United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
WESLEY A. MASSEY, Plaintiff,
TODD PFEIFER, KEVIN FORCIER, CRAIG HOWE, ANDREW NAT ALE, and RITA MARWOOD, Defendants.
Paradise Baxter Magistrate Judge
BARRY FISCHER UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
before the Court is the Report and Recommendation (Docket No.
3) of Magistrate Judge Susan Paradise Baxter advising that
the Court grant Plaintiff Wesley A. Massey's Motion for
Leave to Proceed in forma pauperis (Docket No. 1)
and dismiss all counts in the accompanying Complaint (Docket
No. 1-1) against Craig Howe, Andrew Natale, and Rita Marwood.
Plaintiff filed Objections (Docket No. 4) to the Report and
Recommendation, conceding that Marwood should be dismissed,
but arguing that Howe and Natale should not. This Court
exercises subject-matter jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C.
§ 1331 (federal question). For the reasons that follow,
the Court will grant Plaintiffs Motion to Proceed in
forma pauperis, and dismiss Plaintiffs Complaint as
against Howe, Natale, and Marwood.
29, 2017, Plaintiff filed his Motion and accompanying
Complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915. Plaintiffs
Complaint alleges violations of the Fourth, Fifth,
Fourteenth, and Eighth Amendments to the Constitution of the
United States as well as claims for "Malicious Abuse of
Process, " "Malicious Use of Process, "
"Willful Misconduct, " "False Imprisonment,
" and "False Arrest." The Third Circuit Court
of Appeals directs district courts considering motions to
proceed in forma pauperis and accompanying
complaints to utilize a two-step analysis before granting or
denying the relief sought. "First, the district court
evaluates a litigant's financial status and determines
whether (s)he is eligible to proceed in forma pauperis under
§ 1915(a). Second, the court assesses the complaint
under § 1915(e)(2) to determine whether it is
frivolous." Roman v. Jeffes, 904 F.2d 192, 194
n. 1 (3d Cir. 1990) (citing Sinwell v. Shapp, 536
F.2d 15 (3d Cir. 1976)); Schneller v. Abel Home Car,
Inc., 389 F.App'x 90, 92 (3d Cir. 2010). Presently,
the court finds Plaintiff to be without sufficient funds to
pay the required filing fee. He will be granted leave to
proceed in forma pauperis  However, this does not end
the court's inquiry.
Supreme Court has identified two types of legally frivolous
complaints: (1) those based upon indisputably meritless legal
theory, and (2) those with factual contentions which clearly
are baseless. Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 327
(1989). Whether Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint is
frivolous, and therefore fails to state a claim under §
1915(e), is governed by the same standard applicable to
motions to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure
12(b)(6), see Tourscher v. McCullough, 184 F.3d 236,
240 (3d Cir. 1999), which requires the court to determine
whether the complaint contains "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).
well-settled that in reviewing a motion to dismiss under Rule
12(b)(6) "[t]he applicable standard of review requires
the court to accept as true all allegations in the complaint
and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom,
and view them in the light most favorable to the non-moving
party. Rocks v. City of Phila., 868 F.2d 644, 645
(3d Cir. 1989). Under the Supreme Court's decision in
Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 561
(2007), dismissal of a complaint is proper only when the
averments of the complaint plausibly fail to raise directly
or inferentially the material elements necessary to obtain
relief under a viable legal theory of recovery. Id.
The allegations of the complaint must be grounded in enough
of a factual basis to move the claim from the realm of mere
possibility to one that shows entitlement by presenting
"a claim to relief that is plausible on its face."
Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 663 (quoting Twombly,
550 U.S. at 570).
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." Id. In contrast, pleading facts that
only offer '"labels or conclusions' or 'a
formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action
will not do, '" nor will advancing only factual
allegations that are '"merely consistent with' a
defendant's liability." Id. Similarly,
tendering only "naked assertions" that are devoid
of "further factual enhancement" falls short of
presenting sufficient factual content to permit an inference
that what has been presented is more than a mere possibility
of misconduct. Id.; see also Twombly, 550 U.S. at
563 n. 8 (A complaint states a claim where its factual
averments sufficiently raise a '"reasonably founded
hope that the [discovery] process will reveal relevant
evidence' to support the claim.") (quoting Dura
Pharmaceuticals, Inc. v. Broudo, 544 U.S. 336, 347
(2005); Blue Chip Stamps v. Manor Drug Stores, 421
U.S. 723, 741 (1975)); accord Morse v. Lower Mer ion Sch.
Dist, 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997) (a court need not
credit "bald assertions" or "legal
conclusions" in assessing a motion to dismiss) (citing
with approval Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller,
FEDERAL PRACTICE AND PROCEDURE § 1357 (3d ed. 1997)
("courts, when examining 12(b)(6) motions, have rejected
'legal conclusions, ' 'unsupported conclusions,
' 'unwarranted inferences, ' 'unwarranted
deductions, ' 'footless conclusions of law, ' or
'sweeping legal conclusions cast in the form of factual
not to be understood as imposing a probability standard at
the pleading stage. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678
('"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.'"); Phillips v. Cnty. of
Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 235 (3d Cir. 2008) (same).
Instead, "[t]he Supreme Court's Twombly
formulation of the pleading standard can be summed up thus:
'stating...a claim requires a complaint with enough
factual matter (taken as true) to suggest the required
element... [and provides] enough facts to raise a reasonable
expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the
necessary element.'" Phillips, 515 F.3d at
235; see also Wilkerson v. New Media Tech. Charter Sch.
Inc., 522 F.3d 315, 321 (3d Cir. 2008) ('"The
complaint must state 'enough facts to raise a reasonable
expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the
necessary element.'") (quoting Phillips,
515 F.3d at 235) (citations omitted). "Once a claim has
been stated adequately, it may be supported by showing any
set of facts consistent with the allegations in the
complaint." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 563.
also well-settled that pleadings filed by pro se
litigants are to be construed liberally. McNeil v. United
States, 508 U.S. 106, 113 (1993); Higgins v.
Beyer, 293 F.3d 683, 688 (3d Cir. 2002). In such
circumstances the court has an obligation to "apply the
applicable law, irrespective of whether & pro se
litigant has mentioned it by name." Higgins,
293 F.3d at 688 (quoting Holley v. Dep't of Veterans
Affairs, 165 F.3d 244, 247 - 48 (3d Cir. 1999)).
claims arise from circumstances surrounding the investigation
of his alleged misuse of an employer-issued credit card. Both
Howe and Natale were assistant district attorneys in Crawford
County, Pennsylvania, at the time of the events in question.
The Magistrate Judge concluded that Howe and Natale were
entitled to absolute immunity because all of their activities
were intimately associated with the judicial phase of the
criminal process. (Docket No. 3 at 6). This included actions
preliminary to court proceedings such as the decision whether
or not to file charges. (Id. at 7). In his
Objections, Plaintiff states that Natale was acting as a
"Special Investigator, " and not an assistant
district attorney, because Natale allegedly required
investigating officers to report their findings to him.
(Docket No. 4 at 2). Additionally, Howe and Natale were
purportedly conspiring to extort money from Plaintiff for
purposes of satisfying the judgment in the related civil case
brought by Plaintiffs former employer. (Id.). Thus,
Howe and Natale's actions related to Plaintiffs alleged
misuse of his employer-issued credit card were beyond the
scope of their judicial functions. (Id. at 4).
long been held that prosecutors are "immune from damages
claims arising from their official acts." Naranjo v.
City of Phila., 626 F.App'x 353, 356 (3d Cir. 2015)
(citing Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 430 - 31
(1976)). '"In initiating a prosecution and
presenting the State's case, the prosecutor is immune
from a civil suit for damages under § 1983.'"
Id. (quoting Imbler, 424 U.S. at 430 - 31).
