Rothermel et al v. Dauphin County, Pennsylvania et al
MEMORANDUM (Order to follow as separate docket entry) re: 25 MOTION TO DISMISS FOR FAILURE TO STATE A CLAIM filed by David Grbich, Tyree Blocker, Pennsylvania State Police, 26 MOTION TO DISMISS FOR FAILURE TO STATE A CLAIM filed by Da uphin County Clerk of Courts' Office, Dauphin County Adult Probation and Parole Office, Dauphin County Prison, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, Dauphin County Sheriff's Office, & 22 MOTION to Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint Filed filed by Dauphin County Adult Probation and Parole Office. (See memo for complete details.) Signed by Chief Judge Christopher C. Conner on 9/29/17. (ki)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
MELISSA LEE ROTHERMEL, and
C.R., minor, by her parent and natural
guardian, CHAD ROTHERMEL,
PENNSYLVANIA, et al.,
CIVIL ACTION NO. 1:16-CV-1669
(Chief Judge Conner)
Plaintiffs Melissa Lee Rothermel (“Rothermel”) and C.R., a minor child, by
and through her parent and natural guardian, Chad Rothermel, commenced this
civil rights litigation raising false arrest and unreasonable search and seizure claims
under the United States Constitution and Pennsylvania Constitution, as well as
claims of municipal liability pursuant to Monell v. New York City Department of
Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978). Before the court are three motions (Docs. 22,
25, 26) to dismiss filed by the various defendants.
Factual Background and Procedural History
At approximately 4:00 p.m. on February 16, 2015, Rothermel and her 10-year
old daughter, C.R., were returning home from a mother-daughter shopping trip
in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. (Doc. 4 ¶ 15). As Rothermel merged onto northbound
Interstate 81 from Pennsylvania Route 581 West, she noted a marked Pennsylvania
State Police (“State Police”) vehicle in an emergency pull-off spot. (Id. ¶ 16). The
State Police vehicle pulled out and began to follow Rothermel before passing her
vehicle and driving ahead. (Id.) Rothermel passed the same State Police vehicle
shortly thereafter and, once more, the vehicle pulled out, followed Rothermel for a
short while, and drove ahead. (Id. ¶ 17). Several miles later, Rothermel again drove
past the State Police vehicle, which this time pulled out, followed her vehicle, and
activated its overhead lights. (Id. ¶ 18). Rothermel pulled over immediately. (See
Defendant State Police Trooper David Grbich (“Trooper Grbich”)
approached the driver’s side window of Rothermel’s vehicle and demanded that she
produce her driver’s license and registration. (Id. ¶ 19). Rothermel complied. (Id.)
Trooper Grbich advised Rothermel that she had an outstanding arrest warrant for
buying and selling stolen goods. (See id. ¶ 20). Rothermel explained that Trooper
Grbich must have the wrong person, that she had no criminal record, and that she
had never been arrested or charged with a crime. (Id.) Trooper Grbich requested
further identifying information from Rothermel, including her social security
number, date of birth, and home address. (Id. ¶ 21). Rothermel provided all
requested information to Trooper Grbich. (Id.)
The arrest warrant in question pertained to an individual named “Mellisa
Ann Rothermel.” (Doc. 25-1 at 3-4; see Doc. 4 ¶ 30). Plaintiff’s name is “Melissa Lee
Rothermel.” (Doc. 4 ¶ 5). Trooper Grbich noted the discrepancy between plaintiff’s
middle name and the middle name of the person identified in the National Crime
Information Center (“NCIC”) warrant hit. (See Doc. 25-1 at 2). Trooper Grbich
apparently overlooked the fact that Rothermel’s first name was also different from
the name reported on the NCIC. (See id.)1
Trooper Grbich made “several trips” between his vehicle and Rothermel’s.
(See Doc. 4 ¶ 22). Rothermel continued to insist to Trooper Grbich that he must
have the wrong person. (Id.) She requested that, at minimum, she be permitted to
contact her husband, Chad Rothermel, to pick up their young daughter. (See id.)
