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Addlespurger v. Wecht

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 21, 2018



          David Stewart Cercone Senior United States District Judge

         Steven Addlespurger ("plaintiff") commenced this civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985 and 1986 seeking redress for the alleged violation of his First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Plaintiff's claims arise from "a very long and contentious family court case" administered in the Family Division of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. Verified Amended Complaint (Doc. No. 21) at ¶ 26. Named as defendants here are the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, several of its courts, numerous judges who entered orders in or related to plaintiff's family court case, appellate judges who reviewed some of those orders and court administrators. Id. at ¶¶ 3-15. Presently before the court is defendants' motion to dismiss. For the reasons set forth below, the motion will be granted.

         It is well-settled that in reviewing a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 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 Philadelphia, 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 pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) is proper only where 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. at 544. In other words, 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." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570).

         "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. 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. at 1949-50; 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 Merion School 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 (2d 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 allegations.'").

         This is 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. County 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 Technology Charter School 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.

         It also is 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). And in such circumstances the court has an obligation to "apply the applicable law, irrespective of whether a pro se litigant has mentioned it by name." Higgins, 293 F.3d at 688 (quoting Holley v. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, 165 F.3d 244, 247-48 (3d Cir. 1999)).

         But the above-referenced standards are not to be read as a license to excuse or overlook procedural shortcomings in pleadings submitted by those who choose to represent themselves. McNeil, 508 U.S. at 113 ("we have never suggested that procedural rules in ordinary civil litigation should be interpreted so as to excuse mistakes by those who proceed without counsel"). Thus, a complaint drafted without the benefit of counsel nevertheless must comply with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a). And, while Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2) requires only a "short and plain statement of the claims showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, " Rule 12(b)(6) is not without meaning. Krantz v. Prudential Investments Fund Management, 305 F.3d 140, 142 (3d Cir. 2002). It follows that in order to comply with the applicable pleading standards "more detail is often required than the bald statement by plaintiff that he has a valid claim of some type against defendant." Id. at 142 - 43 (quoting Charles A. Wright and Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice And Procedure, § 1357 at 318 (2d ed. 1990)). This principle appears to be even more well-grounded after Twombly.

         Further, although the focus in assessing a motion to dismiss is on the allegations set forth in the pleadings, "matters of public record, orders [and] exhibits attached to the complaint" also may be considered. Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1384 n.2 (3d Cir. 1994) (citing 5A Wright & Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1357); Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Industries, Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993) (In ruling on a motion to dismiss, a district court can consider the complaint, attached exhibits, and matters of public record.). Matters of public record include judicial proceedings and a court may take judicial notice of another court's opinions and orders. Southern Cross Overseas Agencies v. Wah Kwong Shipping Group Ltd., 181 F.3d 410, 426 (3d Cir. 1999). Finally, in applying the plausibility standard a reviewing court must make a context-specific inquiry, drawing on its judicial experience and common sense. Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 211 (3d Cir. 2009).

         Plaintiff's family court case began in July of 2004 when plaintiff's ex-spouse, Julie McVay Addlespurger, initiated a proceeding for support. The case continued until August 1, 2014, when plaintiff's youngest child was emancipated. Id. at ¶¶ 24, 93. This contentious ten-year case generated 527 docket entries. Id. at ¶ at 26. A divorce decree was entered in July of 2009, but the court continued to assert its jurisdiction over plaintiff on the theory that a final order had not been entered. Id. at ¶ 25.

         Defendant David Wecht was a judge in the Family Division and became assigned to the case on or about September 27, 2004, and continued to preside over and entered orders in it until July 10, 2009. Id. at ¶¶ 3, 45-65.[1] During this time Justice Wecht entered orders regarding equitable distribution, child support and the payment of attorney's fees to McVay's attorney, Charles Voelker. Id. at ¶ 27. "Many of these orders either combined child support with attorney fees, ordered both in a lump sum, ordered attorney fees and child support to be deducted from equitable distribution and/or authorized attorney fees to be paid into and out of child support." Id. at ¶ 28. "The co-mingling of child support, equitable distribution, and attorney fees, as well as the often illegible orders, led to an unable to decipher numeric nightmare." Id. at ¶ 29.

         This combination of illegible orders and the co-mingling of obligations led to several instances where plaintiff paid money toward his child support obligation and it inappropriately was used to pay attorney fees to Voelker. Id. at ¶¶ 30-31. The use of funds in this manner was ordered by Justice Wecht "prematurely and in violation of all rules, statutes and case law." Id. at ¶ 35. As a practical matter, when plaintiff paid funds for his past due support obligations and it was instead used to pay Voelker, plaintiff would immediately be placed back into being in arrears on his support obligation and then would have to pay more money or face being incarcerated for being in arrears. Id. at ¶¶ 31-34.

         Orders were entered in the case that led to plaintiff's incarceration on 11 occasions. Id. at ¶ 34. These periods of incarceration ranged from 60 to approximately 200 days. Id. at ¶ 33. All of these stints of incarceration were the result of orders entered by Justice Wecht. Id. at ¶ 34. Plaintiff protested the way the funds were allocated and paid to Voelker, but his protests were in vein. Id. at ¶ 37. The orders granting fees to Voelker were often entered sua sponte and the amounts awarded were "pulled out of the air." Id. at ¶ 46.

         The unjustified and excessive orders were entered by Justice Wecht in retaliation for plaintiff making allegations of corruption about the Allegheny County Family Division and Justice Wecht. Id. at ¶ 47. Among other things, plaintiff publicly disseminated information about the illegal orders, the contributions from Voelker's firm to Justice Wecht's campaign, and plaintiff's illegal incarceration. Id. at ¶ 49. Plaintiff found himself in a circular state of affairs where he was unable to stay current on his support obligations, which in turn resulted in plaintiff being incarcerated on eleven different occasions over the course of four years. Id. at ¶¶ 50-69.

         Over the course of plaintiff's family court case he "repeatedly requested documentation of what was considered to be equitable distribution, child support and attorney fees." Id. at ¶ 72. Plaintiff repeatedly was "denied any such documentation or clarification even though various amounts of money were co-mingled." Id. at ¶ 73.

         Plaintiff filed an appeal on December 14, 2012. By this time Justice Wecht had become a judge on the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. Id. at ¶ 74. Justice Wecht was assigned to the panel tasked with hearing plaintiff's appeal. Id. at ¶ 75. Justice Wecht did not recuse himself. Id. at ¶ 76.

         A number of other judges failed to "intercede" and stop the egregious violation of plaintiff's rights. Judges Elliott and Ott also were assigned to the panel. Id. at ¶ 80. They did not take any action to have Justice Wecht recused from the case. Id. at ¶¶ 81, 135, 141. Judge Strassburger, who did recuse from the panel, failed to take action to have Judge Wecht recuse himself. Id. at ΒΆ 79. Judges Steven, Bender and Gantman, who were all president judges at some point ...

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