HINES v. NEUHAUS
MEMORANDUM AND/OR OPINION. SIGNED BY HONORABLE JEFFREY L. SCHMEHL ON 4/11/18. 4/12/18 ENTERED AND COPIES MAILED TO PRO AND E-MAILED.(jpd)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
KENNETH RICHARD THOMPSON HINES,
OFFICER SCOTT NEUHAUS,
t Officer Scott Neuhaus moves for dismissal of pro se Plaintiff Kenneth Richard
Thompson Hines' Complaint. In his complaint, Mr. Hines pro se alleges Section 1983 violations
against Officer Neuhaus for his improper arrest of Mr. Hines following Mr. Hines' purchase of
an Apple iPhone from an "unknown source" on the street. Mr. Hines alleges violations of his
Fourteenth Amendment rights under the United States Constitution and Eleventh Amendment
rights under the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Constitution. Officer Neuhaus argues he is
immune from suit in the instant action citing qualified immunity. For the reasons below, Officer
Neuhaus' motion to dismiss will be granted.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
"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."' Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556
U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell At!. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A claim
satisfies the plausibility standard when the facts alleged "allow the court to draw the reasonable
inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Burtch v. Millberg Factors,
Inc., 662 F.3d 212, 220-21 (3d Cir. 2011) (citing Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). While the plausibility
standard is not "akin to a 'probability requirement,"' there nevertheless must be more than a
"sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully."
Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citing
Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). "Where a complaint pleads facts that are 'merely consistent with' a
defendant's liability, it 'stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement
to relief.'" Id (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).
The Court of Appeals requires us to apply a three-step analysis under a 12(b)(6) motion:
(1) "it must 'tak[e] note of the elements [the] plaintiff must plead to state a claim;"' (2) "it should
identify allegations that, 'because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the
assumption of truth;'" and, (3) "[w]hen there are well-pleaded factual allegations, [the] court
should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an
entitlement for relief." Connelly v. Lane Construction Corp., 809 F.3d 780, 787 (3d Cir. 2016)
(quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 675, 679); see also Burtch, 662 F.3d at 221; Malleus v. George, 641
F.3d 560, 563 (3d Cir. 2011); Santiago v. Warminster Township, 629 F.3d 121, 130 (3d Cir.
Our analysis changes when a party represents itself prose. The Supreme Court requires
us to "liberally construe" a prose document. Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976). A pro
se complaint, "however inartfully pleaded," must be held to "less stringent standards than formal
pleadings drafted by lawyers" and can only be dismissed for failure to state a claim if it appears
beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would
entitle him to relief. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-21 (1972). The Third Circuit has
instructed that if a complaint is vulnerable to dismissal for failure to state a claim, the district
court must permit a curative amendment, unless an amendment would be inequitable or futile.
Grayson v. Mayview State Hosp., 293 F.3d 103, 108 (3d Cir. 2002).
As a result of his conduct, the Commonwealth, through the District Attorney of Chester
County, Pennsylvania, charged Mr. Hines with receiving stolen property. (ECF Docket No. 121, at 3.) On February 17, 2017, the District Attorney of Chester County moved to nolle prosequi
Mr. Hines' case. (ECF Docket No. 1-2, at 8.) Thereafter, in March 2017, Kenneth Richard
Thompson Hines filed a civil complaint against Officer Scott Neuhaus of the Downingtown
Police Department. (ECF Docket No. 6.)
Mr. Hines alleges he purchased an Apple iPhone 6plus from an "unknown source" on the
street for $350.00.
(ECF Docket No. 6, at
After purchasing the phone, Mr. Hines
attempted to activate the phone; however, the iPhone's security did not allow Mr. Hines to
access the contents of the phone without an e-mail/username and password. (Id.
Hines called the one number on the phone which was Annette Legendre's phone number - the
owner of the iPhone in Mr. Hines' possession. (Id.) Ms. Legendre spoke to Mr. Hines and told
him the phone was stolen and wanted it returned. (Id. at 7.) Mr. Hines informed Ms. Legendre
that he would agree to meet at a specific location and return the phone, but Ms. Legendre
indicated her "husband" would be meeting with Mr. Hines in her place. (Id. at 8.) Mr. Hines
agreed so "she would not feel like the Plaintiff was getting over on her." (ECF Docket No. 6, at
According to Mr. Hines, he received a phone call from Ms. Legendre's husband "Dave"
__..:later identified as Officer Scott Neuhaus - agreeing to meet at a specific location. (Id. at~~ 910.) Mr. Hines claims he "wanted to do the right thing and get the phone back to Annette['s]
11.) Prior to the meeting, Mr. Hines asked Officer Neuhaus for money in return,
claiming he had three kids and needed the money for college. (Id.
