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Gower v. All But Furgotten Humane Rescue

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

July 11, 2019

STORMY GOWER, Plaintiff,
v.
ALL BUT FURGOTTEN HUMANE RESCUE a non-profit organization, ERIN CASSIDY, ANDREA PALMER, CASSIE WILSON, JOHN DOE, and JANE DOE, Defendants.

          OPINION

          MARILYN J. HORAN, UNITED STATED DISTRICT COURT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Stormy Gower brings this civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the Defendants violated her rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution by conducting an unlawful search of her property and by an illegal seizure of property based upon false allegations. Presently before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs Second Amended Complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). ECF No. 36. After careful consideration of the parties' positions, and for the following reasons, the Motion to Dismiss will be granted in part, and denied in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         On July 20, 2018, Ms. Gower filed a Complaint against All But Furgotten Humane Rescue, Erin Cassidy, Andrea Palmer, Cassie Wilson, and John Doe and Jane Doe (the "Doe Defendants"). ECF No. 1. The Doe Defendants have not been served. Defendants, All But Furgotten Humane Rescue, Erin Cassidy, Andrea Palmer, and Cassie Wilson (collectively "Defendants"), responded to the Complaint by filing a Motion to Dismiss the Complaint. ECF No. 6. In response, Ms. Gower filed a Brief in Opposition (ECF No. 17), as well as a Motion to Amend her Complaint (ECF No. 16), which she argued addressed some of the well-founded arguments in the Defendants' Motion to Dismiss. The Court granted Ms. Gower's Motion to Amend, and Ms. Gower filed her Amended Complaint on November 28, 2018. ECF No. 20.

         In response, Defendants filed a second Motion to Dismiss the Amended Complaint, ECF No. 23. Again, Ms. Gower filed a Motion to Amend her Amended Complaint, ECF No. 25, with an attached proposed Second Amended Complaint, ECF No. 25-1, which she contended rendered moot the Defendants' well-founded argument to dismiss her Fourth Amendment claim. See ECF No. 25, at ¶ 3 (citing ECF No. 25-1, at ¶¶ 13-14). The Court denied Ms. Gower's Motion to Amend the Amended Complaint. On January 24, 2019, the Court heard oral argument on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs Amended Complaint, after which Defendant's Motion to Dismiss was granted, without prejudice. Opinion and Order, Feb. 2, 2019, ECF No. 33. On February 19, 2019, Ms. Gower filed her Second Amended Complaint. ECF No. 34. In response, on March 5, 2019, the Defendants filed the present Motion to Dismiss said Second Amended Complaint. ECF No. 36. On March 19, 2019, Ms. Gower filed a Brief in Opposition to Defendants' Motion to Dismiss. ECF No. 38. On June 21, 2019, Defendants' filed a Supplemental Brief in Support of their Motion to Dismiss, ECF No. 46, to which Ms. Gower filed a Response on July 3, 2019, ECF No. 47.

         B. Factual Background

         Because the parties are familiar with the relevant background, and the Court has previously set forth the factual background in its prior Opinion, ECF No. 33, at 2-4, this Opinion will briefly review the relevant facts. Ms. Gower is the owner of Thundering Hill Farm in Yukon, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, on which she maintains various animals for business and personal use. Defendant, All But Furgotten Humane Rescue, is a Pennsylvania non-profit with the purpose of the prevention of cruelty to animals. Defendants Erin Cassidy, Andrea Palmer, and Cassie Wilson (the "named Defendants" or the "humane officers") are humane society police officers acting on behalf of Defendant All But Furgotten Humane Rescue. Ms. Gower alleges that the unnamed Doe Defendants, residents of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, made false allegations to at least one of the humane society police officers, and that all of the officers knew the allegations were false. Ms. Gower alleges that the humane officers knew the allegations were false because the officers had contemporaneously observed the condition of Ms. Gower's animals on her property and how they were kept. Moreover, she alleges that the officers recklessly omitted from the affidavit said material exculpatory facts regarding the officers' contemporaneous knowledge.