Trooper Grbich refused. (Id.) At that time, a second officer, known to Rothermel
as “Trooper Miller,” arrived on the scene. (Id. ¶ 23). Trooper Grbich removed an
emotional and confused C.R. from her mother’s vehicle. (Id. ¶ 24). Trooper Miller
then removed Rothermel from her vehicle, restrained her, and placed her in the
back of his patrol car. (Id. ¶ 25). Rothermel overheard Trooper Grbich radioing to
other State Police employees “about where he was taking C.R.,” but the amended
complaint does not indicate where C.R. was ultimately taken. (See id. ¶ 26).
Trooper Miller transported Rothermel to the Dauphin County Judicial
Center (“Judicial Center”), where “several unknown County employees” searched
Details relating to the warrant derive from the police report attached to the
State Police defendants’ motion to dismiss. (See Doc. 25-1). The report is a public
record which we may consider in resolving the State Police defendants’ motion.
See O’Neal v. Rogers, No. 14-3722, 2015 WL 5063955, at *2 & n.4 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 27,
2015) (citing Lawsonv. City of Coatesville, No. 12-6100, 2013 WL 4596129, at *4 (E.D.
Pa. Aug. 29, 2013)); Gallis v. Borough of Dickson City, No. 3:05-CV-551, 2006 WL
2850633, at *7 (M.D. Pa. Oct. 3, 2006) (citing Scheetz v. Morning Call, Inc., 946 F.2d
202, 207 (3d Cir. 1991)); see, e.g., White v. Probation Office, No. 1:07-CV-951, 2008
WL 3837045, at *1 (M.D. Pa. Aug. 13, 2008) (Conner, J.). Plaintiffs do not quarrel
with this principle and do not object to Trooper Grbich’s reliance on the report in
their Rule 12 opposition brief. (See generally Doc. 36). To the extent the report is
consistent with plaintiffs’ allegations, we consider it in resolving the State Police
defendants’ motion. See White, 2008 WL 3837045, at *1.
Rothermel and her belongings. (Id. ¶ 29). These same individuals, together with
Trooper Miller, requested more identifying information from Rothermel. (Id. ¶ 30).
Eventually, they presented Rothermel with documents under the incorrect name
of “Mellisa Ann Rothermel.” (Id.) Rothermel refused to sign the documents and
explained that they clearly pertained to a different person. (Id.) The Judicial
Center employees ignored Rothermel’s protests and did not investigate the patent
discrepancy between Rothermel’s identification, bearing the name “Melissa Lee
Rothermel,” and the warrant issued for “Mellisa Ann Rothermel.” (Id.)
At some point thereafter, “[s]everal unknown Prison employees” searched
Rothermel a second time, directed her to disrobe and dress in prison clothes, and
subjected her to “medical screening and ridicule.” (Id. ¶ 31). They also approached
Rothermel with additional paperwork again bearing the same incorrect name as the
arrest warrant. (Id. ¶ 32). These employees ignored Rothermel’s “repeated and
emphatic” protests that she was not the individual named in the warrant. (Id.)
Rothermel was placed in general population at Dauphin County Prison (“Prison”)
for more than 48 hours. (See id. ¶¶ 33, 38). During that time, Rothermel’s blood
pressure increased to “dangerously high levels,” she experienced abdominal and
chest pains, and she suffered physical injuries from being forced to climb into the
top bunk in her cell. (See id. ¶¶ 34-35).
Rothermel maintained her innocence throughout her incarceration. (See id.
¶ 36). She adjured Prison staff as well as employees of the Dauphin County Adult
Probation and Parole Office (“Parole Office”) to analyze her fingerprints to confirm
her lack of a criminal record. (Id.) The employees ignored her requests. (See id.)
On February 19, 2015, Rothermel was released from the Prison without explanation.
(Id. ¶ 38). Plaintiffs allege that, since Rothermel’s incarceration, she has received
two notices from Dauphin County alerting her to erroneously-issued warrants for
her arrest. (Id. ¶ 44).
