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Pettis v. Snyder

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

August 25, 2017




         Presently before the Court for disposition is Defendants' motion to dismiss Plaintiffs complaint. (Doc. No. 26.) Both parties have filed supporting and oppositional briefs. (Doc. Nos. 30, 33, 35, 36). This matter is now ripe for disposition. For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motion will be granted.

         I. Background

On December 21, 2015, Plaintiff Ronald Pettis, an inmate at the Dauphin County Prison, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, filed a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Dauphin County Probation Department. (Doc. 1.) Pettis claimed that he was detained on August 13, 2014, by the Probation Department and placed in the "county prison for violation of probation" on a conviction where his maximum sentence had already expired. (Id.) Pettis did not name the individual Probation Officers. (Id.)

         The court screened the complaint pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act, granted Pettis leave to proceed without full prepayment of the filing fee and dismissed the complaint as it related to the Dauphin County Probation Department with leave to file an amended complaint naming the Probation Officers. On May 5, 2016, Pettis filed an amended complaint naming two probation officers, Jason Snyder and Sue Mason. (Doc. 9.) However, Pettis also named two judges of the Court of Common Pleas of Dauphin County, Judge Richard A. Lewis and President Judge Todd A. Hoover. IcL Pettis claims that Judge Lewis imposed an illegal sentence and that President Judge Hoover presided over the revocation proceeding which resulted in his incarceration on the conviction where his maximum sentence had expired. (Id.) Plaintiff seeks damages for false imprisonment and repayment of the costs paid by him after his sentence "max[ed]-out." (Id.) Upon screening of the amended complaint, the Court permitted the claims against the two probation officers to go forward and dismissed the claims against President Judge Lewis and Judge Hoover as legally frivolous. (Doc. No. 12.)

         II. Standard of Review

         When ruling on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court must accept as true all factual allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from them, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See In re Ins. Brokerage Antitrust Litig., 618 F.3d 300, 314 (3d Cir. 2010). The Court's inquiry is guided by the standards of Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), and Ashcroft v. Iqbal 556 U.S. 662 (2009). Under Twombly and Iqbal, pleading requirements have shifted to a "more heightened form of pleading." See Fowler v. UPMC Shadvside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009). To prevent dismissal, all civil complaints must set out "sufficient factual matter" to show that the claim is facially plausible. IcL The plausibility standard requires more than a mere possibility that the defendant is liable for the alleged misconduct. As the Supreme Court instructed in Iqbal, "where the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged - but it has not 'show[n]' - 'that the pleader is entitled to relief.'" Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)).

         Accordingly, to determine the sufficiency of a complaint under Twombly and Iqbal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has identified the following steps a district court must take when determining the sufficiency of a complaint under Rule 12(b)(6): (1) identify the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim; (2) identify any conclusory allegations contained in the complaint "not entitled" to the assumption of truth; and (3) determine whether any "well-pleaded factual allegations" contained in the complaint "plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief." See Santiago v. Warminster Twp., 629 F.3dl21, 130(3d Cir. 2010) (citation and quotation marks omitted).

         In ruling on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, "a court must consider only the complaint, exhibits attached to the complaint, matters of public record, as well as undisputedly authentic documents if the complainant's claims are based upon these documents." Mayer v. Belichick, 605 F.3d 223, 230 (3d Cir. 2010) (citing Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993)). A court may also consider "any 'matters incorporated by reference or integral to the claim, items subject to judicial notice, matters of public record, orders, [and] items appearing in the record of the case.'" Buck v. Hampton Twp. Sch. Dist, 452 F.3d 256, 260 (3d Cir. 2006) (quoting 5B Charles A. Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice & Procedure § 1357 (3d Ed. 2004)).

         In conducting its screening review of a complaint, the court must be mindful that a document filed pro se is "to be liberally construed." Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976). A pro se complaint, "however inartfully pleaded, " must be held to "less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers" and can only be dismissed for failure to state a claim if it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-21 (1972).

         III. Discussion

         In their motion to dismiss, Defendants argue that Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994) bars Plaintiffs current § 1983 suit. (Doc. No. 30.) Defendants contend that success on Plaintiffs § 1983 claim would necessarily call into question the validity of the county court judge's sentencing order, and that order has never been reversed on direct appeal, expunged, or declared invalid. (Doc. No. 30, at 5.) Alternatively, Defendants argue that they enjoy immunity from Plaintiffs § 1983 claim.

         The Supreme Court has stated that:

hoary principle that civil tort actions are not appropriate vehicles for challenging the validity of outstanding criminal judgments applies to ยง 1983 damages actions that necessarily require the plaintiff to prove the unlawfulness of his conviction or confinement, ...

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