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Lee v. City of Philadelphia

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

June 27, 2019

CURTIS LEE, Plaintiff,
CITY OF PHILADELPHIA, et al., Defendants.


          GERALD J. PAPPERT, J.

         Curtis Lee sued the City of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Police Department, Commissioner Richard Ross, and ten Philadelphia Police Officers for violating his rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the United States Constitution and Pennsylvania state law. Defendants move for judgment on the pleadings for many of the claims against them.

         The Complaint is an abject mess-an 18 count, 36 page amalgam of duplicative, conclusory, overbroad, vague and in part legally frivolous allegations against individuals and entities whose role in the harm Lee alleges is far from clear. As an initial matter, Counts X, XI, XV, XVI, and XVII are repetitive of, or encompassed in, the allegations in Counts I, II, V and VI and the former five counts are all dismissed with prejudice. Second, while the Philadelphia Police Department is listed as a Defendant in the case's caption, the Complaint contains no discernible allegations against the Department. Even if it did, such allegations would be dismissed because the Department cannot be sued separately from the City itself. To the extent Lee seeks redress from the Police Department, any such claims are also dismissed with prejudice. Finally, Lee also sues the individual defendants in their official capacities (Counts VII, VIII, IX, XI, XII). Since “official capacity suits” are merely another way of pleading an action against an entity of which an officer is an agent, all purported claims against individual defendants in their official capacities are redundant and are dismissed with prejudice.

         The Court grants in part and denies in part the rest of Defendants' Motion, but will allow Lee an opportunity to amend his Complaint, consistent with this Memorandum. In an effort to bring a semblance of coherence to the Memorandum, rather than take the claims in the disjointed order alleged in the Complaint, the Court addresses all federal claims first followed by claims brought pursuant to Pennsylvania law.


         On June 2, 2016, Lee was outside a church's soup kitchen on the corner of Allegheny Avenue and Weymouth Street in Philadelphia when Officer Donald Vandermay arrested him as part of an undercover drug sting. (Compl. ¶¶ 8, 10, 18.) Lee contends that Vandermay violently threw him to the ground before throwing him into a police vehicle, with force that was “intentional, unnecessary, unjustified, excessive, reckless, willful, and malicious.” (Id. at ¶¶ 18, 20.) Lee alleges that nine other officers were present and witnessed what Vandermay “did to [Lee] and failed to stop Vandermay from beating [him].” (Id. at ¶ 21.) As a result of this incident, Lee suffered serious and permanent injuries. (Id. at ¶ 18.)

         On June 8, 2017, Lee was convicted of manufacturing, delivery or possession with intent to manufacture or deliver, conspiracy and intentional possession of a controlled substance. See (Mot. Ex. 1, (“Criminal Docket”), at 4, ECF No. 20-1; Resp. Opp'n Mot. Ex. I, (“Trial Transcript”), at 31:20-24, ECF No. 23-2).[1] Lee filed a PCRA petition on March 25, 2019, seeking to overturn his conviction. See (Resp. Opp'n Mot. at 2).


         A motion for judgment on the pleadings is a procedural hybrid of a motion to dismiss and a motion for summary judgment. Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides: “After the pleadings are closed-but early enough not to delay trial-a party may move for judgment on the pleadings.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). A motion for judgment on the pleadings will be granted only if “the movant clearly establishes there are no material issues of fact, and he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Sikirica v. Nationwide Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 214, 220 (3d Cir. 2005) (citing Society Hill Civic Association v. Harris, 632 F.2d 1045, 1054 (3d Cir. 1980)). The court “must view the facts presented in the pleadings and the inferences to be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Id. In other words, a district court applies the same standard to a judgment on the pleadings as a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). See Snyder v. Daugherty, 899 F.Supp.2d 391, 400 (W.D. Pa. 2012).


