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Stephanie Piazza v. Joseph Lakkis

June 5, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: (judge Caputo)


Presently before the Court is Defendant Joseph Lakkis's Motion to Dismiss of Plaintiff Stephanie Piazza's Complaint. In her Complaint, Piazza alleges that she was subjected to an unreasonable use of force and an unlawful arrest and prosecution by Officer Lakkis. As such, she has alleged violations of her rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, as well as state law claims for malicious prosecution, assault, battery, and false arrest / imprisonment. Piazza's Fourteenth Amendment claims must fail as her claims most properly arise under the Fourth Amendment, and her claims for unlawful arrest must also fail as there was probable cause for her arrest on at least one of her charges. Piazza has also failed to allege the necessary deprivation of liberty for a proper Fourth Amendment claim for malicious prosecution, but will be given leave to amend as to that element. However, Piazza has properly pleaded a Fourth Amendment claim of excessive force as well as claims under state law for malicious prosecution, assault, and battery. Therefore, Officer Lakkis's Motion to Dismiss will be granted in part and denied in part.


Plaintiff Stephanie Piazza alleges the following in her Complaint. On July 11, 2010, Piazza was driving to the Sugar Notch Bar and Grille in Sugar Notch, Pennsylvania. Piazza came upon Defendant Lakkis, a patrolman for the Sugar Notch Police Department who was on duty conducting traffic for the Holy Family Church bazaar. Officer Lakkis motioned Piazza to stop her car in order to allow pedestrians to cross the street. After they had completed their crossing, Piazza began to roll forward. Officer Lakkis then stopped Piazza and "started screaming at her that she was going to kill someone." (Compl. at ¶ 13, Doc. 1.) After directing her to pull off the roadway, Officer Lakkis continued screaming at Piazza with his head inside the open window of the car. When Piazza politely inquired as to what the problem was, she was directed not to talk back.

Officer Lakkis informed Piazza that she was going to receive three motor vehicle citations, in particular for not wearing her seatbelt. Piazza asked Officer Lakkis to "wait a minute" and to "please listen" but was told to keep her mouth shut. Piazza proceeded to inform Officer Lakkis that, because she is on dialysis and has a catheter, she cannot wear a seatbelt for documented medical reasons. Officer Lakkis responded: "That's it. License, registration and insurance. You're going in."

At that point, Piazza started to experience complications associated with her diabetes requiring her to check her blood sugar. Piazza phoned a friend for assistance. At the same time, Officer Lakkis informed Piazza that her license was expired and that her car was going to be towed. Once Piazza's friend finally arrived, Officer Lakkis ordered him to "get away or you will be next."

Officer Lakkis left Piazza in her vehicle, at which point she began to experience diabetic symptoms, including dizziness and nausea. Piazza exited her car to find Officer Lakkis and to tell him that she needed to retire to a cool spot to check her blood sugar. Instead, Officer Lakkis ordered Piazza to return to her car. Piazza protested that it was a medical emergency, but "Lakkis continued to scream at her to get back in the car." (Id. at ¶ 38.) Piazza tried to plead with Officer Lakkis, but "Lakkis grabbed Ms. Piazza by her left arm, dragged her, flipped her onto the police car, causing her dress to lift and expose her underwear, smashed her face into the police car and handcuffed her." (Id. at ¶ 40.) Officer Lakkis was crushing Piazza against the police cruiser, causing her to become panicked that her catheter would be dislocated and that she would bleed to death as a result. Piazza pleaded with Officer Lakkis, trying to communicate the seriousness of the situation, but Lakkis continued to slam Piazza against the police cruiser.

Piazza was thrown in the back of the cruiser, landing on her catheter and again exposing her underwear. Piazza called for help, expressing to Officer Lakkis that she could not breath and that she believed her arm to be broken. Officer Lakkis did not attempt to help, but instead smiled at Piazza through the cruiser's window. Because she still had her cell phone, Piazza again called her friend for help. Approximately fifteen minutes later, an EMT arrived on the scene. Piazza's hands had turned purple, necessitating the loosening of her handcuffs. She was transported to General Hospital. As a result of the ordeal, Piazza sustained injuries including a wrist sprain, bruising, and an elevated blood sugar level requiring emergency medical treatment.

Piazza was charged with resisting arrest, 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 5104, obstructing administration of law, 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 5101, and disorderly conduct, 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 5503(a)(4), as well as vehicle code summary offenses for failure to use a restraint system, 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 4581(a)(2), driving without a license, 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 1501(a), and failure to obey authorized persons directing traffic, 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3102. Officer Lakkis did not have probable cause for these criminal charges, and they were only filed in order to provide legitimacy to his brutal conduct. District Justice Joseph Halesey dismissed the charges of obstructing administration of law and failure to use a restraint system, but everything else was held for court. The remaining two criminal charges were withdrawn on August 29, 2011. Piazza pleaded guilty to the charges of driving without a license and to obedience to authorized persons directing traffic. (Comm. Pleas Crim. Docket, Def.'s Ex. B.)

