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Sargent v. Commonwealth

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

May 15, 2015

JAMI SARGENT, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

KAROLINE MEHALCHICK, Magistrate Judge.

This is a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action concerning excessive use of force, false arrest, and malicious prosecution claims arising out of an incident on March in March 24, 2011. Presently before the Court is the motion for partial summary judgment of Defendants Corporal Joseph Kulick and Trooper Robert Cuvo. Specifically, Defendants move for summary judgment on Counts V through VIII of the complaint, alleging false arrest and malicious prosecution. The motion has been fully briefed, and oral argument on both motions was held on May 6, 2015. For the reasons that follow, the motion (Doc. 42), will be granted.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, Jami Sargent, instituted this lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania State Police, Corporal Joseph Kulick, and Trooper Robert C. Cuvo, Jr. on March 20, 2013, asserting violations of their constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment; specifically, excessive use of force, false arrest, and malicious prosecution under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 42 U.S.C. § 1988.

The undisputed facts are as follows. At approximately 9:00 p.m. on March 24, 2011, Plaintiff Jami Sargent ("Sargent"), exited Mt. Airy Casino Resort in Monroe County, Pennsylvania, with her friend, David Comstock ("Comstock"). (Doc. 44, at ¶ 2; Doc. 52, at ¶ 2). Upon arrival at Sargent's vehicle, Sargent could not locate her keys. (Doc. 44, at ¶ 3; Doc. 52, at ¶ 3). Security officers posted at the Casino had witnessed Sargent struggle to locate her keys and requested that Defendant Corporal Kulick respond to the parking lot of the Casino to assist Sargent in search for her keys, as they suspected Sargent and Comstock to be intoxicated. (Doc. 44, at ¶ 5; Doc. 52, at ¶ 5). Defendant Trooper Cuvo accompanied Defendant Kulick to the scene, where they detected a strong odor of alcohol on Sargent's and Comstock's breath. (Doc. 44, at ¶ 7, ¶ 8; Doc. 52, at ¶ 7, ¶ 8). Defendant Kulick advised Sargent and Comstock that operation of a vehicle while under the influence would constitute a DUI offense. (Doc. 44, at ¶ 9; Doc. 52, at ¶ 9). As the conversation came to a close, Sargent approached Defendant Kulick who was standing with Comstock and pointed her finger in Defendant Kulick's face. (Doc. 44, at ¶ 10; Doc. 52, at ¶ 10). As a result of this incident, Sargent was arrested and charged with aggravated assault, resisting arrest, harassment, disorderly conduct, and public drunkenness. (Doc. 44, at ¶ 13; Doc. 52, at ¶ 13). At the time of the incident, Sargent's blood alcohol content was approximately.27-.29, over three times the legal limit. (Doc. 44, at ¶ 16; Doc. 52, at ¶ 16). She has no recollection of the events that occurred in the parking lot on March 24, 2011. (Doc. 44, at ¶ 14; Doc. 52, at ¶ 14).

On February 17, 2015, Defendants filed the instant motion for summary judgment (Doc. 42), together with a brief in support of their motion (Doc. 43), corresponding exhibits (Doc. 47), and a statement of facts (Doc. 44). In their motion, Defendants seek dismissal of the false arrest and malicious prosecution claims (Counts V through VIII of Sargent's complaint), on the basis that Sargent has failed to establish an essential element of these claims - the absence of probable cause in effectuating the arrest and commencing the proceedings against her. On March 9, 2015, Sargent filed a brief in opposition (Doc. 53), together with corresponding exhibits (Doc. 54), and with a statement of facts (Doc. 52). Defendants filed a reply brief on March 20, 2015. (Doc. 55).

This matter, having been fully briefed and presented at oral argument, is now ripe for disposition.

II. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

Under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment should be granted only if "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). A fact is "material" only if it might affect the outcome of the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute of material fact is "genuine" only if the evidence "is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. In deciding a summary judgment motion, all inferences "should be drawn in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and where the non-moving party's evidence contradicts the movant's, then the non-movant's must be taken as true." Pastore v. Bell Tel. Co. of Pa., 24 F.3d 508, 512 (3d Cir. 1994).

The party seeking summary judgment "bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, " and demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). If the movant makes such a showing, the non-movant must set forth specific facts, supported by the record, demonstrating that "the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251-52. Bald assertions that genuine issues of material fact exist are insufficient. Indeed, where there is a complete failure of proof on an essential element of the nonmoving party's case, all other facts become immaterial, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

III. DISCUSSION

A. COUNTS V & VI: FALSE ARREST

Defendants seek dismissal of Counts V and VI of the complaint on the basis that there is no genuine issue of material fact with respect to whether probable cause existed to arrest Plaintiff. Specifically, Defendants argue that Sargent has no recollection of what occurred in the parking lot, and therefore, can neither contradict the testimony offered by Defendants, nor dispute the evidence presented in the affidavit of probable cause.[1] (Doc. 43, at 8). Moreover, at oral argument, Defendants advanced the proposition that as probable cause existed to arrest Sargent for public drunkenness, the false arrest claim with respect to all other charges must be defeated. Sargent argues in response that while she does not recall the events in the parking lot on the night of March 24, 2011, the security footage and testimony of Comstock show a material dispute of fact with respect to whether probable cause existed to arrest Sargent.

False arrest is defined as an arrest made without probable cause. "Probable cause to arrest exists when the facts and circumstances within the arresting officer's knowledge are sufficient in themselves to warrant a reasonable person to believe that an offense has been or is being committed by the person to be arrested." Orsatti v. New Jersey State Police, 71 F.3d 480, 482-83 (3d Cir. 1995). "The determination that probable cause exists for a warrantless arrest is fundamentally a factual analysis that must be performed by the officers at the scene." Sharrar v. Felsing, 128 F.3d 810, 817 (3d Cir. 1997). Probable cause "requires more than mere suspicion... [but] does not require that the officer have evidence sufficient ...


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