United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
February 5, 2015
GLEN FALLIN, Plaintiff,
DAVID MUELLER, ASSISTANT DISTRICT ATTORNEY, Defendant.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
MARTIN C. CARLSON, Magistrate Judge.
I. Statement of Facts and of the Case
The plaintiff in this case, Glenn Fallin, acting pro se, filed this lawsuit against an assistant district attorney in York County. (Doc. 1.) According to Fallin's complaint, this lawsuit arises out of a prosecution of Fallin's son in 2012 and - on criminal trespass charges. (Id.) That state criminal case ultimately concluded with Fallin's son's enrollment and completion of an Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) program, and form of pre-trial diversion. (Id.) In the course of this state criminal case, however, Fallin apparently endeavored to communicate with the assistant district attorney, the judge, and the alleged victims, communications that Fallin contends were misconstrued by all parties. As a result, the assistant district attorney assigned to Fallin's son' case sent Fallin a letter warning Fallin that he should refrain from acts that could be construed as the unauthorized practice of law on behalf of his son, and generally declined to speak directly with Fallin about his son's case in the future. Alleging that these actions violated his constitutional rights, and caused him emotional and economic harm, Fallin now seeks to sue the assistant district attorney under 42 U.S.C. §1983 for unspecified civil rights violations, and demands compensatory damages of $100, 000, punitive damages of $50, 000, along with declaratory and injunctive relief. (Id.)
Along with his complaint, Fallin seeks leave to proceed in forma pauperis. (Doc. 2.) For the reasons set forth below, we will GRANT Fallin leave to proceed in forma pauperis but as part of our legally-mandated duty to screen pro se in forma pauperis pleadings, we recommend that this complaint be dismissed.
A. Screening of Pro Se In Forma Pauperis Complaints-Standard of Review
This Court has a statutory obligation to conduct a preliminary review of complaints filed by plaintiffs who seek leave to proceed in forma pauperis, and seek redress against government officials. See 28 U.S.C. §§1915 and 1915A. Specifically, we must assess whether a pro se, in forma pauperis complaint "fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted." This statutory text, in turn, mirrors the language of Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which provides that a complaint should be dismissed for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6).
With respect to this benchmark standard for legal sufficiency of a complaint, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has aptly noted the evolving standards governing pleading practice in federal court, stating that:
Standards of pleading have been in the forefront of jurisprudence in recent years. Beginning with the Supreme Court's opinion in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007) continuing with our opinion in Phillips [v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 230 (3d Cir. 2008)] and culminating recently with the Supreme Court's decision in Ashcroft v. Iqbal ___ U.S. ___, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009) pleading standards have seemingly shifted from simple notice pleading to a more heightened form of pleading, requiring a plaintiff to plead more than the possibility of relief to survive a motion to dismiss.
Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 209-10 (3d Cir. 2009).
In considering whether a complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, the court must accept as true all allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom are to be construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Jordan v. Fox Rothschild, O'Brien & Frankel, Inc., 20 F.3d 1250, 1261 (3d Cir. 1994). However, a court "need not credit a complaint's bald assertions or legal conclusions when deciding a motion to dismiss." Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997). Additionally a court need not "assume that a... plaintiff can prove facts that the... plaintiff has not alleged." Associated Gen. Contractors of Cal. v. California State Council of Carpenters, 459 U.S. 519, 526 (1983). As the Supreme Court held in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), in order to state a valid cause of action a plaintiff must provide some factual grounds for relief which "requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of actions will not do." Id. at 555. "Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Id.
In keeping with the principles of Twombly, the Supreme Court has underscored that a trial court must assess whether a complaint states facts upon which relief can be granted when ruling on a motion to dismiss. In Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), the Supreme Court held that, when considering a motion to dismiss, a court should "begin by identifying pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth." Id. at 679. According to the Supreme Court, "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Id. at 678. Rather, in conducting a review of the adequacy of complaint, the Supreme Court has advised trial courts that they must:
[B]egin by identifying pleadings that because they are no more than conclusions are not entitled to the assumption of truth. While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations. When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.
