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Steven M. Stiegel v. Peters Township and Officer Matthew Russell Collins

July 30, 2012

STEVEN M. STIEGEL,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
PETERS TOWNSHIP AND OFFICER MATTHEW RUSSELL COLLINS,
DEFENDANTS.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Presently before the Court is the MOTION TO DISMISS PLAINTIFF'S COMPLAINT, with brief in support, (Document Nos. 12 and 13) filed by Defendants Peters Township ("Township") and Officer Matthew Russell Collins ("Collins") (collectively "Defendants") and the brief in opposition filed by Plaintiff, Steven M. Stiegel ("Plaintiff") (Document No. 14).

The motion is ripe for disposition.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff initiated this lawsuit on March 27, 2012 by the filing of a Complaint in this Court in which he alleges that Defendants violated his First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights under the United States Constitution. Specifically, the Complaint raises three claims: (i) that Defendant Collins violated Plaintiff's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (ii) that the policy, custom, or practice of Defendant Township makes it liable for the constitutional violations of Defendant Collins, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983; and (iii) that both Defendants violated Plaintiff's First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights in violation of 42 U.S.C. §§ 1985.*fn1

Defendants have filed the instant motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), in which they argue that the Complaint should be dismissed because: (i) the allegations against Collins meet the requirements of a lawful Terry stop and, thus, there was no constitutional violation; and (ii) the allegations against the Township must fail because Plaintiff cannot show that he suffered a constitutional violation. In the alternative, Defendants argue that (i) Collins is entitled to qualified immunity; and (ii) the Complaint contains redundant, immaterial, impertinent and scandalous matter in violation of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(f) and request that those matters be stricken.

Plaintiff responds that the Complaint should not be dismissed because (i) the Complaint states a viable claim against Collins under 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (ii) Collins is not entitled to qualified immunity; (iii) the Complaint states a viable claim against the Township because Collins acted in accordance with Township policy; and (iv) no paragraphs of the Complaint should be stricken.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

As the law requires, at this stage of the proceeding, all disputed facts and inferences are to be resolved in favor of Plaintiff, the non-moving party. Hemi Group, LLC v. City of N.Y., -- U.S. ---, 130 S.Ct. 983, 986-87 (2010). The following background is drawn from the Complaint and the factual allegations therein are accepted as true for the purpose of this Opinion.

The claims asserted all arise from events which occurred on the night of January 30, 2012, when Plaintiff and his friend, Nolan Majcher ("Majcher"), were fox hunting on private property in North Strabane Township. Both Plaintiff and Majcher are licensed fox hunters and both legally possessed hunting rifles. Plaintiff and Majcher had parked their truck at a dead end of a road in a rural area, several hundred yards away from any houses. Majcher was about 30 yards away from his truck, scanning the woods where the two were hunting. Majcher was wearing hunting camouflage and carrying a clearly visible hunting rifle. At approximately 11:00 pm, Majcher observed headlights coming down the road towards him. The driver stopped the vehicle, turned on its spotlight and focused on Majcher, blinding him to the occupant of the vehicle.

The vehicle was driven by Defendant Collins, a Peters Township police officer, who at the time was outside of his jurisdiction. Collins did not identify himself as a police officer, but Majcher suspected that he might be associated with law enforcement due to the spotlight on the vehicle. Majcher walked toward the vehicle with his arms extended and held his gun in a vertical non-threatening position. Collins, again without identifying himself as a police officer, aggressively yelled for Majcher to drop his weapon, with which command Majcher immediately complied. Collins then shouted to Majcher "what the fuck are you doing?" (Compl. at ¶ 30). Instead of responding, Majcher, now unarmed, proceeded to walk towards Collins so that Collins would no longer have to shout. Collins again aggressively yelled and instructed Majcher to remain where he was or Collins would shoot him. Majcher then told Collins that his hunting partner, Plaintiff, would be coming out of the woods and would be approaching from Collins' right. Majcher did not want Collins to be surprised when Plaintiff exited the woods.

Majcher explained to Collins that he and Plaintiff were simply fox hunting. Collins kept his gun trained on Majcher as Plaintiff walked out of the woods, dressed in hunting camouflage and carrying his hunting rifle. Plaintiff inquired as to what was going on. At that point, Collins turned his gun on Plaintiff, who immediately stopped walking and dropped his hunting rifle. Collins, with his gun constantly trained on Plaintiff and Majcher, detained the two hunters and, after aggressively questioning them, left the scene without issuing any sort of citation.

Plaintiff made a complaint to Peters Township about the incident. The Township, through Police Chief Harry J. Fruecht ("Fruecht"), conducted a "thorough investigation" of the complaint and on February 29, 2012, Police Chief Fruecht advised Plaintiff that his investigation had determined that Collins' actions that night "was not contrary to policy." Unsatisfied with the outcome of the investigation, Plaintiff sent an email to Peters Township Manager, Michael Silvestri, in which he described the course of events and expressed his lack of confidence in the internal oversight policies of the police department. Plaintiff recommended that the Township establish a Community Review Board to oversee the conduct of police officers in Peters Township.

According to the Complaint, on the agenda of items to be discussed at the March 12, 2012, Township council meeting was the topic of "Police Complaint Review Process." Plaintiff claims that matters which involve citizen's complaints are normally first heard in an executive session, outside of public hearing. However, Plaintiff's complaint was not considered at executive session, but rather, Plaintiff was publicly identified by a council member at the meeting and a public debate ensued regarding the prospect of a Citizens Review Board. Ultimately, the Township did not adopt Plaintiff's recommendation for a Citizens Review Board.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

To survive a motion to dismiss, "a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007); see also Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009) and Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2) (providing that a valid complaint requires only "a short and plain statement of the claim" showing entitlement to relief.) In Iqbal, the United States Supreme Court clarified that the decision in Twombly "expounded the pleading standard for 'all civil actions.'" Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 684; Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210-11. The Supreme Court further explained that although a court must accept as true all factual allegations contained in the complaint, that requirement does not apply to legal conclusions; therefore, the pleadings must include factual allegations to support the legal claim asserted. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 684. "Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Id. at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit expounded on this standard as follows:

After Iqbal, it is clear that conclusory or "bare-bones" allegations will no longer survive a motion to dismiss: "threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949. To prevent dismissal, all civil complaints must now set out "sufficient factual matter" to show that the claim is facially plausible. This then "allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. at 1948. The Supreme Court's ruling in Iqbal emphasizes that a plaintiff must show that the allegations of his or her complaints are plausible. See Id. at 1949-50; see also Twombly, 505 U.S. at 555, & n.3.

Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009). In light of Iqbal, the Fowler court then set forth a two-prong test to be applied by the district courts in deciding motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. First, the district court must accept all well-pleaded facts as true and discard any legal conclusions contained in the complaint. Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210-11. Next, the court must consider whether the facts alleged in the Complaint sufficiently demonstrate that the plaintiff has a "plausible claim for relief." Id. at 211. To survive a motion to dismiss, ...


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