Plaintiffs commenced this action with the filing of a complaint (Doc. 1) on
August 11, 2016, subsequently filing an amended complaint (Doc. 4) on August 15,
2016.2 Plaintiffs identify the following defendants: Dauphin County; the Parole
Office; the Prison; the Dauphin County Sheriff’s Office (“Sheriff’s Office”); the
Dauphin County Clerk of Courts Office (“Clerk of Courts Office”); the State Police;
and Trooper Grbich. (Id. ¶¶ 7-12). Plaintiffs additionally include several “presently
unknown” employees of each defendant entity. (Id.) Plaintiffs assert four counts in
their amended complaint, to wit:
Count I: a Section 1983 claim for false arrest in violation of the Fourth
Amendment against the State Police, Trooper Grbich, the Prison, and
several presently unknown State Police and Prison employees;
Count II: a Section 1983 claim for unreasonable search and seizure in
violation of the Fourth Amendment against Trooper Grbich, Dauphin
County, the Parole Office, the Prison, and several presently unknown
Dauphin County, Parole Office, and Prison employees;
Count III: a Monell claim against Dauphin County, the Parole Office, the
Prison, the Sheriff’s Office, the Clerk of Courts Office, and the State
The court struck plaintiffs’ initial complaint (Doc. 1) sua sponte for failure to
comply with Local Rule of Court 5.2(d), which prohibits identifying a minor child by
full name in a civil action. We instructed plaintiffs to refile the pleading identifying
C.R. by her initials only. (See Doc. 3).
Count IV: a claim for false arrest and unreasonable search and seizure
under the Pennsylvania Constitution against Trooper Grbich and several
presently unknown employees of the State Police.
(Id.) It appears that Counts I, III, and IV are brought by both plaintiffs, (id. ¶¶ 61-62,
73, 75-76, 80), and Count II is brought by Rothermel alone, (id. ¶¶ 66-67).
Presently pending are three separate motions to dismiss plaintiffs’ amended
complaint. (See Docs. 22, 25, 26). The motions catalogue the defendants into three
groups: the Parole Office; the State Police defendants; and the Dauphin County
defendants, comprising Dauphin County, the Prison, the Sheriff’s Office, and the
Clerk of Courts Office. The motions are ripe for disposition.
A court may dismiss a claim for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant
to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1). See FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(1). Such
jurisdictional challenges take of one two forms: (1) parties may levy a “factual”
attack, arguing that one or more of the pleading’s factual allegations are untrue,
removing the action from the court’s jurisdictional ken; or (2) they may assert a
“facial” challenge, which assumes the veracity of the complaint’s allegations but
nonetheless argues that a claim is not within the court’s jurisdiction. Lincoln
Benefit Life Co. v. AEI Life, LLC, 800 F.3d 99, 105 (3d Cir. 2015) (quoting CNA v.
United States, 535 F.3d 132, 139 (3d Cir. 2008)). In either instance, it is the plaintiff’s
burden to establish jurisdiction. See Mortensen v. First Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass’n,
549 F.2d 884, 891 (3d Cir. 1977). A defendant may properly raise the jurisdictional
defense of Eleventh Amendment immunity in a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule
12(b)(1). See Blanciak v. Allegheny Ludlum Corp., 77 F.3d 690, 693 n.2 (3d Cir. 1996)
(citing Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 98-100 (1984)).
Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides for the
dismissal of complaints that fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.
FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6). When ruling on a motion to dismiss under Rule 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.” Phillips v. Cty. of
Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Pinker v. Roche Holdings, Ltd.,
292 F.3d 361, 374 n.7 (3d Cir. 2002)). In addition to reviewing the facts contained
in the complaint, the court may also consider “matters of public record, orders,
exhibits attached to the complaint and items appearing in the record of the case.”
Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1384 n.2 (3d Cir. 1994);
Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d
Federal notice and pleading rules require the complaint to provide “the
defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.”