Id. at 679.
Thus, following Twombly and Iqbal a well-pleaded complaint must contain more than mere legal labels and conclusions. Rather, a complaint must recite factual allegations sufficient to raise the plaintiff's claimed right to relief beyond the level of mere speculation. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has stated:
[A]fter Iqbal, when presented with a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, district courts should conduct a two-part analysis. First, the factual and legal elements of a claim should be separated. The District Court must accept all of the complaint's well-pleaded facts as true, but may disregard any legal conclusions. Second, a District Court must then determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has aplausible claim for relief.' In other words, a complaint must do more than allege the plaintiff's entitlement to relief. A complaint has to show' such an entitlement with its facts.
Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210-11.
As the court of appeals has also observed: "The Supreme Court in Twombly set forth the plausibility' standard for overcoming a motion to dismiss and refined this approach in Iqbal. The plausibility standard requires the complaint to allege enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.' Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955. A complaint satisfies the plausibility standard when the factual pleadings allow[ ] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.' Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556, 127 S.Ct. 1955). This standard requires showing more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.' Id . A complaint which pleads facts merely consistent with' a defendant's liability, [ ] stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of "entitlement of relief.'"" Burtch v. Milberg Factors, Inc., 662 F.3d 212, 220-21 (3d Cir. 2011) cert. denied, 132 S.Ct. 1861, 182 L.Ed.2d 644 (U.S. 2012).
In practice, consideration of the legal sufficiency of a complaint entails a three-step analysis: "First, the court must tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim.' Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1947. Second, the court should identify allegations that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.' Id. at 1950. Finally, where there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement for relief.' Id." Santiago v. Warminster Tp., 629 F.3d 121, 130 (3d Cir. 2010).
In addition to these pleading rules, a civil complaint must comply with the requirements of Rule 8(a) of the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure which defines what a complaint should say and provides that:
(a) A pleading that states a claim for relief must contain (1) a short and plain statement of the grounds for the court's jurisdiction, unless the court already has jurisdiction and the claim needs no new jurisdictional support; (2) a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief; and (3) a demand for the relief sought, which may include relief in the alternative or different types of relief.
In our view, these pleading standards apply to all aspects of the court's threshold analysis of a complaint's legal sufficiency. Thus, we will apply this analysis both when assessing the adequacy of the factual assertions set forth in the complaint, and when examining whether a complaint properly invokes the jurisdiction of this Court.
B. This Complaint Fails to State A Claim Upon Which Relief Can Be Granted
Applying these legal benchmarks in this case, dismissal of this complaint is warranted because the complaint fails on a number of scores to meet the substantive standards required by law, in that it does not set forth a "short and plain" statement of a cognizable violation of some right guaranteed by the Constitution or laws of the United States. Some of the flaws in this particular pro se complaint are discussed separately below.
1. Fallin May Not Bring a Civil Rights Arising Out of this State Case Which Did Not Conclude Favorably for The Plaintiff or His Son
At the outset, this pro se complaint fails because it proceeds on the flawed legal premise that Fallin may bring a civil rights action premised on claims arising out of a state criminal prosecution of his son which resulted in an ARD disposition.
This he cannot do. Quite the contrary, it is well-settled that an essential element of a civil rights claim in this setting is that the underlying criminal case must have been terminated in favor of the civil rights claimant. Therefore, where, as here, the civil rights plaintiff brings a claim based upon a state criminal case that did not result in a favorable termination, the plaintiff's claim fails as a matter of law. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has aptly observed in this regard:
The Supreme Court has "repeatedly noted that 42 U.S.C. § 1983 creates a species of tort liability." Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 483(1994) (quoting Memphis Community School Dist. v. Stachura, 477 U.S. 299, 305(1986) (internal quotation marks omitted)). Given this close relation between § 1983 and tort liability, the Supreme Court has said that the common law of torts, "defining the elements of damages and the prerequisites for their recovery, provide[s] the appropriate starting point for inquiry under § 1983 as well." Heck, 512 U.S. at 483 (quoting Carey v. Piphus, 435 U.S. 247, 257-58, (1978)). The Supreme Court applied this rule in Heck to an inmate's § 1983 suit, which alleged that county prosecutors and a state police officer destroyed evidence, used an unlawful voice identification procedure, and engaged in other misconduct. In deciding whether the inmate could state a claim for those alleged violations, the Supreme Court asked what common-law cause of action was the closest to the inmate's claim and concluded that "malicious prosecution provides the closest analogy... because unlike the related cause of action for false arrest or imprisonment, it permits damages for confinement imposed pursuant to legal process." Heck, 512 U.S. at 484. Looking to the elements of malicious prosecution, the Court held that the inmate's claim could not proceed because one requirement of malicious prosecution is that the prior criminal proceedings must have terminated in the plaintiff's favor, and the inmate in Heck had not successfully challenged his criminal conviction. Id.
