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Thomas v. Stanek

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

February 23, 2015

BRANDON THOMAS, Plaintiff,
v.
DANIEL STANEK, in his Official Capacity as Police Officer for the City of Washington and in his Individual Capacity, CHRISTOPHER LUPPINO, in his Official Capacity as Police Officer for the City of Washington and in his Individual Capacity, DAN RUSH a/k/a DANIEL RUSH, in his Official Capacity as Police Officer for the City of Washington and in his Individual Capacity, ROBERT WILSON, in his Official Capacity as Police Officer for the City of Washington and in his Individual Capacity, JOHN DOE, in his Official Capacity as Police Officer for the City of Washington and in his Individual Capacity, CITY OF WASHINGTON, a municipal corporation, and EUGENE A. VITTONE, in his Official Capacity as District Attorney of Washington County and in his Individual Capacity, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

TERRENCE F. MCVERRY, Senior District Judge.

Now pending before the Court are the RULE 12(b)(6) MOTION TO DISMISS (ECF No. 9) filed by Defendants, Daniel Stanek ("Stanek"), Christopher Luppino ("Luppino"), Daniel Rush ("Rush"), and Robert Wilson ("Wilson") and DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO DISMISS PLAINTIFF'S COMPLAINT PURSUANT TO RULE 12(b)(6) (ECF No. 10) filed by Defendant, Eugene Vittone ("Vittone"), with accompanying briefs (ECF Nos. 11, 12). Plaintiff, Brandon Thomas, filed responses in opposition to each motion (ECF Nos. 16, 17), with a brief in support (ECF No. 24). Stanek, Luppino, Rush, and Wilson filed a reply brief (ECF No. 25). Accordingly, the motions are ripe for disposition.

I. Background

This § 1983 action arises out of the shooting death of Vaughn Simonelli ("Simonelli") and the subsequent arrest and prosecution of Plaintiff for Simonelli's death. Plaintiff confessed to shooting Simonelli, but claimed it was done in self-defense. Following a jury trial, Plaintiff was acquitted of all charges related to the shooting. At all times relevant to this case, Stanek, Luppino, and Rush ("Defendant Officers") were members of the City of Washington Police Department and were involved in Plaintiff's arrest and prosecution.[1] Wilson was the City of Washington's Chief of Police, and Vittone was the Washington County District Attorney.

On October 18, 2012, the Defendant Officers were called to the parking lot of the Shop and Save grocery store on Jefferson Avenue in Washington for a reported shooting. Compl. ¶ 20. The call originated from Plaintiff, who admitted to shooting Simonelli after allegedly being cornered and attacked by him in the Shop and Save parking lot. Compl. ¶¶ 21-22. Following the shooting, Plaintiff unloaded his firearm and rendered it safe and also offered to provide first aid to Simonelli. Compl. ¶ 5.

When the Defendant Officers arrived on the scene, Plaintiff informed them what had occurred. Compl. ¶ 26. According to Plaintiff, he and Simonelli had an encounter on Jefferson Street, during which Simonelli used his car to ram Plaintiff's truck and threatened and cursed Plaintiff. Compl. ¶ 26(a). Plaintiff then fled from the scene, with Simonelli trailing behind him. Compl. ¶ 26(b). Plaintiff eventually pulled into the Shop and Save parking lot, and Simonelli pulled in behind him, blocking Plaintiff's truck from the rear of the parking space. Compl. ¶ 26(c). Plaintiff got out of the truck to walk away from the situation but Simonelli confronted him, aggressively advancing towards Plaintiff while making profanity-laced threats. Compl. ¶ 26(d)-(e). In an effort to make Simonelli back away, Plaintiff drew his firearm. Compl. ¶ 26(f). Simonelli, who smelled of alcohol, nevertheless continued to charge towards Plaintiff. Compl. ¶ 26(g). Plaintiff then holstered his firearm and returned to his truck, closing the door behind him. Compl. ¶ 26(h). Not backing down, Simonelli charged the truck and began striking Plaintiff through the open window. Compl. ¶ 26(i). Fearing for his safety, Plaintiff, while still inside the truck, drew his firearm and fired two shots in Simonelli's direction. Compl. ¶ 26(k). The shots struck Simonelli at the top of the back of his neck and the top of his shoulder. Compl. ¶ 26(l).

