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Bressi v. Gembic

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

July 2, 2018

AARON J. BRESSI, Plaintiff,
v.
JOHN GEMBIC (DJ), et al., Defendants.

          BRANN, J.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          JOSEPH F. SAPORITO, JR. UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This is a federal civil rights action in which the pro se plaintiff, Aaron J. Bressi, seeks damages and injunctive relief against four defendants whom he claims were responsible for his prosecution and incarceration on allegedly fabricated criminal charges. On August 9, 2017, the Court received and filed the plaintiff's initial complaint against three named defendants, which had been signed and dated by the plaintiff on August 6, 2017. (Doc. 1). At the time, Bressi was incarcerated at SCI Coal Township, located in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania.[1] On September 15, 2017, prior to service of original process on the defendants, the Court received and filed a letter-pleading from the plaintiff by which he sought to add related claims against a fourth defendant. (Doc. 11). Mindful of our obligation to liberally construe pro se submissions, particularly when dealing with imprisoned pro se litigants, we construe these two documents together as the plaintiff's operative complaint. See generally Mala v. Crown Bay Marina, Inc., 704 F.3d 239, 244-46 (3d Cir. 2013).

         On October 16, 2017, the defendants filed a motion to dismiss this action on various grounds, together with a brief in support. (Doc. 19; Doc. 20). On October 31, 2017, Bressi filed his brief in opposition to the motion. (Doc. 24).

         For his part, the pro se plaintiff has filed three separate, perfunctory motions for summary judgment (Doc. 25; Doc. 34; Doc. 46), none of which was accompanied by a statement of material facts, which is required under the local rules. See L.R. 56.1. He has filed a brief in support of only one of these three motions for summary judgment (Doc. 42), despite a local rule requiring all such motions to be supported by a brief in support. See L.R. 7.5. The defendants have filed responses and briefs in opposition to each of these three motions. (Doc. 26; Doc. 26-1; Doc. 35; Doc. 35-1; Doc. 44; Doc. 44-1; Doc. 47; Doc. 47-1). Bressi has filed a reply brief with respect to one of his three motions for summary judgment. (Doc. 45).

         These motions are now ripe for disposition.

         I. Background

         Bressi's claims concern a series of criminal proceedings before the same state magisterial district judge. The first was a trio of cases initiated and completed in 2013, in which Bressi was convicted of misdemeanor disorderly conduct on his guilty pleas and sentenced to serve a year on probation. A few months later, probation in each of the three cases was revoked and he was sentenced by a state common pleas judge to serve a term of six to twelve months in jail. Bressi did not appeal in any of these three cases.[2] The second was a case initiated in 2015, in which Bressi was convicted of simple assault and sentenced on September 29, 2016, to serve one year on probation. The Superior Court of Pennsylvania subsequently affirmed Bressi's conviction and sentence on October 25, 2017.[3] The third was a case in which, following a jury trial, Bressi was convicted of felony aggravated assault and related misdemeanor offenses and sentenced to serve an aggregate term of four to eight years in prison. Bressi has filed an appeal, which remains pending before the Superior Court of Pennsylvania.[4]

         As liberally construed by this Court, Bressi's complaint claims that these criminal proceedings were conducted in violation of his federal constitutional rights. He alleges that charges in two of the three 2013 cases were based on facts that were entirely fabricated-one of them based on false reports by defendant Vinny Clausi, Bressi's former employer and an active county commissioner at the time. He alleges that he was coerced into pleading guilty to those three charges by defendants John Gembic, the magisterial district judge who presided over the misdemeanor proceedings, and Michael Toomey, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted those charges. His complaint further implies that Gembic and Toomey did so at the behest of or in service to Clausi.

         Bressi was haled into court before Judge Gembic again in 2015. He alleges that, on September 29, 2016, he was prepared to plead guilty to harassment, a third-degree misdemeanor, but Toomey surprisingly substituted a new charge of simple assault, a second-degree misdemeanor, and Bressi's public defender, defendant Peter Kay, advised him to silence his objections and accept the newly revised deal to plead guilty to simple assault in exchange for a probation sentence, which Bressi did.

         The next day, September 30, 2016, Bressi was involved in a vehicular collision with the mother of his children. He alleges that she backed into his car in “a drug[] induced rage, ” but instead of her being prosecuted, Bressi was arrested and brought before Judge Gembic yet again. Bressi alleges that police fabricated evidence against him, and that his public defender, Kay, failed to comply with Bressi's directions that he file certain pretrial motions.