12.) Officer Neuhaus
offered to meet Mr. Hines at a pizza parlor in Downington, Pennsylvania, near Kerr Park. (Id. at
if 13.) Mr. Hines agreed, then changed the location to a Wawa convenience store in Thorndale,
Pennsylvania, and then again changed the meeting location to a Giant Food Store (the grocery
chain) in the area. (Id. at
if 14.) While at Giant, Mr. Hines directed Officer Neuhaus - still
posing as Ms. Legendre's husband - to the frozen food section so Officer Neuhaus would "feel
safe and know that this was not a robbery." (Id. at
returned the iPhone. (Id. at
if 15.) Mr. Hines met Officer Neuhaus and
if 16.) Both men exited the grocery store and proceeded to the
parking lot when Officer Neuhaus identified himself as an officer. (Id. at iii! 17-18.)
After identifying himself as an officer, Officer Neuhaus asked Mr. Hines some
preliminary questions regarding a criminal complaint for a stolen phone. (Id. at if 18.) Mr. Hines
indicated he had no knowledge of any such criminal complaint. (Id. at
if 22.) Following his
questioning, Officer Neuhaus read Mr. Hines his Miranda rights - which Mr. Hines did not
· waive. After an unspecified amount of time, Mr. Hines eventually "signed [a] Form and was
charged with receiving stolen property." (Id. at
if 23.) Mr. Hines claims he now suffers from
emotional distress, pain and suffering, stress, and depression because he would "always be
remembered as the man who got arrested at Giant." (Id. at iii! 20-26.) Mr. Hines also contends
he suffered loss of business following his arrest. (Id. at iii! 30-35.)
The District Attorney of Chester County charged Mr. Hines with receiving stolen
property. The Commonwealth was prepared to go to trial; however, Ms. Legendre no longer
wanted to press charges following a conversation between Ms. Legendre and Officer Neuhaus.
The District Attorney of Chester County applied to nolle prosequi citing prosecutorial discretion
and all charges were withdrawn.
Officer Scott Neuhaus argues qualified immunity bars damages recovery on Mr. Hines'
claims because his seizure and arrest did not violate Mr. Hines' federal rights. Officer Neuhaus
argues his arrest of Mr. Hines was lawful. While not specifically plead, Mr. Hines implies
qualified immunity does not apply to Officer Neuhaus because he lacked probable cause to arrest
Mr. Hines following the iPhone exchange. Mr. Hines claims his due process rights under the
Fourteenth Amendment were violated, but Officer Neuhaus argues Mr. Hines' claims fall
squarely within Fourth Amendment principles.
We address both in the context of Officer
Neuhaus' qualified immunity.
"Qualified immunity attaches when an official's conduct does not violate clearly
established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known."
Kise/av. Hughes, 584 U.S._ (2018) (per curiam) (citing White v Pauly, 580 U.S._,_ (2017)
(per curiam) (slip op., at 6) (alterations and internal quotation marks omitted)); see also Harlow
v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). The Supreme Court "stress[es] the importance of
resolving immunity questions as the earliest possible stage in litigation" because the immunity is
effectively lost if a case is erroneously permitted to go to trial. Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S.
223, 232 (2009) (citing Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526 (1985)).
Our analysis of qualified immunity is two-pronged: 1) "whether the alleged facts, taken
in the light most favorable to the injured party 'show [that] the [government official]'s conduct
violated a constitutional right[.]"' Zaloga v. Borough of Moosic, 841 F.3d 170, 174 (2016); and
2) "whether the right was clearly established 'in light of the specific context of the case, [and]
not as a broad general proposition."' Id. (quoting Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001)).
We use our discretion to decide which qualified immunity prong to address first "in light of the
circumstances in the particular case at hand." Pearson, 555 U.S. at 236. We will address each in
the order presented above.
First, an officer "cannot be said to have violated a clearly established right unless the
right's contours were sufficiently definite that any reasonable official in the defendant's shoes
would have understood that he was violating it." Plumhojf v. Rickard, 572 U.S._,_ (2014)
(slip op., at 12). This Court finds Officer Neuhaus is entitled to qualified immunity because his
arrest of Mr. Hines did not violate clearly established law. An officer conducting an arrest or
seizure is entitled to qualified immunity where "clearly established law does not show that the
[seizure] violated the Fourth Amendment." Pearson, 555 U.S. at 243-44. "This inquiry turns on
the 'objective legal reasonableness of the action, assessed in light of the legal rules that were
clearly established at the time it was taken."' Id. (citing Wilson v. Layne, 526 U.S. 603, 614,
(1999); Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 739, (2002)). "Because the focus is on whether the officer
has fair notice that her conduct was unlawful, reasonableness is judged against the backdrop of
the law at the time of the conduct." Brosseau v. Haugen, 543 U.S. 194, 198 (2004) (per curiam).
