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Jackson v. City of Erie Police Dept.

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

January 30, 2014

CITY OF ERIE POLICE DEPT, et al, Defendants.




It is respectfully recommended that Plaintiff's request for leave to proceed in forma pauperis [ECF No. 1] should be granted and the Complaint be dismissed with prejudice pursuant to the screening provisions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act.


A. Procedural History

This civil action was filed in this Court on January 14, 2014. Plaintiff, an inmate presently in state custody and acting pro se, brought this civil rights action against the following Defendants: City of Erie Police Department, Judge Thomas Carney, Judge John Bozza, Judge Ernest Disantis, Jr., Assistant District Attorney Robert Sambroak, Jr., Detective Donald Dacus, Lt. Michael Nolan, Gene Placidi, Esq., and Unidentified Respondent Judge. Plaintiff alleges that his constitutional rights were violated by these Defendants at the time of his arrest in October of 2008.

Plaintiff seeks leave to proceed in forma pauperis in this matter. See ECF Nos. 1.

B. Screening Provisions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act

The Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA"), Pub.L. No. 104-134, §§ 801-810, 110 Stat. 1321-66 to 1321-77 (April 26, 1996), requires a district court to review a complaint in a civil action in which a prisoner is proceeding in forma pauperis (28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)) or seeks redress against a governmental employee or entity (28 U.S.C. § 1915A). The Court is required to identify cognizable claims and to sua sponte dismiss any claim that is frivolous, malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B) and 1915A(b). This action is subject to sua sponte screening for dismissal under both 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2) and 1915A because Plaintiff is a prisoner proceeding in forma pauperis and seeking redress from governmental officers and employees.

Evaluating motions to proceed in forma pauperis under 28 U.S.C. § 1915 is a two-step process. See Roman v. Jeffes , 904 F.2d 192, 194 n.1 (3d Cir. 1990). "First, the district court evaluates a litigant's financial status and determines whether (s)he is eligible to proceed in forma pauperis under § 1915(a). Second the court assesses the complaint under [§ 1915(e)(2)] to determine whether it is frivolous." Id . citing Sinwell v. Shapp , 536 F.2d 15 (3d Cir. 1976); see also Schneller v. Able Home Care, Inc. , 389 Fed.Appx 90, 92 (3d Cir. 1990). Therefore, only after the district court grants the request to proceed in forma pauperis may it dismiss the complaint as legally frivolous. See Jackson v. Brown , 460 Fed.Appx 77, 79 n.2 (3d Cir. 2012) ("As a procedural matte, therefore, the District Court should have addressed Jackson's [ in forma pauperis ] motion before dismissing the complaint as frivolous, rather than deny the [ in forma pauperis ] motion as moot after dismissal."); Spuck v. Fredric , 414 Fed.Appx 358, 359 (3d Cir. 2011) ("When a complaint is submitted along with an [ in forma pauperis ] application, the complaint is not deemed filed unless and until [ in forma pauperis ] status is granted. [...] in that situation, the District Court must first rule on the [ in forma pauperis ] application and, only if it grants the application, proceed to determine whether the complaint should be dismissed under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B).").

C. Assessment of Plaintiff's motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis

In his motion and other filings, Plaintiff states that he is unable to pay the filing fee associated with this civil rights case. Plaintiff's institutional account statement reveals that his account balance on January 1st was less than ten dollars. Based upon this averment, I find that Plaintiff is without sufficient funds to pay the costs and fees of the proceedings, and accordingly, his request for leave to proceed in forma pauperis should be granted.

D. Standard of Review for Failure to State a Claim in the Complaint

The legal standard for dismissing a complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant to § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) or § 1915A(b)(1) is identical to the legal standard used when ruling on a Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). See Tourscher v. McCullough , 184 F.3d 236, 240 (3d Cir. 1999). However, before dismissing a complaint or claims for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted pursuant to the screening provisions of 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915 and 1915A, a court must grant the plaintiff leave to amend his complaint, unless amendment would be inequitable or futile. See Grayson v. Mayview State Hosp. , 293 F.3d 103, 114 (3d Cir. 2002).

