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Rosario v. Lynch

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

September 15, 2017


         Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 40 - Granted


          JOSEPH F. LEESON, JR. United States District Judge

         I. Introduction

         Jose Rosario filed this pro se action in 2013, alleging that several law enforcement officials conspired to falsely and maliciously prosecute him for the murder of another inmate. He claims that he was subjected to a battery of torts and constitutional rights violations over the course of his detention and prosecution. Included as defendants are the City of Philadelphia; two City homicide detectives, Jerry Lynch and Gregory Santamala; a Philadelphia Prison Internal Affairs Unit employee; and wardens of the Philadelphia Detention Center and Philadelphia Industrial Correction Center (PICC).

         They each have moved for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a). Because no reasonable jury could find in Rosario's favor on his claims, summary judgment is granted.

         II. Background[1]

         In 2005, Rosario was arrested for two counts of third degree murder. While awaiting trial, [2] he was transferred to the PICC in August of 2006. Approximately two months later, PICC inmate Lance Mears was murdered.

         In the time leading up to Mears's murder, other inmates overheard Rosario and Mears engage in a verbal altercation over breakfast. Mears returned to his cell after the exchange, and approximately ten minutes later, was fatally stabbed in the neck. One inmate saw Rosario hide a knife in his waistband, approach Mears's cell, and demand that Mears “step into [Mears's] cell.”[3] He watched Mears walk into the cell followed by Rosario and saw Rosario reach into his waistband, pull out the knife, and strike Mears in the shoulder area.[4]

         A member of the PICC's Internal Affairs Unit interviewed Mears's cellmate later the same day. He recounted that he was awoken by the incident and witnessed Mears grab his shirt and say “He stabbed me.”[5] Mears's cellmate then saw Rosario inside the cell and heard Rosario say to him, “I told your celly about talking to me some type of way.”[6] A few days later, at both the request of the Philadelphia Police Department and by order of the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, Rosario was transferred from the PICC to the Philadelphia Detention Center, where he was placed in maximum-security solitary confinement. He was told that he would continue to be held in administrative segregation until the homicide detectives investigating the case-Lynch and Santamala-decided whether Rosario would be charged for Mears's death, but was released when he “lost a prior case that [he] was fighting.”[7]

         As part of their investigation, the detectives interviewed an inmate housed at the Philadelphia Detention Center, where Rosario had been transferred after Mears's death. The inmate told the detectives that an inmate currently housed there, whom he knew only as “Dro, ” admitted to him that he had stabbed an inmate at the PICC. The inmate later identified “Dro” as Rosario.

         Based on the accounts from the various inmate witnesses-the two inmates who had overheard Rosario and Mears arguing, the inmate who claimed to have seen Rosario approach Mears while carrying a knife, Mears's cellmate, and the inmate at the Philadelphia Detention Center who claimed that Rosario had confessed to him-Santamala completed an affidavit of probable cause in support of an application for a warrant for Rosario's arrest.[8] An arrest warrant was issued the same day by a judge of the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas. On November 15, 2008, Rosario was formally arrested and charged for Mears's murder. In May 2009, Mears's cellmate testified as a witness for the Commonwealth at Rosario's preliminary hearing.

         Two assistant district attorneys were assigned to Rosario's prosecution in April 2010.[9]However, prior to trial, Mears's cellmate-who had told the detectives about the comment Rosario made to him after Mears was killed, and then testified to that effect at the preliminary hearing-informed the two assistant district attorneys that he wished to recant his testimony. He attested in an affidavit provided later that he was threatened with prosecution by the District Attorney for Mears's death if he did not testify against Rosario. The affidavit states,