Investigators also spoke to several eye witnesses, who, in Plaintiff's view, corroborated his version of the shooting. Compl. ¶ 28. One witness, Roger Anderson, told the Defendant Officers that Plaintiff retreated to his truck after arguing with Simonelli, and then Simonelli attacked Plaintiff through the truck's window, at which point Plaintiff fired two shots from inside his truck. Compl. ¶ 29. A second witness, Sarah Hayes, told the Defendant Officers that Plaintiff was sitting in his truck with the driver's side window down whenever Simonelli approached him, and Plaintiff fired two shots from inside his vehicle. Compl. ¶ 30. Finally, two other witnesses, Amy Shaner and Denise Webster, told the Defendant Officers that Simonelli, while driving on Jefferson Avenue, used his car to block Plaintiff's truck, and then exited his vehicle to shout at Plaintiff on Jefferson Avenue. Compl. ¶ 31. The witnesses told the Defendant Officers that Plaintiff remained in his vehicle during the encounter on Jefferson Avenue and then eventually drove away from Simonelli, only to have Simonelli chase after him. Compl. ¶ 31.

Following the shooting, Plaintiff was asked to accompany officers to the police station for questioning. Compl. ¶ 33. Plaintiff voluntarily gave a statement to the officers regarding the shooting. Compl. ¶ 34. He signed a waiver of his Miranda rights and repeated the statement describing the events to Defendants Stanek, Rush, Luppino, and Doe. Compl. ¶ 35. Plaintiff was questioned by these Defendants throughout the night and into the early morning hours of October 19, 2012, and, Plaintiff alleges, the Defendants refused to accept Plaintiff's version of events. Compl. ¶ 36. Meanwhile, the Defendant Officers continued to gather statements from other witnesses, who, according to Plaintiff, corroborated his telling. Compl. ¶ 37. Moreover, according to the complaint, the Defendant Officers and the City of Washington police, in general, knew Simonelli had a history of arrests and a reputation for provoking others with violence and threats. Compl. ¶ 40.

Defendants Stanek, Rush, and Luppino were assigned to the investigation of the shooting, and tasked with the responsibility of corroborating witness statements under the direction of Defendant Wilson. Compl. ¶¶ 37-38. To that end, they obtained a statement from Robert Newman ("Newman"), who, according to Plaintiff, gave the sole statement that contradicted his version of events. Compl. ¶ 41. Newman told the Defendant Officers that he saw Plaintiff shoot Simonelli in the chest while both men were standing outside their respective vehicles. Compl. ¶ 42. Newman's account, however, was refuted by the autopsy report, which showed that the bullets entered Simonelli's body in his neck and shoulder not his chest. Compl. ¶ 43. Newman's account was also inconsistent with the other witness statements, which indicated that Plaintiff was inside his truck, attacked, and opened fire only after being attacked. Compl. ¶ 44. Later testimony from Newman at the preliminary hearing revealed that he believed that Plaintiff was taller and bigger than Simonelli, although this was refuted by the autopsy report and the arrest report which showed that Plaintiff was smaller and shorter than Simonelli. Compl. ¶ 48.

The Defendant Officers, with the approval of Defendants Wilson and Vittone, charged Plaintiff with criminal homicide, which includes first, second, and third-degree murder as well as voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. Compl. ¶ 45. Before doing so, however, the Defendant Officers failed to obtain the video surveillance footage from the Shop and Save parking lot where the shooting occurred; attempt to obtain any fingerprints from the scene; search Plaintiff's vehicle; obtain and/or listen to the 911 calls; swab Plaintiff for the presence of gunshot residue; swab the exterior of Plaintiff's truck or the truck surrounding Plaintiff's truck for the presence of gunshot residue; or obtain the results of the gunshot residue tests. Compl. ¶ 46. A gunshot residue test conducted on December 17, 2012, showed the presence of gunshot residue inside the cabin of Plaintiff's truck. Compl. ¶ 53. This report, Plaintiff alleges, along with the various witness statements, confirmed Plaintiff's claim that he was chased and attacked by Simonelli, fled his attacker, and shot in self-defense while inside the presumptively safe vehicle. Compl. ¶ 54. Furthermore, Plaintiff alleges, the autopsy report showed the presence of stippling on Simonelli's face and neck, which would suggest that the firearm was fired at close range and not in the manner described by Newman. Compl. ¶ 27.

After the charges were initiated, Defendant Vittone objected to Plaintiff being freed on bond. Compl. ¶ 51. Plaintiff was, as a result, held without bond for 18 months pending trial. Compl. ¶ 52. He filed two motions for bond, both of which were denied. He also filed petitioned the trial court for the issuance of a writ of habeas corpus, [2] arguing that the Commonwealth could not make out a prima facie case of first-degree murder. Common Pleas Judge Katherine B. Emery denied each motion.[3]

Prior to his trial, Plaintiff, through his defense attorney, hired an investigator to follow-up on the various witness statements and perform a thorough and competent investigation - which, Plaintiff claims, the Defendant Officers failed to conduct on their own. Compl. ¶ 58. During this investigation, several witnesses came forward whose accounts matched Plaintiff's version of events. Compl. ¶ 60. These statements were turned over to Defendant Vittone. Compl. ¶ 61. The Defendants allegedly disregarded the additional evidence and never had supplemental police reports generated from interviews with such witnesses. Compl. ¶ 62. In fact, Plaintiff alleges, the Defendant Officers took written notes from some additional witnesses and, although they knew that they would be important and trial and were favorable to Plaintiff, they shredded the notes so no record of the interviews existed for trial. Compl. ¶ 63.

