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Van Tassel v. Piccione

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

May 12, 2014

LYNN A. VAN TASSEL, Plaintiff,




On November 21, 2013, Plaintiff Lynn Van Tassel ("Plaintiff") initiated this civil action against the following defendants in both their individual and official capacities: Judge Thomas A Piccione ("Judge Piccione"), James R. Jendrysik ("Jendrysik"), Lawrence County Chief Probation Officer; Brian Covert ("Covert"), Warden of the Lawrence County Jail; Joshua Lamancusa ("Lamancusa"), Lawrence County District Attorney; and Pennsylvania State Police troopers Clyde Jones ("Jones") and Frank Noonan ("Noonan") (collectively, "Defendants"). In her complaint, Plaintiff alleges violations of her First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights (Counts I - III) in addition to raising state law claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress (Count IV), defamation (Count V), false arrest (Count VI) and false imprisonment (Count VII).

Presently pending before the Court are Motions to Dismiss filed by Piccione (Docket No. 11), Covert, Jendrysik and Lamancusa (Docket No. 13), Noonan (Docket No. 16), and Jones (Docket No. 28). For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' Motions to Dismiss are each GRANTED.


As Plaintiff is proceeding pro se, the factual allegations in her complaint are to be construed liberally. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007); see also Washam v. Stesis, 321 Fed.Appx. 104, 105 (3rd Cir. 2009). The allegations set forth in the instant complaint stem from a lengthy series of custody and child support disputes between Plaintiff and her ex-husband, Arthur Van Tassel, each of which culminated in a state court order directing Plaintiff to pay attorney fees as the result of her own vexatious litigation conduct.[1] When she failed to do so, Judge Piccione held Plaintiff in civil contempt and sentenced her to 90 days incarceration unless she agreed to a payment plan. Van Tassel II, 2013 WL 3169005 at *2. When Plaintiff again failed to comply, a bench warrant for her arrest was issued. Id.

On December 2, 2011, Judge Piccione agreed to release Plaintiff on house arrest and directed Jendrysik to arrange for electronic monitoring. (Docket No. 1 at ¶ 9). In order to facilitate the requested electronic monitoring, a miscellaneous docket was created indicating that Plaintiff had been charged with "indirect criminal contempt" pursuant to 23 Pa. C.S.A. 6114(a). ( Id. at ¶ 10). On December 7, 2011, Judge Piccione conducted a "bail" hearing and released Plaintiff on "nominal bail." ( Id. at ¶¶ 9, 13). On March 6, 2012, Judge Piccione issued another order removing the miscellaneous docket entry and expunging any suggestion that Plaintiff had been charged criminally. ( Id. at ¶ 19). Judge Piccione explained in his order that the criminal charge was simply an administrative placeholder required by Lawrence County's docketing system in order to effectuate electronic monitoring and was not intended to link Plaintiff to any criminal activity. Van Tassel II, 2013 WL 3169005 at *3; Docket No. 12 Ex. H.[2]

Plaintiff responded by filing a federal declaratory judgment action challenging the constitutionality of each of Judge Piccione's orders. Van Tassel II, 2013 WL 3169005 at *3. The district court dismissed her action after concluding that parallel proceedings were still underway in state court. Id. at *4 (citing Wilton v. Seven Falls Co., 515 U.S. 277 (1995)). On appeal, the Third Circuit affirmed on the alternate ground that the district court lacked jurisdiction pursuant to the Rooker-Feldman doctrine because each of Plaintiff's claims sought federal review of a state court judgment. Van Tassel, 2014 WL 1758894 at 6.

Plaintiff subsequently filed the instant action, again attacking the circumstances surrounding her transfer from prison to house arrest and alleging that the miscellaneous criminal charge created to effectuate that transfer was "faked and forged" for malicious purposes by the "vertically integrated criminal enterprise" that is the Lawrence County Court of Common Pleas for malicious purposes. (Docket No. 1 at ¶¶ 15, 19). Plaintiff contends that the false criminal contempt charge violated her constitutional right to due process and to be free from malicious prosecution and arbitrary seizures. ( Id. at ¶¶ 20-30). Plaintiff also asserts state law claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress, defamation, false arrest and false imprisonment. ( Id. at ¶¶31-38).


A motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) challenges a court's subject-matter jurisdiction over the plaintiff's claims. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). "At issue in a Rule 12(b)(1) motion is the court's very power to hear the case.'" Judkins v. HT Window Fashions Corp., 514 F.Supp.2d 753, 759 (W.D. Pa. 2007) (quoting Mortensen v. First Federal Savings and Loan Association, 549 F.2d 884, 891 (3rd Cir. 1977)). As the party asserting jurisdiction, the plaintiff bears the burden of showing that his or her claims are properly before the court. Development Finance Corp. v. Alpha Housing & Health Care, 54 F.3d 156, 158 (3rd Cir. 1995). In reviewing a Rule 12(b)(1) motion, a court must determine whether the attack on its jurisdiction is a facial attack or a factual attack. A facial attack challenges the sufficiency of the plaintiff's pleadings. Petruska v. Gannon University, 462 F.3d 294, 302, n. 3 (3rd Cir. 2006). When considering a facial attack, a court must accept the allegations contained in the plaintiff's complaint as true. Id. A factual attack on the court's jurisdiction must be treated differently. Id. When considering a factual attack, the court does not attach a presumption of truthfulness to the plaintiff's allegations, and the existence of disputed material facts does not preclude the court from deciding for itself the jurisdictional issues raised in the motion to dismiss. Mortensen, 549 F.2d at 891.

A valid complaint requires only "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). "To survive a motion to dismiss [under Rule 12(b)(6)], a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007)).

The Supreme Court in Iqbal clarified that the decision in Twombly "expounded the pleading standard for all civil actions.'" Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 684. The court further explained that although a court must accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in a complaint, that requirement does not apply to legal conclusions; therefore, the pleadings must include factual allegations to support the legal claims asserted. Id. at 678-79. "Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Id. at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). The determination as to whether a complaint contains a plausible claim for relief "is a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678-79 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). In light of Iqbal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has instructed that district courts should first separate the factual and legal elements of a claim and then, accepting the "well-pleaded facts as true, " "determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a plausible claim for relief.'" ...

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