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Clouser v. Johnson

United States District Court, Middle District of Pennsylvania

May 19, 2014

TODD JOHNSON, et al., Defendants

Chief Judge Conner


Susan E. Schwab United States Magistrate Judge

I. Introduction.

The plaintiff, Nathan W. Clouser, claims that the defendants violated his constitutional rights in connection with criminal proceedings against him. For the reasons that follow, we recommend that the defendants’ motion for summary judgment be granted in part and denied in part.

II. Background and Procedural History.

Clouser, proceeding pro se, began this action by filing a complaint naming as defendants the following officers: Todd Johnson, a detective in charge of the Dauphin County Drug Task Force (task force); Regis Vogle, III, an officer with the task force; and John Goshert, a supervisor of the Dauphin County Criminal Investigative Division (CID). Clouser sued Vogel in his individual capacity, and he sued Johnson and Goshert in both their individual and official capacities.

Clouser claims that a March 2011 search of his residence violated his constitutional rights. More specifically, Clouser alleges that defendant Johnson intentionally or with reckless disregard included false statements in the affidavit for probable cause for the search warrant and that those statements were necessary to the finding of probable cause. According to Clouser, Johnson’s false statements resulted in a warrant authorizing an illegal search in violation the Fourth Amendment, and defendants Vogle and Goshert were present and participated in the illegal search. Clouser also claims that by making false statements in order to subvert the processes that are meant to protect against illegal searches and seizures, Johnson violated his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights.

After the search, Clouser alleges, he was arrested for attempt to manufacture Fentanyl and unlawful use of a communication device. Clouser also alleges that defendant Johnson intentionally or with reckless disregard included false statements in the affidavit for probable cause for the warrant for his arrest, which, according to Clouser, rendered the arrest warrant illegal. While Clouser acknowledges that there were other, valid warrants for his arrest for other outstanding charges, he alleges that those other charges were dealt with on April 11, 2011, and, after that date, the only thing holding him in custody was the invalid arrest warrant. Clouser claims that he suffered unlawful imprisonment in violation of the Fourth Amendment from April 11, 2011, until October 4, 2011.

According to Clouser, after his arrest, two packages were seized without a warrant and without probable cause. One of the packages was sent through the United States mail. The other was sent through UPS and was taken off the porch of his residence. Clouser believes that Johnson altered the chain-of-custody documents to make it appear that the package sent via UPS was sent through the United States mail. Clouser asserts that Johnson tried to hide his tampering with evidence, and, according to Clouser, this violated his Fourth Amendment, Fifth Amendment, and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Clouser alleges that, on March 29, 2011, defendant Johnson had him transported to CID offices. According to Clouser, he asked for an attorney. Clouser alleges that Johnson asked him to sign consent-to-search forms for two packages that were seized after his arrest as well as for six electronic devices that were seized during the original search. Clouser asserts that he again asked for a lawyer. According to Clouser, Johnson then responded that he did not believe that any attorneys were available, that it would help Clouser later if he signed the consent forms, and that, if Clouser did not sign the forms, he would just get a search warrant anyway. Clouser eventually relented and signed the forms. According to Clouser, defendant Vogle was aware of his request for counsel, and Vogle witnessed him signing the consent forms. Clouser claims that by asking him to sign the consent forms without his attorney, defendants Johnson and Vogle violated his Sixth Amendment right to counsel.

Clouser alleges that defendant Johnson repeatedly continued his preliminary hearing knowing that there was no probable cause to hold him and that a preliminary hearing would fail. Clouser was federally indicted on October 5, 2011, and all local charges were withdrawn before a preliminary hearing was held.

Clouser further alleges that the defendants were involved in an incident in 2008 that was the subject of a federal lawsuit—Perry v. Borough of Middletown, 1:10-CV-00911 (Carlson, M.J.). That case was dismissed, in April of 2011, after the parties settled the case. According to Clouser, the defendants’ involvement in that case shows a pattern of abuse and reckless disregard for civil rights by the defendants.

In response to motions to dismiss the complaint filed by the defendants, the Court dismissed all claims against defendant Goshert and all claims against defendant Vogel except the Sixth Amendment claim. The Court also dismissed the Fifth Amendment and substantive due process claims against defendant Johnson. Thus, the remaining claims are the Sixth Amendment claim against defendants Vogel and Johnson and the Fourth Amendment and procedural due process claims against defendant Johnson.

