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Walters v. Pennsylvania State Police

United States District Court, Middle District of Pennsylvania

July 7, 2014


Conner Judge


Susan E. Schwab United States Magistrate Judge

The plaintiff, Jeffrey Walters (“Walters”), proceeding pro se, brings this civil action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985 for alleged constitutional violations. In addition, Walters raises several state law claims. Pending before me are three motions to dismiss filed by the defendants pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1) and (b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the following reasons, I recommend that the motions be granted.

I. Procedural History.

On August 29, 2013, Walters initiated this action by filing a pro se complaint against the following eight defendants: (1) the Pennsylvania State Police (“PSP”); (2) Jared Hahn (“Hahn”), a PSP Trooper; (3) Jeremy Baluh (“Baluh”), a PSP Trooper; (4) FNU Webb, a PSP Trooper; (5) FNU Eshelman, a PSP Trooper; (6) FNU Shanahan, a PSP Corporal; (7) Dauphin County EMA 911; and (8) East Hanover Township.[1] Doc. 1. Shortly after filing his complaint, Walters also paid the filing fee. Doc. 2.

In his complaint, Doc. 1, Walters alleges that around 1:30 a.m., on September 09, 2011, he was driving along Route 743 in East Hanover Township.[2]He claims that he was not driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and he was not tired. During the previous evening, however, the area received substantial rainfall causing the Swatara Creek to flood and spill onto the roadways. While driving along Route 743, Walters saw a sign stating that the road was closed five miles ahead. Despite seeing the sign, Walters continued driving in the same direction. Within three and one-half miles, Walters ran into an area that had flooded along the road and his car became submerged in flood water.

While his car was sinking, Walters managed to dial 9-1-1 on his cell phone to provide his location. Walters, however, lost communication when he exited his car and jumped into the Swatara Creek. Furthermore, Walters lost his cell phone in the water.

According to Walters the flood waters were approximately six feet deep. The waters washed him into a tree line where he was able to grab hold of a branch and shout out for help. Walters shouted for help, for approximately 45 minutes. Someone nearby heard Walters' calls for help and, in turn, that person called Susquehanna Township River Rescue to provide assistance. Hahn, Baluh, and “more than several troopers” joined the River Rescue team.

Once Walters was brought to shore, “three Pennsylvania State Police” surrounded him. Walters further claims that he was shivering and had difficulty speaking; yet, he was not provided any care. Instead, Hahn, who would later testify at a hearing that he did not smell any alcohol, required Walters to undergo a breathalyzer test. Thereafter, Walters inquired about why the road was not being barricaded to prevent the same thing from happening to other drivers. Baluh, however, allegedly responded in a threatening manner, told Walters not to question his authority, and called Walters a “dumb son of a bitch” who was wasting their time. Furthermore, “a Trooper, ” presumably Hahn, see Doc. 1 at ¶¶ 25, 27, handcuffed Walters behind his back. Baluh then pushed Walters into the backseat of a patrol car and drove him to the “Mainstay Suites.” During the drive, Walters was not wearing a seatbelt and Baluh drove at a “dangerously” high rate of speed. For the next several days, Walters suffered neck pain.

Following this incident, on September 13, 2011, Walters was cited for failing to drive at a safe speed. Walters alleges that the citation was falsified, because the weather conditions noted on the citation were inaccurate. Moreover, on November 8, 2011, Walters was found not guilty of the cited violation.

Reading these factual allegations in full context, I liberally construe Walters' complaint to include (1) a Monell claim against the PSP for failing to train, supervise, investigate, and discipline its officers; (2) constitutional claims against the PSP, Hahn, and Baluh, for false imprisonment, false arrest, malicious prosecution, malicious abuse of process, and excessive force; (3) a Fourth Amendment unlawful search and seizure claim against Hahn and Baluh; (4) conspiracy claims against the PSP and the PSP defendants pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985; (5) state law tort claims against Hahn and Baluh for intentional infliction of emotional distress and endangerment; (6) a constitutional claim for failing to intervene against “several troopers”; (7) a state law claim against Dauphin County EMA 911 and East Hanover Township for negligent repair and control of the roadways; and (8) a state-law negligence claim against Dauphin County EMA 911 with respect to its handling of his 9-1-1 phone call. In addition, while it is unclear, Walters apparently seeks to either bring a private cause of action against, or impose criminal liability upon, Hahn for “intentionally falsifying” the aforementioned traffic citation. By way of remedy, Walters seeks compensatory damages, punitive damages, declaratory relief, and injunctive relief.

