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Central Transport, LLC, et al. v. Atlas Towing

August 1, 2012


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


This suit arises from an accident between a van and a tractor-trailer plaintiff GLS Leasco, Inc. ("GLS") owned and leased to plaintiff Central Transport, LLC ("Central"). In the aftermath of the accident -- which tragically claimed one life and caused serious injuries to several people, see Kevin Amerman, "Man, 54, guilty in fatal crash", The Morning Call (Allentown), Oct. 7, 2011, at A8 -- police officers allegedly instructed defendant Atlas Towing, Inc. ("Atlas") to tow and impound plaintiffs' tractor-trailer, along with its cargo, for use as evidence in the criminal prosecution of the van's driver.

That prosecution has at last concluded and plaintiffs seek to recover their tractor trailer and cargo from Atlas. Plaintiffs allege that Atlas refuses to turn over the property until they pay storage and towing fees.

Plaintiffs assert six claims against defendants: (1) conversion; (2) intentional interference with contractual relations and interstate commerce; (3) replevin; (4) punitive damages; (5) civil liability stemming from violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act ("RICO"), 18 U.S.C. §§ 1961, et seq.; and (6) injunctive relief under RICO.

Defendants Atlas and Robert N. Wotring ("Wotring") have moved to dismiss all of plaintiffs' claims. Upon examination of defendants' motion to dismiss and plaintiffs' response in opposition thereto, we conclude that only two of plaintiffs' claims -- for conversion and replevin -- survive defendants' motion to dismiss. Because the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000 and the parties are diverse, we retain jurisdiction over this case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332 despite the dismissal of plaintiffs' federal cause of action and will instruct defendants promptly to answer the surviving allegations of the complaint.

I. Factual Background

In considering a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), we must "'accept all factual allegations in the complaint as true and give the pleader the benefit of all reasonable inferences that can be fairly drawn therefrom.'" Ordonez v. Yost, 289 Fed. Appx. 553, 554 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Kost v. Kozakiewicz, 1 F.3d 176, 183 (3d Cir. 1993)). We may "'consider only allegations in the complaint, exhibits attached to the complaint, matters of public record, and documents that form the basis of a claim,'" Brown v. Daniels, 128 Fed. Appx. 910, 913 (3d Cir. 2005) (quoting Lum v. Bank of America, 361 F.3d 217, 222 n.3 (3d Cir. 2004)), where a document forms the basis of a claim if it is "integral to or explicitly relied upon in the complaint." In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1426 (3d Cir. 1997)) (emphasis and internal quotation marks omitted). As our Court of Appeals has explained, this means that we may "consider an undisputedly authentic document that a defendant attaches as an exhibit to a motion to dismiss if the plaintiff's claims are based on the document." Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993). Because plaintiffs' complaint relies in part on certain documents, we will review both the allegations of the complaint and the features of those documents that are material to defendants' motion to dismiss.

According to plaintiffs, Central and GLS are Indiana corporations with their principal places of business in Warren, Michigan. Atlas is a Pennsylvania corporation with its principal place of business in Whitehall, Pennsylvania. Pls.' Compl. ¶¶ 1-3. Plaintiffs allege that Wotring is an adult "domiciled in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, who has acted at all times relevant hereto both individually for his own profit and as president and/or owner of Defendant Atlas." Id. ¶ 4.

Plaintiffs aver that Central is engaged in the business of transporting "goods, cargo, wares, freight, and/or other merchandise" as a common motor carrier in interstate commerce, and that GLS owns and leases a tractor, dolly, and two trailers (collectively, the "vehicle") to Central. Id. ¶¶ 7-8. Defendants are engaged in the business of vehicle towing, accident cleanup, and accident recovery services, and allegedly own, maintain, and control a place of business where vehicles that have been involved in accidents -- including plaintiffs' vehicle, along with its cargo -- are stored. Id. ¶¶ 9-10. Plaintiffs state that on various dates before July 17, 2010, multiple customers entered into agreements with Central whereby Central was to transport and deliver certain cargo "as an interstate motor carrier in interstate commerce," id. ¶ 11. They note that pursuant to the applicable bills of lading "Central was to carry and deliver the goods with reasonable dispatch and within a reasonable time to its customers." Id. ¶ 12 (citing Ex. A to Pls.' Compl.). Plaintiffs claim that this cargo is worth more than $148,000. Id. ¶ 21.