         Ms. Gower alleges that the false allegations were included in an affidavit of probable cause in order to secure a search warrant to search her property at night on February 6, 2018. Ms. Gower alleges the search warrant did not permit a nighttime search. A Pennsylvania State Trooper informed the humane officers that the warrant was invalid, and the humane officers left the property and obtained a second search warrant. That same night, February 6, 2018, the officers returned to Ms. Gower's property to execute the second warrant. Ms. Gower alleges that the second warrant, although providing for a nighttime search, was invalid, because it was based on an insufficient affidavit of probable cause, which again included false allegations and insufficient facts to establish probable cause. In addition, she alleges that the humane officers failed to include the fact that they had prior contemporaneous knowledge of the conditions of her animals, and that the officers had observed the conditions of Ms. Gower's animals during the execution of the first search warrant. In executing the second warrant, the humane officers seized various animals from Ms. Gower's property, in addition to cats that had been seized during the execution of the first warrant. Ms. Gower further alleges that, on February 27, 2018, Ms. Gower demanded the return of her animals. On or about March 11, 2018, some of the animals were returned to Ms. Gower, but her dog was not returned.

         In her Second Amended Complaint, Ms. Gower sets forth a claim that an unlawful search and seizure violated her constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C § 1983 and the Fourth Amendment (Count I); a claim that a reckless investigation violated her constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C § 1983 and the Fourteenth Amendment (Count II); and state law claims for Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (Count III), Trespass (Count IV), and Conversion (Count V). In addition, Ms. Gower claims that All But Fur gotten Humane Rescue is liable, based upon its failure to properly train, control, discipline or supervise Defendants Cassidy, Palmer, and Wilson, which created a substantial risk of the constitutional violations that occurred. Second Am. Compl. ¶¶ 37-43.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         When reviewing a motion to dismiss, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the court must "accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief." Eid v. Thompson, 740 F.3d 118, 122 (3d Cir. 2014) (quoting Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir.2008)). "To survive a motion to dismiss a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.5" Ashcroft v. Iqbal 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). "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." Iqbal 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556); see also Thompson v. Real Estate Mortg. Network, 748 F.3d 142, 147 (3d Cir. 2014). "Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Iqbal 556 U.S. at 678. "Factual allegations of a complaint must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. A pleading party need not establish the elements of &prima facie case at this stage; the party must only "put forth allegations that 'raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary element[s].5" Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 213 (3d Cir.2009) (quoting Graff v. Subbiah Cardiology Associates, Ltd., 2008 WL 2312671 (W.D. Pa. June 4, 2008)); see also Connelly v. Lane Const. Corp., 809 F.3d 780, 790 (3d Cir.2016) ("Although a reviewing court now affirmatively disregards a pleading's legal conclusions, it must still. . . assume all remaining factual allegations to be true, construe those truths in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and then draw all reasonable inferences from them.") (citing Foglia v. Renal Ventures Mgmt, LLC, 754 F.3d 153, 154 n. 1 (3d Cir.2014)).

         Plaintiffs allegations must be accepted as true and construed in the light most favorable to plaintiff when determining if complaint should be dismissed. Trzaska v. L'Oreal USA, Inc., 865 F.3d 155, 162 (3d Cir. 2017), as amended (Aug. 22, 2017). Nonetheless, a court need not credit bald assertions, unwarranted inferences, or legal conclusions cast in the form of factual averments. Morse v. Lower Merion School District, 132 F.3d 902, 906, n. 8 (3d Cir. 1997). The primary question in deciding a motion to dismiss is not whether the Plaintiff will ultimately prevail, but rather whether he or she is entitled to offer evidence to establish the facts alleged in the complaint. Maio v. Aetna, 221 F.3d 472, 482 (3d Cir.2000). The purpose of a motion to dismiss is to "streamline [ ] litigation by dispensing with needless discovery and factfinding." Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 326-327, (1989).

         Finally, if the court decides to grant a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), the court must next decide whether leave to amend the complaint must be granted. The Court of Appeals has "instructed that if a complaint is vulnerable to 12(b)(6) dismissal, a district court must permit a curative amendment, unless an amendment would be inequitable or futile." Phillips, 515 F.3d at 236 (citing Grayson v. Mayview State Hosp., 293 F.3d 103, 108 (3d Cir.2002)).

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Section 1983 Claim for Unlawful Search and Seizure (Count I)

         Ms. Gower alleges that the search warrants were invalid because it was procured through affidavits of probable cause that contained materially false statements and reckless omissions of fact. Second Am. Compl. ¶ 17. Ms. Gower alleges that when the false statements are removed from the affidavits, and the omitted facts added to the affidavits, it would lead a judge to find that probable cause was lacking. Second Am. Compl. ¶¶ 15, 17, 21.

         1. Applicable Law

         To establish a section 1983 claim, which challenges the validity of a search warrant because of alleged false statements or reckless omissions of fact, "the plaintiff must prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, (1) that the affiant knowingly and deliberately, or with a reckless disregard for the truth, made false statements or omissions that create a falsehood in applying for a warrant; and (2) that such statements or omissions are material, or necessary, to the finding of ...


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