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Williams v. Lawrence County Career And Technical Center

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

October 26, 2017

CHASTITY WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
LAWRENCE COUNTY CAREER & TECHNICAL CENTER, LEONARD RICH, MATTHEW MANGINO, ESQUIRE, ELLWOOD CITY AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, LEROY CORTEZ, JENNIFER GROSSMAN, DAVID DIGIAMMARINO, STEPHEN FORNATARO, MARK PANELLA, MARK KIRKWOOD, LAUREL SCHOOL DISTRICT, JEFF HAMMERSCHMIDT, MARY KOSEK, SHENANGO AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, DENISE PALKOVICH, MOHAWK AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, SCOTT SINGER, UNION AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, DEBRA ALLEBACH, NESCHANNOCK TOWNSHIP AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, JAMES MCFARLAND, WILMINGTON AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, and ROBERT CURRY, Defendants.

          OPINION ECF NOS. 33, 36, 38, 40, 42, 44, 46, 48, 51, 53

          LISA PUPO LENIHAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Presently before the Court are Motions to Dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The Motions will be granted in part and denied in part. The Motions will be granted as they relate to the § 1983 claims in Count II, and Count III of the Amended Complaint. The Motions will be denied as they relate to Count I, Count IV, and the municipal liability claim.

         Plaintiff, Chastity Williams (“Plaintiff” or “Williams”), initiated this lawsuit on October 6, 2016 pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging a violation of her constitutional rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Plaintiff also asserts a claim for malicious prosecution in violation of Pennsylvania state law.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff initiated this action in the Court of Common Pleas of Lawrence County, Pennsylvania. Following pre-complaint discovery, she filed a five-count Complaint on April 17, 2017. Because three of these claims arise under 42 U.S. §1983, the case was removed to federal court by Defendants, all but one of whom moved to dismiss the Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).[1] In response, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint on June 9, 2017 and omitted the state law claim for defamation. The same Defendants then moved to dismiss the Amended Complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6).

         II. STATEMENT OF FACTS

         Defendant Lawrence County Career and Technical Center (“the Center”) offers vocational and technical education programs to students from eight different school districts, and each of these districts in turn provides funding for the Center. (Am. Compl. ¶ 3, ECF No. 30.) The Center is governed by a Joint Operating Committee (“JOC”) comprised of officials from the Center and representatives from each of the eight districts. (Am. Compl. ¶ 4.) Plaintiff brought this action against the Center, the eight school districts, and each of the school districts' representatives on the JOC, [2] (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 2, 9-20), as well as Leonard Rich (“Rich”), the Center's director and business manager since October 2013, Matthew Mangino (“Mangino”), the Center's solicitor, and Mary Kosek (“Kosek”), one of the Center's employees. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 5-7.)

         Plaintiff worked as an Assistant Business Manager for the Center from March 2010 until she voluntarily resigned on August 21, 2013 to accept employment at Grove City College. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 23, 29.) Over the course of her employment, she worked overtime. (Am. Compl. ¶ 28.)

         In an October 2013 meeting, Rich was hired by the JOC to serve as the Center's new Director. (Am. Compl. ¶ 33.) At this meeting, the JOC also retained an accounting firm to perform an audit, allegedly due to the Center's financial difficulties. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 30, 32, 34.) Williams alleges that the auditors were specifically directed to investigate improprieties regarding her overtime compensation and to investigate only the time span that coincided with her employment at the Center. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 35-37.) The audit concluded that none of the overtime pay had been properly authorized. (Am. Compl. ¶ 38.)

         Rich, with the JOC's authorization, reported Plaintiff's alleged criminal conduct and gave the audit report to the Pennsylvania State Police and/or the Lawrence County District Attorney and demanded that she be criminally charged for the theft offenses. (Am. Compl. ¶ 41.) On March 7, 2014, the District Attorney filed a criminal complaint against Plaintiff, charging her with three felony offenses for her alleged theft of $92, 412.92 from the Center. (Am. Compl. ¶ 43.)

         The Affidavit of Probable Cause prepared by the police officer and attached to the Criminal Complaint listed Rich and the audit report as the two sources of information upon which the felony theft charges were based. (Am. Compl. ¶ 44.) As a result of these charges, Plaintiff alleges that she was required to submit to processing and fingerprinting by the Pennsylvania State Police, travel to and present herself at any scheduled court proceedings, expend time and effort preparing her defense with her attorneys, pay substantial legal fees, and endure the prospect of going to trial in order to prove her innocence. (Am. Compl. ¶ 45.) In addition, she alleges that her prosecution was highly publicized in newspaper articles featuring comments made by Rich and members of the JOC. (Am. Compl. ¶ 47.)

         After a preliminary hearing on October 8, 2014, all charges against Plaintiff were dropped or dismissed. (Am. Compl. ¶ 57.) She alleges that after this hearing, Rich and some or all of the representatives on the JOC wrote a letter urging the Lawrence County District Attorney to refile the charges. (Am. Compl. ¶ 58.)

         Plaintiff alleges that the Defendants provided the auditing firm and subsequently the Lawrence County District Attorney with false and/or incomplete information suggesting that a crime had occurred, while ignoring and/or withholding additional information to the contrary. (Am. Compl. ¶ 48.) She further alleges that Defendants did not disclose complete or accurate information to cause her prosecution in order to further their own interests. (Am. Compl. ¶ 53.) In particular, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants were motivated to have her prosecuted so that they could recover the allegedly stolen overtime pay under an insurance policy that would only provide coverage if the loss resulted from fraudulent or criminal conduct.[3] (Am. Compl. ¶ 54.) Plaintiff further contends that Defendants wanted her to be prosecuted because it was politically advantageous to them to create the perception that the Center's financial problems were not attributable to waste or mismanagement of public funds, but rather, caused by a thieving employee. (Am. Compl. ¶ 56.)

