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Allison A. Mccoy-Jones v. Indiana Borough

August 24, 2012

ALLISON A. MCCOY-JONES,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
INDIANA BOROUGH, OFFICER MICHAEL RHOADES, CHIEF WILLIAM C. SUTTON, OFFICER WESLEY HITE, AND MICHAEL ZINER T/D/B/A IMPORT AUTO WORKS,
DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Nora Barry Fischer

MEMORANDUM OPINION

I. INTRODUCTION

This is a Section 1983 action stemming from an alleged conspiracy among Defendants to initiate the criminal prosecution of Plaintiff Allison McCoy-Jones without probable cause in violation of her rights under the Fourth, Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. (Docket No. 49). Plaintiff's claims include false arrest, malicious prosecution, and conspiracy, as well as state law claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress ("IIED"), malicious prosecution and defamation. (Id.). Plaintiff seeks compensatory and punitive damages. (Id.). Presently pending before this Court is Defendant Ziner's Partial Motion to Dismiss the Amended Complaint. (Docket No. 59). For the reasons outlined in the following Memorandum Opinion, the Motion is GRANTED, in part and DENIED, in part.

II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND*fn1

Plaintiff is the owner of a 2003 Nissan Murano automobile. (Docket No. 49 at ¶ 11). The car has been serviced by a Nissan dealership and by Defendant Michael Ziner ("Ziner"), a mechanic who operates "Import Auto Works." (Id. at ¶¶ 11-14). On March 2, 2010, the car suffered a mechanical problem, and Plaintiff requested that Ziner diagnose the issue. (Id. at ¶¶ 15-16). Ziner determined that the transmission failed and that repair costs would total $7,000.00 to $8,500.00. (Id. at ¶ 16). Frustrated with the car's repair history, Plaintiff asked Ziner to call Nissan to determine whether the transmission was covered under a Nissan recall program, as Plaintiff did not want to invest any more money in the car. (Id.). Since Plaintiff's car had been in a 2008 car accident, which may have contributed to the transmission problem, Ziner also advised Plaintiff that he would call the insurance carrier of the driver who was at fault for the 2008 accident. (Id.). Over the next several weeks, Plaintiff and Ziner pursued various methods through which the repairs might be covered by either a Nissan warranty or the insurance coverage applicable to the 2008 accident. (Id. at ¶¶ 17-18). Neither Nissan nor any auto insurance carrier would agree to pay for the repairs. (Id.). As a result, Plaintiff appealed the insurer's denial to the Pennsylvania Insurance Commission and informed Ziner that he was not to repair the car unless the repair costs were to be covered by a third-party. (Id.).

On March 26, 2010, Ziner informed Plaintiff that her car had been repaired, stating that he had "found a cheaper way to get it on the road." (Id. at ¶ 19). Per Ziner's permission and instruction, Plaintiff retrieved her car from his lot on March 27, 2010, with the mutual understanding that they "would square up the paperwork" two days later. (Id.). However, after Plaintiff retrieved her car, a dispute ensued between her and Ziner regarding his $3,600.00 bill.

(Id. at ¶¶ 20; 23). In turn, Plaintiff offered to pay Ziner $2,800.00 for the parts he installed, but he rejected her offer. (Id. at ¶ 24). Plaintiff then invited Ziner to sue her for payment, which he declined. (Id. at ¶¶ 24; 30). After August 2010, Plaintiff and Ziner had no further contact. (Id. at ¶ 30).

