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Pristas v. Esper

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 22, 2018

DONALD E. PRISTAS, Plaintiff,
v.
BETTY ESPER, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          NORA BARRY FISCHER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. Introduction

         On August 14, 2017, Plaintiff Donald E. Pristas (“Plaintiff”), acting pro se, initiated this civil action against the following defendants in both their individual and official capacities: Betty Esper (“Mayor Esper”), Mayor of Homestead; Jeffery Desimone (“Chief Desimone”), the Chief of the Homestead Police Department; Homestead Police Department Officers James A. Ilgenfritz (“Ilgenfritz”), Michael A. Kershiner (“Kershiner”), Jeffrey Luptak (“Luptak”), and Brian K. Meals (“Meals”); (collectively “Homestead Defendants”), and Judge Thomas R. Torkowsky (“Judge Torkowsky”) (collectively “Defendants”). (Docket No. 1). In his Amended Complaint, Plaintiff advances claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging violations of rights protected by the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. (Docket No. 11).

         Presently pending before the Court is a motion to dismiss filed by Judge Torkowsky, (Docket No. 18), and a motion to dismiss/motion for partial summary judgment filed by Homestead Defendants, (Docket No. 22). Defendants' motions have been fully briefed, (Docket Nos. 19, 23, 30), and Plaintiff has been given an opportunity to respond, (Docket No. 27). Accordingly, the matter is ripe for consideration. For the reasons that follow, Judge Torkowsky's motion is GRANTED and Homestead Defendants' motion is GRANTED, in part and DENIED, in part.

         II. Factual Background [1]

         This case arises out of various interactions between Plaintiff and Defendants during 2015 and continuing through July of 2017. (Docket No. 11).

         A. August 14, 2015 Incident [2]

         The first incident alleged in the amended complaint occurred at Plaintiff's residence (“residence”) on August 14, 2015. By way of background, Plaintiff's wife (“wife”) filed for divorce in state court in May of 2015. (Divorce Docket). Plaintiff admits sending a letter to his wife amidst divorce proceedings.[3] (Docket No. 27, at p. 8). In that letter, Plaintiff informed his wife that she had left her “stuff” at the residence, and also expressed his unwillingness to have any interactions with her “without a neutral third party, court appointed mediator, or law enforcement officer present[.]” (Docket No. 23-17). On August 14, 2015, the wife went to the residence with three other individuals and Officer Luptak of the Homestead Police Department to retrieve her property. (Docket No. 11, at p. 3).

         Plaintiff alleges that his wife and the three individuals accompanying her were intruders (“alleged intruders”), and that Officer Luptak pushed him away and allowed the alleged intruders to enter the residence through the back door. (Docket No. 11, at p. 3). Plaintiff claims that he immediately asked everyone to leave, but Officer Luptak told Plaintiff that he was there to assist the alleged intruders in taking property that belonged to the wife. (Id.). Plaintiff asserts that he apprised Officer Luptak of the ongoing divorce proceedings and demanded to see either a warrant justifying entry into the residence, or a court order authorizing removal of any items from it. (Id. at 4). Officer Luptak, however, failed to produce either of those documents. (Id.).

         Plaintiff claims that the alleged intruders emptied out the refrigerator and began to move it, breaking the automatic ice maker in the process. (Id. at 3). He avers that they ransacked the residence and took various items. (Id. at 3). Plaintiff alleges that he repeatedly exhorted Officer Luptak to stop the alleged intruders but to no avail. (Id. at 4). Plaintiff admits that a scuffle broke out when Plaintiff tried to stop one of the alleged intruders. (Id.). Officer Luptak allegedly pulled Plaintiff away from the fight, and threatened to tase and arrest him upon any further interference. (Id.).

         Plaintiff claims that he left the residence to seek help from his son and returned to find several items missing, his kitchen flooding, and items being removed throughout the residence. (Id.). Plaintiff asserts that he asked Officer Luptak to stop the alleged intruders from robbing him but Officer Luptak told him that the alleged intruders were entitled to do so. (Id.). In the interim, Plaintiff's son arrived at the residence and purportedly asked Officer Luptak why the alleged intruders were being permitted to rob Plaintiff. (Id.). Plaintiff claims that Officer Luptak told his son the alleged intruders were there to obtain a stove, a refrigerator, and a microwave oven that belonged to the wife. (Id.). According to Plaintiff, upon realizing that the alleged intruders were taking additional items, however, Officer Luptak admitted that a constable with a court order should have been present to facilitate the process. (Id.).