On November 14, 2011, Piazza filed the instant Complaint bringing claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983*fn1 for: (1) excessive force in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments; (2) unlawful arrest in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments; and (3) malicious prosecution in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Piazza also lodges state law claims for malicious prosecution, assault, battery, and false arrest / imprisonment. This motion is now ripe for the Court's review.


I. Legal Standard

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 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. When considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Court's role is limited to determining if a plaintiff is entitled to offer evidence in support of their 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).

"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 . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'" Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007) (per curiam) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). Detailed factual allegations are not required. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. 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 (3d Cir. 2009). Instead, a complaint must "show" this entitlement by alleging sufficient facts. Id.

As such, the inquiry at the motion to dismiss stage is "normally broken into three parts: (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 whether all of the elements identified in part one of the inquiry are sufficiently alleged." Malleus v. George, 641 F.3d 560, 563 (3d Cir. 2011).

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," Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570, 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 plausibility standard is not akin to a 'probability requirement,' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009). "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.

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 documents and the defendant has attached copies of the documents to the motion to dismiss. Id. The Court need not assume the plaintiff can prove facts that were not alleged in the complaint, see City of Pittsburgh v. W. Penn Power Co., 147 F.3d 256, 263 & n.13 (3d Cir. 1998), or credit a complaint's "'bald assertions'" or "'legal conclusions,'" Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997) (quoting In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1429-30 (3d Cir. 1997)).

II. Analysis

A. Piazza's § 1983 Claim for Unreasonable Use of Force (Count I)

Officer Lakkis argues that the facts alleged in the Complaint are insufficient to establish "an unconstitutional and/or an unprivileged use of force." (Def.'s Br. at 16, Doc. 12.) For the reasons below, Piazza has successfully made a Fourth Amendment claim for unreasonable use of force that survives this Motion to Dismiss. Her Fourteenth Amendment claims, however, will be dismissed under the more specific provision rule.

1. Merits of the Unreasonable Use of Force Claim

The Fourth Amendment specifically prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, and a claim for excessive force under that Amendment must therefore show the existence of such an unreasonable seizure. Lamont v. New Jersey, 637 F.3d 177, 182-83 (3d Cir. 2011) (citations omitted). As the implementation of excessive force itself constitutes a seizure, "a court must determine the objective 'reasonableness' of the challenged conduct, considering 'the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officer or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.'" Couden v. Duffy, 446 F.3d 483, 496-97 (3d Cir. 2006) (quoting Carswell v. Borough of Homestead, 381 F.3d 235, 240 (3d Cir. 2004)). This standard is one of objective reasonableness, and looks to "'the reasonableness of the officer's belief as to the appropriate level of force[,]' which 'should be judged from [the officer's] on-scene perspective,' and not in the '20/20 vision of hindsight.'" Curley v. Klem, 499 F.3d 199, 206 (3d Cir. 2007) (alterations in original) (quoting Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 205 (2001)). Factors to consider--among other things--include the severity of the underlying crime, the immediacy of the threat posed by the individual, the potential that the individual is armed, the extent to which the suspect is attempting to resist or escape, the length of the encounter, and the ratio of suspects to police officers. Kopec v. Tate, 361 F.3d 772, 777 (3d Cir. 2004). Finally, "[t]he absence of physical injury or contact does not necessarily mean that excessive force was not used." Periera v. Lizzio, No. 3:09--CV--1024, 2012 WL 1205750, at * 2 (M.D. Pa. Apr. 11, 2012).

According to the terms of the Complaint,*fn2 the amount of force alleged is sufficiently unreasonable to allow this claim to proceed beyond the motion to dismiss stage. In essence, the Complaint paints a situation in which Piazza politely approached Officer Lakkis to explain a worsening medical situation and instead was repeatedly slammed against a police cruiser despite warnings that such could be fatal. Thus, the thrust of Piazza's Complaint is that she was beat up by a police officer over a series of escalating misunderstandings. The accuracy of these allegations is for further factual development, but the Complaint on its face must survive on this claim. Moreover, viewed in light of the underlying crimes--vehicle summary offenses--a very minimal amount of force would have been objectively reasonable. Officer Lakkis retorts that "he was confronting a situation wherein he was dealing with a recalcitrant, or at least uncooperative, disobedient suspect, and possibly contending with more than one person." (Def.'s Br. at 16, Doc. 12.) Yet, the Complaint suggests that this ...

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