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Samuels v. Pocono Mountain Regional Police Department

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

February 10, 2014

KAMAR SAMUELS and MOZELLA McCLENDON SAMUELS, Plaintiffs,
v.
POCONO MOUNTAIN REGIONAL POLICE DEPARTMENT, et al., Defendants.

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

MARTIN C. CARLSON, Magistrate Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

The plaintiffs in this action, Kamar Samuels and his wife, Mozella McClendon Samuels bring claims alleging that they have been subjected to repeated instances of harassment, racial profiling, and abusive conduct by police officers employed by the Pocono Mountain Regional Police Department (the "Police Department"). In particular, the plaintiffs bring claims relating to citations that Mr. Samuels was issued in July 2011, which he claims were baseless and maliciously issued, and which were subsequently dismissed by the Pennsylvania Superior Court in August 2012 because they were filed beyond the Pennsylvania statute of limitations.

In addition, the plaintiffs allege that the defendants violated their civil rights in December 2011 when two police officers who had been endeavoring to stop Mr. Samuels's vehicle followed him into his garage with their firearms unholstered, and subjected Mr. Samuels to an unlawful arrest using excessive force, while Mrs. Samuels looked on. The plaintiffs have named as defendants the Police Department, its police chief, Harry Lewis, and two officers, Robert Miller and David Schmidt. In addition, the plaintiffs have brought claims for municipal liability against the Police Department and Chief Lewis in his official capacity, and against Tobyhanna Township, Mount Pocono Borough, Tunkhannock Township, and Coolbaugh Township (the municipal defendants shall hereafter be referred to collectively as the "Municipalities").

The defendants have moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that it is entirely predicated on matters that occurred in the summer of 2011, and is therefore time-barred. In addition, the defendants observe that the claims relating to 2011 citations bears striking similarity to a separate federal lawsuit that Mr. Samuels brought in this court in 2012, and which has since been dismissed with prejudice. Accordingly, the defendants assert that any claims relating to the citations should be barred by the doctrine of res judicata. Finally, the defendants contend that the plaintiffs have failed to state a claim for municipal liability, and otherwise that the plaintiffs' claim for punitive damages against the municipal defendants should be dismissed.

Upon consideration, we agree that the plaintiff's claims relating to the 2011 citations that he was issued should be dismissed for failure to state a claim and because these claims are precluded by res judicata. However, the plaintiffs' claims relating to Mr. Samuels's December 6, 2011 arrest are not time-barred, and were not brought as part of Mr. Samuels's prior litigation, and therefore not subject to res judicata. We also disagree that the plaintiffs' municipal liability claims should be dismissed at this point in the litigation, although we agree that the plaintiffs' claims for punitive damages against the municipal defendants must be dismissed because such damages are unavailable as a matter of law. Accordingly, it will be recommended that the defendants' motion be granted in part and denied in part.

II. BACKGROUND

The background to this report is taken from the well-pleaded allegations set forth in the complaint. The plaintiffs allege that on June 5, 2011, Mr. Samuels was traveling westbound on Route 940 in Monroe County when he passed two police cars that had pulled over a civilian driver. According to the complaint, after Mr. Samuels drove by, he was stopped by one of the officers, David Schmidt, and "cited for disobedience to traffic control devices at traffic stop". (Compl., ¶ 13.) Mr. Samuels refused to accept the citation. (Id.) Instead, the plaintiffs claim that after Mr. Samuels made some inquiry into the matter, he received three citations by certified mail in mid-July, 2011, for speeding, careless driving, and for a seatbelt violation. ( Id., ¶¶ 14-15.) The plaintiffs claim that these citations were based on malice and ulterior motive against Mr. Samuels, who claims he was stopped three times in a six-month period on suspicion of driving while intoxicated - something Mr. Samuels claims he never did. ( Id., ¶ 15.)

After receiving the three citations, Mr. Samuels encountered difficulty in paying the fines that were assessed. Apparently on the basis of an argument that Mr. Samuels got into with staff in a magisterial district judge's office while inquiring into the citations or attempting to satisfy them, Officer Schmidt issued Mr. Samuels a fourth citation for disorderly conduct. ( Id., ¶¶ 16-20.) Mr. Samuels pleaded not guilty to this charge, which he claims was also unfounded and resulted from "ulterior motive and malice". ( Id., ¶ 20.) What followed were a series of hearings and appeals, ultimately resulting in the Pennsylvania Superior Court setting aside all three traffic citations on the grounds that the tickets had been issued beyond the Pennsylvania statute of limitations. ( Id., ¶¶ 29.)