         Thereafter, Officer Luptak purportedly called Officer Ilgenfritz into Plaintiff's residence for assistance. (Id.). Plaintiff claims that he immediately asked Officer Ilgenfritz to arrest the alleged intruders and Officer Luptak. (Id. at 5). Plaintiff alleges that after listening to the wife and inspecting the documents presented to him, Officer Ilgenfritz concluded Officer Luptak would never be arrested for what had transpired. (Id.). And Officer Luptak purportedly stated that Plaintiff was lucky for not being arrested for throwing blows at the alleged intruders. (Id.). Plaintiff claims the presence of a third officer at his residence whose identity is unknown to him. (Id. at 5-6).

         Plaintiff alleges that the next day, and at other dates, he reached out to Chief Desimone and requested additional information about the August 14, 2015 incident. (Id.). However, according to Plaintiff, Chief Desimone neither made any arrests nor provided Plaintiff with the requested information. (Id.).

         Plaintiff petitioned for a Protection from Abuse Order (“PFA”) against his wife in the aftermath of the August 14, 2015 incident. (Divorce Docket). On August 17, 2015, a temporary PFA, excluding the wife from Plaintiff's residence, was granted. (Id.). On September 11, 2015, a state court judge held a hearing, dismissed Plaintiff's petition for a permanent PFA, and vacated the temporary PFA. (Id.). On October 5, 2015, Plaintiff's request for reconsideration of the PFA dismissal was denied in a written opinion. (Id.).

         B. Summary Citations [4]

         Plaintiff also complains that Homestead police officers violated his rights during a series of traffic stops for which he was issued summary citations. (Docket No. 11). The first of such incidents occurred on March 16, 2016, at which time Plaintiff claims Officer Ilgenfritz pulled over his vehicle, made derogatory statements to him, and ordered him out of the vehicle.[5] (Id. at 6-7). Officer Ilgenfritz allegedly searched the vehicle without Plaintiff's consent or a warrant, took articles from the vehicle, and threatened Plaintiff with “further inappropriate actions” and physical harm. (Id. at 7.). Plaintiff admits he was allowed to leave the scene, but later received a citation by mail. (Id.). The Court notes that the citation was for a summary offense-driving with a suspended or revoked license-in violation of 75 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 1543(a). (Traffic Docket: MJ-05215-TR-0000908-2016).[6] (Docket No. 23-6).

         Plaintiff next complains that on March 30, 2016, Officer Kershiner pulled Plaintiff over while he was riding his motorcycle and advised him that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation demanded return of the motorcycle's license plate. (Docket No. 11, at p. 7). Plaintiff allegedly complied by surrendering the license plate, but later received citations by mail which, he asserts, were incongruous with his interactions with Officer Kershiner. (Id.). The Court notes that Plaintiff received citations for the following summary offenses:

1. Operating a motorcycle without an eye-protective device in violation of 75 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3525(b). (Traffic Docket: MJ-05215-TR-0001230-2016).[7]
2. Operating a vehicle without the required proof of financial responsibility in violation of 75 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 1786(f). (Traffic Docket: MJ-05215-TR-0001231-2016).[8]
3. Driving with a suspended or revoked license in violation of 75 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 1543(a). (Traffic Docket: MJ-05215-TR-0001232-2016);[9] (Docket No. 23-9, at p. 3-4).
4. Failure to surrender license in violation of 75 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 1571(a)(4). (Traffic Docket: MJ-05215-TR-0001233-2016);[10] (Docket No. 23-9, at p. 1-2).
5. Displaying foreign license during suspension/revocation in violation of 75 Pa. Cons. Stat. §1573(a). (Traffic Docket: MJ-05215-TR-0001234-2016);[11] (Docket No. 23-9, at p. 5-6).

         The citations from the March 16 and March 30 traffic stops were consolidated. (Docket No. 23-9). On June 7, 2016, a summary trial was held and Judge Torkowsky found Plaintiff guilty of all the charged summary offenses from both traffic stops. (Id.). Plaintiff appealed Judge Torkowsky's decision to the Court of Common Pleas. (Id.). On February 15, 2017, at the summary appeal hearing, Plaintiff pled guilty to operating his motorcycle without an eye-protective device, in violation of 75 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3525(b), and the remaining summary offenses from both traffic stops were withdrawn. (Appeals Docket: CP-02-SA-0001207-2016)[12]; (Docket No. 23-13, at p. 5- 9). Plaintiff paid a modest fine, which included court costs and fees, of two hundred and eighty-eight dollars ($288). (Docket No. 23-13, at p. 5-9).