Hector v. Watt, 235 F.3d 154, 155-156 (3d Cir. 2000).
It is further well-settled that an ARD resolution of a state criminal case does not constitute the type of favorable termination required by Heck as a prerequisite for an federal civil rights lawsuit. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has aptly observed:
The ARD program is a court-supervised compromise. See Davis, 493 F.Supp. at 92; see also Commonwealth v. Kindness, 247 Pa.Super. 99, 371 A.2d 1346 (1977) (describing termination of criminal charge under ARD program as a court-supervised compromise). Nevertheless, the ARD program imposes several burdens upon the criminal defendant not consistent with innocence, including a probationary term, "restitution... imposition of costs, and imposition of a reasonable charge relating to the expense of administering the program, and such other conditions as may be agreed to by the parties." Pa. R.Crim. P. 316(a). We agree... that probation constitutes an "unfavorable" period of judicially imposed limitations on freedom in which the probationer's violation of the program's terms may result in criminal prosecution. Singleton, 632 F.2d at 193-95. Viewing these factors together, we hold the ARD program is not a favorable termination under Heck.
Gilles v. Davis, 427 F.3d 197, 211 (3d Cir. 2005).
In this case it is evident from Fallin's complaint that his son's prior state criminal prosecution did not terminate favorably, since his son underwent ARD. This immutable fact presently defeats any federal civil rights claims arising from this state criminal case, and compels dismissal of these claims. In short, this complaint is based upon the fundamentally flawed legal premise that Fallin can sue the state for acts undertaken in this prosecution even though his son's criminal case did not resolve itself favorably for the plaintiff. Since this premise is simply incorrect, Fallin's complaint fails as a matter of law.
2. The Prosecutor Named in This Complaint Is Entitled to Immunity From Liability
Moreover, this complaint fails with respect to the state prosecutor named in the complaint. While the nature of his claims against the prosecutor is sometimes difficult to discern, it appears that the plaintiff is suing the prosecutor for the very act of prosecuting his son. This he may not do. It is well-settled that a criminal defendant may not sue prosecutors for their act of filing charges against him since such conduct is cloaked in immunity from civil liability. The immunity conferred upon prosecutors for the quasi-judicial act of filing and bringing criminal charges is broad and sweeping:
[T]he Supreme Court [has] held that state prosecutors are absolutely immune from liability under § 1983 for actions performed in a quasi-judicial role. This immunity extends to acts that are "intimately associated with the judicial phase of the criminal process, " such as "initiating a prosecution and... presenting the State's case." Court has noted numerous public policy considerations underlying its extension of absolute immunity to prosecutors: [S]uits against prosecutors for initiating and conducting prosecutions "could be expected with some frequency, for a defendant often will transform his resentment at being prosecuted into the ascription of improper and malicious actions to the State's advocate"; lawsuits would divert prosecutors' attention and energy away from their important duty of enforcing the criminal law; prosecutors would have more difficulty than other officials in meeting the standards for qualified immunity; and potential liability "would prevent the vigorous and fearless performance of the prosecutor's duty that is essential to the proper functioning of the criminal justice system."... [T]here are other checks on prosecutorial misconduct, including the criminal law and professional discipline.