         Plaintiff further alleges that she suffered great reputational harm because of the unfounded allegations and felony prosecution, which caused her to be terminated from her job at Grove City College in April 2014. (Am. Compl. ¶ 55.) Since then, she has been unable to obtain substitute employment and was unemployed until she started her own business in July 2015, where she earns less than she earned at Grove City College. (Am. Compl. ¶ 60.) Plaintiff alleges that she continues to be prevented from obtaining employment in her chosen field of school administration due to her felony prosecution and stringent background checks required to work in educational institutions. (Am. Compl. ¶ 61.)

         Plaintiff has brought a Pennsylvania state law claim of malicious prosecution against the individual Defendants. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 62-66.) She has also asserted § 1983 claims of malicious prosecution under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, and of defamation under the Fourteenth amendment[4], against all Defendants. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 67-, 78-88.) Defendants have moved to dismiss the Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.

         III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In deciding a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the courts apply the following standard, as recently reiterated by the court of appeals:

A complaint may be dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6) for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” But detailed pleading is not generally required. The Rules demand “only ‘a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ' in order to ‘give the defendant fair notice of what the ... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.' ” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955 (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47, 78 S.Ct. 99, 2 L.Ed.2d 80 (1957)). “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). “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.” Id.; see also Sheridan v. NGK Metals Corp., 609 F.3d 239, 262 n. 27 (3d Cir.2010). Although the plausibility standard “does not impose a probability requirement, ” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556, 127 S.Ct. 1955, it does require a pleading to show “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully, ” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937. A complaint that pleads facts “merely consistent with a defendant's liability . . . stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.” Id. (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). The plausibility determination is “a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id. at 679, 129 S.Ct. 1937.

Connelly v. Lane Constr. Corp., 809 F.3d 780, 786-87 (3d Cir. 2016).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         A. Pennsylvania Malicious Prosecution Claim

         Count I of Plaintiff's Amended Complaint alleges malicious prosecution in violation of Pennsylvania common law. In order to state a claim for malicious prosecution under Pennsylvania law, a plaintiff must plead facts that establish that Defendants (1) instituted criminal proceedings, (2) without probable cause, (3) with actual malice, and (4) that the proceedings ended in Plaintiff's favor. Cosmas v. Bloomingdale Bros. Inc., 600 A.2d 83, 85 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1995). Providing information to a district attorney or officer or making an accusation of criminal misconduct does not ordinarily constitute initiation of a criminal proceeding. Bradley v. Gen. Acc. Ins. Co., 778 A.2d 707, 711 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2001). However, when a person knowingly provides false information or demands prosecution, the attorney or officer can no longer intelligently exercise his discretion in choosing whether to bring charges. Griffiths v. CIGNA Corp., 988 F.2d 457, 464 (3d Cir. 1993) (citing Byers v. Ward, 84 A.2d 307, 309 (Pa. 1951) (defendants accused of providing false testimony and documentary evidence)), overruled on other grounds by, Miller v. CIGNA Corp., 47 F.3d 586 (3d Cir. 1995). See also Burgos v. Morgan, Lewis & Brockius, LLP, No. 735 EDA 2015, 2017 WL 57879, at *6-8 (Pa. Super. Ct. Jan. 5, 2017.) As such, the party providing false information or demanding prosecution is responsible for initiating the proceedings. Id.

         Defendants argue that Plaintiff cannot satisfy the first element of this claim because none of them initiated the criminal proceedings against her; therefore, they argue, this Count should be dismissed in its entirety. Plaintiff alleges that Leonard Rich reported her supposed criminal conduct, turned the audit report over to Pennsylvania State Police and the Lawrence County District Attorney, and demanded that she be prosecuted. (Am. Compl. ¶ 43.) She further alleges that all of the Defendants recommended that Plaintiff's supposed crime be reported and her prosecution demanded. (Am. Compl. ¶ 47.) Plaintiff also contends that the information given to the police was incomplete “and/or” false. (Am. Compl. ¶ 48.)

         While Rich denies knowingly making false statements, the Court cannot resolve this factual issue at this stage of litigation. Plaintiff has sufficiently alleged that Leonard Rich, through his false statements and his demands of prosecution, maliciously initiated proceedings against the Plaintiff without probable cause, and that these proceedings ended in Plaintiff's favor. Because the Complaint alleges plausible facts establishing all four elements of a Pennsylvania malicious prosecution claim, the Court will deny the motions to dismiss Count I as to Defendant Leonard Rich.

         While the other Defendants did not directly demand Plaintiff's prosecution, they allegedly caused the initiation of her prosecution and endorsed the decision through their representation, participation, or influence on the Joint Operating Committee and/or management of the Center. (Am. Compl. ¶ 47.) As a result, they too allegedly initiated the proceedings against Plaintiff by demanding that she be prosecuted. (Am. Compl. ¶ 63.) Given the factual uncertainties regarding whether or not this is the case, the Court must deny the motion to dismiss as to all Defendants.

         B. Section 1983 Claims

         Plaintiff alleges three counts under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which states in relevant part as follows:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States of any other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party ...

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