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Estate of Tyler v. Grossman

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

June 11, 2015

ESTATE OF RANDOLPH TYLER, by and through Kevin Floyd, Administrator, Plaintiff,
v.
BETH GROSSMAN; CLARENCE DUPREE; OFFICE OF PHILADELPHIA DISTRICT ATTORNEY; CITY AND COUNTY OF PHILADELPHIA, Defendants.

OPINION

WENDY BEETLESTONE, J.

I. INTRODUCTION

This litigation arises from the civil forfeiture of property that belonged to the late Randolph Tyler. According to the allegations in the Complaint, the property was seized based on the report of Philadelphia Police Officer Thomas Liciardello, who was then under investigation for criminal charges and whose evidence and testimony had been barred by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office from use in criminal cases. This policy did not apply to civil forfeiture proceedings, and Tyler’s property was seized. Despite the fact that Tyler was deceased and his estate had not been raised, representatives of the District Attorney’s Office proceeded with the civil forfeiture case, a default judgment was entered, and Tyler’s property was sold for pennies on the dollar. Tyler’s Estate, which was raised after the sale of the forfeited property and which is the plaintiff in this action, has brought various claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the City of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, and two Assistant District Attorneys (Clarence Dupree, the ADA who prosecuted the civil forfeiture case on behalf of the Commonwealth, and Beth Grossman, chief of the Public Nuisance Task Force Unit and Dupree’s supervisor), alleging that the use of Officer Liciardello’s affidavit of probable cause to initiate the civil forfeiture proceedings while simultaneously barring similar evidence from criminal cases set in motion a series of events which resulted in several violations of its constitutional rights.

Presently before the Court are a motion to dismiss filed by the District Attorney’s Office, Dupree, and Grossman, as well as a motion for judgment on the pleadings filed by the City. For the reasons that follow, the motion to dismiss shall be granted in part and denied in part, and the motion for judgment on the pleadings shall be denied in full.

II. BACKGROUND

On March 30, 2009, Randolph Tyler died. At the time of his death, he owned the property located at 656 North 54th Street (the “Property”), but he left no will or written instructions regarding its disposition. Compl. ¶¶ 16-18.

In February 2010, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office allegedly instituted a policy and practice of rejecting the evidence and testimony of City of Philadelphia Police Officer Thomas Liciardello in state court criminal cases, declining to bring prosecutions based on his reports. Id. ¶ 11. The City, the District Attorney, and several high-ranking officials allegedly agreed to keep the reasoning underlying that policy secret from the public. Id. ¶ 15. Officer Liciardello and several of his associates subsequently were arrested and tried in this District on numerous criminal charges. Id. ¶ 22.[1]

On August 2, 2010, 491 days after Tyler’s death, the District Attorney’s Office commenced a civil drug forfeiture proceeding against the Property. It was based solely on an affidavit of probable cause prepared by Officer Liciardello’s on February 22, 2010, and approved by his superior. Id. ¶¶ 10, 19-20. The affidavit contained details regarding criminal activity at the Property and had been used to support a criminal case. It contained no allegations that Tyler himself had been involved in any of the alleged criminal activity; indeed, he had been deceased for 330 days when the alleged criminal activity took place. Id. ¶ 21. As Tyler was deceased, and at the time the civil forfeiture action was commenced his estate had not been raised and no legal representative was present to act on his behalf, neither he nor anyone else was served a copy of the drug forfeiture complaint. Id. ¶¶ 23-25. The civil forfeiture case was assigned to Defendant Assistant District Attorney Clarence Dupree, who appeared several times between June 2011 and April 2012 before the Court of Common Pleas in the forfeiture proceeding. Id. ¶¶ 26, 28. A lis pendens was filed against the Property at the start of the proceeding, indexed under “Randolph Tyler, 656 North 54th Street, Philadelphia, PA.” The lis pendens could not be served on the deceased Tyler, but neither was it served on anyone else. Id. ¶¶ 31-32. Instead, notice of the drug forfeiture action was mailed to the Property. Id. ¶ 33. Shortly thereafter, the Estate alleges that Dupree was personally informed that Tyler was dead and did not have an estate, and though the District Attorney’s Office could have raised an estate itself under Pennsylvania law, an unknown individual in the District Attorney’s Office misinformed the state forfeiture court that an estate had been raised. Id. ¶¶ 34-36.