         Plaintiff further contests a May 19, 2016 traffic stop initiated by Officer Meals who pulled over Plaintiff's truck. (Docket No. 11, at 9). Plaintiff claims that he presented his driver's license, owner's card, and proof of insurance to Officer Meals. (Id.). However, Officer Meals allegedly badgered Plaintiff for additional information, attempted to open the driver's side door, and told Plaintiff that the truck was stolen. (Id.). Plaintiff alleges that Officer Meals also inspected the driver's license of the passenger riding with Plaintiff. (Id.). Plaintiff claims he was allowed to leave the scene upon surrendering control of the truck to the passenger, but later received citations by mail. (Id.). The Court notes that Plaintiff received citations for the following summary offenses:

1. Driving with a suspended or revoked license in violation of 75 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 1543(a). (Traffic Docket: MJ-05215-TR-0001476-2016);[13] (Docket No. 23-12, at p. 5-7).
2. Displaying foreign license during suspension/revocation in violation of 75 Pa. Cons. Stat. §1573(a). (Traffic Docket: MJ-05215-TR-0001477-2016);[14] (Docket No. 23-12, at p. 3-4).
3. Giving false information in violation of 75 Pa. Cons. Stat.§1573(a). (Traffic Docket: MJ-05215-TR-0001477-2016);[15] (Docket No. 23-12, at p. 1-2).

         On August 16, 2016, a summary trial was held and Judge Torkowsky found Plaintiff guilty of all the charged summary offenses from the May 19, 2016 traffic stop. (Docket No. 23-12). In relation to this summary trial, Plaintiff asserts that Judge Torkowsky failed to recuse himself, treated him unfairly, found him guilty of charges when the author of the citations was not present, and refused to accept evidence that would have exonerated him. (Docket No. 11 at 9-10). Plaintiff appealed Judge Torkowsky's decision to the Court of Common Pleas. (Id. at 10). On February 15, 2017, at the summary appeal hearing, Plaintiff pled guilty to a lesser charge of driving without a license in violation of 75 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 1501(a), and the remaining summary offenses from the May 19, 2016 traffic stop were withdrawn. (Appeals Docket: CP-02-SA-0001741-2016);[16](Docket No. 23-13, at p. 1-5).

         Plaintiff also challenges a traffic stop on October 10, 2016, by Officer Meals. (Docket No. 11 at 10). Plaintiff maintains that Officer Meals did not tell him why he was pulled over and, instead, attempted to interrogate him. (Id.). Plaintiff claims that he told Officer Meals to direct any questions to his attorney. (Id.). Plaintiff alleges that Officer Meals left the scene after advising Plaintiff the tread on his tires was low, but later mailed out citations to him. (Id. at 10-11). The Court notes that Plaintiff was sent citations for the following summary offenses:

1. Displaying foreign license during suspension/revocation in violation of 75 Pa. Cons. Stat. §1573(a). (Traffic Docket: MJ-05215-TR-0002434-2016);[17] (Docket No. 23-15, at p. 4-6).
2. Driving with a suspended or revoked license in violation of 75 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 1543(a). (Traffic Docket: MJ-05215-TR-0002435-2016);[18] (Docket No. 23-15, at p. 1-3).

         On October 18, 2016, a First Class Summons was issued to Plaintiff, followed by a Certified Summons issued on November 17, 2016. (Docket No. 23-15). Plaintiff claims he did not receive the aforementioned summons because they were mailed to an address not used by the Homestead Police in any of the prior citations issued to Plaintiff. (Docket No. 11, at p. 11). On July 13, 2017, a summary trial was held and the summary citations from the October 10, 2016 traffic stop were dismissed. (Docket No. 23-15).

         C. Confrontation with Mayor Esper

         Plaintiff alleges that on or about March 17, 2016, he confronted Mayor Esper and asked her to “take grasps of the state of affairs being imposed upon Plaintiff by the [Homestead Police Department] officers[.]” (Docket No. 11, at p. 7). Plaintiff claims that Mayor Esper, however, failed “to stop the continual harassments upon Plaintiff by persons, under her control of whom she has direct authority to lead.” (Id. at 8).

         III. Procedural Background

         Based on the foregoing, Plaintiff filed a pro se complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in this Court on August 14, 2017. (Docket No. 1). Following instructions by the Court, Plaintiff filed an amended complaint on August 30, 2017. (Docket No. 11). Plaintiff claims Defendants, while acting under color of law, deprived him of his constitutional rights, obstructed justice, caused property damages and monetary losses to him, and aided and abetted others in criminal acts against him. (Docket No. 11 at 3). Plaintiff seeks punitive damages for Defendants' derelictions of duty, the constant and continual profiling, harassment, and depravation of character which created extreme unrest, anxiety, mental anguish, and insecurity to Plaintiff. (Id.)

         Judge Torkowsky filed a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss Plaintiff's § 1983 claim against him on September 12, 2017. (Docket No. 18). Homestead Defendants moved for dismissal under Rules 12(b)(5) and Rule 12(b)(6), and alternatively for summary judgment on October 2, 2017. (Docket No. 22). Plaintiff filed a brief in opposition to Defendants' motions on December 14, 2017. (Docket No. 27). ...


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