Yarris v. County of Delaware, 465 F.3d 129, 135 (3d Cir. 2006)(citations omitted).
Here, we find that this complaint largely seeks to hold this prosecutor personally liable for prosecutorial actions in bringing these charges and resolving them through ARD. Since this official is immune from personal, individual liability for his actions in bringing this criminal case, Fallin's civil lawsuit against the assistant district attorney should be dismissed.
3. Fallin's Claim for $150, 000 in Unliquidated Damages Should Be Stricken
Further, we note one other, basic flaw in this pleading which should be corrected. This Court should also strike the claim for a specific sum of unliquidated damages, $150, 000, from this pro se complaint. In this regard, Rule 12 (f) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure imposes a duty on the court to review pleadings and provides that the court may upon its own initiative at any time order stricken from any pleading any immaterial matter. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(f). Decisions regarding whether claims may be stricken from a complaint are properly presented to a United States Magistrate Judge for determination in the first instance. Singh v. Superintending School Committee of the City of Portland, 593 F.Supp. 1315 (D. Me. 1984). In this case, Fallin's claim for a specified amount of unliquidated damages violates Local Rule 8.1 which provides, in part, that:
The demand for judgment required in any pleading in any civil action pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P.8(a)(3) may set forth generally that the party claiming damages is entitled to monetary relief but shall not claim any specific sum where unliquidated damages are involved. The short plain statement of jurisdiction, required by Fed.R.Civ.P.8(a)(1), shall set forth any amounts needed to invoke the jurisdiction of the court but no other.
Local Rule 8.1 (emphasis added).
Since this prayer for relief violates Local Rule 8.1 by specifying a particular amount of unliquidated damages, that specific dollar claim should be stricken from the complaint without prejudice to the plaintiff arguing in any subsequent trial or hearing on the merits for any appropriate amount of damages supported by the evidence.
C. The Complaint Should Be Dismissed Without Prejudice
While this complaint is flawed on multiple scores, we recognize that pro se plaintiffs should be afforded an opportunity to amend a complaint before the complaint is dismissed with prejudice, see Fletcher-Hardee Corp. v. Pote Concrete Contractors, 482 F.3d 247, 253 (3d Cir. 2007), unless it is clear that granting further leave to amend would be futile, or result in undue delay. Alston v. Parker, 363 F.3d 229, 235 (3d Cir. 2004). In this case, the plaintiff has not alleged facts that would state a claim upon which relief may be granted. Nonetheless, out of an abundance of caution, and in order to preserve the plaintiff's rights, it is recommended that this matter be dismissed without prejudice to the plaintiff attempting to amend this federal complaint to state a claim upon which relief may be granted in federal court, by including proper allegations against appropriate party-defendants that meet the requirements of federal law, provided that the plaintiff acts promptly.
Accordingly, for the foregoing reasons, the plaintiff is GRANTED leave to proceed in forma pauperis, (Doc. 2.), and IT IS RECOMMENDED that the plaintiff's complaint be dismissed without prejudice to the plaintiff attempting to amend this federal complaint to state a claim upon which relief may be granted in federal court, by including proper allegations against appropriate party-defendants that meet the requirements of federal law, provided the plaintiff acts within 20 days of any dismissal order.
The Parties are further placed on notice that pursuant to Local Rule 72.3:
Any party may object to a magistrate judge's proposed findings, recommendations or report addressing a motion or matter described in 28 U.S.C. § 636 (b)(1)(B) or making a recommendation for the disposition of a prisoner case or a habeas corpus petition within fourteen (14) days after being served with a copy thereof. Such party shall file with the clerk of court, and serve on the magistrate judge and all parties, written objections which shall specifically identify the portions of the proposed findings, recommendations or report to which objection is made and the basis for such objections. The briefing requirements set forth in Local Rule 72.2 shall apply. A judge shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made and may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge. The judge, however, need conduct a new hearing only in his or her discretion or where required by law, and may consider the record developed before the magistrate judge, making his or her own determination on the basis of that record. The judge may also receive further evidence, recall witnesses or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions.