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Kauffman v. Kauffman

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

March 27, 2014




Plaintiff, Eric D. Kauffman, brings this civil rights action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against his former wife, Tennille Kauffman Walters, [1] and three officers of the Muhlenberg Police Department alleging wrongful arrest, malicious prosecution, abuse of process, and civil conspiracy. Kauffman contends his arrest for violating a protection from abuse order was improper and motivated by his former wife's personal relationship with an officer of the Muhlenberg Police Department, to whom she is now married. Walters, Officer Jason Livinghouse, Officer Michael Travis and Officer Juan Munoz have filed motions for summary judgment.[2] (Dkt. # 19, 22). For the reasons that follow, the motions are GRANTED.

1. Factual and Procedural Background

Kauffman and Walters are the divorced parents of a minor daughter (she was two-years-old at the time of this incident). On March 26, 2009, with the advice of counsel, they consented to the issuance of a final protection from abuse order ("PFA") that required Kauffman to refrain from abusing, harassing, stalking, threatening or harming Walters and their minor daughter. The couple shared custody of their daughter but primary physical custody was given to Walters. A visitation schedule was set and custody exchanges were ordered to take place at the home of the paternal grandparents. These custody and visitation provisions were included as terms of the PFA. The PFA also put Kauffman on notice that a violation of its terms could result in his arrest on the charge of indirect criminal contempt.

On Monday evening, August 10, 2009, Walters called 911 to report that Kauffman had violated the PFA by failing to return their daughter at the appointed time and place. Officer Livinghouse responded to the 911 call. He spoke to Walters by phone and was advised that a PFA was in place and that it included the terms of visitation. Next, Officer Livinghouse reviewed the police copy of the PFA.[3] Although Officer Livinghouse had never before seen this type of provision included in the terms of a PFA, he believed he had probable cause to arrest Kauffman based on the plain language of the PFA and the information provided by Walters.

For further assurance, Officer Livinghouse sought, but was unable to obtain, the advice of the on-call assistant district attorney. He then consulted with Officer Michael Travis. Travis had also never seen custody terms in a PFA, but he agreed with Livinghouse that there was probable cause to arrest Kauffman. Nevertheless, Travis decided to check with the Chief of Police. The Chief had also never seen a custody provision in a PFA, but he agreed with his officers that, based on the information they had, Kauffman had violated the terms of the PFA and there was probable cause to arrest him for indirect criminal contempt.

Officers Livinghouse, Travis, and Munoz then proceeded to Kauffman's home at approximately 9:00 p.m., one and one-half hours after the child was to have been returned to his parents' home. Kauffman answered the door with his daughter in his arms. Kauffman was arrested and charged with indirect criminal contempt. Walters was called to Kauffman's house to pick up her daughter and the officers allowed her to enter the home and take her daughter's bag and Kauffman's dog. Walters took the dog because she did not want it to be left alone for an unknown period of time while Kauffman was being processed at the police station. The dog was returned and nothing else was taken from the house.

What the police did not know prior to arresting Kauffman was that he had returned his daughter to his parents' home at the appointed time but Walters did not arrive to pick her up. He waited for one-half hour before deciding to take the child back to his home because it was her bedtime. Plt.'s Statement of Facts, ¶¶ 14-17. Kauffman does not state that he provided this information to the officers at the time of his arrest, only that he asked "to speak with a Police Sergeant because he did not believe he violated the PFA but was told he was not getting one.'" Id. at 28. After the charges were referred to the District Attorney's office for prosecution, the charges were withdrawn.[4]

As the result of this incident, Kauffman claims he suffered significant mental distress and humiliation, and that he incurred substantial attorney's fees to defend the criminal charges. He also contends that he was not hired as a police officer for the city of Reading because of this arrest. Kauffman complains that the actions of the officers were motivated by his former wife's relationship with her then boyfriend, now husband, Officer Jason Walters.

2. Standard of Review

The standard for summary judgment is well established. I must consider the evidence in a light most favorable to the non-moving party and, if there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, summary judgment is appropriate. However, the non-moving party cannot rely on unsupported assertions, conclusory allegations, or mere suspicions to defeat a summary judgment motion.

3. Discussion

The defendants argue that, accepting all evidence in the light most favorable to Kauffman, he has not established that an unlawful arrest took place or that any other constitutional right was violated. The police officers contend the arrest was made with probable cause, and alternatively, that they are protected by qualified immunity.

Walters adopts the arguments set forth is the police officers motion for summary judgment and also argues that the constitutional claims against her fail because she is not a state actor.[5] Kauffman has not ...

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