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Zimmerman v. Corbett

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

October 16, 2017

JOHN R. ZIMMERMAN
v.
THOMAS W. CORBETT; LINDA L. KELLY; FRANK G. FINA; K. KENNETH BROWN, II; MICHAEL A. SPROW; ANTHONY J. FIORE; GARY E. SPEAKS, Appellants

          Argued February 7, 2017

         APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA (No. 1-13-cv-02788) District Judge: Honorable Yvette Kane

          Joshua M. Autry, Esq. [ARGUED] Frank J. Lavery, Jr., Esq. Lavery Faherty Patterson Amy Zapp, Esq. Office of Attorney General of Pennsylvania Strawberry Square Attorneys for Appellants Thomas W. Corbett, Jr., Frank G. Fina, K. Kenneth Brown, II, Michael A. Sprow, Anthony J. Fiore, Gary E. Speaks

          Frank J. Lavery, Jr., Esq. Amy Zapp, Esq. Attorneys for Appellant Linda L. Kelly Devon M. Jacob, Esq. [ARGUED] Attorney for Appellee

          Before: McKEE, COWEN, and FUENTES, Circuit Judges

          OPINION

          McKEE, Circuit Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Appellants are current and former high ranking officials of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, including a former Attorney General who subsequently became Governor.[1] They appeal the District Court's partial denial of their motion for judgment on the pleadings in an action that John Zimmerman, a former employee of the state legislature, filed against them under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Zimmerman alleged that Appellants were all involved in bringing criminal charges against him and that those charges amounted to malicious prosecution in violation of both the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution and Pennsylvania law.[2]

         For the reasons that follow, we conclude that there was probable cause to initiate those criminal proceedings and that Zimmerman can therefore not establish a prima facie case of malicious prosecution. We will therefore reverse the District Court's order insofar as it denied Appellants' motion for judgment on the pleadings.[3]

         II. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         This case stems from criminal charges filed against Zimmerman, who was a member of the staff of John M. Perzel. Perzel was a member of the Pennsylvania General Assembly representing the 172nd Legislative District in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Corbett, then Attorney General of Pennsylvania, conducted an investigation after receiving information "that members of the Democratic caucus received bonuses for campaign related work performed on state time."[4] Zimmerman, Perzel, and Corbett were all Republicans. In September 2007, Perzel asked Zimmerman to arrange a meeting with Corbett.[5] "Corbett wanted Perzel to back him for Governor. . . .[, ]"[6] but Perzel refused.[7] At the time, both Corbett and Perzel intended to run for Governor in 2010.[8]

         In November 2009, Corbett announced grand jury presentments resulting in criminal charges against ten ranking Republicans including "Perzel and his staff (one legislator and nine staff members), in what is now commonly referred to as [the] 'Computergate' [scandal]."[9] Pursuant to that investigation, the grand jury subpoenaed on the House Republican Campaign Committee (the "HRCC") seeking production of campaign material.[10]

         Zimmerman was one of the nine staff members arrested pursuant to this investigation.[11] Zimmerman was charged with intentionally hindering an investigation "by concealing or destroying evidence of a crime."[12] Those charges arose from allegations that he caused boxes containing campaign material that was the subject of a grand jury subpoena to be moved from their original location to a location controlled by the HRCC to prevent the grand jury from finding them. Appellants claimed that a male conspirator telephoned the HRCC from Zimmerman's desk phone and warned that boxes of campaign material would be delivered to the HRCC. Appellants also alleged that Zimmerman was typically at his desk, and that campaign material was actually moved to the HRCC after the call.[13]

         Based on evidence of that phone call from Zimmerman's line, Zimmerman was charged with (1) Hindering Apprehension or Prosecution; (2) Obstructing Administration of Law or Other Governmental Function; (3) Criminal Conspiracy for Hindering Apprehension or Prosecution; and (4) Criminal Conspiracy for Obstructing Administration of Law or Other Governmental Function.[14]Appellants subsequently dismissed the charges against Zimmerman.

         Subsequently, Zimmerman filed the instant complaint. He alleged that Appellants maliciously prosecuted him in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments as well as Pennsylvania law.

         Appellants moved to dismiss Zimmerman's complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The District Court concluded inter alia that Appellants were not entitled to qualified immunity on claims arising from allegations that (1) they manufactured witness testimony and intimidated witnesses prior to the grand jury proceedings; (2) they destroyed exculpatory evidence; and (3) Fiore signed a criminal complaint and affidavit of probable cause that contained false and misleading statements. This appeal followed.

         III. JURISDICTION AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The District Court had jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Our jurisdiction is based upon 28 U.S.C. § 1291. We review a denial of a motion for judgment on the pleadings de novo.[15] "A motion for judgment on the pleadings based on the defense that the plaintiff has failed to state a claim is analyzed under the same standards that apply to a Rule 12(b)(6) motion."[16] A motion for judgment on the pleadings should be granted if the movant establishes that "there are no material issues of fact, and he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law."[17] In considering a motion for judgment on the pleadings, a court must accept all of the ...


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