In reviewing a pro se plaintiff's complaint, the court must accept all factual allegations in the complaint as true and take them in the light most favorable to the pro se plaintiff. See Erickson v. Pardus , 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007); Phillips v. County of Allegheny , 515 F.3d 224, 229 (3d Cir. 2008). A complaint must be dismissed 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). "Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above a speculative level." Id . at 555. The court need not accept inferences drawn by the plaintiff if they are unsupported by the facts as set forth in the complaint. See California Pub. Employee Ret. Sys. v. The Chubb Corp. , 394 F.3d 126, 143 (3d Cir. 2004) citing Morse v. Lower Merion School Dist. , 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997). Nor must the court accept legal conclusions set forth as factual allegations. Bell Atlantic Corp. , 550 U.S. at 555, citing Papasan v. Allain , 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986). Additionally, a civil rights claim "must contain specific allegations of fact which indicate a deprivation of constitutional rights; allegations which are nothing more than broad, simple and conclusory statements are insufficient to state a claim under § 1983." Alfaro Motors, Inc. v. Ward , 814 F.2d 883, 887 (2d Cir. 1987).

Finally, a court must employ less stringent standards when considering pro se pleadings than when judging the work product of an attorney. Haines v. Kerner , 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972). When presented with a pro se complaint, the court should construe the complaint liberally and draw fair inferences from what is not alleged as well as from what is alleged. Dluhos v. Strasberg , 321 F.3d 365, 369 (3d Cir. 2003). In a section 1983 action, the court must "apply the applicable law, irrespective of whether the pro se litigant has mentioned it by name." Higgins v. Beyer , 293 F.3d 683, 688 (3d Cir. 2002) quoting Holley v. Dep't of Veteran Affairs , 165 F.3d 244, 247-48 (3d Cir. 1999). See also Nami v. Fauver , 82 F.3d 63, 65 (3d Cir. 1996) ("Since this is a § 1983 action, the [ pro se ] plaintiffs are entitled to relief if their complaint sufficiently alleges deprivation of any right secured by the Constitution."). Notwithstanding this liberality, pro se litigants are not relieved of their obligation to allege sufficient facts to support a cognizable legal claim. See, e.g., Taylor v. Books A Million, Inc. , 296 F.3d 376, 378 (5th Cir. 2002).

E. Assessment of Plaintiff's Complaint

Plaintiff complains that his constitutional rights were violated at the time of his arrest based upon a myriad of issues. Based on the facts as alleged, Plaintiff's claims are without merit.

Judges Carney, Bozza, Disantis, and Unidentified Respondent Judge

All of the judicial Defendants (Carney, Bozza, Disantis, and Unidentified Respondent Judge) are entitled to judicial immunity. Judicial immunity is "immunity from suit, not just from an ultimate assessment of damages." Mireles v. Waco , 502 U.S. 9, 11 (1991). Judicial officers are immune from damage suits arising out of their official duties. Stump v. Sparkman , 435 U.S. 349 (1978); Piskanin v. Hammer , 2005 WL 613644 (E.D.Pa., 2005) (applying judicial immunity to "district justice"). "A judge will not be deprived of immunity because the action he took was in error, was done maliciously, or was in excess of authority...." Sparkman 435 U.S. at 356. See also Benn v. First Judicial District , 426 F.3d 233 (3d Cir. 2005) (applying Eleventh Amendment immunity to courts). See also Seigert v. Gilley , 500 U.S. 226, 231 (1991) ("One of the purposes of immunity, absolute or qualified, is to spare a defendant not only unwarranted liability, but unwarranted demands customarily imposed upon those defending a long drawn out lawsuit."); In Re Montgomery County , 215 F.3d 367, 373 (3d Cir. 2000) ("Absolute immunity creates not only protection from liability, but also a right not to stand trial."). A judge is immune even if the acts were committed during an alleged conspiracy. Dennis v. Sparks , 449 U.S. 24 (1980).

