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Ott v. Goodwin

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

March 27, 2018

SERGEANT LARRY E. GOODWIN, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM [1]

          Susan E. Schwab United States Chief Magistrate Judge

         I. Introduction.

         In this case, we are compelled to determine whether recording a state trooper's personal telephone conversations with his wife violated federal wiretapping laws, when that trooper engaged in those personal conversations while he was on duty and using a telephone line at his state police barracks, which automatically recorded the calls coming through that line. For the reasons set forth below, we find that there was no such violation and, thus, we will enter summary judgment in favor of the defendants on the plaintiff's federal wiretap act claim. In addition, we will decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the plaintiff's remaining state-law claims, and we will, therefore, dismiss those claims from this action, but without prejudice to the plaintiff seeking relief in state court.

         II. Background.

         The plaintiff, Corporal Darrin Ott (“Corporal Ott”), alleges that while he was employed by the Pennsylvania State Police and stationed at the barracks in Coudersport, Pennsylvania, the defendants accessed, listened to, and replayed recorded telephone conversations that he had with his wife, while he was on duty and using a telephone line located at the barrack's communications desk. Corporal Ott, who asserts that he did not know this telephone line was being recorded, further alleges that the defendants then re-recorded and replayed these telephone conversations.

         The defendants contend, however, that they were reviewing the recordings at the communications desk in an attempt to identify the sender of an anonymous letter, which was harassing in nature and sent to one of the defendants. Corporal Ott acknowledges that during his telephone conversations, he and his wife discussed, among other things, the need to obtain an envelope. And so, Corporal Ott believes that this discussion ultimately served as the basis of an allegation that he and his wife were the ones involved in sending the anonymous, harassing letter. But, as Corporal Ott contends, this allegation not only proved to be unfounded, but it also created a hostile work environment for him as it eroded the trust and respect of those with whom he worked at the Coudersport Barracks, as well as those stationed at the other surrounding barracks.

         As a result, Corporal Ott instituted this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 by filing a counseled complaint on April 23, 2014. Doc. 1. In his complaint, Corporal Ott raises the following five counts: Count I, a violation of Pennsylvania's wiretap law; Count II, a violation of the federal wiretap law; Count III, a First Amendment retaliation claim; Count IV, a Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process claim; and finally, Count V, an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim. Id. at 12-17. In addition, Corporal Ott names the following four defendants, all of whom were also employed by the Pennsylvania State Police and stationed at the barracks in Coudersport, Pennsylvania during the relevant time period: (1) Larry E. Goodwin, a Sergeant (“Sergeant Goodwin”); (2) Chad E. Savannah, a trooper (“Trooper Savannah”); (3) Neal R. Fausey, another trooper (“Trooper Fausey”); and (4) Rhonda K. Stimaker, a clerk typist (“Clerk Stimaker”).[2] Id. at 2. As for relief, Corporal Ott seeks nominal, compensatory, and punitive damages, as well as statutory attorney fees and costs. See Id. at 13-17.

         In response to the complaint, the Defendants filed an answer (doc. 6), followed by a motion for partial judgment on the pleadings (doc. 14). On February 24, 2016, we granted in part and denied in part that motion. See doc. 35. More specifically, we granted the motion, but only with respect to the First and Fourteenth Amendment claims, and thus dismissed Counts III and IV from the complaint. See id. Following our ruling, the parties engaged in extensive discovery, seeking several extensions of time in order to do so. See docs. 32, 34, 37.

         Now, on the heels of that discovery, the Defendants have filed a motion for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil procedure. See doc. 49. They request that summary judgment be entered in their favor on the surviving claims in the complaint-Count I, a violation of Pennsylvania's wiretap law; Count II, a violation of the federal wiretap law; and Count V, an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim. See id. In concert with their motion, they have also filed a statement of the material facts, a supporting brief, and various exhibits. See docs. 50, 51, 52.

         In response, Corporal Ott has filed an amended statement of the material facts and an amended brief in opposition. See docs. 65, 66; see also doc. 63 (containing our Order, identifying various deficiencies in Corporal Ott's original filings and directing him to comply with the Local Rules of this Court by amending those filings).[3] And the Defendants have since filed a reply brief. See doc. 69.

         Thus, the Defendants' motion for summary judgment, which has been fully briefed, is ripe for our disposition. For the reasons that follow, their motion will be granted.

