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David Ochner v. Craig Stedman

March 14, 2013

DAVID OCHNER
v.
CRAIG STEDMAN, ET AL.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Juan R. Sanchez, J.

MEMORANDUM

Plaintiff David Ochner initiated this suit challenging an underlying state court proceeding arising out of the seizure and impoundment of a tow truck which Ochner claims he owns. All of the Defendants who have appeared in the case to date move to dismiss the Complaint on various grounds, including preclusion, improper service, and failure to state a claim.*fn1 For the following reasons, the motions will be granted and the Court will dismiss Ochner's Complaint with prejudice as to all Defendants.

FACTS*fn2

In 2005, Ochner purchased a 2004 Ford tow truck from David Nicodem for approximately $21,000 to $24,000. David Nicodem was a partial owner of Defendant Golden Recovery Services, Inc. (GRS). Ochner took possession of the tow truck and received the original Certificate of Origin, a document created by the manufacturer of the vehicle and given to either another manufacturer or the original purchaser/consumer. In Pennsylvania, all original vehicle purchasers are required to properly register and title their vehicles prior to use. Ownership is determined by the name listed on the state-issued vehicle title. A vehicle title has never been issued for the tow truck, nor has an application for vehicle title ever been submitted with respect to the tow truck. GRS is the last individual/entity listed on the tow truck's Certificate of Origin, and it appears to have been the owner of the truck at the time Ochner purchased it.

Defendants John Nicodem and Michael Horan also claim to be partial owners of GRS. John Nicodem initially thought David Nicodem, his brother, took the tow truck, apparently without authorization, from GRS. David later disclosed he sold it to Ochner. Ochner alleges from the time he purchased the tow truck until it was seized from him, there was no indication it was stolen.

In or about August 2009, while driving the tow truck, Ochner was stopped by Defendants Detective Heather Halstead and Detective Stephen Owens, employees of Defendant Lancaster City Bureau of Police (Lancaster Police). Halstead and Owens knew Ochner did not possess a valid registration for the tow truck because they were aware Ochner had previously been pulled over by another police officer and did not have a proper title for the vehicle. The officer involved in the earlier stop allowed Ochner to continue operating the tow truck based on his possession of the Certificate of Origin and registration under a valid dealer tag. However, when Ochner was subsequently stopped by Halstead and Owens, they immediately impounded the tow truck. Ochner did not receive a traffic citation and was not charged with any violation of Pennsylvania law.

At some point, Ochner filed a motion for the return of property in state court which was apparently docketed as Case No. CI-09-13334, captioned David Ochner v. Lancaster County District Attorney and Lancaster City Police. On October 1, 2009, a hearing was held before the Honorable Jeffery D. Wright of the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas on Ochner's motion for return of property pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 588. The Lancaster District Attorney, Defendant Craig Stedman, through Assistant District Attorney, Brian Chudzik, also a Defendant in this case, appeared at the hearing. Chudzik argued the vehicle should not be removed from impoundment because Ochner lacked proof of ownership or a valid vehicle registration. Chudzik also argued the impoundment was proper because Ochner violated the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Chop Shop Act, 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 7701, et seq., because one of the vehicle identification numbers had been destroyed. When a police officer knows a vehicle has a removed or falsified vehicle identification number he or she must immediately seize and take possession of a vehicle and arrest or file a complaint for the arrest of the suspected owner. 75 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 7105. Neither the District Attorney nor the police filed any criminal charges against Ochner, and no legal proceeding was ever initiated against him.

At the end of the October 1, 2009, hearing, the trial court ruled that, based on the evidence and testimony, it was not satisfied Ochner, or any other individual, had proved entitlement to the possession or ownership of the tow truck by a preponderance of the evidence. Compl. Ex. D, "Reconsideration Hr'g" Tr. 87, Oct. 1, 2009. Thus, the court found the tow truck would not be removed from impound and would only be removed if there was a judicial determination of ownership. Id. Ochner appealed the trial court's ruling. On October 5, 2010, the Pennsylvania Superior Court found there was no final appealable order, and quashed Ochner's appeal. On April 26, 2011, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied Ochner's petition for allowance of appeal.

It appears Ochner filed another motion for the return of property. Another hearing in the Court of Common Pleas was held on September 28, 2011, in the same case as the previous motion for return of property had been filed and was again presided over by Judge Wright. John Nicodem and Michael Horan appeared at the hearing, arguing their or GRS's ownership of the truck. After the hearing, Judge Wright allowed the parties to submit briefs on the issue of whether, under Pennsylvania's Uniform Commercial Code, Ochner, a good faith purchaser for value, could acquire title to an item that was stolen.

Also on September 28, 2011, Ochner filed suit in federal court asserting the following counts: (1) malicious prosecution against Stedman, Chudzik, Lancaster Police, Halstead, and Owens; (2) failure to investigate against Stedman, Chudzik, Lancaster Police, Halstead, and Owens; (3) 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim for violation of Ochner's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights against Stedman, Chudzik, Halstead, and Owens; (4) declaratory judgment indicating Ochner owns the tow truck, pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 1602, against GRS, Horan, and John Nicodem; and (5) civil conspiracy to commit an illegal act against Halstead, Owens, Horan, and John Nicodem. In an opinion issued on December 1, 2011, the state trial court determined, based on Pennsylvania law, Ochner could not acquire title and found title remained with GRS. Horan's Mot. to Dismiss, Ex. B, Op. dated Dec. 1, 2011.

On April 15, 2012, Horan filed one of the instant motions to dismiss, seeking dismissal of Ochner's request for declaratory judgment and civil conspiracy claim. On April 17, 2012, Lancaster Police, Halstead, and Owens filed a motion to dismiss the Complaint. On April 18, 2012, Stedman and Chudzik filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim and failure to properly serve.*fn3

DISCUSSION

As a preliminary matter, all of the moving Defendants assert collateral estoppel and/or the Rooker-Feldman doctrine preclude the Court from ruling on Ochner's claims. The only response Ochner offers in opposition to Defendants' preclusion arguments is that the doctrines "are both silly and inapplicable to this case." Pl.'s Answer at 2, ECF No. 32.

Defendants argue Ochner has already participated in a proceeding for the return of his vehicle and during the state proceeding the trial court determined Ochner is not the owner of the tow truck. Therefore, issues concerning the state court's determination of ownership of the tow truck ...


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