Phillips, 515 F.3d at 232 (alteration in original) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly,
550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). To test the sufficiency of the complaint, the court conducts
a three-step inquiry. See Santiago v. Warminster Twp., 629 F.3d 121, 130-31 (3d Cir.
2010). In the first step, “the court must ‘tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must
plead to state a claim.’” Id. at 130 (alteration in original) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal,
556 U.S. 662, 675 (2009)). Next, the factual and legal elements of a claim must be
separated; well-pleaded facts are accepted as true, while mere legal conclusions
may be disregarded. Id. at 131-32; see Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203,
210-11 (3d Cir. 2009). Once the court isolates the well-pleaded factual allegations, it
must determine whether they are sufficient to show a “plausible claim for relief.”
Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556); Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556.
A claim is facially plausible when the plaintiff pleads facts “that allow the court
to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct
alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.
Courts should grant leave to amend before dismissing a curable pleading
in civil rights actions. See Fletcher-Harlee Corp. v. Pote Concrete Contractors,
Inc., 482 F.3d 247, 251 (3d Cir. 2007); Grayson v. Mayview State Hosp., 293 F.3d 103,
108 (3d Cir. 2002). Courts need not grant leave to amend sua sponte in dismissing
non-civil rights claims pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), Fletcher-Harlee Corp., 482 F.3d at
252-53, but leave is broadly encouraged “when justice so requires.” FED. R. CIV. P.
The collective defendants raise immunity and merits defenses to each of
plaintiffs’ claims. In view of the distinct defenses raised by the state and county
entities, the court will address their pending motions seriatim. Because plaintiffs
have not yet identified or served the “several unknown” employees of each named
entity, the analysis which follows concerns the moving defendants alone.
The Parole Office
The Parole Office contends that it is an entity of the Commonwealth of
Pennsylvania, not an entity of Dauphin County, entitling the office to Eleventh
Amendment immunity.3 (Doc. 23 at 2-5). The Eleventh Amendment precludes
federal claims for monetary damages against a state and its agencies. U.S. CONST.
amend. XI; see Kimel v. Fla. Bd. of Regents, 528 U.S. 62, 72-73 (2000); Lombardo v.
Pennsylvania, 540 F.3d 190, 194-95 (3d Cir. 2008). This jurisdictional bar applies to
agencies of the state and to employees thereof sued in their official capacity. See
Will v. Mich. Dep’t of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 66 (1989); Hindes v. FDIC, 137 F.3d
148, 158 (3d Cir. 1998).
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania vests its judicial power in a unified
judicial system, of which all state courts and associated agencies are part. See
Haybarger v. Lawrence Cty. Adult Prob. & Parole, 551 F.3d 193, 198 (3d Cir. 2008)
(citing PA. CONST. art. V, § 1). The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has explicitly
resolved that the Commonwealth’s judicial districts, and their respective probation
and parole offices, are arms of the state which enjoy the protections of the Eleventh
Amendment. Id. (citing Benn v. First Judicial Dist. of Pa., 426 F.3d 233, 240 (3d Cir.
2005)). Following Haybarger, courts within this judicial district consistently hold
that county probation and parole offices—and parole officers sued in their official
capacities—are arms of the state entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity. See,
The Parole Office also argues that it is entitled to statutory sovereign
immunity from plaintiffs’ state constitutional claim. (See Doc. 23). Because the
Parole Office is not included as a defendant on plaintiffs’ state constitutional claim,
(see Doc. 4 at 18), we need not address this argument.
e.g., Mathias v. York Cty., No. 1:16-CV-1338, 2017 WL 770610, at *4-6 (M.D. Pa.
Feb. 28, 2017); Lawson v. Dauphin Cty. Work Release, No. 1:15-CV-2450, 2016 WL
6090758, at *5-6 (M.D. Pa.), adopted by, 2016 WL 6082127 (M.D. Pa. Oct. 18, 2016);
Sapp v. Dauphin Cty. Juvenile Prob., No. 1:14-CV-1105, 2014 WL 6982655, at *6
(M.D. Pa. Dec. 10, 2014).