         III. Statement of Material Facts.

         Pursuant to the Local Rules for the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, a party moving for summary judgment must attach to the motion “a separate, short and concise statement of the material facts, in numbered paragraphs, as to which the moving party contends there is no genuine issue to be tried.” M.D. Pa. L.R. 56.1. The non-moving party is required to submit “a separate, short and concise statement of the material facts, responding to the numbered paragraphs set forth in [the moving party's statement], as to which it is contended that there exists a genuine issue to be tried.” Id. Both statements must reference the record for support, and the moving party's statement will be deemed admitted unless controverted by the non-moving party. See id.

         As we explained above, the Defendants, as the party moving for summary judgment, have submitted a statement of the material facts, supported by adequate references to the record. See doc. 50. In response, Corporal Ott has submitted an amended, responsive statement of the material facts. Doc. 66.[4] Thus, we set forth below the undisputed material facts, as culled from the parties' statements.

         A. The Parties.

         Corporal Ott has been a member of the Pennsylvania State Police (hereinafter, “PSP”) since 1993. Doc. 50 at ¶ 1; doc. 66 at 3. In 2012, the year that is relevant to the allegations in the complaint, Corporal Ott was a patrol unit supervisor at the PSP barracks in Coudersport, which is in Troop F.[5] Doc. 50 at ¶ 2; doc. 66 at 3.[6]

         Sergeant Goodwin was the station commander at the Coudersport Barracks until his retirement on January 1, 2016. Doc. 50 at ¶ 3; doc. 66 at 3. As the station commander, Sergeant Goodwin was responsible for oversight of all personnel at the Coudersport Barracks, including Trooper Savannah, Trooper Fausey, and Clerk Stimaker. See doc. 50 at ¶ 4; doc. 66 at 3.

         As for the Troopers, Trooper Savannah was stationed at the Coudersport Barracks from September of 2009 until March of 2013 (doc. 50 at ¶ 5; doc. 66 at 3), and Trooper Fausey was stationed at the Coudersport Barracks from November of 2010 until July of 2015 (doc. 50 at ¶ 6; doc. 66 at 3).

         Finally, Clerk Stimaker has worked as “the clerk” at the Coudersport Barracks since November of 2006. Doc. 50 at ¶ 7; doc. 66 at 3.

         B. Background on the Recorded Telephone Lines.

         The Coudersport Barracks maintains a communications desk for the purpose of, among other things, fielding calls from the public. Doc. 50 at ¶ 25; doc. 66 at ¶ 25. There are two handheld telephones at the communications desk, and calls coming through those telephones are automatically recorded. See doc. 50 at ¶ 26; doc. 66 at ¶ 26. When using the telephone lines at the communications desk, there are beeps on the line, which indicate that the call is being recorded. Doc. 50 at ¶ 27; doc. 66 at ¶ 27.

         The recordings from these telephones are saved on an Eventide Machine, which is also located at the communications desk. Doc. 50 at ¶ 28; doc. 66 at ¶ 28. The log-in information, to access the recordings on the Eventide, was displayed on the outside of that machine. Doc. 50 at ¶ 29; doc. 66 at ¶ 29. PSP personnel have had occasion in the past to review recordings saved on the Eventide Machine in order to confirm information conveyed by a caller, to finish writing reports, and to play back a call simply because it is funny. Doc. 50 at ¶ 30; doc. 66 at ¶ 30.

         C. Corporal Ott's Telephone Calls With His Wife.

         On March 16, 2012, while performing desk and communication duties at the Coudersport Barracks, Corporal Ott used the telephones at the communications desk to engage in multiple conversations with his wife, Karen Ott (“Mrs. Ott”). Doc. 50 at ¶ 31; doc. 66 at ¶ 31. During those conversations, Corporal Ott and Mrs. Ott discussed, among other things, the need for a large envelope. Doc. 50 at ¶ 32; doc. 66 at ¶ 32. They also discussed that it was important for this envelope to be mailed before the Coudersport Post Office closed the following day, Saturday, March 17, 2012. Doc. 50 at ¶ 32; doc. 66 at ¶ 32. These telephone conversations were automatically recorded (doc. 50 at ¶ 33; doc. 66 at ¶ 33), and they were saved on the Coudersport Barrack's Eventide Machine (doc. 50 at ¶ 34; doc. 66 at ¶ 34).