However, '"where the role as advocate has not yet
begun or where it has concluded, absolute immunity does not
apply.'" Yarris v. Cnty. of Del, 465 F.3d
129, 137 (3d Cir. 2006) (quoting Spurlock v.
Thompson, 330 F.3d 791, 799 (6th Cir. 2003)). Not all
"litigation-inducing conduct" triggers absolute
immunity; for instance, when a prosecutor assumes an
investigating role normally held by a detective or police
officer, the prosecutor is entitled only to qualified
immunity. Richter v. Pa. State Police, 2016 WL
5468164, at *2 (W.D. Pa. Sept. 29, 2016) (Bissoon, J.)
(citing Burns v. Reed, 500 U.S. 478, 494 (1991);
Buckley v. Fitzsimmons, 509 U.S. 259, 276 (1993)).
In determining if the actions of Howe and Natale were
"intimately associated with the judicial phases of
litigation" and, therefore, protected by absolute
immunity, as opposed to only qualified immunity, the Court
must look at Plaintiffs specific allegations. Odd v.
Malone, 538 F.3d 202, 208 (3d Cir. 2008).
Natale, the Complaint asserts that - based upon the findings
of investigating police officers - he did not initially
believe that criminal charges against Plaintiff were
warranted. (Docket No. 1-1 ¶ 2). Nonetheless, Natale
changed his mind and advised the police officer assigned to
the case that "after further consideration that this
matter was not civil and criminal charges should be
filed." (Id. ¶ 10). Plaintiff claims that
the investigating officer refused to file criminal charges.
(Id. ¶¶ 11 - 12). Yet, following his
departure from the police department, another officer
subsequently assigned to the case did file criminal charges
"based upon [prior officer's] investigation."
(Id.). This is the full extent of Plaintiff s
pre-arrest allegations against Natale. Plaintiffs Complaint
makes a vague reference to Natale's wrongful use of
criminal process to extort the payment of a civil judgment
(id. ¶ 18), but this does nothing to bolster
his argument that absolute immunity should not apply. See
Imbler, 424 U.S. at 427 - 28 (immunity applies even if
the prosecutor acted willfully, maliciously, or in bad
faith). Notably, the only action the Complaint explicitly
attributed to Howe was his opposition to a reduction in
Plaintiffs bond. (Id¶15).
viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the
averments in the Complaint demonstrate only that Natale kept
abreast of the criminal investigation of Plaintiff, and that
he relied upon the findings of the investigation in his
decision-making; there are no facts pled which indicate that
he assumed administrative or investigatory functions normally
exercised by a detective or police officer, or that his
actions were unrelated to initiating or conducting judicial
proceedings. Odd, 538 F.3d at 208; Buckley,
509 U.S. at 276. Indeed, "courts have applied the
doctrine of absolute prosecutorial immunity with particular
force when the conduct at issue relates to the initiation of
a prosecution, that is, in 'deciding which suits to
bring.'" Whitfield v. City of Phila., 587
F.Supp.2d 657, 666 (E.D. Pa. 2008) (quoting Imbler,
424 U.S. at 430). This is precisely the type of conduct in
which Natale is alleged to have engaged. Similarly, the
Complaint shows Howe playing the role of advocate for the
state when he opposed a reduction in Plaintiffs bond.
Odd, 538 F.3d at 208. Under these circumstances, as
pled by Plaintiff, Howe and Natale are entitled to absolute
immunity, regardless of Plaintiff s subjective
characterization of their conduct.
upon the forgoing, and viewing all record evidence in the
light most favorable to Plaintiff, the Court finds that the
Complaint is grounded in indisputably meritless legal theory,
or otherwise fails to state a claim upon which relief can be
granted as to Defendants Howe, Natale, and Marwood. Further,
in light of Plaintiff s averments to the effect that Howe and
Natale were engaged in purely judicial or quasi-judicial
behavior, the Court finds that any attempt at amending the
Complaint as to these Defendants would be futile.
Phillips v. Cnty. ...