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Thompson v. Howard

United States District Court, Third Circuit

May 29, 2013

JAMES S. THOMPSON, Plaintiff,
v.
NORMAN HOWARD, ROY MEHALIK, TROOPER BROADWATER, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION ECF Nos. 73, 75, 79.

LISA PUPO LENIHAN, Chief Magistrate Judge.

Presently before the Court are the Motions to Dismiss filed by Defendant Pennsylvania State Trooper Broadwater ("Broadwater") at ECF No. 73, Defendant Officer Roy Mehalik ("Mehalik") at ECF No. 75, and the partial Motion to Dismiss filed by Defendant Officer Norman Howard ("Howard") at ECF No. 79 (collectively "Defendants"). The Motions to Dismiss will be granted except for Mehalik's motion as it relates to Plaintiff's claim for excessive force relating to those events after Mehalik arrived on the scene.

FACTUAL AVERRMENTS

Plaintiff, James S. Thompson ("Plaintiff" or "Thompson"), proceeding pro se, avers the following in his Amended Complaint at ECF No. 65. Around March 2008, Plaintiff became the victim of excessive force, false arrest, malicious prosecution, fabrication of false evidence, conspiracy and "cruel punishment." (ECF No. 65 at 1.) Plaintiff avers that he was riding in a car driven by Rae Lynn Sigwalt ("Sigwalt"), when they were stopped by Officer Howard. Howard asked for Sigwalt's identification. (ECF No. 65 at 2.) Howard ran a background check on Sigwalt in his police car and determined that she had an outstanding warrant. (ECF No. 65 at 2.) Howard returned to the driver's side of the car and placed Sigwalt into custody. (ECF No. 65 at 2.) Upon placing Sigwalt into the police car, Plaintiff avers that Howard made the following remark: "What's a pretty white woman like you doing with a nigger?" (ECF No. 65 at 2.)

Officer Howard then approached the passenger side of the vehicle and told Plaintiff to step out of the vehicle. (ECF No. 65 at 3.) Plaintiff avers that Howard patted him down and found nothing. Howard asked Plaintiff if he had any outstanding warrants and Plaintiff replied that he did not. Howard told Plaintiff that he was going to run a warrants check on Plaintiff, and that if no warrants were found, Howard would let Plaintiff go. Howard's check revealed no outstanding warrants. (ECF No. 65 at 3.)

Just before returning to Plaintiff, Howard received a radio call from Defendant Officer Mehalik who told Howard that Plaintiff was dangerous and to be careful. (ECF No. 65 at 3.) Howard then told Plaintiff that he was going to place handcuffs on him. (ECF No. 65 at 3.) When Plaintiff inquired with Howard as to why he was being cuffed, Howard simply responded that "I want to." (ECF No. 65 at 4.) Plaintiff protested, telling Howard that he had no right to handcuff him. Plaintiff avers that Howard told him that if Plaintiff did not go into cuffs, that Howard would tase him. (ECF No. 65 at 4.) Plaintiff avers that at this point, Howard's actions amounted to a Fourth Amendment false arrest violation. (ECF No. 65 at 4-5.)

Plaintiff alleges that Howard became frustrated with Plaintiff and told Plaintiff he was going to tase him. Plaintiff warned Howard that he had heart and lung disease and that a taser would probably kill him. Plaintiff alleges that Howard then attempted to tase him but was unable to do so after two attempts. Plaintiff then avers that Howard became very angry, pulled out his baton and began beating him, while shouting the following: "Get the f___ down you f_____ nigger. Get the f___ down or I'll kill you you f_____ nigger. Get the f___ down you f_____ nigger. You f_____ black bastard." (ECF No. 65 at 5-6.) Plaintiff concludes that he was afraid for his life and afraid that Officer Mehalik, his childhood menace, would arrive on the scene. (ECF No. 65 at 6.)

Next, Plaintiff avers that he has "an agonizing morbid fear of Officer Mehalik steming[sic] from childhood torment and terror." (ECF No. 65 at 6.) Plaintiff avers in great detail facts from his childhood that precipitated his "agonizing morbid fear of Officer Mehalik." (ECF No. 65 at 6-8.) Plaintiff states that because of these childhood experiences with Mehalik, Plaintiff suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. (ECF No. 65 at 8.) Plaintiff continues that because of this agonizing morbid fear of Mehalik, Plaintiff felt he had to flee in order to save his own life "from two racist policemen with a reputation for having racist attitudes and conduct for brutality." (ECF No. 65 at 8.) Plaintiff continues that he then jumped back into the car to flee. At this point, Howard approached the driver's side door and smashed out the driver's side window. Plaintiff avers that the glass hit him in the face, blinded him momentarily, as he ducked toward the passenger side of the car to avoid being hit in the face by the police baton. (ECF No. 65 at 9.) Plaintiff alleges that he started the car from this "ducked" position and drove away. He avers that he could not see what was in front of him as he drove away because he was afraid of being shot. He heard something hit the driver's side of the car but never saw "what hit [him]." (ECF No. 65 at 9.)

Plaintiff continues that as he drove away "a sudden barrage of gunfire hit the car...." (ECF No. 65 at 10.) Plaintiff alleges that Mehalik and Howard shot at the car. According to Plaintiff, the car, at that point, was in a densely populated area and Mehalik and Howard nearly shot a woman in the head in her home nearby. Plaintiff also avers that he was unarmed. Plaintiff states that this behavior by Mehalik and Howard violated the Eighth Amendment as to himself and the woman Mehalik and Howard almost shot. Plaintiff continues that this conduct also violated the Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. (ECF No. 65 at 10.)