         D. The Anonymous Letter.

         Thereafter, on March 29, 2012, Clerk Stimaker received an anonymous letter at her home, which suggested that the sender knew what was going on with her and “Andy.” See doc. 50 at ¶¶ 8, 9; doc. 66 at ¶ 9. The letter also made reference to the “barracks” and asked what “the Sarge, ” presumably Sergeant Goodwin, would think about their actions. See doc. 50 at ¶ 9; doc. 66 at ¶ 9. During her deposition, Clerk Stimaker testified that she received this letter after several hang-up calls and blocked calls had been made to her home and cell phone, as well as to her husband's workplace. Doc. 50 at ¶ 10 (citing doc. 51-7 at 14-15 (dep. 13:23-14:4)). And, in the PSP Incident Report, Clerk Stimaker reported that these calls continued even after receiving the anonymous letter. See doc. 66 at ¶ 10 (citing doc. 66-3 at 3).

         During his deposition, Corporal Ott testified that other members of the Coudersport Barracks had also been receiving hang-up phone calls. Doc. 50 at ¶ 11 (citing doc. 51-3 at 31-32 (dep. 30:24-31:5)). Corporal Ott further testified that Andy Mincer (“Mincer”), another PSP trooper, had told him that his (Mincer's) ex-girlfriend may have been the one responsible for making these calls, stating that his ex-girlfriend was “fucking with the guys.” Doc. 66 at ¶ 11 (quoting doc. 66-4 at 36 (dep. 36:17)). Based on the record before us, both parties seem to acknowledge that Mincer is probably the “Andy” that was referenced in the anonymous letter to Clerk Stimaker.

         E. The Report to Sergeant Goodwin.

         On the following day, March 30, 2012, Clerk Stimaker had a day off, but went into the Coudersport Barracks to discuss the anonymous letter with Sergeant Goodwin.[7] See doc. 50 at ¶ 12; doc. 60 at ¶ 12. Sergeant Goodwin was working in his office when Clerk Stimaker first showed him the letter. See doc. 50 at ¶ 13; doc. 66 at ¶ 13. In regards to the contents of the letter, Sergeant Goodwin testified at his deposition that he had concern for the safety of his employee. Doc. 50 at ¶ 14; doc. 66 at ¶ 14.[8]

         F. Assistance from Trooper Savannah and Trooper Fausey in Accessing the Recorded Telephone Conversations.

         On that same day, March 30, 2012, Trooper Fausey was working the communications desk. Doc. 50 at ¶ 17; doc. 66 at ¶ 17. Trooper Savannah was also on duty that day. Doc. 50 at ¶ 18; doc. 66 at ¶ 18. Clerk Stimaker showed Trooper Fausey and Trooper Savannah the anonymous letter, explaining that she believed it had been sent to her by another trooper's ex-girlfriend-presumably, Mincer's ex-girlfriend. Doc. 50 at ¶ 19; doc. 66 at ¶ 19.[9]

         In connection with these facts, the Defendants proffer that Trooper Savannah and Trooper Fausey already knew that Clerk Stimaker had also been receiving hang-up calls. Doc. 50 at ¶ 20. Although it appears that Trooper Fausey had already known about these hang-up calls (doc. 51-6 at 17 (dep. 16:16-25)), it does not appear that Trooper Savannah also knew, prior to March 30, 2012, that Clerk Stimaker had been receiving such calls (doc. 66 at ¶ 20 (citing doc. 51-5 at 15-16 (dep. 14:25-15:16)).

         Regardless, Clerk Stimaker enlisted the assistance of Trooper Fausey to access the Eventide Machine in order to determine whether Mincer's ex-girlfriend had called asking for her address on March 16, 2012. Doc. 50 at ¶ 21; doc. 66 at ¶ 21. Clerk Stimaker believed that March 16, 2012, was the date to focus on because of the information that she had received from Mincer. Doc. 50 at ¶ 22; doc. 66 at ¶ 22; see also doc. 51-7 at 20 (dep. 19:1-10) (containing Clerk Stimaker's deposition transcript, where she testifies that Trooper Mincer had called her on March 16th, explaining that his girlfriend or ex-girlfriend had called him and stated that she was going to call Mincer and Clerk Stimaker's sergeants and let those sergeants know about Mincer and Clerk Stimaker's relationship).

         Trooper Fausey, however, did not know how to playback the recordings, and so, he asked Trooper Savannah to do it. Doc. 50 at ¶ 23; doc. 66 at ¶ 23. Trooper Savannah, using the posted instructions, was able to playback the recordings from the Eventide Machine. Doc. 50 at ¶ 35; doc. 66 at ¶ 35.

         G. Listening to ...

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