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Benchoff v. Fogal

United States District Court, Third Circuit

November 4, 2013

ROBERT BENCHOFF, Plaintiff
v.
MATTHEW FOGAL AND DOUGLAS HERMAN, Defendants.

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

KAROLINE MEHALCHICK, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Robert Benchoff is an inmate currently incarcerated at SCI-Camp Hill and is proceeding pro se . Plaintiff filed this civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging violations of the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the right to Freedom of Association and Access to the Courts, and the Ex Post Facto clause of Article I, Section 10 of the United States Constitution. (Doc. 1). Plaintiff has named as Defendants President Judge Douglas Herman of the Court of Common Pleas of Franklin and Fulton Counties, and Matthew Fogal, District Attorney of Franklin County. Pending before this Court are Defendants' Motions to Dismiss. Having been fully briefed, these motions are ripe for disposition.

I. BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On December 13, 1995, Plaintiff was sentenced on two counts of Interference of Custody of Children and one count of burglary. (Doc. 1, Compl. ¶ 8). The sentences included orders prohibiting Plaintiff from contacting his children and his sister-in law without further order of the court. (Doc. 1, Compl. ¶¶ 9-11, Ex. H). Plaintiff appealed to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania and was resentenced on March 10, 1998 by Defendant Judge Herman for the burglary conviction. Plaintiff was resentenced with an order prohibiting Plaintiff from contact with his children and sister-in law. (Doc. 1, Compl. ¶ 13).

On March 4, 2004, Plaintiff filed a Petition pursuant to the Pennsylvania Post-Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA"), alleging violations of his constitutional rights and requesting modification of the sentencing orders to permit contact with his children. (Doc. 1, Compl. ¶ 33, Ex. H). The Commonwealth stated that the Petition was untimely. (Doc. 1, Compl. Ex. H). The PCRA Court appointed counsel for Plaintiff. In July 2004, the District Attorney was informed that none of the children wished to have any contact with Plaintiff. (Doc. 1, Compl. Ex. H). Plaintiff's appointed counsel subsequently filed a Motion to Withdraw and also filed a "no-merit" letter in Plaintiff's case. (Doc. 1, Compl. Ex. H). On November 2004, the trial court dismissed the PCRA for lack of jurisdiction. (Doc. 1, Compl. Ex. F). The dismissal was not appealed by Plaintiff.

On March 30, 2010, [1] Plaintiff filed a pro se motion for extraordinary relief and requested that the no contact order be lifted from his sentence. (Doc. 1, Compl. ¶ 35). The Court treated Plaintiff's motion as a motion for modification of sentence or in the alternative, a PCRA petition. Defendant Judge Herman denied the request for lack of jurisdiction. Plaintiff appealed to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania and the court affirmed the lower court's decision. (Doc. 1, Compl. ¶ 36, Ex H).

On May 6, 2013, Plaintiff filed a complaint pursuant to § 1983 (Doc. 1), alleging Defendants, in their official capacities, denied him of his constitutional rights. Plaintiff seeks declaratory relief, and in the alternative, injunctive relief if declaratory relief is unavailable. Additionally, Plaintiff pursues filing fees, allowable costs, and any other relief that this Court deems proper. On July 8, 2013, Defendant Fogal filed a Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 15) and accompanying Brief. (Doc. 16). On July 17, 2013, Defendant Judge Herman filed a Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 18) and accompanying brief. (Doc. 19).

For the reasons that follow, it is recommended that Defendants' Motions to Dismiss be granted, as this Court does not have subject matter jurisdiction to review Plaintiff's claims. In the alternative, it is recommended that Defendants' Motions to Dismiss be granted on Eleventh Amendment, judicial, and prosecutorial immunity defenses; that Plaintiff's action is barred by the statute of limitations; and that Plaintiff has failed to show that he is entitled to relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

II. DISCUSSION

A. LEGAL STANDARD

Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss this complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a complaint should be dismissed for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has noted the evolving standards governing pleading practice in federal court, stating that:

Standards of pleading have been in the forefront of jurisprudence in recent years. Beginning with the Supreme Court's opinion in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007), continuing with our opinion in Phillips v. County of Allegheny , 515 F.3d 224 (3d Cir. 2008) and culminating recently with the Supreme Court's decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1955, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009), pleading standards have seemingly shifted from simple notice pleading to a more heightened form of pleading, requiring a plaintiff to plead more than the possibility of relief to survive a motion to dismiss.
Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside , 578 F.3d 203, 209-10 (3d Cir. 2009).

In considering whether a complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, the court must accept as true all allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom are to be construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Jordan v. Fox, Rothschild, O'Brien & Frankel , 20 F.3d 1250, 1261 (3d Cir. 1994). However, a court "need not credit a complaint's bald assertions' or legal conclusions' when deciding a motion to dismiss." Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist. , 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997). Additionally a court need not assume that a plaintiff can prove facts that the plaintiff has not alleged. Associated Gen. Contractors of Cal. v. California State Council of Carpenters , 459 U.S. 519, 526, 103 S.Ct. 897, 74 L.Ed.2d 723 (1983). As the Supreme Court held in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007), in order to state a valid cause of action a plaintiff must provide some factual grounds for relief which "requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Twombly , 550 U.S. at 555. "Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Twombly , 550 U.S. at 555. In keeping with the principles of Twombly , the Supreme Court has underscored that a trial court must assess whether a complaint states facts upon which relief can be granted when ruling on a motion to dismiss. In Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009), the Supreme Court held that, when considering a motion to dismiss, a court should "begin by identifying pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth." Iqbal , 556 U.S. at 679. According to the Supreme Court, "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Iqbal , 556 U.S. at 678. Rather, in conducting a review of the adequacy of a complaint, the Supreme Court has advised trial courts that they must:

[B]egin by identifying pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth. While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations. When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their ...

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