Pettis v. Dauphin County Probation
MEMORANDUM re dfts' MOTION to Dismiss Case 26 as Frivolous (Order to follow as separate docket entry)Signed by Honorable Sylvia H. Rambo on 8/25/17. (ma)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THEMIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
JASON SNYDER, et al.,
Presently before the Court for disposition is Defendants’ motion to dismiss
Plaintiff’s complaint. (Doc. No. 26.) Both parties have filed supporting and
oppositional briefs. (Doc. Nos. 30, 33, 35, 36). This matter is now ripe for
disposition. For the reasons set forth below, Defendants’ motion will be granted.
On December 21, 2015, Plaintiff Ronald Pettis, an inmate at the Dauphin
County Prison, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, filed a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §
1983 against the Dauphin County Probation Department. (Doc. 1.) Pettis claimed
that he was detained on August 13, 2014, by the Probation Department and placed
in the “county prison for violation of probation” on a conviction where his
maximum sentence had already expired. (Id.) Pettis did not name the individual
Probation Officers. (Id.)
The court screened the complaint pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform
Act, granted Pettis leave to proceed without full prepayment of the filing fee and
dismissed the complaint as it related to the Dauphin County Probation Department
with leave to file an amended complaint naming the Probation Officers. On May
5, 2016, Pettis filed an amended complaint naming two probation officers, Jason
Snyder and Sue Mason. (Doc. 9.) However, Pettis also named two judges of the
Court of Common Pleas of Dauphin County, Judge Richard A. Lewis and
President Judge Todd A. Hoover. Id. Pettis claims that Judge Lewis imposed an
illegal sentence and that President Judge Hoover presided over the revocation
proceeding which resulted in his incarceration on the conviction where his
maximum sentence had expired. (Id.) Plaintiff seeks damages for false
imprisonment and repayment of the costs paid by him after his sentence “max[ed]out.” (Id.) Upon screening of the amended complaint, the Court permitted the
claims against the two probation officers to go forward and dismissed the claims
against President Judge Lewis and Judge Hoover as legally frivolous. (Doc. No.
Standard of Review
When ruling on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court must
accept as true all factual allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences
that can be drawn from them, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.
See In re Ins. Brokerage Antitrust Litig., 618 F.3d 300, 314 (3d Cir. 2010). The
Court’s inquiry is guided by the standards of Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550
U.S. 544 (2007), and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009). Under Twombly and
Iqbal, pleading requirements have shifted to a “more heightened form of pleading.”
See Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009). To prevent
dismissal, all civil complaints must set out “sufficient factual matter” to show that
the claim is facially plausible. Id. The plausibility standard requires more than a
mere possibility that the defendant is liable for the alleged misconduct. As the
Supreme Court instructed in Iqbal, “where the well-pleaded facts do not permit the
court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has
alleged – but it has not ‘show[n]’ – ‘that the pleader is entitled to relief.’” Iqbal,
556 U.S. at 679 (citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2)).
Accordingly, to determine the sufficiency of a complaint under Twombly
and Iqbal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has identified
the following steps a district court must take when determining the sufficiency of a
complaint under Rule 12(b)(6): (1) identify the elements a plaintiff must plead to
state a claim; (2) identify any conclusory allegations contained in the complaint
“not entitled” to the assumption of truth; and (3) determine whether any “wellpleaded factual allegations” contained in the complaint “plausibly give rise to an
entitlement to relief.” See Santiago v. Warminster Twp., 629 F.3d 121, 130 (3d
Cir. 2010) (citation and quotation marks omitted).
In ruling on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, “a
court must consider only the complaint, exhibits attached to the complaint, matters
of public record, as well as undisputedly authentic documents if the complainant’s
claims are based upon these documents.” Mayer v. Belichick, 605 F.3d 223, 230
(3d Cir. 2010) (citing Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc.,
998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993)). A court may also consider “any ‘matters
incorporated by reference or integral to the claim, items subject to judicial notice,
matters of public record, orders, [and] items appearing in the record of the case.’”
Buck v. Hampton Twp. Sch. Dist., 452 F.3d 256, 260 (3d Cir. 2006) (quoting 5B
Charles A. Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice & Procedure § 1357 (3d
In conducting its screening review of a complaint, the court must be mindful
that a document filed pro se is “to be liberally construed.” 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).