         On August 6, 2017, Bressi constructively filed this federal civil rights action seeking $1 million in damages from the defendants.

         II. Legal Standards

         A. Rule 12(b)(6) Dismissal Standard

         Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure authorizes a defendant to move to dismiss for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). “Under Rule 12(b)(6), a motion to dismiss may be granted only if, accepting all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint as true and viewing them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, a court finds the plaintiff's claims lack facial plausibility.” Warren Gen. Hosp. v. Amgen Inc., 643 F.3d 77, 84 (3d Cir. 2011) (citing Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007)). Although the Court must accept the fact allegations in the complaint as true, it is not compelled to accept “unsupported conclusions and unwarranted inferences, or a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.” Morrow v. Balaski, 719 F.3d 160, 165 (3d Cir. 2013) (quoting Baraka v. McGreevey, 481 F.3d 187, 195 (3d Cir. 2007)).

         Under Rule 12(b)(6), the defendant has the burden of showing that no claim has been stated. Kehr Packages, Inc. v. Fidelcor, Inc., 926 F.2d 1406, 1409 (3d Cir. 1991); Johnsrud v. Carter, 620 F.2d 29, 32-33 (3d Cir. 1980); Holocheck v. Luzerne County Head Start, Inc., 385 F.Supp.2d 491, 495 (M.D. Pa. 2005). Although a plaintiff is entitled to notice and an opportunity to respond to a motion to dismiss, he has no obligation to do so-he may opt to stand on the pleadings rather than file an opposition. The Court must nevertheless examine the complaint and determine whether it states a claim as a matter of law. Stackhouse v. Mazurkiewicz, 951 F.2d 29, 30 (3d Cir. 1991); Anchorage Assocs. v. Virgin Islands Bd. of Tax Review, 922 F.2d 168, 174 (3d Cir. 1990). In deciding the motion, the Court may consider the facts alleged on the face of the complaint, as well as “documents incorporated into the complaint by reference, and matters of which a court may take judicial notice.” Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308, 322 (2007).

         B. Sua Sponte Dismissal Standard

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, the Court is obligated to screen a civil complaint in which a prisoner is seeking redress from a governmental entity or an officer or employee of a governmental entity. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a); James v. Pa. Dep't of Corr., 230 Fed. App'x 195, 197 (3d Cir. 2007). The Court must dismiss the complaint if it is “frivolous” or “fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.” 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(1). The Court has a similar obligation with respect to actions brought in forma pauperis. See 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B). See generally Banks v. Cty. of Allegheny, 568 F.Supp.2d 579, 587-89 (W.D. Pa. 2008) (summarizing prisoner litigation screening procedures and standards).

         An action is “frivolous where it lacks an arguable basis in either law or fact.” Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989); see also Thomas v. Barker, 371 F.Supp.2d 636, 639 (M.D. Pa. 2005). To determine whether it is frivolous, a court must assess a complaint “from an objective standpoint in order to determine whether the claim is based on an indisputably meritless legal theory or clearly baseless factual contention.” Deutsch v. United States, 67 F.3d 1080, 1086 (3d Cir. 1995) (citing Denton v. Hernandez, 504 U.S. 25, 34 (1992)); Thomas, 371 F.Supp.2d at 639. Factual allegations are “clearly baseless” if they are “fanciful, ” “fantastic, ” or “delusional.” See Denton, 504 U.S. at 32-33. “[A] finding of factual frivolousness is appropriate when the facts alleged rise to the level of the irrational or the wholly incredible, whether or not there are judicially noticeable facts available to contradict them.” Id. at 33. A district court is further permitted, in its sound discretion, to dismiss a claim “if it determines that the claim is of little or no weight, value, or importance, not worthy of serious consideration, or trivial.” Deutsch, 67 F.3d at 1089.

         The legal standard for dismissing a complaint for failure to state a claim under § 1915A(b)(1) or § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) is the same as that for dismissing a complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Brodzki v. Tribune Co., 481 Fed. App'x 705, 706 (3d Cir. 2012) (per curiam); Mitchell v. Dodrill, 696 F.Supp.2d 454, 471 (M.D. Pa. 2010); Banks, 568 F.Supp.2d at 588.

         C. Summary ...


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