Plaintiff avers that, despite these contradictory witness statements, Defendants continued with the prosecution. Compl. ¶ 64. On the eve of jury selection, Defendant Vittone authorized a plea offer, whereby Plaintiff would agree to plead guilty to third-degree murder and possibly receive a sentence in the range of three to six years, with credit for time served of 18 months. Compl. ¶ 66. Plaintiff declined the offer and went to trial. Compl. ¶ 68. Soon after that offer was rejected, it was revealed that Newman - the Commonwealth's sole witness who had placed Plaintiff outside of the vehicle during the shooting - had moved to South Carolina and would thus be unavailable to testify. Compl. ¶ 70. According to Plaintiff, Defendants never revealed when Newman moved, why he moved, and whether he was ever shown the scientific evidence that allegedly called his testimony into dispute. Compl. ¶ 71. On May 14, 2014, a jury found Plaintiff not guilty of all homicide charges. Compl. ¶ 73.

On October 17, 2014 Plaintiff initiated this action by filing a five-count Complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (ECF No. 1). Against Defendants Stanek, Luppino, Rush, Wilson, and Vittone, Plaintiff alleges claims for malicious prosecution (Count I); "reckless investigation in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments" (Count II), false arrest (Count III); and false imprisonment (Count IV). In Count V, Plaintiff alleges a Monell claim against the City of Washington. On December 22, 2014, Defendants Stanek, Luppino, Rush, and Wilson filed a motion to dismiss each of the counts alleged against them. That same date, Defendant Vittone filed a motion to dismiss the claims alleged against him. The City of Washington has filed an answer on its own behalf, in which it denies the allegations and raises several affirmative defenses (ECF No. 8); it is not a party to either of the pending motions.

II. Legal Standard

A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) challenges the legal sufficiency of a complaint. The Court must accept as true all well-pleaded facts and allegations and must draw all reasonable inferences therefrom in favor of the plaintiff. However, as the Supreme Court made clear in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 554, 555 (2007), the "factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Id. The Supreme Court has subsequently broadened the scope of this requirement, stating that only a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives a motion to dismiss. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009).

A district court must conduct a two-part analysis when presented with a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. First, the Court must separate the factual and legal elements of the claim. Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009). Although the Court "must accept all of the complaint's well-pleaded facts as true, [it] may disregard any legal conclusions." Id. at 210-211. Second, the Court "must then determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a plausible 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." Id. at 211 (citing Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679). Determining "plausibility" is "a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.'" Id. at 211 (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679).

III. Discussion

A. The Defendant Officers' Motion

The Defendant Officers seek to dismiss all of the claims against them, in both their individual and official capacities. As an initial matter, the Court agrees that the official-capacity claims against the Defendant Officers are redundant of the Monell claim against the City of Washington. See Foglesong v. Somerset Cnty., No. 13-CV-77, 2013 WL 795064, at *9 (W.D. Pa. March 4, 2013) (citations omitted) (noting that "§ 1983 claims asserted against public officers in their official capacities" should be dismissed as redundant "where a claim has also been made against the public entity that employs them"). Thus, the official-capacity claims against the Defendant Officers will be dismissed. The Court now turns to the individual capacity claims against these Defendants.

1. Malicious Prosecution, False Arrest, and False Imprisonment Claims

Counts I, III, and IV allege claims for malicious prosecution, false arrest, and false imprisonment.[4] The essential element of each of these claims is the lack of probable cause. See Startzell v. City of Philadelphia, 533 F.3d 183, 204 (3d Cir. 2008) (explaining that "lack of probable cause" is "a necessary element of a false arrest and malicious prosecution claim").

In moving to dismiss these claims, the Defendant Officers argue that Plaintiff cannot establish probable cause because this Court "is bound by the state trial court's rulings on the probable cause question presented in the underlying criminal matter." Def.'s Br. in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss at 6, ECF No. 11. According to Defendants, the magistrate found at the preliminary hearing that the Commonwealth had satisfied its prima facie burden with respect to the charges and bound them over for trial. Moreover, the Defendant Officers argue, Plaintiff twice moved for the Court of Common Pleas to set bond and then for the issuance of a writ of habeas corpus, but Common Pleas Judge Katherine B. Emery denied each motion. Defendants contend that because the magistrate judge and Judge Emery found that the Commonwealth had established a prima facie case for the charge, Plaintiff is precluded from re-litigating the issue of probable cause in this action. Plaintiff counters that he was unable to appeal Judge ...


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