         To establish a prima facie case under § 1983, Lee must first demonstrate that a person acting under color of law deprived him of a federal right. See Groman v. Twp. of Manalapan, 47 F.3d 628, 633 (3d Cir. 1995). Lee must also show that the person acting under color of law “intentionally” violated his constitutional rights or acted “deliberately indifferent” in violation of those rights. See, e.g., County of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 843-44 (1998); Brower v. County of Inyo, 489 U.S. 593, 596 (1989) (citing Hill v. California, 401 U.S. 797, 802-05 (1971)); see also Berg v. County of Allegheny, 219 F.3d 261, 269 (3d Cir. 2000).


         Lee asserts Fourth Amendment claims for malicious prosecution, false arrest, and false imprisonment (Counts II, V, VI, VII, XI, XIII, XIV, XVI). The claims are not cognizable, however, under the favorable termination rule articulated by the Supreme Court of the United States in Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994).[2] In Heck, the Supreme Court held that:

[I]n order to recover damages for allegedly unconstitutional conviction or imprisonment, or for other harm caused by actions whose unlawfulness would render a conviction or sentence invalid, a § 1983 plaintiff must prove that the conviction or sentence has been reversed on direct appeal, expunged by executive order, declared invalid by a state tribunal authorized to make such determination, or called into question by a federal court's issuance of a writ of habeas corpus.

Id. at 486-487. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has interpreted Heck to mean that “a § 1983 action that impugns the validity of the plaintiff's underlying conviction cannot be maintained unless the conviction has been reversed on direct appeal or impaired by collateral proceedings.” Gilles v. Davis, 427 F.3d 197, 208-09 (3d Cir. 2005). District courts must undertake a fact-intensive inquiry for each claim raised by the plaintiff and determine whether success on that claim would necessarily impugn the integrity of the plaintiff's criminal conviction. See Gibson v. Superintendent, N.J. Dep't of Law & Pub. Safety, 411 F.3d 427, 447-50 (3d Cir. 2005) (holding that a determination whether Heck applies to a Fourth Amendment claim requires a case-by-case fact-based inquiry).

         Malicious prosecution claims necessarily impugn the integrity of the underlying criminal convictions. Accordingly, Lee's claims for malicious prosecution are barred and dismissed without prejudice. See Olick v. Pennsylvania, 739 Fed.Appx. 722, 726 n.4 (3d Cir. 2018) (dismissing malicious prosecution claim without prejudice because it was barred by Heck).

         Heck does not automatically bar Lee's claims for false arrest and false imprisonment. See Id. at 726. Specifically, Heck does not bar such claims where there is “independent evidence upon which a conviction could be obtained that was not in any way tainted by the unlawful arrest.” Covington v. City of New York, 171 F.3d 117, 123 (2d Cir. 1999); Heck, 512 U.S. at 487 n.7 (“Because of doctrines like independent source and inevitable discovery, and especially harmless error, such a § 1983 action, even if successful, would not necessarily imply that the plaintiff's conviction was unlawful.”). “On the other hand, in a case where the only evidence for conviction was obtained pursuant to an arrest, recovery in a civil case based on false arrest would necessarily impugn any conviction resulting from the use of that evidence.” Gibson, 411 F.3d at 452 (citing Covington, 171 F.3d at 123); see also Rosembert v. Borough of E. Lansdowne, 14 F.Supp.3d 631, 640-41 (E.D. Pa. 2014) (barring a plaintiff's Fourth Amendment claims under Heck because the only evidence supporting the charges was acquired as a result of the alleged unlawful search and false arrest of the plaintiff).

         Here, following a bench trial Lee was found guilty of manufacturing, delivery or possession with intent to manufacture or deliver, conspiracy and intentional possession of a controlled substance. See (Criminal Docket at 4; Trial Transcript 31:20-24). The evidence obtained during Lee's arrest is the only connection between Lee and the drug offenses for which he was convicted. During his trial, the government presented evidence that Lee was the lookout for the drug conspiracy. (Compl. ¶¶ 24, 28.) Officer Killman testified that when the Officers arrested Lee, they recovered $98, which they found in a property receipt. (Trial Transcript 17:19-25.) Officer Killman also testified that he observed Lee yell “police” whenever a marked police car came down the ...

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