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Ritchie Webb v. Bristol Borough

July 24, 2012

RITCHIE WEBB, PLAINTIFF,
v.
BRISTOL BOROUGH, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Anita B. Brody, J.

EXPLANATION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Ritchie Webb brings this action against Defendants Bristol Borough ("Bristol"), Attorney Christopher Gerber ("Gerber"), Law Firm Siana, Bellwoar & McAndrew, LLP ("Siana") and the following Bristol officials and employees in their individual and official capacities: Arnold A. Porter (police chief), Joseph Moors (police sergeant), Randy Morris (police detective), Robert A. Lebo (Bristol mayor), Ralph DiGuiseppe, Jr. (Bristol council president), Maria Robles (patrolwoman), Dean Johnson (patrolman), James Ellis (patrolman), and Charles Palmer (patrolman). Webb brings suit against select Defendants under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985 and Pennsylvania state law.*fn1 Webb seeks judgment in excess of $100,000.00, as well as declaratory judgment relief. Defendants moved to dismiss all counts. Gerber and Siana filed a joint motion to dismiss (Doc. No. 32), and the remaining Defendants filed a separate motion to dismiss (Doc. No. 31). Gerber subsequently filed a supplemental motion to dismiss on the grounds of qualified immunity (Doc. No. 54). Federal jurisdiction is proper pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and 28 U.S.C. § 1343. Supplemental jurisdiction over the state claims is proper pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367.

I.BACKGROUND*fn2

In 1999, Bristol Borough, a municipality in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, hired Ritchie Webb as a part-time patrolman. Five years later, Bristol promoted Webb to a full-time position. On August 29, 2008, Webb was on duty with his partner Samuel C. Anderson. Around 3:15 a.m., the officers were in their respective patrol vehicles when Anderson received a call of a domestic dispute. Joanne Cipressi called 9-1-1 because her intoxicated ex-boyfriend appeared at her home and refused to leave. Anderson headed to Cipressi's home, and Webb responded as back-up. Anderson told Webb that he had the situation under control, so Webb left to respond to another call. Webb later returned to the Cipressi home but only saw Anderson's empty vehicle. The partners reconvened ten to fifteen minutes later when Anderson recounted his non-consensual sexual encounter with Cipressi. Cipressi then called to make a formal complaint, and Webb promptly contacted a superior. Anderson returned to the police station and Webb, as the officer-in-charge that evening, carried out the investigation. He interviewed Cipressi and collected evidence, including a DNA sample. Six weeks later, Anderson resigned and went on to serve time in prison.

Webb's claims stem from the treatment he received from his supervisors and fellow officers following the Cipressi incident. Prior to that evening, Webb had a stellar reputation. But after his investigation, Webb was ostracized and harassed for his refusal to cover for Anderson. For example, police sergeant Joseph Moors and police detective Randy Morris visited Webb at his home and threatened to fire him if he told anyone about any sexual incidents involving Anderson, including the Cipressi encounter. Moors returned to Webb's home twice to remind him to keep his mouth shut and belittled Webb in front of his fellow police officers. As a result, officers did not provide back-up when Webb responded to calls.

On April 9, 2010, Cipressi filed a related civil suit against Bristol Borough, Samuel Anderson, and other Bristol Borough police officers. Cipressi v. Bristol Borough, et al., No. 10-cv-1584.*fn3 On May 6, 2010, Webb received a phone call from attorney Christopher Gerber at the Siana law firm. Gerber explained that Bristol's insurance company hired him to represent the police department and its officers. Gerber informed Webb that he may be deposed in the Cipressi matter and led him to believe that Gerber would represent him at the deposition. Four days later, Gerber met Webb in person and attempted to persuade him to alter his version of what happened between Anderson and Cipressi. Gerber even suggested that Webb forget about witnessing Anderson's lie detector test. Webb refused to put a more "pro-Bristol Borough" spin on events. On September 13, 2010, Gerber again suggested that Webb alter his testimony. Gerber then gave Webb his business card and told Webb to contact him if he recalled anything new. Meanwhile, Webb's fellow officers continued to harass and intimidate him at work.

On March 28, 2011, Webb was subpoenaed in the Cipressi case. The deposition was initially scheduled for April 11, 2011. On April 7, 2011, Gerber informed Webb via fax that neither he nor anyone at his firm would be representing him at the upcoming deposition. Later that night, officers Maria Robles and Dean Johnson accused Webb of threatening to shoot someone after learning that the Borough was not going to represent him. Mayor Lebo called Webb at home and demanded that he return to the station for questioning. Webb told Lebo to call Sergeant Lutz who could confirm that Webb never threatened anyone. In spite of Lutz's confirmation, Lebo still instructed Webb to return to the station. Webb told the Mayor that he had a couple of drinks and was not comfortable driving. Webb invited Lebo over to discuss the matter, but the Mayor declined.

On April 8, 2011, Webb received oral notification of his suspension. He did not receive written notification until May 6, 2011. On June 8, 2011, Webb received notice of a pre-deprivation Loudermill Hearing scheduled for June 9, 2011 to address the alleged incident. See Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532 (1985). Mayor Lebo and Chief Porter conducted the hearing and placed a letter of discipline in Webb's personnel file for "conduct unbecoming of an officer." On June 24, 2011, Webb returned to work, where he was subjected to continued harassment by his fellow officers. On September 21, 2011, Webb was deposed in the Cipressi case. The harassment continued after the deposition.

II.LEGAL STANDARD

A motion to dismiss should be granted under Rule 12(b)(6) if the moving party "under any reasonable reading of the complaint . . . may be entitled to relief." Kerchner v. Obama, 612 F.3d 204, 207 (3d Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks omitted). The Complaint must allege facts sufficient to "raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). "Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Rather, "a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id.

In deciding a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a 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). This "assumption of truth" is "inapplicable to legal conclusions." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678-79.

III.DISCUSSION

a.Absolute Immunity: Mayor Robert Lebo & Police Chief Arnold Porter

Defendant Lebo's motion to dismiss as to Counts IV-VI (state law claims) on the grounds of high public official immunity is granted. Defendant Porter's motion to dismiss as to Counts IV-VI (state law claims) on the grounds of ...


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