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Brown v. Police Chief Joseph Friel In His Individual and Official Capacity

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

August 26, 2019

BLANCHE A. BROWN
v.
POLICE CHIEF JOSEPH FRIEL IN HIS INDIVIDUAL AND OFFICIAL CAPACITY, et al.

          MEMORANDUM

          JUAN R. SÁNCHEZ, C.J.

         This matter stems from an intra-family dispute between pro se Plaintiff Blanche Brown and her estranged half-brother, James Brown, into which the Defendants in this action-Chief of Valley Township Police Joseph Friel, the Valley Township Supervisor, the Valley Township Police Department, and the Valley Township “Governing Board/Supervisors, ” were ultimately drawn.[1] At its core, Plaintiff's Amended Complaint alleges her civil rights were violated when she was twice cited for-but never convicted of-harassing James. Defendants moved for summary judgment on each of Plaintiff's numerous claims. Because no rational jury could, on the basis of the record before the Court, find in Plaintiff's favor as to any of her claims, the motion will be granted in its entirety.

         FACTS[2]

         Although it is not altogether clear how the conflict between Plaintiff and James began, the dispute reached a new level of acrimony when James sent a threatening email to Plaintiff from the email account of his girlfriend, Richelle Solomon, on April 8, 2014. VTWP00073 (“If you send me or Richelle another one of your fucking email[s] then I'm [going to] give you a problem that you can't handle you crazy bitch” (emphasis in original)).[3] Shortly thereafter, on April 15, 2014, both Plaintiff and James contacted the Valley Township Police Department about the other's alleged harassment. See VTWP00075 (noting James advised “he had been receiving harassing emails from his sister, Blanche Brown”); Opp'n Ex. 1-C-1 (“I most recently received what I consider to be a threatening email from James Brown”). On April 17, Friel directed both parties to cease contact with one another. VTWP00073 (“If you could[, ] please [do] not email, text, call or have any contact with James. I have instructed James of the same.”). Friel also invited Plaintiff to contact him if she received additional messages from James. Id.

         Notwithstanding Friel's directive, Plaintiff emailed Solomon the following day to request “mediated peace talks” regarding the April 8 email that James sent from Solomon's account, VTWP00077, and made some kind of “appeal” to James (the contents of which do not appear in the record), see VTWP00034 (“My April 18 appeal to James was the best I knew how to try to [defuse] the threatening message that James had sent me.” (emphasis in original)). Also on April 18, Friel issued a non-traffic citation to Plaintiff for committing the crime of harassment, in violation of 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 2709(a)(3), by “engag[ing] in a course of conduct by emailing the victim [i.e., James Brown] continually when requested to stop having contact with said victim.” Pl.'s Ex. 3B. The citation was designated as “Mail Out, ” presumably indicating it would be mailed to Plaintiff, and was filed with the district court on April 24, 2014, which issued a summons. Id.; see also Pl.'s Ex. 3C.

         On April 21, 2014, Plaintiff filed a Protection From Abuse (PFA) petition against James, citing, inter alia, a threat he allegedly made to Plaintiff's older brother on April 7 that he was going to “bust down Blanche's door” and the email James sent from Solomon's email account on April 8 as evidence in support of her reasonable fear of abuse. VTWP00110-128. On the strength of Plaintiff's allegations, a temporary PFA order was issued to Plaintiff, directing James not to “abuse, harass, stalk or threaten” Plaintiff in any place where she might be found and not to “contact Plaintiff, or any other person protected under this order, by telephone or by any other means, including through third persons.” Id.

         On April 23, 2014, James went to the Valley Township police station and reported to Friel that he had received a harassing letter from Plaintiff along with a copy of a PFA she filed against him. VTWP00076.[4] James stated Plaintiff had attempted to disguise the letter to make it appear like it came from Ms. Solomon. According to Friel's Complaint Report, Friel attempted to call Plaintiff about the matter, but when he identified himself, she hung up the phone. VTWP00076. Friel's report further noted that he had previously told Plaintiff not to have contact with James, as had another officer, and indicated Friel would be filing a second harassment citation for Plaintiff in district court. Id. Friel did, in fact, file a second citation, VTWP00017, but Plaintiff contends she never received it, see Pl.'s Ex. 4H (“Plaintiff first received this citation through ‘discovery' and it comes 2 and a half years after Chief Friel allegedly wrote it.”).