On November 27, 2013, the PSP and PSP defendants, East Hanover Township, and Dauphin County EMS 911 filed motions to dismiss. Docs. 8, 9, and 10. On December 11, 2013, the corresponding briefs-in-support were timely filed. Docs. 11, 12, and 13. On December 13, 2013, I ordered Walters to file a comprehensive brief-in-opposition, and, on January 27, 2014, Walters complied. Doc. 17. Thereafter, only Dauphin County EMA 911 filed a reply brief Doc. 18. The briefing period having since closed, the motions are ripe for disposition on the merits.

II. Legal Standards.

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b) enumerates several potential bases for dismissal of an action: lack of subject matter jurisdiction, lack of personal jurisdiction, improper venue, insufficiency of process or service of process, failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, and failure to join an indispensable party. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b). When a motion is premised on both lack of subject matter jurisdiction and another Rule 12(b) ground, mootness concerns dictate that the court address the issue of jurisdiction first. Tolan v. United States, 176 F.RD. 507, 509 (E.D. Pa. 1998).

A. Rule 12(b)(1).

Accordingly, turning to the issue of jurisdiction first, Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is the proper tool by which parties may challenge a federal court's subject matter jurisdiction. See Pa. Protection and Advocacy, Inc. v. Houston, 136 F.Supp.2d 353, 359 (E.D. Pa. 2001); see also Gallethin Realty Dev., Inc. v. BP Products of N. Am., 163 F.App'x 146, 149 (3d Cir. 2006). Because the federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, if subject-matter jurisdiction is lacking, the case must be dismissed.

Parties seeking to have a case dismissed for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction may present “either as a facial or factual challenge.” See Gould Electronics Inc. v. United States, 220 F.3d 169, 176 (3d Cir. 2000) (holding modified on choice of law grounds in Simon v. United States, 341 F.3d 193 (3d Cir. 2003)); Mortensen v. First Fed. Savings and Loan Ass'n, 549 F.2d 884, 891 (3d Cir. 1977). A party challenges subject matter jurisdiction “in fact” when he or she disputes the existence of jurisdictional facts alleged in the complaint. Pa. Protection, 136 F.Supp.2d at 359. Notably, when “reviewing a factual attack, the court may consider evidence outside the pleadings.” Gould, 220 F.3d at 176. The plaintiff bears the burden of proof in establishing jurisdiction. Moretnsen v. First Fed. Sav. Loan Ass'n, 549 F.2d 884, 891 (3d Cir. 1977). By contrast, when the challenge is facial, “the court must only consider the allegations of the complaint ... in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Gould, 220 F.3d at 176; see also Mortensen, 549 F.2d at 891 (“[T]he court must consider the allegations of the complaint as true.”).

B. Rule 12(b)(6).

Assuming that the Court has the power and authority – i.e. jurisdiction – to hear a case, Rule 12(b)(6) provides that a complaint may be also dismissed for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). To prevent dismissal, all civil complaints must set out “sufficient factual matter” to show that a claim is facially plausible so as to permit a District Court to draw the reasonable inference that a defendant is liable for the alleged misconduct. Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009). In other words, a plaintiff must plead more than the mere possibility of relief to survive a motion to dismiss. To accomplish this task “threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, [will] not suffice.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); see Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)(holding that a pleading offering only “labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.”); Baraka v. McGreevey, 481 F.3d 187, 195 (3d Cir. 2007). Indeed, following Iqbal and Twombly, a plaintiff must now show that the allegations of his or her complaint are plausible. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 677-78; Fowler, 578 F.3d at 211 (“A complaint has to „show' entitlement with its facts.”)(citing Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234-35 (3d Cir. 2008)).

With respect to the role of a District Court placed in the position of reviewing a plaintiff's complaint in connection with the federal pleading standard, it must conduct a two-part analysis. Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210. First, the factual and legal elements of a claim should be separated. Id. The District Court must accept all of the plaintiff's well-pleaded facts as true, but shall disregard any legal conclusions. Id. (citing Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678); Warren Gen. Hosp. v. Amgen Inc., 643 F.3d 77, 84 (3d Cir. 2011); Baraka, 481 F.3d at 195. Second, the court must determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a “plausible claim for relief.” Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210 (citing Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). “This „plausibility' determination will be a „context-specific task that requires the [District Court] to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.'” Id. at 211 (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679).

Additionally, in a case such as this, a complaint filed by a pro se litigant is to be liberally construed and held to a less stringent standard than formal complaints drafted by a lawyer. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (quoting Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976)). Nevertheless, “pro se litigants still must allege sufficient facts in their complaints to support a claim.” Mala v. Crown Bay Marina, Inc., 10-4710, 2013 WL 57895 at *4 (3d Cir. Jan. 7, 2013).