Plaintiffs request fact discovery on this issue, averring that no court has
ever found that the instant Parole Office is an arm of the state. (Doc. 24 at 5-7, 14).
A contrario, less than two months before plaintiffs submitted their opposition brief,
this very court held that the Dauphin County Adult Probation and Parole Office is
a state entity entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity. See Lawson, 2016 WL
6090768, at *5-6, adopted by, 2016 WL 6082127. We conclude that the Parole Office
is a Commonwealth entity for purposes of the Eleventh Amendment.
Eleventh Amendment immunity is not absolute. Its protections are subject
to three basic limitations: (1) Congress may specifically abrogate a state’s sovereign
immunity by exercising its enforcement power under the Fourteenth Amendment;
(2) a state may waive its sovereign immunity by consenting to suit; or (3) under Ex
parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908), a state official may be sued in their official capacity
for prospective injunctive or declaratory relief. See Coll. Sav. Bank v. Fla. Prepaid
Postsecondary Educ. Expense Bd., 527 U.S. 666, 670 (1999); Kentucky v. Graham,
473 U.S. 159, 169 n.18 (1985); Koslow v. Pennsylvania, 302 F.3d 161, 168 (3d Cir.
The first two exceptions concern the state entity itself. See Coll. Sav. Bank,
527 U.S. at 670. Neither exception applies here. It is well-settled that Congress had
no intention to abrogate states’ sovereign immunity by enacting Section 1983. Will,
491 U.S. at 66. Pennsylvania has unequivocally withheld consent to such suits. 42
PA. CONS. STAT. § 8521(b); see also Lombardo, 540 F.3d at 196 n.3. We have little
difficulty concluding that the Eleventh Amendment immunizes the Parole Office
from plaintiffs’ federal claims against it. See Lawson, 2016 WL 6090758, at *5-6,
adopted by, 2016 WL 6082127; see also Sapp, 2014 WL 6982655, at *6. We will
dismiss plaintiffs’ claims for monetary damages against the Parole Office with
prejudice for lack of jurisdiction.4
The State Police Defendants
The State Police defendants raise four principal arguments in response to
plaintiffs’ amended complaint: first, that the State Police, Commissioner Blocker,
and Trooper Grbich fall within the ambit of Commonwealth entities and officers
entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity; second, that plaintiffs’ constitutional
claims fail on their merits; third, that Trooper Grbich is entitled to qualified
immunity; and fourth, that plaintiffs’ claims against both individual defendants fail
for lack of personal involvement by the defendants. (See Doc. 28 at 4-19).
As a preliminary matter, we observe that the amended complaint is
substantively silent with respect to Commissioner Blocker. Plaintiffs identify the
Commissioner as a defendant in the caption and the introductory paragraphs only;
he is not named in any of the four counts asserted by plaintiffs, nor is he referenced
Plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief against “several presently
unknown” Parole Office employees in their official capacities, attempting to actuate
the prospective relief exception to Eleventh Amendment immunity. As we discuss
infra, plaintiffs have not identified or served these individual defendants, and the
instant motions are not filed on their behalf.
in the request for relief. (Doc. 4 ¶¶ 58-82 & p.19). Hence, the below analysis
concerns only the State Police and Trooper Grbich in both his official and
Eleventh Amendment Immunity
The State Police and Trooper Grbich each invoke the Eleventh Amendment
in response to plaintiffs’ federal claims. (Doc. 28 at 5-6). Plaintiffs remonstrate that
discovery is necessary to assess whether the State Police defendants are entitled to
Eleventh Amendment immunity (See Doc. 36 at 6-7). We disagree.
The State Police agency is created by and organized under the laws of the
Commonwealth, see 71 PA. STAT. ANN. § 61, and is accordingly entitled to Eleventh
Amendment protections. Trooper Grbich, as a State Police employee sued in his
official capacity, shares in the Commonwealth’s immunity. See Will, 491 U.S. at 66;
Hindes, 137 F.3d at 158. As noted, Congress has not waived immunity for Section
1983 claims, see Will, 491 U.S. at 66, and the Commonwealth has not consented to
such suits. See 42 PA. CONS. STAT. § 8521(b); see also Lombardo, 540 F.3d at 196 n.3.