         Over the course of the next few weeks, Plaintiff repeatedly contacted Friel regarding her fear that James was trying to harm her. See VTWP00027-28 (April 28, 2014, Fax); VTWP00024-26 (April 28, 2014, Email); VTWP00029-30 (April 30, 2014, Email); VTWP00039-40 (May 1, 2014, Email); VTWP00038-39 (second May 1, 2014, Email); VTWP00032 (third May 1, 2014, Email); VTWP00055 (May 2, 2014, Email). The correspondence reflects her concerns that James cut her telephone lines and fired a gun near her home, as well as her increasing anger with law enforcements' efforts to protect her. For example, she complained to Friel that the Valley Township Police, West Caln Township Police, and West Sadsbury Township Police had each “re-victimized and re-traumatized” her. See VTWP00024. In another email, she complained to Friel that he had “given James permission to come after [her] with intent to kill [her].” VTWP00030. In yet another, she threatened to “do what ever is necessary to protect [herself], ” claiming James “pulled the wool over your eyes.” VTWP00038.

         Plaintiff's accusations notwithstanding, Friel responded by reassuring her that his police department took her concerns seriously and directed her to continue to utilize the legal system to protect herself. See VTWP00024 (April 29, 2014, Email) (“I can assure you that our department treats every person and complaint the same. It does not make a difference as to what economic or ethnic classification a person is.”); VTWP00041 (May 1, 2014, Email) (“If you[r] hearing is Monday[, ] I suggest that you explain all to the Judge and ask for a PFA that is [permanent]”); VTWP00033 (second May 1, 2014, Email); and VTWP00039 (third May 1, 2014, Email) (“I spoke with James, and I am confident he is not going to do harm to you.”). Of particular concern to this litigation, Friel advised Plaintiff that she could not contact James, having obtained a PFA against him. Specifically, he wrote:

You cannot file a PFA against a person and then turn around and contact them. A PFA is an order preventing contact between you and the party that you have named on the PFA. If you file a PFA and then make contact with the party you named on the PFA you are not obeying the ordering Judge who signed the PFA. A PFA does not give you the right to contact the party you have named in the PFA. Please feel free to contact my office. You are much welcomed to come to the office and speak to me directly if you would like.

VTWP00024.

         On May 5, 2014, Plaintiff appeared for a PFA hearing. Prior to the hearing, Plaintiff requested that Friel escort her. See VTWP00055. He declined but indicated that he would contact the sheriff's department to ensure that her safety concerns were addressed. See VTWP00054 (“I cannot escort you to the court, but I will be calling the Sheriff's Dept. as to ensure your concerns are addressed.”). After the hearing, Plaintiff emailed Friel to inform him that the court had refused to make the initial PFA permanent and to express her belief that the PFA had been dismissed as “an ‘ata-boy' to James for having the stamina to ‘defend himself' so vigorously.” Id. Later that day, Plaintiff sent another email to Friel, complaining that James is a “classic sociopath/psychopath” and that the “presiding judge seems to lower the standard for men of color who are accused of abuse.” VTWP00056. A few days later, on May 10, Plaintiff contacted Solomon via Facebook to complain that Solomon's “Pollyanna notions nearly got [Plaintiff] killed (twice!)” by James, and to accuse her of instigating James's purported “plan to stalk” Plaintiff. VTWP00062. The next day, Plaintiff sent an email to James threatening kill herself because of his “abuse and betrayal, ” stating that her “tormented soul” was “going to haunt” him “to [his] grave.” VTWP00057 (emphasis omitted).

         Between May 13, 2014, and June 3, 2014, Plaintiff contacted Friel on at least eight separate occasions to report on the threat purportedly posed by James and express her frustration about Friel's failure to adequately respond, which Plaintiff claimed amounted to complicity in the purported plan to kill her. See VTWP0068-69 (May 13, 2014, Fax); Pl.'s Ex. 2-1E (May 19, 2014, Email); VTWP00070-72 (May 21, 2014, Fax); VTWP00094-95 (May 27, 2014, Fax); VTWP00096 (May 28, 2014, Fax);[5] and VTWP00093 (June 15, 2014, Email). There is no evidence in the record that Friel responded to Brown's attacks.

         On June 3, 2014, a summary trial was convened on the April 18 citation. The trial was continued after Magisterial District Judge Grover Koon, the presiding officer, allegedly coerced the Plaintiff into signing a mutual no-contact order by concealing the title of the document (“Alternative Sentencing Contract”) with the sleeve of his robes. See Pl.'s Ex. 4G.[6] On September 10, 2014, both the April 18 and April 24 citations were withdrawn. See Defs.' Ex. B, at 3, 5. The record reflects that, at no time, was Plaintiff ever convicted, punished, or otherwise restricted in any way by virtue of the citations. Id. In point of fact, it appears that Plaintiff never even saw the second citation. see Pl.'s Ex. 4H (“Plaintiff first received this citation through ‘discovery' and it comes 2 and a half years after Chief Friel allegedly wrote it.”).