Specifically, officers must be on notice that their conduct is unlawful to be subjected to suit.
Officer Neuhaus' actions during his encounter with Mr. Hines are in line with both the Fourth
and Fourteenth Amendments, given the existence of probable cause at the time of the arrest and
his objectively reasonable belief Mr. Hines committed the offense. Officer Neuhaus argues the
facts presented by Mr. Hines, taken in the totality of the circumstances, establishes sufficient
probable cause to arrest Mr. Hines.
"Probable cause exists whenever reasonably trustworthy information or circumstances
within a police officer's knowledge are sufficient to warrant a person of reasonable caution to
conclude that an offense has been committed by the person being arrested." United States v.
Myers, 308 F.3d 251, 255 (3d Cir. 2002). Officer Neuhaus argues the following facts establishes
1) Plaintiff reported to Ms. Legendre and Officer Neuhaus that he purchased the
phone from an "unknown source on the street" for $350.00; 2) Plaintiff told Ms.
Legendre that he would meet with her husband to return the phone so she would
not feel that Plaintiff was getting over on her; 3) Plaintiff asked Officer Neuhaus
if he could get money for returning the phone; 4) Plaintiff told Officer Neuhaus
that he had three (3) children, was going to college and did not have much money;
and 5) Plaintiff changed the drop off place for the phone twice. Plaintiff further
states in the complaint that he told Officer Neuhaus to meet him [in] the frozen
food section so he would feel safe and know that it was not a robbery.
Accordingly, by his own admission, there was reason for Officer Neuhaus to
believe the entire incident was a set-up and there was reason to believe that
Plaintiff was committing a crime. Plaintiffs failure to identify the person from
whom he allegedly purchased the phone; his admission that Ms. Legendre might
feel that Plaintiff "was getting over on her"; his contradictory statements that he
was not returning the phone for the money but did not have a lot of money
(although he allegedly just spent $350.00 on the phone); his changing of the drop
off location twice - all of this when taken as a whole establish probable cause to
(ECF Docket No. 12-1, at 6.) Independently, these facts may not establish probable cause;
however, taken together in the totality of the circumstances, Officer Neuhaus possessed the
objective reasonableness to believe Mr. Hines committed the offense of receiving stolen property
at that moment. Because qualified immunity shields an officer from personal liability "when an
officer reasonably believes that his or her conduct complies with the law," Officer Neuhaus is
entitled to qualified immunity given his reasonable belief that his conduct did not violate clearly
established statutory or constitutional rights. Likewise, had we found Officer Neuhaus violated
Mr. Hines' federal rights, we agree with Defendant that "his reasonable, but mistaken belief
about what was required at the time still shields him from liability." (Id. at 12.)
Second, while there is no caselaw directly on point "for the right to be clearly established,
existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate."
White, 580 U.S., at_ (slip op., at 6). The Fourth Amendment grants the right of the people to
be free from unreasonable search and seizure absent a warrant or probable cause. U.S. Const.
amend. IV. The Fourteenth Amendment restricts any State from depriving any person of life,
liberty, or property, without due process of the law. U.S. Const. amend. XIV. Both are clearly
established rights enjoyed by all persons in the United States. However, it is unclear if Mr .
. Hines clearly established his right in light of the specific context of the case and not as a broad
general proposition. Furthermore, given the totality of the circumstances, this Court would be
hard pressed to find Mr. Hines' Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated.
Accordingly, taking the facts in the light most favorable to Mr. Hines, it is clear that
Officer Neuhaus' conduct did not violate Mr. Hines' constitutional rights. This Court finds
Officer Neuhaus is entitled to qualified immunity.
In the accompanying order, this Court grants Defendant Officer Scott Neuhaus' motion to
Given Officer Neuhaus objective belief that probable cause existed, and because
Officer Neuhaus' unlawfulness was not clearly established, Officer Neuhaus is entitled to
qualified immunity. While Mr. Hines is a pro se litigant and should be held to "less stringent
standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers," this Court feels that amendment in this case
would be inequitable or futile. The Clerk of Court is directed to close this case.
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