With regard to Trooper Broadwater and Officer Howard, Plaintiff states that it his theory that Broadwater and Howard conspired "to create inflammatoy[sic] news releases that had the possibility to incite uncontroled[sic] rage in other police and so-called vigilantes desiring to help police capture or kill a wanna-be cop killer." (ECF No. 65 at 11.) This rage was precipitated by the actions of Broadwater and Howard when, after consulting with one another, "they both released false or fabricated news releases." (ECF No. 65 at 11.) The false news release issued by Howard indicated that Plaintiff was armed and fired shots at police. (ECF No. 65-2.) The false news release issued by Broadwater indicated that Plaintiff had a previous homicide conviction. (ECF No. 65-3.) Plaintiff avers that contrary to the news releases attached to the Amended Complaint, Plaintiff shot at no one. Plaintiff states that he "never had a gun to do anything except to flee in self-defense to save my life." (ECF No. 65 at 11.) Further, Plaintiff avers that he has never had a previous homicide conviction. (ECF No. 65 at 11.) Plaintiff continues that these false news releases created "hysteria that generated overwhelming fear" in Plaintiff and violated the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment. Plaintiff also avers that this conduct by Broadwater and Howard violated the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Plaintiff continues that Broadwater and Howard knew from the very beginning of the investigation that Plaintiff never shot at Howard or any police, and that Plaintiff had no previous homicide convictions. (ECF No. 65 at 12.) In support of his conspiracy theory, Plaintiff notes that the press releases came out within one day of each other, evidencing a concerted effort on the part of Broadwater and Howard. (ECF No. 65 at 13.)

In his prayer for relief, Plaintiff seeks a declaration that Defendants violated his constitutional rights, compensatory damages of $100, 000, and punitive damages in the amount of $200, 000. (ECF No. 65 at 14.)

Finally, attached to Plaintiff's Amended Complaint is the October 2, 2009 Order of Judge Steve P. Leskinen of the Court of Common Pleas of Fayette County, Pennsylvania, Criminal Division. (ECF No. 65-1 at 1.) Judge Leskinen indicated that Plaintiff, the criminal defendant in state court, was charged with resisting arrest, aggravated assault, and criminal mischief. (ECF No. 65-1 at 1.) Judge Leskinen ordered that the resisting arrest charge be dismissed because Howard's attempt to handcuff Plaintiff was not a lawful arrest. The charges of aggravated assault, and criminal mischief, however, were not dismissed by Judge Leskinen because Plaintiff placed Officer Mehalik in danger of serious bodily injury or death, and because the vehicle Plaintiff was driving caused approximately $1, 000.00 in damage to the police vehicle. (ECF No. 65-1 at 4.) Judge Leskinen determined that Plaintiff was not privileged to remove Sigwalt's vehicle from the scene, because Sigwalt had been stopped pursuant to a lawful warrant and the arresting officer had not yet had the opportunity to perform a lawful search of the passenger compartment of the vehicle. (ECF No. 65-1 at 3.) Judge Leskinen also found that Plaintiff "intentionally drove the car directly into the side of [Mehalik's] patrol vehicle, another action he was not privileged to do...." (ECF No. 65-1 at 3.)

After a jury trial, Plaintiff was found guilty of 1 count of aggravated assault, 1 count of simple assault, and 1 count of criminal mischief. (State Court Docket No. CP-26-CR-0000527-2008, ECF No. 80-1; ECF No. 65 at 4 n.1.) Plaintiff avers that he is undertaking an appeal of these convictions. (ECF No. 65 at 4 n.1); see also State Court Docket No. CP-26-CR-0000527-2008 at 19 (Plaintiff filed Post-Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA") Petition on July 5, 2011). It appears from the state court docket sheet that Plaintiff's PCRA Petition is pending.

LEGAL STANDARD

A motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint. Kost v. Kozakiewicz, 1 F.3d 176, 183 (3d Cir. 1993). A complaint must be dismissed for failure to state a claim if it does not allege "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 554, 556 (2007) (rejecting the traditional 12(b)(6) standard set forth in Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957)); Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct.1937, 1949 (May 18, 2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555-57). "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." Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). The Supreme Court further explained:

The plausibility standard is not akin to a "probability requirement, " but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully. Where a complaint pleads facts that are "merely consistent with" a defendant's liability, it "stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.'"

Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556-57).

In Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203 (3d Cir. Aug. 18, 2009), the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit discussed its decision in Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 232-33 (3d Cir. 2008) (construing Twombly in a civil rights context), and described how the Rule 12(b)(6) standard had changed in light of Twombly and Iqbal 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, 578 F.3d at 210.

Thereafter, In light of Iqbal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203 (3d Cir. 2009), set forth the following two-prong test to be applied by the district courts in deciding motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim:

First, the factual and legal elements of a claim should be separated. The District Court must accept all of the complaint's well-pleaded facts as true, but may disregard any legal conclusions. [ Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949]. Second, a District Court must then determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a "plausible claim for relief." Id. at 1950. In other words, a complaint must do more than allege the plaintiff's entitlement to relief. A complaint has to "show" such an entitlement with its facts. See Phillips, 515 F.3d at 234-35. As the Supreme Court instructed in Iqbal, "[w]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged-but it has not show [n]' - that the pleader is entitled to relief.'" Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949. This "plausibility" determination will be "a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id.

Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210-11.

Courts generally consider only the allegations of the complaint, the attached exhibits, and matters of public record in deciding motions to dismiss. Pension Benefit Guar. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993). Factual allegations within documents described or identified in the complaint may also be weighed if the plaintiff's claims are based upon those documents. Id. (citations omitted). A district court may consult those documents without converting a motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment. In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1426 (3d Cir. 1997).

Finally, the Court must liberally construe the factual allegations of Plaintiff's complaints because pro se pleadings, "however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007); Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-21 (1972). Further, Federal Rule of Civil ...


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