Currently pending is a motion filed by defendants Johnson and Vogel seeking summary judgment on the remaining claims. The defendants contend that all of Clouser’s claims are barred by the favorable-termination rule of Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994). The defendants also contend that the claims against them in their official capacities[1] are barred by sovereign immunity. For the reasons discussed below, we conclude that only one of Clouser’s remaining claims is barred by Heck. We also conclude that the defendants have not established that they are entitled to sovereign immunity.

III. Discussion.

A. Summary Judgment Standard.

The defendants have moved for summary judgment under Rule 56(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which provides that “[t]he court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “Through summary adjudication the court may dispose of those claims that do not present a ‘genuine dispute as to any material fact’ and for which a jury trial would be an empty and unnecessary formality.” Goudy-Bachman v. U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services, 811 F.Supp.2d 1086, 1091 (M.D. Pa. 2011)(quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a)).

The moving party bears the initial responsibility of informing the court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the record which demonstrate the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). With respect to an issue on which the nonmoving party bears the burden of proof, the moving party may discharge that burden by “‘showing’—that is, pointing out to the district court—that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party’s case.” Id. at 325.

Once the moving party has met its burden, the nonmoving party may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of its pleading; rather, the nonmoving party must show a genuine dispute by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials” or “showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence . . . of a genuine dispute.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). If the nonmoving party “fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which that party will bear the burden at trial, ” summary judgment is appropriate. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. Summary judgment is also appropriate if the nonmoving party provides merely colorable, conclusory, or speculative evidence. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). There must be more than a scintilla of evidence supporting the nonmoving party and more than some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. Id. at 252. “Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party, there is no ‘genuine issue for trial.’” Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986).

The substantive law identifies which facts are material, and “[o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. A dispute about a material fact is genuine only if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis that would allow a reasonable fact finder to return a verdict for the non-moving party. Id. at 248-49. When “faced with a summary judgment motion, the court must view the facts ‘in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.’” N.A.A.C.P. v. N. Hudson Reg' l Fire & Rescue, 665 F.3d 464, 475 (3d Cir. 2011)(quoting Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007)).

At the summary judgment stage, the judge’s function is not to weigh the evidence or to determine the truth of the matter; rather it is to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. The proper inquiry of the court “is the threshold inquiry of determining whether there is the need for a trial—whether, in other words, there are any genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party.” Id. at 250.

Summary judgment is warranted, after adequate time for discovery, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. “Under such circumstances, ‘there can be no genuine issue as to any material fact, since a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party’s case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.’” Anderson v. CONRAIL, 297 F.3d 242, 247 (3d Cir. 2002)(quoting Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323). “[S]ummary judgment is essentially ‘put up or shut up’ time for the non-moving party: the non-moving party must rebut the motion with facts in the record and cannot rest solely on assertions made in the pleadings, legal memoranda, or oral argument.” Berckeley Inv. Group, Ltd. v. Colkitt, 455 F.3d 195, 201 (3d Cir. 2006).

B. Undisputed Material Facts.

A party who seeks to resist a summary judgment motion must comply with Local Rule 56.1, which specifically provides that “[s]tatements of material facts in support of, or in opposition to, a motion shall include references to the parts of the record that support the statements” and that “[a]ll material facts set forth in the statement required to be served by the moving party will be deemed admitted unless controverted by the statement required to be served by the opposing party.” Under this Rule, the failure to follow these instructions and appropriately challenge the material facts tendered by the defendant means that those facts must be deemed admitted. Further, a party opposing a motion for summary judgment may not “rely merely upon bare assertions, conclusory allegations or suspicions.” Fireman’s Ins. Co. of Newark v. DuFresne, 676 F.2d 965, 969 (3d Cir. 1982). Rather, “[o]nce the moving party has supplied sufficient affidavits in support of its motion, the opposing party must respond by supplementing the record in some manner—whether by its own affidavits or otherwise—setting forth specific facts demonstrating that there is a genuinely disputed factual issue for trial.” Id.

The defendants filed a statement of material facts, and Clouser filed a one-page response. While Clouser purports to deny a few of the defendants’ statement of facts, he has not cited evidence to support his denials. Thus, in accordance with Local Rule 56.1, the defendants’ statements of facts are deemed admitted for purposes of the pending summary judgment motion. As ...

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