Courts regularly dismiss claims against the State Police and official-capacity State
Police employees pursuant to the Eleventh Amendment at the Rule 12 stage. See,
e.g., Karolski v. City of Aliquippa, No. 15-1101, 2016 WL 7404551, at *4 (W.D. Pa.
Dec. 22, 2016); Hartman v. State of Pa., No. 1:15-CV-523, 2016 WL 4549513, at *3
(M.D. Pa. Sept. 1, 2016); Shumate v. Maturo, No. 13-6610, 2014 WL 5286312, at *2-3
(E.D. Pa. Oct. 15, 2014); see also Atkin v. Johnson, 432 F. App’x 47, 48 (3d Cir. 2011)
(nonprecedential). Plaintiffs’ federal claims for damages against the State Police
and Trooper Grbich in his official capacity will be dismissed with prejudice.
As pertains Trooper Grbich, plaintiffs also seek declaratory and injunctive
relief, invoking the Ex parte Young exemption to Eleventh Amendment immunity.
(Doc. 4 ¶ 63 & p.19). This claim fails as currently pled. According to plaintiffs’ own
allegata, the claimed ongoing injury—receipt of notices concerning wrongly issued
warrants—is attributable to “the County,” not the State Police defendants. (See
Doc. 4 ¶ 44; see also Doc. 36 at 16-17). Plaintiffs claim broadly that the State Police
defendants are engaged in continuing “unlawful practices,” postulating that “some
type of breakdown must have occurred to enable an innocent citizen to be arrested
and incarcerated for no reason.” (Doc. 36 at 16-17). Speculation aside, plaintiffs do
not articulate an ongoing constitutional harm warranting relief against Trooper
Grbich. Accordingly, plaintiffs have failed to state a viable claim for prospective
declaratory or injunctive relief against Trooper Grbich in his official capacity.
Plaintiffs assert two federal constitutional claims against Trooper Grbich
individually pursuant to Section 1983. (Doc. 4 ¶¶ 58-78). Section 1983 creates a
private cause of action to redress constitutional wrongs committed by state officials.
See 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The statute is not a source of substantive rights, but serves as
a mechanism for vindicating rights otherwise protected by federal law. Gonzaga
Univ. v. Doe, 536 U.S. 273, 284-85 (2002); Kneipp v. Tedder, 95 F.3d 1199, 1204 (3d
Cir. 1996). To state a claim under Section 1983, plaintiffs must show a deprivation
of a “right secured by the Constitution and the laws of the United States . . . by a
person acting under color of state law.” Kneipp, 95 F.3d at 1204 (quoting Mark
v. Borough of Hatboro, 51 F.3d 1137, 1141 (3d Cir. 1995)). Trooper Grbich does
not dispute that he was a state actor at all times relevant herein. We must thus
assess whether Trooper Grbich’s conduct deprived plaintiffs of rights secured by
the United States Constitution.
Trooper Grbich invokes qualified immunity in response to plaintiffs’
constitutional claims. Qualified immunity protects a state actor who has committed
a constitutional violation if the plaintiff’s rights were not “clearly established” when
the individual acted. Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 244-45 (2009). No liability
will attach if a reasonable actor could have believed the challenged conduct was in
compliance with settled law. Id.; see also Springer v. Henry, 435 F.3d 268, 280 (3d
Cir. 2006). The doctrine cloaks government officials with “immunity from suit
rather than a mere defense to liability,” Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526 (1985)
(emphasis omitted), and “ensure[s] that insubstantial claims against government
officials [will] be resolved prior to discovery.” Pearson, 555 U.S. at 231-32 (quoting
Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640 n.2 (1987)). The defense generally shields
“all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” Ashcroft
v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 743 (2011) (quoting Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341
(1986)). The burden to establish qualified immunity rests with the defendant
claiming its protection. Beers-Capitol v. Whetzel, 256 F.3d 120, 142 n.15 (3d Cir.