III. Discussion.

A. Eleventh Amendment Sovereign Immunity.

The PSP, a state agency, argues that Walters' claims against it are barred by Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity. The PSP defendants argue the same with respect to Walters' claims against them, in their official capacities. Doc. 12 at 5-6. Where sovereign immunity applies, a federal court is stripped of subject matter jurisdiction. See Hans v. Louisiana, 134 U.S. 1, 15-16 (1890); see also Kimel v. Fla. Bd. of Regents, 528 U.S. 62, 72–73 (2000); Lombardo v. Pennsylvania, 540 F.3d 190, 194–95 (3d Cir. 2008); Johnson v. U.S. Attorneys, CIV. A. 10-1643, 2010 WL 2991409, at *2-*3 (E.D. Pa. July 27, 2010).

Indeed, in this matter, Walters files claims against the PSP and the PSP defendants in their official capacities. By way of remedy, Walters seeks to recover damages and injunctive relief against the defendants. Furthermore, in opposing the dismissal motion filed by the PSP and PSP defendants, Walters asserts no defense; instead, he argues that the defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity. Doc. 17 at 6-9.

The Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that “[t]he Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.” U.S. Const. Amend. XI. “It is well-settled as a matter of judicial construction that despite its limited and seemingly unambiguous language, the Eleventh Amendment constitutionalizes a much more far-reaching principle of state sovereign immunity.” Everett v. Schramm, 772 F.2d 1114, 1118 (3d Cir. 1985)(citations omitted). Thus, in Hans, the Supreme Court held that the Eleventh Amendment prohibits a federal court from hearing a suit brought against a state by its own citizens, absent the state's consent. Extending this principle further, it has also been held that where a state agency or department is named as defendant, that too is considered a suit against the state which is barred by the Eleventh Amendment. Everett, 772 F.2d at 1118 (citing Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services v. Florida Nursing Home Association, 450 U.S. 147 (1981)). Similarly, where state officials are named as defendants, “[t]he general rule is that relief sought nominally against a [state] officer is in fact against the sovereign if the decree would operate against the latter.” Id. (quoting Hawaii v. Gordon, 373 U.S. 57, 58 (1963)). This is all true regardless of whether suit is brought under federal law, see Seminole Tribe v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44, 54, 116 S.Ct. 1114, 1122, 134 L.Ed.2d 252, 265 (1996), or state law. Pennhurst State School & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 117 (1984).

The doctrine of Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity, however, is not absolute. The Amendment does not bar such suits where the state has waived its immunity, see Atascadero State Hosp. v. Scanlon, 473 U.S. 234, 241 (1985), or where Congress has validly abrogated the state's immunity under the Fourteenth Amendment, see Seminole Tribe of Fla. v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44 (1996). Similarly, while “[t]he general rule is that relief sought nominally against an officer is in fact against the sovereign if the decree would operate against the latter” Gordon, 373 U.S. at 58, there are certain exceptions. Of vast import: where a suit seeks prospective injunctive relief against a state official for action contrary “to the supreme authority of the United States, ” it is not deemed a suit against the sovereign. Everett, 772 F.2d at 1118 (quoting Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908)). This so-called “stripping doctrine” has been limited to suits for prospective injunctive relief; the federal courts have no jurisdiction to award retrospective monetary relief in such cases. Id. at 1118-19 (citing Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651 (1974)). Moreover, this “stripping doctrine” has no applicability to claims brought against states or their agencies. See Stine v. Pennsylvania State Police, No. 1:09-CV-0944, 2010 WL 4514326, at *4 n. 4 (M.D. Pa. Nov. 2, 2010)(Conner, C.J.)(noting the same). Additionally, since state officials sued in their individual capacities are “persons” within the meaning of § 1983, the Eleventh Amendment does not bar suits for monetary damages brought under § 1983 against state officials in said capacity. See Hafer, 502 U.S. at 31.

Here, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has expressly withheld consent and has not waived its Eleventh Amendment immunity, see 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 8521-22, and Congress, through the enactment of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, did not expressly abrogate the States' sovereign immunity. Quern v. Jordan, 440 U.S. 332, 345 (1979). Accordingly, in this matter, the Eleventh Amendment provides a jurisdictional bar to all of Walters' claims against the PSP, which is an arm of the Commonwealth. See Stine, supra (noting also that the Pennsylvania State Police is an arm of the Commonwealth)(citations omitted). Furthermore, Walters' claims against the PSP defendants in their official capacities, for retrospective monetary relief, are similarly barred. See Atkin v. Johnson, 432 F.App'x 47, 48 (3d Cir. 2011)(per curiam)(summarily affirming the District Court's determination that the Eleventh Amendment bars claims for damages against the PSP and a State Trooper named in his official capacity). Walters' claims for monetary damages against the PSP defendants in their individual capacities, and for prospective injunctive relief against the PSP defendants in their official capacities, should proceed.

B. Claims Brought Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

Having addressed the Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity issue, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides, in pertinent part, that:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to ...

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