38.) Keahey reported the alleged theft to the police, but was told that Wendy was in lawful possession and could return Keahey's personal items when it was convenient for her to do so, despite their confidential and sensitive nature. (Id. ¶¶ 39--42.)

Plaintiff subsequently filed a petition in the Court of Common Pleas in Delaware County for return of the truck. (Id. ¶ 43.) While his petition was pending, Plaintiff asserts that he was "forced to" borrow and rent transportation so that he could continue to operate his legal practice. (Id. ¶ 44.) On February 17, 2010, the Court of Common Pleas issued a temporary order granting Keahey permission to use another car he owned with his wife, a 1987 Ford Mustang ("the Mustang"). (Id. ¶ 45.) Keahey took possession of the Mustang on February 22, 2010. (Id. ¶ 46.) Less than one month later, he apparently received a phone call from an officer of the Bethel Township Police Department on a Friday night informing him that he needed to immediately return the Mustang to Wendy or else he would be arrested for its unlawful use. (Id. ¶ 47.) Keahey explained that he had a temporary court order for use of the Mustang, already had filed a court order for its permanent use, and offered to meet with the officer in person to discuss the matter because he was at dinner with a client. (Id. ¶ 48.) Later that night, the officer called Keahey again, stating that he had obtained a "hard copy" of the court order and that, despite this fact, Keahey still needed to immediately return the car or else risk arrest. (Id. ¶ 49.) Keahey again tried to explain that he was lawfully permitted to use the Mustang, and suggested that the officer contact the court that issued the order to confirm. (Id. ¶ 50.) Nonetheless, the officer called Keahey the following day and demanded that he immediately return the Mustang to Wendy. (Id. ¶ 51.) When Keahey once again tried to explain that he had a court order, the officer allegedly told him that "he did not care" and that he would have him arrested if he did return the vehicle "now." (Id.)

On April 22, 2010, Plaintiff obtained a different court order from the Court of Common Pleas granting him access to the home he previously shared with his wife. (Id. ¶ 52.) According to the Plaintiff, Wendy was ordered not to remove any personal property from the home prior to Keahey's scheduled retrieval date. (Id.) When Keahey entered the property on April 24 and/or 25, 2010, he claims that several valuable personal items were missing and that Wendy refused to return them. (Id. ¶¶ 52, 53.) Plaintiff thereafter notified Wendy and her attorney that certain items were missing, and requested their return within three weeks. (Id. ¶ 54.) When Wendy failed to return the property, Plaintiff reported them as stolen to the police on May 13, 2010. (Id. ¶¶ 54, 55.) On June 1, 2010, Keahey requested a copy of the official police report, which he claims states that Wendy told the police that Keahey was not lawfully entitled to enter the premises and obtain the items. (Id. ¶¶ 56, 57.) At this time, Plaintiff also inquired as to the status of the investigation of his stolen property, and was told that the investigation remained ongoing. (Id. ¶ 56.) After waiting over a month and making numerous phone calls to several different officers regarding his case to no avail, Keahey filed a private criminal complaint with the Delaware County District Attorney to recover his personal property. (Id. ¶ 58.) On August 9, 2010, the District Attorney allegedly dropped Keahey's private complaint because the police "did not want to investigate or prosecute [Wendy]." (Id. ¶ 60.) On August 10, 2010, Plaintiff filed a petition with the Court of Common Pleas "in an attempt to force the prosecution of his missing personal items." (Id. ¶ 61.) Plaintiff also sought to file a claim for the items with his insurance carrier at approximately this time, but was prevented from doing so because the police never completed their formal investigation of the incident. (Id. ¶ 59.)