I, Carl Lansdowne, this day of 04-15-2010[, am] writing an affidavit because I would like to take back the statement I gave on May 5, 2009 in courtroom 306 preliminary hearing in front of the Honorable Judge Patrick F. Dugan [] about the homicide that took place at [PICC] [ ] on Oct. 04. I at no time [saw nor] heard Mr. Rosario [(#852070)] say [“]I told you about talking to me like that.[”] I was forced by the District Attorney to testify on Mr. Rosario or I myself would [have] been charged for the murder because I was the victim['s] cellmate. I am coming forward now willingly because I feel messed up about the situation I put that man through[, ] and it[']s [eating] me up inside that I would actually be sending a[n] innocent man to jail for a crime [ ] that I didn't see or hear Mr. Rosario speak of on F block at [PICC] [ ]. I am temporarily housed at [State Correctional Institution at] Graterford [ ]. If you would like, Mr. David S. Ludenstein[10] can visit me so I can fix this matter and bring clarification to this situation[.] [Y]ou know where you can reach me [ ].[11]

         In March 2011, at the direction of the District Attorney's Office, Rosario was transferred to the Pennsylvania state correctional institution at Graterford and placed in one of the institution's Restricted Housing Units (“RHU”) that houses capital case inmates, where he was housed until his trial.

         Rosario was acquitted on March 22, 2012. He filed this suit just over a year later, on April 11, 2013, contending that the Defendants conspired to manipulate the prosecution's witnesses and conceal their misconduct. Rosario's suit, claiming a violation of his constitutional rights and of state torts arising from his allegedly false arrest and wrongful prosecution for Mears's death, is based on the affidavit signed by Mears's cellmate, in which the cellmate disavows his original testimony and states that he was threatened by “the District Attorney” with prosecution for Mears's death if he did not go forward with his testimony against Rosario.[12]Rosario alleges that as a result of this conspiracy, he was wrongfully incarcerated for a total of six years, [13] including time in which he was held in solitary confinement at the Philadelphia Detention Center and in the RHU at Graterford, and suffered “serious mental anguish, pain and suffering, and psychological damages” as a result.[14]

         III. Procedural History

         Rosario claims that this conduct violated his Eighth Amendment rights and his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights. He does not distinguish among the various Defendants, so, construing his complaint liberally, the Court understands him to claim that each Defendant is liable under each of these claims.[15] He also alleged violations of his Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment equal protection rights, but those claims were dismissed at the pleadings stage for failing to state a claim. See Rosario, 2014 WL 338114, at *6 n.9.

         In addition, Rosario claims that all of the Defendants committed a number of state torts against him. These include negligence, malicious prosecution, abuse of process, false arrest, false imprisonment, negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED), intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED), and civil conspiracy.

         At the pleadings stage, Rosario's constitutional claims as they pertained to the two wardens were dismissed because the City was also party to the suit. However, the tort claims against them remain. They have moved for summary judgment on each of those claims.

         The other Defendants-the two detectives, the Internal Affairs employee, and the City of Philadelphia-have moved for summary judgment on all of Rosario's claims.

         IV. Summary Judgment Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate if the moving party “shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact” and that “the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law” such that no reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Parties are required to support their respective contentions by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record” or by “showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). If, as here, the party moving for summary judgment does not bear the burden of proof, it may either “produce evidence negating an essential element of the nonmoving party's case, or . . . show that the nonmoving party does not have enough evidence of an essential element of its claim or defense to carry its ultimate burden of persuasion at trial.” Nissan Fire & Marine Ins. Co. v. Fritz Cos., 210 F.3d 1099, 1106 (9th Cir. 2000). If the party chooses the latter option, it may not simply make a “conclusory assertion that the nonmoving party has no evidence.” Wisniewski v. Johns-Manville Corp., 812 F.2d 81, 84 n.2 (3d Cir. 1987) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986) (Brennan, J., dissenting)). Rather, the moving party must “affirmatively show the absence of evidence in the record, ” which “may require the moving party to depose the nonmoving party's witnesses or to establish the inadequacy of documentary evidence, ” or, “[i]f there is literally no evidence in the record, the moving party may demonstrate this by reviewing for the court the admissions, interrogatories and other exchanges between the parties that are in the record.” Id.

