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Humphreys v. PPL Electric Utilities Corp.

United States District Court, Third Circuit

November 21, 2013

VIRGINIA L. HUMPHREYS and BRIAN C. HUMPHREYS, Plaintiffs,
v.
PPL ELECTRIC UTILITIES CORPORATION, NORTHAMPTON COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES, NORTHAMPTON COUNTY AREA AGENCY ON AGING, MS. BARBARA KLEINTOP and BETHLEHEM POLICE DEPARTMENT, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Jeffrey L. Schmehl, J.

This matter involves an allegedly unconstitutional search and seizure by Defendants, Northampton County Department of Human Services (“DHS”), Northampton County Area Agency on Aging (“Agency”), Barbara Kleintop, Bethlehem Police Department and four of its officers. This alleged search and seizure was the product of an allegedly defamatory and/or negligently made report of Defendants, PPL Electric Utilities Corporation (“PPL”) and its employee, Michelle LaWall, to the Agency regarding the status of the electric service of Plaintiff, Virginia Humphreys. There are three motions pending before the Court: 1) Motion of Defendants, PPL Electric Utilities Corporation and Michelle LaWall, to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim Upon Which Relief Can Be Granted; 2) Motion to Dismiss of Defendants, Northampton County Department of Human Services, Northampton County Area Agency on Aging and Barbara Kleintop; and 3) Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings of Defendants, City of Bethlehem, PA Police Department, Lt. Doseldo, Badge No. 232, Sgt. Henning, Badge No. 268, Prm. Surber, Badge No. 254, and Prm. Waldeck, Badge No. 304. For reasons set forth below, I will grant in part and deny in part the motions of all defendants.

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiffs, Virginia L. Humpreys and Brian C. Humphreys, claim that PPL made a defamatory report to the Agency that Virginia Humphreys “was in danger of having her electric service terminated for non-payment of her bill, ” and that PPL negligently reported that Mrs. Humphreys was “living alone.” (Am. Compl. ¶ 39, 41.) Plaintiffs further allege that as a result of this report received from PPL, Barbara Kleintop, an employee of the Agency, arrived at the Humphreys’ home and asked to speak with Mrs. Humphreys. After being turned away by Mr. Humphreys, Kleintop returned with four Bethlehem police officers. Mr. Humphreys refused to allow the officers into the home, and alleges that the officers then forcibly entered the home and handcuffed and detained him in the backyard, while Mrs. Humphreys was subjected to an “interrogation” by Kleintop. (Am. Compl., ¶¶ 27, 31.)

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

A Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss requires the court to examine the sufficiency of the complaint. Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45, 78 S.Ct. 99, 102, 2 L.Ed.2d 80, 84 (1957) (abrogated in other respects by Bell Atlantic Corporation v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007)). In determining whether a complaint is sufficient, the court must accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief. Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (citing Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008)).

Although “conclusory” or “bare-bones allegations” will not survive a motion to dismiss, Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210, a complaint may not be dismissed merely because it appears unlikely that the plaintiff can prove those facts or will ultimately prevail on the merits. Phillips, 515 F.3d at 231. Nonetheless, to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the complaint must provide "enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary element." Id. at 234 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556) (internal quotations omitted). Further, a motion for judgment on the pleadings is subject to the same standard as a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). Turbe v. Gov’t of Virgin Islands, 938 F.2d 427, 428 (3d Cir. 1991).

III.DISCUSSION

A. Motion to Dismiss of PPL

Defendants, PPL and Michelle LaWall, seek to have Counts I and II of Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint dismissed for failing to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. PPL argues that both Counts I and II present state law claims of defamation, which they argue Plaintiffs cannot succeed on. However, a close reading of Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint shows that Counts I and II against PPL are pled quite differently. Count I, entitled “Making a Defamatory Report to a Public Law Enforcement Agency, ” states that PPL “maliciously reported that Plaintiff Virginia L. Humphreys was in danger of having her electric service terminated for non-payment of her bill…” (Am. Compl. ¶ 39.) Count II, entitled “Making a Recklessly Composed Report to a Public Law Enforcement Agency, ” states that PPL “negligently misstated that Plaintiff Virginia L. Humphreys was living alone…” (Am. Compl. ¶ 41.) A review of both of these counts shows that they are quite different and need to be analyzed separately, not as two related counts for defamation as set forth by PPL in its motion. Accordingly, for the reasons that follow, I grant the Motion to Dismiss as to Count I with prejudice, and I grant the Motion to Dismiss as to Count II without prejudice to Plaintiffs’ right to file a second amended complaint that pleads a cause of action in negligence against PPL with more specificity.

1. Count I

I read Count I of Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint as setting forth a cause of action for defamation against PPL for reporting that Mrs. Humphreys was in danger of having her electricity cut off due to non-payment of her bill. To succeed on a defamation claim in Pennsylvania, a plaintiff must show, inter alia, a communication capable of having defamatory meaning. Remick v. Manfredy, 238 F.3d 248, 261 (3d Cir. 2001). The trial court determines as a matter of law whether the communication is capable of having a defamatory meaning. Id. A statement is defamatory if it “tends to so harm the reputation of another as to lower him in the estimation of the community or to deter third persons from associating or dealing with him.” Tucker v. Fischbein, 237 F.2d 275, 282 (3d Cir. 2001)(quoting Corabi v. Curtis Publ’g Co., 273 A.2d 899, 904 (Pa. 1971). A court needs to view the statement in context and determine whether it tends to “blacken a person’s reputation or expose him to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule, or to injure him in his business or profession. Corabi v. Curtis Publ’g Co., 273 A.2d at 904. However, statements that are merely annoying or embarrassing are not defamatory. Kryeski v. Schott Glass Technologies, Inc., 626 A.2d 595, 601 (Pa.Super. 1993.)

PPL argues that the statement allegedly made by PPL was not capable of a defamatory meaning as a matter of law. I agree with this contention, and find that the statement that Plaintiff was “in danger of having her electric service terminated for non-payment of her bill” is not capable of having a defamatory meaning. The mere allegation of failing to pay one’s bill could not “expose him to public hatred, contempt or ridicule.” Corabi, 273 A.2d at 904. This is the type of statement that is merely annoying and embarrassing, and I find that it is not capable of ...


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