A court evaluating a claim of qualified immunity considers two distinct
inquiries: whether, based on the record evidence, a constitutional right has been
violated and, if so, whether the right was “clearly established” at the time of the
alleged violation. Spady v. Bethlehem Area Sch. Dist., 800 F.3d 633, 637 (3d Cir.
2015) (quoting Pearson, 555 U.S. at 232). A court may begin its qualified immunity
analysis with either prong. See Pearson, 555 U.S. at 237. Explicit Third Circuit
precedent affirms that the right to be free from arrest except on probable cause
is clearly established. Andrews v. Scuilli, 853 F.3d 690, 705 (3d Cir. 2016) (quoting
Donahue v. Gavin, 280 F.3d 371, 380 (3d Cir. 2002); Orsatti v. N.J. State Police, 71
F.3d 480, 483 (3d Cir. 1995)). We need only determine whether plaintiffs allege a
violation of this right.
To prevail on a false arrest claim, a plaintiff must show that she was arrested
without probable cause. Groman v. Twp. of Manalapan, 47 F.3d 628, 634 (3d Cir.
1995) (citing Dowling v. City of Phila., 855 F.2d 136, 141 (3d Cir. 1988)); Dull v. W.
Manchester Police Dep’t, 604 F. Supp. 2d 739, 750 (M.D. Pa. 2009). Probable cause
to arrest exists when facts and circumstances within a police officer’s knowledge
would convince a reasonable person that an individual has committed an offense.
See Beck v. Ohio, 379 U.S. 89, 91 (1964); United States v. Myers, 308 F.3d 251, 255
(3d Cir. 2002). The inquiry is not whether the individual actually committed the
crime for which she was arrested, but whether the officer had probable cause to
believe so at the time of the arrest. See Wright v. City of Phila., 409 F.3d 595, 602
(3d Cir. 2005); Groman, 47 F.3d at 634-35.
Preliminarily, we dispense with Trooper Grbich’s argument that he is
absolved of constitutional liability for lack of “personal involvement.” (See Doc. 28
at 17-18). Trooper Grbich asseverates that it was another officer who ultimately
placed Rothermel under arrest and transported her to the Prison. (See id.) This
argument ignores the fact that Trooper Grbich was the moving force behind
Rothermel’s arrest: he initiated the traffic stop, detained Rothermel and C.R. while
processing Rothermel’s information, misidentified Rothermel, advised Rothermel
that she was under arrest, and summoned Trooper Miller to take Rothermel into
custody. (Doc. 4 ¶¶ 18-26). Liability for false arrest is not limited to the arresting
officer himself: it extends to any other officer “whose intentional actions set the
arresting officer in motion.” Berg v. Cty. of Allegheny, 219 F.3d 261, 272 (3d Cir.
2000). There is no dispute that Trooper Grbich’s actions set Rothermel’s arrest
in motion. The only remaining inquiry is whether that arrest was supported by
Probable cause to arrest generally exists when an officer makes an arrest
pursuant to a valid warrant. See Lawson v. Pa. SPCA, 124 F. Supp. 3d 394, 405
(E.D. Pa. 2015) (citing Kis v. Cty. of Schuylkill, 866 F. Supp. 1462, 1469 (E.D. Pa.
1994)). An officer making an arrest pursuant to a facially valid warrant is under no
constitutional obligation “to investigate independently every claim of innocence,
whether the claim is based on mistaken identity” or otherwise. Baker v. McCollan,
443 U.S. 137, 145-46 (1979). Equally clear, however, is that the mere existence of
a warrant does not ipso facto insulate an officer from false arrest liability. Goodwin
v. Conway, 836 F.3d 321, 327 (3d Cir. 2016) (citing Wilson v. Russo, 212 F.3d 781, 78690 (3d Cir. 2000)). A mistakenly issued or executed arrest warrant will not supply
probable cause for arrest. Berg, 219 F.3d at 270 (citing Arizona v. Evans, 514 U.S. 1,
13 (1995)). When subsequent events reveal that the person arrested is not the
person named in the warrant, the arresting officer may be liable for false arrest.