Over the course of the civil forfeiture proceeding, the following notations were made on the court’s docket sheet:

Sept. 9, 2010: “Rep failed to appear.”
Oct. 26, 2010: “Estate.”
Mar. 1, 2011: “Advertisement, ” “Interest.”
June 9, 2011: “Status of estate.” The action was stayed by Kerry Parsnap, Court of Common Pleas Commissioner.
Jan. 23, 2012: “Status of Estate.” The action was further stayed by Kerry Parsnap, Court of Common Pleas Commissioner.
Apr. 9, 2012: Default judgment was granted allowing the forfeiture to be “index[ed] . . . under RANDOLPH TYLER.”

Id. ¶¶ 37-40, 42-43, 45. By the time the default judgment was entered, the underlying criminal action-brought based solely on the evidence and testimony contained within Officer Liciardello’s affidavit of probable cause-had been withdrawn. Id. ¶ 44. The District Attorney’s Office did not advertise the default judgment or notify any of Tyler’s prospective heirs. Id. ¶ 47.

On October 2, 2012, 177 days after the entry of default judgment in the forfeiture proceeding, Defendant Assistant District Attorney Beth Grossman, chief of the Public Nuisance Task Force Unit, personally sent a letter addressed to “Occupant” at 656 North 54th Street advising that “this property has been forfeited by the District Attorney’s Office.” Id. ¶ 49. On December 10, 2012, the District Attorney’s Office sold the Property to an individual, Jeff R. Cater, for the sum of $5500, far less than its value. Id. ¶ 50. The Plaintiff alleges that the $5500 received for the Property “is part [of] a multi-million dollar proprietary forfeiture enterprise by Defendants CITY and DISTRICT ATTORNEY that has netted them nearly $100, 000, 000.00 in the past 15 years.” Id. ¶ 53. Tyler’s Estate was ultimately raised on April 23, 2013 (nearly five months after the sale of the Property), when Kevin Floyd, Tyler’s son, was issued Letters of Administration by the Register for the Probate of Wills, Office of Register of Wills of Philadelphia County. Id. ¶ 4.

The Estate, by and through Floyd as Administrator, filed an action in this Court on August 26, 2014, alleging five claims: (1) failure to supervise under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the City and District Attorney’s Office; (2) failure to supervise under Section 1983 against the City, District Attorney’s Office, and Grossman; (3) denial of due process in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution against all Defendants; (4) unlawful taking of property in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution against all Defendants; and (5) excessive and disproportionate punishment and fines in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. See Id. ¶¶ 58-72.

The District Attorney’s Office, Dupree, and Grossman (the “D.A. Defendants”) filed a motion to dismiss on September 29, 2014. In it, they contend that the Estate’s claims cannot prevail because: (1) the claims are barred by res judicata; (2) the District Attorney’s Office is not an entity capable of being sued; (3) Dupree and Grossman cannot be sued in their official capacities; (4) Dupree and Grossman are absolutely immune from suit in their individual capacities; (5) the Estate has set forth insufficient facts to establish a claim for supervisory or municipal liability; and (6) the Estate’s due process claim is time barred. See D.A. Defs.’ Mot. at 4-9. The Estate responded on October 17, 2014, arguing: (1) the D.A. Defendants have not carried their burden to show that res judicata attaches in this case; (2) the District Attorney’s Office is amenable to suit; (3) Dupree and Grossman can be sued in their official capacities; (4) Dupree and Grossman are not entitled to absolute immunity for actions taken in their individual capacities; (5) the Estate has pled sufficient facts to plausibly state a claim for supervisory/municipal liability; and (6) the due process claim is timely under either the continuing violations doctrine or the discovery rule. See Pl.’s D.A. Opp’n at 5-19. On March 5, 2015, the City filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings, echoing the D.A. Defendants’ res judicata, supervisory/municipal liability, and timeliness arguments. See City Mot. at 6-9. The Estate, in turn, echoed its responses on those arguments. See Pl.’s City Opp’n at 5-19. Oral argument on all motions was held before the Court on April 7, 2015.

Following argument, the Court directed the parties to provide supplemental briefing on the res judicata issue. See ECF No. 20. The Defendants together filed a joint supplemental brief on April 30, 2015, and Tyler’s Estate filed its response on May 11.

III. LEGAL STANDARD

A. Motion to Dismiss To survive a motion to dismiss, a claim “must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. The plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement, ’ but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully. Where a complaint pleads facts that are ‘merely consistent with’ a defendant’s liability, it ‘stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.’” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556-57 (internal quotation marks omitted)). At ...


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