In their motion to dismiss, Defendants argue that Heck v. Humphrey, 512
U.S. 477 (1994) bars Plaintiff’s current § 1983 suit. (Doc. No. 30.) Defendants
contend that success on Plaintiff’s § 1983 claim would necessarily call into
question the validity of the county court judge’s sentencing order, and that order
has never been reversed on direct appeal, expunged, or declared invalid. (Doc. No.
30, at 5.) Alternatively, Defendants argue that they enjoy immunity from
Plaintiff’s § 1983 claim.
The Supreme Court has stated that:
hoary principle that civil tort actions are not appropriate vehicles
for challenging the validity of outstanding criminal judgments
applies to § 1983 damages actions that necessarily require the
plaintiff to prove the unlawfulness of his conviction or
confinement, just as it has always applied to actions for malicious
We hold that, in 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, 28 U.S.C. §
2254. A claim for damages bearing that relationship to a
conviction or sentence that has not been so invalidated is not
cognizable under § 1983.
512 U.S. at 486-87.
The Supreme Court clarified the favorable termination rule in Wilkinson v.
Dotson, 544 U.S. 74, 81-82 (2005), where it expressly stated that “a state prisoner's
§ 1983 action is barred (absent prior invalidation)-no matter the relief sought
(damages or equitable relief), no matter the target of the prisoner's suit
(state conduct leading to conviction or internal prison proceedings)-if success in
that action would necessarily demonstrate the invalidity of confinement or its
duration.” (emphasis in original). Thus, it is well established that an individual
alleging an unlawful conviction or term of imprisonment must receive a favorable
termination of his criminal conviction or sentence before proceeding with a
§ 1983 claim, even if habeas relief is no longer available. See Williams v.
Consovoy, 453 F.3d 173, 177 (3d Cir. 2006) (providing that a § 1983 remedy is not
available to a litigant to whom habeas relief is no longer available); Gilles v.
Davis, 427 F.3d 197, 210 (3d Cir. 2005) (same); Broncowicz v. Allegheny Cnty.,
804 F.3d 338, 349 n.12 (3d Cir. 2015) (providing that a plaintiff who had no
recourse under the habeas statute was nevertheless subject to Heck’s favorable
The Court finds that Plaintiff's claim for damages for an allegedly illegal
sentence is barred by Heck’s favorable-termination rule. Plaintiff has not proven
that his conviction or sentence has been reversed on direct appeal, expunged by
executive order, declared invalid by state tribunal authorized to make such a
determination, or called into question by a federal court's issuance of a writ of
habeas corpus. Plaintiff’s state court records indicate that he pled guilty to five
counts of tampering with public records/information and one count of false
identification to a law enforcement officer. 1 Nothing in Plaintiff’s allegations or
the public records of his criminal charges and case shows a favorable disposition
such as to subject Defendants to monetary damages. A claim for damages bearing
a relationship to a conviction or sentence that has not been so invalidated is not
cognizable under § 1983. Heck, 512 U.S. at 486-487. Because Plaintiff’s very
claim depends on proving that the sentencing order was invalid, the Court
concludes that this claim, if successful, would necessarily demonstrate the
invalidity of the county court judge’s sentencing order. No such finding has been
made here and Plaintiff’s complaint must be dismissed under this well-established
precedent. See Bronowicz, 804 F.3d at 348 (finding district court properly
dismissed part of Plaintiff’s § 1983 claim where if successful, would impugn the
validity of Plaintiff’s revocation proceedings, and Plaintiff did not demonstrate that
those proceedings were terminated in his favor); Gathers v. Ozmint, No. CIVA
9:09-1295, 2010 WL 1542184, at *2 (D.S.C. Mar. 12, 2010), report and
See Comm of Pa. v. Pettis, CP-22-CR-3799-2007. The Court has obtained a copy of Plaintiff’s
docket sheet in his underlying criminal matter by accessing http://ujsporta.pacourts.us. This
Court takes judicial notice of Petitioner’s criminal docket sheet since it is a public state court
recommendation adopted, No. C.A. 9:09-1295, 2010 WL 1542350 (D.S.C. Apr.
15, 2010), aff'd, 397 F. App'x 848 (4th Cir. 2010).2
For the foregoing reasons, Defendants’ motion to dismiss will be granted.
An appropriate order follows.
s/Sylvia H. Rambo
SYLVIA H. RAMBO
United States District Judge
Dated: August 25, 2017
Given the resolution of Defendants’ arguments regarding Plaintiffs § 1983 claims under Heck,
the Court need not address the merits of whether Defendants would have enjoyed immunity from
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