On July 17, 2010, plaintiffs' vehicle was involved in an accident in Allentown, Pennsylvania, id. ¶ 13, with a van driven by James Augustus York ("York"). Immediately after the accident the Pennsylvania State Police allegedly called defendants to the scene to provide towing and recovery services. Id. ¶ 14. Atlas took this call and, "at the direction of Pennsylvania State Police," removed plaintiffs' vehicle and its cargo to its own facility for the Commonwealth's use as evidence in York's criminal prosecution. Id. ¶ 15. According to plaintiffs, the Commonwealth, through the office of the District Attorney of Lehigh County, now "stands ready to release the vehicle and cargo to Plaintiffs," but defendants refuse to release the vehicle or cargo until plaintiffs have paid defendants' towing and storage bill, id. ¶¶ 17-18, which amounted to $77,085.00 on October 24, 2011, see Ex. B to Pls.' Compl., but which defendants were willing to reduce to $64,335.00 as of December 7, 2011. See Ex. D to Pls.' Compl.

Plaintiffs further allege that defendants "now threaten to dispose of the vehicle without consent of the Plaintiffs," id. ¶ 19, citing a December 7, 2011 letter from defendants' attorney in which he explained that "[i]n the event your client does not agree [to settle defendants' bill], please be advised that within the next 15 days, my client will move to have the tractor, trailers and equipment classified by the Pennsylvania state [sic] Police as abandoned and we will proceed to sale for collection of the towing and storage charges." Ex. D to Pls.' Compl.

Finally, plaintiffs aver that

Defendants Atlas and Wotring, actively engaged in the towing business at all times relevant to this civil action, have known throughout this dispute that there is no statute or other law that imposes liability upon the Plaintiff,*fn1 or that grants Defendant any lien against the Plaintiff's property, for the Commonwealth's impoundment of its vehicle or cargo as evidence in a criminal case against a third party.

Pls.' Compl. ¶ 24. Plaintiffs also plead that defendants "reasonably should have known" about the absence of liability described above because they are "actively engaged in the towing business" and in any event "through their counsel, were notified by Plaintiff" that such liability did not exist. Id. ¶¶ 25-26.

II. Analysis

As the Supreme Court has explained, "only a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives a motion to dismiss" pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), so that a reviewing court must engage in a "context-specific" inquiry that "requires [it] to draw on its judicial experience and common sense" to resolve a motion to dismiss. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1950 (2009). Under this standard, a pleading may not simply offer "labels and conclusions," Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007), and "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1949. Rather, "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level," Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, which is to say that there must be "more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1949. Essentially, a plaintiff must provide "enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary element" of the cause of action. Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks omitted).

We will begin our analysis by briefly explaining why Counts II, IV, V, and VI fail to state a claim, and why plaintiffs have failed to state a claim against defendant Wotring. We will then discuss plaintiffs' claims for conversion and replevin.

A. Count II: "Intentional Interference With Contractual Relations and Interstate Commerce" Plaintiffs aver that "[d]efendant, acting without

privilege or license, has wrongfully interfered with Plaintiff's existing contractual relationships with its customers by improperly detaining the cargo/freight in question such that Plaintiff has been unable to perform its agreement as contained in the Bills of Lading." Pls.' Compl. ¶ 56. Defendants respond*fn2 that "Pennsylvania law; in particular, the Restatement of Torts (2nd), § 767, would require the defendant, in this case, to interfere by contact with plaintiffs' customers in some manner so as to deter said customers from dealing with plaintiffs." Defs.' Br. in Supp. of Mot. Dismiss ("Defs.' Br.") at 15.

As the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania noted in Adler, Barish, Daniels, Levin & Creskoff v. Epstein, 393 A.2d 1175, 1181-82 (Pa. 1978), "[i]n Birl v. Philadelphia Electric Co., 402 Pa. 297, 167 A.2d 472 (1961), this Court adopted Section 766 of Restatement of Torts and its definition of the right of action for intentional interference with existing contractual relations," though the Court ultimately found it "appropriate to analyze this case in light of the approach fashioned by Restatement (Second)." Id. at 1183. More recently, the Pennsylvania Superior Court has observed that "[a] cause of action for intentional interference with existing contractual relationships is outlined in Restatement (Second) of Torts § 766." Foster v. UPMC South Side Hosp., 2 A.3d 655, 665 (Pa. Super. 2010).

While the language of these two provisions differ slightly, each requires a plaintiff to show that a defendant caused a third party not to enter into or perform under a contract. Compare Restatement of Torts § 766 ("Except as stated in Section 698, one who, without a privilege to do so, induces or otherwise purposely causes a third person not to (a) perform a contract with another, or (b) enter into or continue a business relation with another is liable to the other for the harm caused thereby.") (emphasis added) with Restatement (Second) of Torts § 766 ("One who intentionally and improperly interferes with the performance of a contract (except a contract to marry) between another and a third person by inducing or otherwise causing the third person not to perform the contract, is subject to liability to the other for the pecuniary loss resulting to the other from the failure of the third person to perform the contract.") (emphasis added). See also Maier v. Maretti, 671 A.2d 701, 707 (Pa. Super. 1995) ("The tort of interference with contract provides that one who intentionally and improperly interferes with the performance of a contract between another and a third person by causing the third person not to perform the contract is subject to liability.") (emphasis added); Judge ...

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