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Thomas v. Schlegel

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

February 11, 2015

DALE A. THOMAS, Plaintiff,
v.
DOUGLAS SCHLEGEL, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

EDWARD G. SMITH, District Judge.

The pro se plaintiff brings this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action seeking injunctive and compensatory relief against the defendant, a Pennsylvania magisterial district judge, claiming that the defendant violated his constitutional rights when the defendant allegedly removed an exhibit from his office file. The defendant moves to dismiss the complaint because he claims that, inter alia, the Eleventh Amendment bars the plaintiff's claim, his judicial position is not a "person" subject to suit under section 1983, and he is entitled to the protection of absolute judicial immunity. As the plaintiff has confirmed that he seeks relief against the defendant only in his individual capacity, the court does not have to address the defendant's arguments under the Eleventh Amendment and whether he is a "person" under section 1983. Nonetheless, the court finds that judicial immunity protects the defendant from the plaintiff's claims and, accordingly, the court will dismiss this action with prejudice.

I. ALLEGATIONS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On February 28, 2014, the pro se plaintiff, Dale A. Thomas, commenced this action by filing a complaint against the defendant, Magisterial District Judge Douglas Schlegel. Compl., Doc. No. 1. In the complaint, the plaintiff alleges that in March 2012, Judge Schlegel presided over a hearing relating to the plaintiff's alleged violation of a Bushkill Township noise ordinance. Id. at 1. The plaintiff complains that prior to the hearing, the Bushkill Township Police Department gave him a written warning indicating that he had violated the noise ordinance on various dates and times.[1] Id. at ¶ 14. The plaintiff alleges that this noise ordinance requires a warning notice "setting forth the proscribed conduct, giving the person a chance to restrain from said behavior, prior to the imposition of a fine." Id. at ¶ 2. However, the warning the plaintiff received did not comply with this requirement because it failed to describe any conduct that violated the ordinance.[2] Id. at ¶ 4.

The plaintiff sought to defend himself at the March 2012 hearing before Judge Schlegel by demonstrating that the police did not provide him with adequate notice of the conduct that violated the ordinance. Id. at ¶ 5. The plaintiff further alleges that the police anticipated this defense because the officer testifying against the plaintiff, Officer Happel, presented a warning notice that differed from the notice that the plaintiff received in that it specifically pertained to the plaintiff's dogs. Id. at ¶ 6. Judge Schlegel admitted this "new" copy of the warning notice into evidence, and, ultimately, he found the plaintiff guilty of two offenses. Id. at ¶ 7.

The plaintiff timely filed an appeal from his summary conviction for a trial de novo in the Northampton County Court of Common Pleas. Id. at ¶ 8. A few months later, the plaintiff visited Judge Schlegel's office to obtain a copy of the notice that Officer Happel presented at the plaintiff's hearing. Id. at ¶ 9. After retrieving the office file, Judge Schlegel's secretary showed the plaintiff that Officer Happel's notice was missing from the file. Id. at ¶ 10. While speaking with Judge Schlegel's secretary, the plaintiff noticed a log in the file indicating that two documents were entered into evidence at the hearing, one titled Commonwealth exhibit 1 noise warning notice, and another titled defense exhibit 1 noise warning notice. Id. The plaintiff requested a copy of this log, and the secretary first obtained permission from Judge Schlegel to provide it. Id. at ¶¶ 10, 11. Although the log that the plaintiff observed in the office referenced the two exhibits, he alleges that Judge Schlegel rewrote the log to show only Commonwealth exhibit 1 and he eventually received a copy of the rewritten log instead of the original log. Id. at ¶ 11. The plaintiff alleges that Judge Schlegel "removed this evidence from the file to cover up the fact[] that Officer Happel employed illegal evidence to procure a conviction, further preventing plaintiff from challenging said evidence[] at trial de novo." Id. at ¶ 12.

After the trial de novo, the court imposed a $4, 000 fine or ordered that the plaintiff leave his home by the end of December 2012.[3] Id. at ¶ 15. On March 11, 2013, the plaintiff served Judge Schlegel with a subpoena duces tecum, formally requesting production of the noise warning notice that Officer Happel entered into evidence at the hearing. Id. at ¶ 16. Judge Schlegel did not respond to this subpoena. Id.

Based on the aforementioned allegations, the plaintiff asserts a cause of action against Judge Schlegel under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Id. at ¶ 1. The plaintiff alleges that "[w]ithholding the requested evidence deprived [him of] the fundamental fairness requirement of due process under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution." Id. at ¶ 19. He seeks injunctive relief mandating Judge Schlegel to produce "the tainted evidence produced by Officer Happel at the March 2nd hearing" and compensatory damages in excess of $150, 000. Id. at ¶¶ 23-24.[4] With regard to the request for injunctive relief, the plaintiff states that he needs the "illegal evidence" for a pending civil matter (docketed in this court at No. 11-7578) and for two other criminal prosecutions. Id. at ¶¶ 13, 21-22.

Judge Schlegel filed the instant motion to dismiss on May 30, 2014. Doc. No. 6. The plaintiff filed a response in opposition to the motion on June 30, 2014. Doc. No. 12. Judge Schlegel filed a reply to the plaintiff's response on July 7, 2014. Doc. No. 13. The plaintiff filed a surreply on July 30, 2014. Doc. No. 14. The court held oral argument on January 15, 2015. The motion is now ripe for disposition.

II. DISCUSSION

In the motion to dismiss, Judge Schlegel argues that the court should dismiss the complaint because (1) the Eleventh Amendment immunizes him from the claims against him in his official capacity; (2) the claims against him in his official capacity are barred because the Magisterial District Court over which Judge Schlegel presides is not a "person" under 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (3) the doctrine of absolute judicial immunity bars any individual capacity claims against him; (4) the plaintiff's claim for injunctive relief is actually a improper request for mandamus; and (5) the Rooker-Feldman doctrine bars the claims. Mot. to Dismiss Pl.'s Compl. Filed on Behalf of the Honorable Douglas Schlegel ("Def.'s Mot.") at ¶¶ 9-15.

In response to Judge Schlegel's arguments, the plaintiff contends that Judge Schlegel did not act in his official or judicial capacity when he allegedly violated the plaintiffs constitutional rights, that he is suing Judge Schlegel in his individual capacity only, and that Judge Schlegel's actions did not constitute a "judicial act" for purposes of judicial immunity. Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n to Mot. to Dismiss ("Pl.'s Opp'n") at 2-4. Additionally, the plaintiff argues that his claim is not barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine because he "is not requesting this Court to review the propriety of the state court's ruling." Id. at 8.

The plaintiff has also clarified that he is not pursuing any claims against Judge Schlegel in his official capacity. See Resp. to Reply in Opp'n to Mot. to Dismiss ("Pl.'s Surreply") at 1 (stating that "[p]laintiff is suing Judge Schlegel in his individual capacity, not the entity in which he presides" and "plaintiff, is not suing Judge Schlegel in his official capacity, and counsel's fabrication of such a claim is unfounded" (emphasis in original)). Therefore, the court need not address Judge Schlegel's arguments that the Eleventh Amendment bars the plaintiff's claims or that he is not a "person" under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 because those arguments would only serve to dismiss any claims against him for damages in his official capacity. See, e.g., Garden St. Elec. Inspection Servs. Inc. v. Levin, 144 F.Appx. 247, 250-51 (3d Cir. 2005) (explaining that Eleventh Amendment and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 permit suits for damages against state officials when sued in their personal or individual capacities, ...


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