         After the citations were withdrawn, Plaintiff began contacting Friel and other Valley Township officials to complain about Friel's handling of her complaints about James. In one email from October, 2014, Plaintiff complained to Valley Township officials that Friel “incited violence” against her when he “knowingly supported and encouraged the actions of a known serial batterer with misogyny, rage and violence issues, mental illness and emotional disturbances.” VTWP00098. In another note, Plaintiff told the Chief of the West Sadsbury Township Police Department that Friel “supported, coddled[, ] encouraged and even advised [Plaintiff's] harasser(s) to continue to take adverse actions against [her].” VTWP00011 (emphasis omitted). The fax goes so far as to accuse Friel of “instigat[ing] the conflict and encourage[ing] James A[.] Brown, a sociopath to attempt to kill [her].” Id. On October 20, 2014, Plaintiff sent Friel the same fax three times in less than an hour, demanding, inter alia, that Friel file charges against Solomon. See VTWP00001-9.

         On April 4, 2016, Plaintiff commenced this action by filing a Complaint, which was later amended. In her Amended Complaint, Plaintiff brings 25 causes of action against Friel, Judge Koon, “Valley Township Manager/Administrator” in his or her official capacity, Valley Township Police Department, and “Valley Township Governing Board/Supervisors.”[7] On January 24, 2017, Defendants moved for summary judgment. Plaintiff opposed the motion and filed her own cross-motion for summary judgment, which the Court denied in a previous order. The Court heard oral argument Defendants' motion on April 26, 2017. The matter is now ripe for decision.

         DISCUSSION

         A motion for summary judgment shall be granted “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A fact is “material” if it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A “genuine” dispute is one where “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the [non-moving] party.” Id.

         “[A] party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the [record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). To defeat summary judgment, “the non-moving party must present more than a mere scintilla of evidence; there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the [non-movant].” Burton v. Teleflex, Inc., 707 F.3d 417, 425 (3d Cir. 2013) (alteration in original) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

         The Court begins its analysis with Brown's claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, [8] which creates a statutory mechanism for private individuals to vindicate their federal constitutional rights. See Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S.C. 266, 271 (1994) (“Section 1983 is not itself a source of substantive rights, but merely provides a method for vindicating federal rights elsewhere conferred.” (internal quotation marks omitted)). To prevail on her claims, Plaintiff must produce evidence that “a person acting under color of state law engaged in conduct that violated a right protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.” Morrow v. Balaski, 719 F.3d 160, 165-66 (3d Cir. 2013). In evaluating a § 1983 claim, a court must first “identify the exact contours of the underlying right said to have been violated.” Id. at 166 (quoting Nicini v. Morra, 212 F.3d 798, 806 (3d Cir. 2000) (en banc)). The Court must then “determine whether the plaintiff has alleged a deprivation of a constitutional right at all.” Id.

         As discussed in greater detail below, Plaintiff asserts several claims for violations of her rights. Specifically, she asserts claims for malicious prosecution in violation of her Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights (Counts 1 and 8), a claim for a state created danger in violation of her substantive due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment (Count 2), a claim for the use of fabricated evidence in violation of her Fourteenth Amendment due process rights (Count 5), and claims for intentional discrimination on the basis of her race and gender in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (Counts 7, 10, and 16). She also asserts claims for violations of her constitutional rights by Valley Township and its police department pursuant to Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), which overlap with some of her non-Monell claims (Counts 11, 18, and 19). The Court addresses each of these categories of claims in turn.

         Counts 1 and 8 assert claims against Friel for malicious prosecution in violation of Plaintiff's right to be free from unreasonable seizures under the Fourth Amendment and her right to procedural due process under the Fourteenth Amendment.[9] To prevail on the Fourth Amendment claim, Plaintiff must show:

(1) The defendant initiated a criminal proceeding;
(2) The criminal proceeding ended in the plaintiff's favor;
(3) The defendant initiated the proceeding without probable cause;
(4) The defendant acted maliciously or for a purpose other than bringing the plaintiff to justice; and
(5) The plaintiff suffered deprivation of liberty consistent with the concept of seizure as a consequence of a legal proceeding.