Plaintiff filed a pro se Complaint in this Court on November 18, 2011. Defendants moved to dismiss on December 12, 2011. Plaintiff thereafter filed an Amended Complaint on December 28, 2011. The Amended Complaint includes the following six counts: (1) violations of Plaintiff's civil rights secured by the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (2) violations of Plaintiff's civil rights secured by the Fourteenth Amendment and § 1983; (3) a conspiracy to deprive Plaintiff of his federal constitutional rights pursuant to § 1983; (4) false imprisonment; (5) harassment; and (6) the malicious abuse of process. The Defendants filed the present Motion to Dismiss the Amended Complaint (the "Motion") on January 6, 2012. Plaintiff filed a Response in Opposition ("Response") on January 24, 2012. The Court will now consider the merits of Defendant's Motion.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a defendant bears the burden of demonstrating that the plaintiff has not stated a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6); see also Hedges v. United States, 404 F.3d 744, 750 (3d Cir. 2005). In Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), the United States Supreme Court recognized that "a plaintiff's obligation to provide the 'grounds' of his 'entitle[ment] to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Id. at 555. It emphasized that it would not require a "heightened fact pleading of specifics, but only enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Id. at 570.

In the subsequent case of Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937 (2009), the Supreme Court enunciated two fundamental principles applicable to a court's review of a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. First, it noted that "the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions. Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Id. at 1949. Thus, although "[Federal] Rule [of Civil Procedure] 8 marks a notable and generous departure from the hyper-technical, code-pleading regime of a prior era . . . it does not unlock the doors of discovery for a plaintiff armed with nothing more than conclusions." Id. at 1950. Second, the Supreme Court emphasized that "only a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives a motion to dismiss." Id. "Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief will . . . be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, nothing in Twombly or Iqbal has altered some of the fundamental underpinnings of the Rule 12(b)(6) standard of review. Arner v. PGT Trucking, Inc., No. Civ.A.09-0565, 2010 WL 1052953, at *2 (W.D. Pa. Mar. 22, 2010); Spence v. Brownsville Area Sch. Dist., No. Civ.A.08-0626, 2008 WL 2779079, at *2 (W.D. Pa. July 15, 2008). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8 requires only a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief and need not contain detailed factual allegations. Fed. R. Civ. P. 8; Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008). Further, the court must "accept all factual allegations in the complaint as true and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Buck v. Hampton Twp. Sch. Dist., 452 F.3d 256, 260 (3d Cir. 2006). Finally, the court must "determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief." Pinkerton v. Roche Holdings Ltd., 292 F.3d 361, 374 n.7 (3d Cir. 2002).

III. DISCUSSION

A. Counts I and II-The Section 1983 Claims

Section 1983 provides that:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress[.]

42 U.S.C.A. § 1983. The statute itself does not independently create substantive rights, but rather merely "provides a remedy for deprivations of rights established elsewhere in the Constitution or federal laws." Kopec v. Tate, 361 F.3d 772, 775--76 (3d Cir. 2004) (internal citation omitted); see also Gonzaga Univ. v. Doe, 536 U.S. 273, 284--85 (2002); Bush v. Lancaster City Bureau of Police, No. Civ.A.07-3172, 2008 WL 3930290, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 26, 2008). Federal law requires a plaintiff to satisfy two steps in order to properly establish a § 1983 claim: (1) the deprivation of a constitutional right or other federal law, and (2) that a "person acting under the color of state law" is responsible for the alleged deprivation. Collins v. City of Harker Heights, 503 U.S. 115, 119--120 (1992).

In the instant case, Plaintiff claims that various officers of the Bethel Township Police Department engaged in conduct committed under the color of state law that deprived him of due process and his rights to be free from the unreasonable and illegal seizure of his person and personal property pursuant to the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 66--100.) Plaintiff also claims that the Township failed to properly train, supervise, and discipline its police officers. (Id. ¶ 63.) In response, Defendants assert that dismissal is required because the individual officers named in the Complaint are protected by the qualified immunity doctrine and, according to the Supreme Court's holding in Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978) the Township itself cannot be held liable under a respondeat superior theory of liability. (Def's Mot. to Dismiss Am. Compl. 4, ...


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