         Rosario has not responded to Defendants' motions, but an uncontested motion for summary judgment may not automatically be granted. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)(3) advisory committee's note to 2010 amendment (stating that even a complete failure to respond to the motion does not warrant default judgment). Instead, the court must ensure that “the motion and supporting materials . . . show that the movant is entitled to it.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)(3). When, as here, the moving party does not bear the burden of proof, the court must ascertain whether the evidence presented by the moving party, or the deficiencies in the non-moving party's evidence, entitle the moving party to summary judgment. Anchorage Assocs. v. V.I. Bd. of Tax Review, 922 F.2d 168, 175 (3d Cir. 1990) (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. 317). Properly-supported facts asserted by the moving party may be taken as undisputed. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)(2).

         Pro se litigants are entitled to review under a less stringent standard than those represented by a lawyer. See Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972). “[A] pro se complaint, ‘however inartfully pleaded, ' must be held to ‘less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers'” Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976) (quoting Haines, 404 U.S. at 520-21)); see also Capogrosso v. Supreme Court of N.J., 588 F.3d 180, 184 n.1 (3d Cir. 2009) (“[W]e remain mindful of our obligation to construe a pro se litigant's pleadings liberally.”). While courts give pro se parties some leeway and make reasonable allowances so that pro se parties do not forfeit their claims because of procedural missteps, pro se litigants must still comply with the same procedures imposed on counseled parties. Higgs v. Att'y Gen., 655 F.3d 333, 339 (3d Cir. 2011) (citing Triestman v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, 470 F.3d 471, 475 (2d Cir. 2006)). Further, summary judgment requires that all facts must be viewed “in the light most favorable to the non-moving party” if there is a genuine dispute as to the facts. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007). Applying these standards, this Court concludes that summary judgment is warranted on all claims.

         V. Summary Judgment is granted in Defendants' favor as to Rosario's Tort Claims against the Individual Defendants.[16][17][18]

         A. Malicious Prosecution

         Rosario, believing that Defendants are part and parcel of an alleged conspiracy to prosecute, falsely imprison, and deprive him of his constitutional rights, has alleged that Defendants maliciously prosecuted him. A malicious prosecution claim is sustained only if the plaintiff can demonstrate that the defendant instituted proceedings without probable cause and with malice, and the proceedings terminated in the plaintiff's favor. Kelley v. Gen. Teamsters, Local Union 249, 544 A.2d 940, 941 (Pa. 1988). Here, it is clear that the acquittal terminated the prosecution in Rosario's favor, but the existence of probable cause requires further treatment. As discussed below, no reasonable jury could find that the prosecution was not supported by probable cause, so summary judgment is warranted against Rosario.[19]

         Probable cause requires that, under the totality of the circumstances, there is a “fair probability” that the person committed the offense. Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 238 (1983). Courts rely on “the factual and practical considerations of everyday life on which reasonable and prudent men . . . act.” Id. at 230-31. For a belief to be reasonable under probable cause, it cannot be based on inadequate investigation of the circumstances of the alleged criminal conduct. Wainauskis v. Howard Johnson Co., 488 A.2d 1117, 1123 (Pa. 1985). Plaintiffs alleging malicious prosecution bear the burden of proving want of probable cause. Miller v. Pa. R. Co., 89 A.2d 809, 811 (Pa. 1952).