Nearly ten months after Plaintiff retrieved her car from Ziner, on January 24, 2011, Plaintiff received a call from Defendant Officer Rhoades ("Rhoades") of the Indiana Borough Police Department. (Id. at ¶ 31). Rhoades informed her that Ziner had filed a criminal complaint against her for her alleged failure to pay for the repairs. (Id.). Plaintiff advised Rhoades about the history of the car's repairs and the monetary dispute which she had had with Ziner. (Id.). Rhoades requested that she meet with him to discuss the matter, which she did the next day. (Id. at ¶¶ 31-32). Rhoades again asked her what happened and she told him about the monetary dispute. (Id.). She informed Rhoades that Ziner stated that an insurance carrier was going to pay for the repairs and that was why Ziner released the car to her. (Id.). Rhoades acknowledged that Ziner had released the car to her. (Id.). He then asked if she had ever received payment from an insurance carrier and/or Nissan for any of the work. (Id.). Plaintiff stated that she had not, but if she had received any remuneration, it would have been given to Ziner. (Id.). Rhoades advised Plaintiff that Ziner would need to sue Plaintiff and then Plaintiff would have to sue the insurance carrier, resulting in an expensive and time-consuming process. (Id.). Plaintiff then told him that she had offered to pay Ziner for the cost of the parts, but that he had declined her offer. (Id.).

Thereafter, on January 31, 2011, Rhoades called Plaintiff and informed her that she had one week to pay Ziner in full or she would be arrested for theft of services. (Id. at ¶ 33). He further told her that she was not permitted to contact Ziner and that no one else could contact Ziner on her behalf, or she would be arrested for harassment. (Id.). Subsequently, on February 7, 2011, Rhoades called Plaintiff and stated that because she had not paid Ziner, she was going to be arrested. (Id. at ¶ 35). Plaintiff agreed to meet Rhoades at Magistrate Habrel's office the next day, February 8, 2011, at which time she was arrested and charged with theft of services, 18 Pa.C.S. § 3926*fn2 and fraudulent removal of a vehicle from a garage, 75 Pa.C.S. § 7116,*fn3 which are both third degree felonies. (Id.). Plaintiff was charged with unlawfully removing her car from Ziner's lot even though the Affidavit of Probable Cause signed by Rhoades stated that Ziner had released the car to her. (Id. at ¶ 37). Moreover, the Affidavit stated that Ziner had retained a key to her car, thus implying that she had not been authorized to retrieve it. (Id.). Plaintiff asserts that said allegation was absolutely false because Ziner placed the keys that she had given him under the floor mat so that she would have all of the keys when she retrieved her car. (Id.). Therefore, Plaintiff maintains that Rhoades and the Indiana Borough Police Department knew that Ziner had not retained any key. (Id. at ¶ 61).

Plaintiff further alleges that media reports concerning her false and unlawful arrest were published because of information disseminated by the Indiana Borough Police Department. (Id. at ¶ 40). In particular, on February 9, 2011, an article appeared in the Indiana Gazette reporting that Plaintiff had been charged with two felonies. (Id. at ¶ 38). The Pittsburgh Tribune Review also published an article detailing her arrest and criminal charges. (Id. at ¶ 39). Plaintiff contends that these reports adversely affected her ability to work as an insurance broker. (Id. at ¶ 41).

Based on the foregoing, Plaintiff retained attorney Wendy L. Williams ("Williams")*fn4 to defend her against the felony charges. (Id. at ¶ 42). At the time and place set for Plaintiff's Preliminary Hearing, on April 18, 2011, Magistrate Haberl refused to hold the hearing because in his estimation the dispute was a civil matter. (Id. at ¶ 43). He then directed the parties to engage in settlement discussions, which they did, albeit unsuccessfully. (Id. at ¶¶ 43-44). Ziner refused to accept any agreement in which he was paid less than the full amount that he believed he was owed. (Id.). Moreover, he refused to consent to any agreement in which the charges against Plaintiff would be dismissed. (Id.). As a result, Williams produced documents that showed that the disputed vehicle parts were likely covered by warranty and that Ziner should have received reimbursement from the manufacturer. (Id. at ¶ 44). In addition, Williams produced three sets of car keys to prove to Rhoades and Assistant District Attorney ("ADA") Dougherty that the third set of keys that Ziner alleged to be in his possession were actually in Plaintiff's possession. (Id. at ¶ 45). Even in light of these representations, Ziner still refused to settle and in response, ADA Dougherty told Ziner to "take the $3,000 or you are on your own." (Id. at ¶ 46). Given same, Ziner agreed to accept $3,000.00 from Plaintiff and to return the key allegedly still in his possession.(Id. at ¶ 47). To that end, Ziner was immediately paid $500.00 and Plaintiff agreed to pay him the remaining balance by May 18, 2011. (Id.). The parties, however, did not reduce their agreement to writing. (Id.).