Halsey v. Pfieffer, 750 F.3d 273, 296-97 (3d Cir. 2014). Defendants are entitled to summary judgment on this claim (Count 1) because Plaintiff has failed to produce evidence sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact as to the fifth element.[10]

         Although the concept of a “seizure” is flexible enough to include circumstances beyond physical detention, see Gallo v. City of Phila., 161 F.3d 217, 222 (3d Cir. 1998), it is not so broad as to encompass situations where the plaintiff was “only issued a summons” and was “never arrested; . . . never posted bail; . . . [remained] free to travel; and . . . did not have to report to Pretrial Services, ” DiBella v. Borough of Beachwood, 407 F.3d 599, 603 (3d Cir. 2005). Here, although a summons was issued for each of Friel's harassment citations, Plaintiff has adduced no evidence that she was ever arrested, required to post bail, limited in her travel, or required to report to Pretrial Services. Indeed, at least as to the second harassment citation, it appears that Plaintiff was not even aware the citation existed for some time after it was issued. As a result, the Court finds that Plaintiff failed to establish a “deprivation of liberty consistent with the concept of seizure.” Halsey, 750 F.3d at 297.

         Even if Plaintiff could show that she suffered a deprivation of liberty consistent with the concept of seizure as a result of Friel's citations the Court would nevertheless grant summary judgment because Plaintiff has failed to produce evidence that Friel acted “maliciously or for a purpose other than bringing [her] to justice.” Estate of Smith v. Marasco, 318 F.3d 497, 521 (3d Cir. 2003). “Actual malice in the context of malicious prosecution is defined as either ill will in the sense of spite, lack of belief by the actor himself in the propriety of the prosecution, or its use for an extraneous improper purpose.” Henderson v. City of Phila., 853 F.Supp.2d 514, 519 (E.D. Pa. 2012) (quoting Lee v. Mihalich, 847 F.2d 66, 70 (3d Cir. 1988)). Here, Plaintiff has produced no evidence from which a rational factfinder could find Friel acted spitefully, did not believe in the propriety of the harassment citations, or used his authority to initiate prosecution for an improper purpose. Summary judgment is therefore warranted on Count 1.[11]

         The Court will also grant summary judgment in Defendants' favor on Plaintiff's Fourteenth Amendment malicious prosecution claim against Friel (Count 8).[12] Although a claim for malicious prosecution based on police conduct that violates the procedural component of the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Claims is cognizable in this Circuit, see Torres v. McLaughlin, 163 F.3d 169, 173 (3d Cir. 1998), the contours of such a claim remain ill-defined. See Braunstein v. Paws Across Pittsburgh, No. 18-788, 2019 WL 1458236 at *5 (W.D. Pa. Apr. 2, 2019); McCormack v. Livergood, 353 F.Supp.3d 357, 364 (M.D. Pa. 2018); Thomas, 290 F.Supp.3d at 381. In Washington v. Henshaw, a non-precedential opinion, the Third Circuit affirmed the grant of judgment on the pleadings on a Fourteenth Amendment malicious prosecution claim where the plaintiff “merely recite[d] the elements of a procedural due process claim without explaining what process he was owed and how that process was denied.” 552 Fed.Appx. 169, 174 (3d Cir. 2014). Although mindful of Washington's non-precedential status, the Court finds summary judgment is warranted here for the same reason. The title of Count 8 references the Fourteenth Amendment, but neither the allegations in the body of Count 8, nor Brown's Opposition or Reply briefs, explain what process she was owed and how that process was denied. As a result, the Court will grant Defendants summary judgment on this claim as well.

         In Count 2, Plaintiff seeks to recover against Friel for a violation of her Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process right under a state created danger theory. The gravamen of Count 2 is that Friel put Plaintiff's life in danger by communicating with James Brown and filing the harassment citations against her.

         The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment does not generally impose any affirmative obligation on government actors to protect life, liberty or property from harm by private actors. See DeShaney v. Winnebago Cty. Soc. Servs. Dep't, 489 U.S. 189, 195-96 (1989). Nevertheless, the Third Circuit allows an exception to this rule where a “state-created danger” is involved, i.e. “when the state acts in a way that makes a person substantially more vulnerable to injury from another source than he or she would have been in the absence of state intervention.” Scheiber v. City of Phila., 320 F.3d 409, 416 (3d Cir 2003). Defendants argue they are entitled to summary judgment because Plaintiff has failed to produce evidence Friel affirmatively misused his authority in a way that created a danger to Plaintiff that was greater than if Friel had not acted at all.[13]

         To prevail on a state created danger theory, a plaintiff must establish:

(1) the harm ultimately caused was foreseeable and fairly direct;
(2) a state actor acted with a degree of culpability that shocks ...

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