         Rosario cannot make out a prima facie case merely by proving his arrest and subsequent acquittal, because an acquittal is not alone sufficient to establish want of probable cause. Id. at 812. Even in the light most favorable to Rosario, no reasonable jury could conclude, on this record, that there was not probable cause to investigate, charge, and prosecute Rosario for Mears's murder. Detective Santamala's probable cause affidavit identified three inmates who named Rosario as the assailant. Ex. C-2, ECF No. 40-4. The crux of Rosario's argument is that the affidavit from one of those inmates, who claimed that he wished to recant but was threatened with prosecution, is sufficient to make out his malicious prosecution claim. But even assuming that this inmate's account is true, that still leaves the testimony of the two other inmates-the inmate who reportedly saw Rosario go into Mears's cell with a knife and stab Mears in the shoulder area, and the inmate who told the detectives that Rosario confessed the murder to him. Rosario has presented no evidence to undermine those accounts, and calling upon a jury to infer that all of that testimony is unreliable, based solely on the fact that one of the three witnesses recanted and was allegedly threatened with prosecution if he did not adhere to his original testimony, crosses the line from a reasonable inference that a jury could make, to speculation. Thus, even if this Court were to consider the allegedly threatened inmate's testimony as completely tainted by official misconduct, as Rosario contends, there still existed probable cause for his arrest and prosecution in the testimony of the other two witnesses. Further, there is no evidence in the record to suggest that anyone other than the two assistant district attorneys, who are no longer parties to this action, was involved with the alleged threats made against the recanting witness. Notably, the recantation came after Detective Santamala completed his affidavit of probable cause and when Rosario's trial was imminent. By that point in time, the assistant district attorneys were presumably the officials in charge, not the detectives or the Internal Affairs employee. For these reasons, no reasonable jury could conclude that Rosario was maliciously prosecuted by Defendants.

         B. Abuse of Process

         Rosario alleges that Defendants committed the tort of abuse of process on the theory that they used a legal process against him to accomplish a purpose for which the process was not designed. Compl. ¶ 46. The tort of abuse of process requires that the defendant “(1) used a legal process against the plaintiff, (2) primarily to accomplish a purpose for which the process was not designed; and (3) harm has been caused to the plaintiff.” Shiner v. Moriarty, 706 A.2d 1228, 1236 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1998) (internal citation omitted). To sustain such a claim, Rosario must prove that Defendants did not initiate proceedings to prosecute him for the murder because they believed he may have been guilty, but rather for some other reason. He has failed to do so. As stated above in Part A, Defendants had probable cause to believe that Rosario murdered Mears and chose to act upon it and prosecute him. Rosario has failed to allege that legal process was applied to him for any other reason. The sole piece of evidence upon which he relies, the affidavit of the recanting witness, does not prove that Defendants wanted to prosecute him for any reason other than securing justice for Mears's murder. Taking the affidavit in the light most favorable to Rosario, it suggests that perhaps the district attorneys were concerned that they did not have a strong enough case without this witness's testimony and threatened him to maintain their case. But as mentioned in Part A, even assuming that this is true, it does not undermine the testimony given by the remaining inmates who have not recanted. There is also no evidence that the moving Defendants abused the legal process. Therefore, a reasonable jury could not conclude that Defendants engaged in an abuse of process against Rosario.

         Moreover, this claim is barred by the two-year statute of limitations. See 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5524. The statute of limitations begins to run on an abuse of process claim when the alleged abuse of process initially occurs. See Beasley v. Young, No. 1254, 2012 Phila. Ct. Com. Pl. LEXIS 438, at *6 (Pa. C.P. Dec. 3, 2012). Here, the allegedly abusive process began either on November 15, 2008, when Rosario was formally arrested and charged for Mears's murder, or on April 15, 2010, when the district attorneys failed to withdraw charges after the witness recanted his testimony.[20] The instant action, filed on April 11, 2013, is beyond the two-year statute of limitations.

         C. False Arrest/Imprisonment

         As with the abuse of process claim, Rosario's claim for false arrest was filed beyond the two-year statute of limitations and is therefore time-barred. See 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5524. In a case where the arrest is followed by criminal proceedings, as here, the statute of limitations “begins to run at the time the claimant becomes detained pursuant to legal process...for example, [when] he is bound over by a magistrate or arraigned on charges” See Dix v. City of Philadelphia, No. 15-532, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 101457, at *14-15 (E.D. Pa. July 31, 2015). Accordingly, the statute of limitations began ...

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