The plaintiffs also bring claims based upon a second incident involving Officers David Schmidt and Robert Miller, and which also stemmed from a traffic incident that began while Mr. Samuels was driving westbound along Route 940. On December 6, 2011, the plaintiff approached a red light, directly behind a police cruiser. ( Id., ¶ 30.) According to the complaint, Mr. Samuels "followed this vehicle for approximately 4 miles on 940W until patrol vehicle pulled off roadway at Jubilee Restaurant and proceeded to pull out behind me." ( Id., ¶ 31.) At this point, Mr. Samuels pulled off the roadway in the hopes of avoiding a confrontation with officers, since he had been pulled over three times within the prior year for "no apparent reason" and had been followed numerous other times. ( Id., ¶ 32.) Thereafter, the police cruiser passed Mr. Samuels and entered another parking lot, before returning to the road in an effort once again to follow Mr. Samuels's vehicle. ( Id., ¶ 33.) This prompted Mr. Samuels to slow his own vehicle to "crawling speed", after which the patrol cruiser began following Mr. Samuels once again. (Id.) After driving another two miles in this fashion, Mr. Samuels pulled to the side of the road, and the patrol vehicle pulled to a stop behind him. ( Id., ¶ 34.) Mr. Samuels made two phone calls, which took approximately 75 seconds, after which he returned his vehicle to the roadway and proceeded. The cruiser followed, and drove by as Mr. Samuels approached the entrance to his neighborhood. ( Id., ¶ 35.) Before returning to his home, however, Mr. Samuels once again pulled out behind the patrol car in order to make a note of its license number. After obtaining this information, Mr. Samuels drove by the patrol car, and the officer activated his overhead lights. ( Id., ¶¶ 36-37.)

Instead of stopping, however, Mr. Samuels "turned around and drove home with two patrol cars with sirens flashing behind me and entered my garage." ( Id., ¶ 38.) Apparently the plaintiff sought to close the garage door as the officers approached, and Officer Robert Miller ran up to the garage door with his firearm drawn, and broke the garage door in an effort to prevent it from closing. He then ordered Mr. Samuels to show his hands, and he ordered Mrs. Samuels to "stand down" after she had entered the garage upon hearing the commotion. ( Id., ¶ 39.) The plaintiffs allege that Officer Miller continued to scream at the Samuels, pushed Mr. Samuels into a patrol vehicle, and then searched him, asking whether Mr. Samuels had drugs in his possession. ( Id., ¶¶ 40-43.) When Mr. Samuels complained that the handcuffs had been placed on his wrists were too tight, Officer Miller used his Taser on him, causing Mr. Samuels to fall to the ground "screaming in pain and bleeding from various locations." ( Id., ¶ 45.) The plaintiffs allege that Officer Miller, assisted by Chief Harry Lewis, falsified police records and made material misrepresentations about the incident in an effort to obtain a conviction - apparently for disorderly conduct.[1] (Id.)

During a hearing that was subsequently held on charges that were filed based on this incident, the presiding judge expressed concern that the record showed no clear basis for the officers to have pursued Mr. Samuels in the first place, and concluded that there was no reason for the traffic stop. ( Id., ¶ 46.) The plaintiffs have also attached exhibits to the complaint including transcripts from judicial proceedings, and an opinion finding that a disorderly conduct charge filed against Mr. Samuels as part of the incident should be dismissed. (Compl., Exs. A-D.)

Alleging that the conduct of the officers was intentional, reckless, and willful, the plaintiffs claim that they suffered injuries, pain and suffering, emotional distress, and monetary losses stemming from the traffic incident and subsequent arrest. The plaintiffs have brought claims alleging "police misconduct, " which appears to be a claim that Officer Schmidt subjected the plaintiff to malicious prosecution with the aid of the District Attorney and Chief Lewis. (Compl., Count I.) The plaintiffs also claim that Mr. Samuels was subjected to an unlawful arrest, and that Officer Miller used excessive force during the incident that occurred in the Samuels' garage. ( Id., Counts II and III.) In addition, the plaintiffs bring a claim for municipal liability against the Police Department, Chief Lewis in his official capacity, and each of the other named municipalities, alleging that these defendants, through Chief Lewis, maintained unlawful policies that encouraged and supported the unconstitutional actions of Officers Miller and Schmidt with respect to the issuance of baseless citations, unlawful arrest, and malicious prosecution of Mr. Samuels.

The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint on December 10, 2013. (Doc. 7.) The defendants supplemented this motion on December 16, 2013, and filed a brief in support of the motions to dismiss on the same date. (Docs. 8, 9.) The plaintiffs filed a timely brief in opposition to the motions on January 2, 2014. (Doc. 10.) The defendants declined to file a reply brief in further support of their motions, which are now ripe for disposition.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of a complaint, in whole or in part, if the plaintiff fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The moving party bears the burden of showing that no claim has been stated, Hedges v. United States , 404 F.3d 744, 750 (3d Cir.2005), and dismissal is appropriate only if, accepting all of the facts alleged in the complaint as true, the plaintiff has failed to plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face, " Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007) (abrogating "no set of facts" language found in Conley v. Gibson , 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957)). The facts alleged must be sufficient to "raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 555 . This requirement "calls for enough fact[s] to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence" of necessary elements of the plaintiff's cause of action. Id . at 556. Furthermore, in order to satisfy federal pleading requirements, the plaintiff must "provide the grounds of his entitlement to ...


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