Assistant District Attorney Sambroak

Defendant Sambroak is entitled to prosecutorial immunity. Any individual member of the prosecution enjoys the benefits of immunity. A prosecuting attorney acting in a quasi-judicial role is relieved from liability for acts "intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process, " including "initiating a prosecution and... presenting the State's case." Yarris v. County of Delaware , 465 F.3d 129, 135 (3d Cir. 2006) quoting Imbler v. Pachtman , 424 U.S. 409 (1976). Even the "deliberate withholding of exculpatory information is included within the legitimate exercise of prosecutorial discretion." Yarris , 465 F.3d at 137, quoting Imbler , 424 U.S. at 431-32 n.34. See also Smith v. Holtz , 210 F.3d 186, 199 n.18 (3d Cir. 2000) (finding that a prosecutor's decision not to disclose exculpatory evidence to defendant's counsel was protected under absolute prosecutorial immunity). Sambroak's actions are acts "intimately associated with" the criminal process and are shielded from liability by immunity.

Attorney Placidi

In order to bring suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must allege that a person acting under color of state law deprived him of his constitutional rights. Generally, anyone whose conduct is "fairly attributable to the state" can be sued as a state actor under § 1983. Filarsky v. Delia, ___ U.S. ___, ___ , 132 S.Ct. 1657, 1661 (April 17, 2012) citing Lugar v. Edmondson Oil Co. , 457 U.S. 922, 937 (1982). The Supreme Court has held that public defenders appointed by the court, such as Attorney Gene Placidi, are not state actors when they are "performing a lawyer's traditional functions as counsel to a defendant in a criminal proceeding." Polk County v. Dodson , 454 U.S. 312, 325 (1991); see also Angelico v. Lehigh Valley Hospital, Inc. , 184 F.3d 268, 277 (3d Cir. 1999). Here, Plaintiff alleges just that, and so, he has failed to state a claim against Placidi.

Erie City Police Officers Dacus and Nolan

The only two individual Defendants who do not have immunity from suit and who are amenable to this type of suit are Detective Dacus and Lt. Michael Nolan. Plaintiff's claims against them are precluded by the favorable termination requirement of Heck v. Humphrey , 512 U.S. 477 (1994). In Heck, the Supreme Court held that, in order to recover damages for an allegedly unconstitutional conviction or imprisonment, or for other harm caused by actions whose unlawfulness would render a conviction or sentence invalid, a § 1983 plaintiff must prove that "the conviction or sentence has been reversed on direct appeal, expunged by executive order, declared invalid by a state tribunal authorized to make such a determination, or called into question by a federal court's issuance of a writ of habeas corpus." Id . at 486-87. "A claim for damages bearing that relationship to a conviction or sentence that has not been so invalidated is not cognizable under § 1983." Id . at 487 (emphasis in the original). Thus, a court faced with a suit for damages under § 1983 must first "consider whether a judgment in favor of the plaintiff would necessarily imply the invalidity of his... sentence." Id.[1]

Here, Plaintiff's § 1983 claims are based on lack of probable cause and warrantless arrest. Judgment in favor of Plaintiff on these claims would necessarily implicate the invalidity of his conviction. Because Plaintiff has not shown that his conviction has been invalidated by another court, he fails to state a § 1983 claim in federal court.[2]

Furthermore, the City of Erie Police Department is not a "person" as defined under § 1983 and thus, cannot be sued under that statute. Will v. Michigan Dep't of State Police , 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989). This Defendant is also entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity.

Accordingly, the complaint should be dismissed with prejudice pursuant to the screening provisions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act.


For the foregoing reasons, it is recommended Plaintiff's request for leave to proceed in forma pauperis [ECF No. 1] should be granted and the Complaint be dismissed with prejudice pursuant to the screening provisions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act.

In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 72, the parties must seek review by the district court by filing Objections to the Report and Recommendation within fourteen (14) days of the filing of this Report and Recommendation. Failure to file timely objections may constitute a waiver of appellate rights. See Brightwell v. Lehman , 637 F.3d 187, 194 n.7 (3d Cir. 2011); Nara v. Frank , 488 F.3d 187 (3d Cir. 2007).

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