In order to pay the remaining balance, Plaintiff needed to sell several items from her tavern business.(Id. at ¶ 48). On May 16 and 17, 2011, she requested that Williams seek a continuance until she could sell these items. (Id.). Williams refused to request a continuance and refused to attend the May 18, 2011 Preliminary Hearing. (Id.). Plaintiff asserts that Williams abandoned her. (Id.). As a result, Plaintiff attended the Preliminary Hearing without the assistance of counsel and asked Magistrate Haberl for a continuance, which he denied. (Id. at ¶ 49). Instead, he asked Plaintiff to sign a waiver of the Preliminary Hearing, which she refused. (Id.). Magistrate Haberl then insisted that she sign it, explaining that the verbal settlement agreement would remain in place, so long as she was not formally arraigned in the Court of Common Pleas.(Id.). Accordingly, Plaintiff signed the form, waiving her right to a Preliminary Hearing. (Id.).

Plaintiff and Williams had previously agreed that Plaintiff would submit the remaining monetary balance to Williams and then Williams would make the settlement payment to Ziner. (Id. at ¶ 50). In accordance with this plan, once Plaintiff sold the necessary items to raise the money, she delivered the funds to Williams on June 9, 2011, so that she could submit them to Ziner.(Id.). On July 1, 2011, Plaintiff went to the Indiana County Court House to initiate expungement proceedings with the understanding that the entire matter had been settled and dismissed. (Id. at ¶ 51). At that time, the District Attorney's Office stated that no funds had been received by Ziner and that Plaintiff was scheduled for formal arraignment on August 4, 2011.(Id.). Plaintiff then emailed Williams, demanding that the funds be forwarded to Ziner as soon as possible so that she would be in compliance with the settlement agreement. (Id.). Williams refused to further represent Plaintiff, returned the money and gave her case file to Plaintiff. (Id. at ¶ 52). Upon receipt of the settlement funds from Williams, Plaintiff attempted to pay the agreed upon amount of $3,000.00 to the Clerk of Court. (Id. at ¶¶ 54-55). The Clerk of Court, however, refused to accept any amount other than Ziner's $3,600.00 demand. (Id. at ¶ 55).

Given these circumstances, Plaintiff proceeded to speak with ADA Dougherty, who advised her to pay the agreed upon $3,000.00 and stated that he would "take care of" the dismissal and expungement once the funds had been paid. (Id.). Accordingly, on July 22, 2011, Plaintiff paid $3,000.00 to the Clerk of Court.*fn5 (Id. at ¶ 56). The Clerk of Court gave her a receipt, which indicated "Possible Rule 586 Settlement," and instructed her to take the receipt to the District Attorney's Office. (Id.). Although she was not familiar with Rule 586, Plaintiff relied on ADA Dougherty's recommendation and signed the Rule 586 forms, doing "whatever ADA Dougherty instructed her to do in order to have the charges dismissed." (Id. at ¶¶ 56; 57). Later that same day, she received a call stating that she was required to pay $174.00 in court costs before her Rule 586 forms could be processed. (Id. at ¶ 56). Plaintiff paid the court costs on July 25, 2011 and submitted her payment receipt to the District Attorney's Office. (Id.). ADA Dougherty filed Plaintiff's Rule 586 forms with the Court of Common Pleas on July 26, 2011. (Id. at ¶ 57). The Order for Dismissal was signed on August 1, 2011 and filed with the Clerk of Court the following day. (Id.). Two days later, Plaintiff formally requested expungement forms from the Indiana County Clerk of Court. (Id.).

III. RELEVANT PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff moved for leave to file an Amended Complaint, (Docket No. 42), to which Ziner responded in opposition. (Docket No. 44). This Court granted Plaintiff leave to amend on June 21, 2012, andPlaintiff timely filed her Amended Complaint. (Docket No. 49). After Plaintiff filed her Amended Complaint, Ziner filed a Partial Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Amended Complaint along with his supporting brief. (Docket Nos. 59; 60). In turn, ...


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