See, e.g., Thomas v. Middlesex Cty. Sheriff’s Dep’t, No. 07-3017, 2007 WL 2306879,
at *1, 3-4 (D.N.J. Aug. 8, 2007). The “key question” in misidentification cases is
whether arrest of the wrong person was “reasonable” under the totality of the
circumstances. See Alassani v. Walter, No. 10-4491, 2011 WL 135018, at *5 (E.D.
Pa. Jan. 14, 2011) (citing McHenry v. Cty. of Del., No. 04-1011, 2005 WL 2789182, at
*5 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 24, 2005)); McHenry, 2005 WL 2789182, at *5 (collecting cases).
Plaintiffs acknowledge that Rothermel was arrested pursuant to a facially
valid arrest warrant but assert that the warrant “demonstrably did not apply to”
her. (See Doc. 4 ¶¶ 20, 60). Trooper Grbich rejoins that the warrant supplied the
requisite probable cause to arrest Rothermel. (See Doc. 28 at 6-9; Doc. 38 at 4-7).
Trooper Grbich cites his police report to substantiate his contention. (See Doc. 28
at 6-9; see also Doc. 25-1). Therein, Trooper Grbich recounts:
On above date and time I was traveling south on I 81 behind a
silver Honda displaying a 2014 registration validation sticker
(refer to blk 20-21). A check of the registration revealed a
possible NCIC hit on the vehicle owner. The NCIC hit was
issued for a Melissa Ann ROTHERMEL.
I compared the NCIC hit with the owner’s information (refer
to blks 6-17) and found that the DOB, SS#, PA OLN, and
physical description between the two matched. I did notice a
difference in the middle name.
A traffic stop was initiated at above location and the operator
was identified as Melissa Lee ROTHERMEL. Dauphin County
Sheriff’s office was contacted, and advised of the discrepancy
in the middle name. The sheriff’s office confirmed the warrant
and I was instructed to transport ROTHERMEL to Dauphin
ROTHERMEL was transported to and placed in the custody of
the Dauphin County Prison. Patrol was resumed.
(Doc. 25-1 at 1). The report is incomplete to the extent it fails to identify a second
material discrepancy: plaintiff’s first name is spelled “Melissa,” and the NCIC hit
concerned a warrant for an individual named “Mellisa.” (See Doc. 36 at 9; Doc. 38
at 4-5; see also Doc. 25-1 at 3).
Viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, the amended complaint
and Trooper Grbich’s own police report suggest that Trooper Grbich had reason to
doubt that Rothermel was the individual named in the warrant. Plaintiffs’ allegata
thus adequately support an inference that Trooper Grbich lacked probable cause
to arrest Rothermel. Any determination that probable cause necessarily existed
or that Trooper Grbich’s actions were reasonable is premature at this juncture.
Cf. Watson v. Witmer, 183 F. Supp. 3d 607, 613 (M.D. Pa. 2016) (collecting cases);
Alassani, 2011 WL 135018, at *10. We will deny the motion to dismiss Rothermel’s
false arrest claim against Trooper Grbich individually.
We agree with Trooper Grbich, however, that the false arrest claim asserted
by plaintiff C.R. must be dismissed. (Doc. 28 at 15-17). Trooper Grbich contends
that once Rothermel was arrested, the only safe option was to transport C.R. from
the scene. (See id.) He cites case law supporting his assertions that (1) it is entirely
appropriate to transport innocent passengers to safety following arrest of a vehicle’s
driver and (2) mere placement of an individual in a patrol car does not constitute an
arrest. (Id.) Plaintiffs do not respond to Trooper Grbich’s argument appertaining
C.R.’s false arrest claim. (See Doc. 36 at 8-13). Consequently, we deem C.R.’s false
arrest claim to be abandoned. See Brice v. City of York, 528 F. Supp. 2d 504, 516
n.19 (M.D. Pa. 2007) (citing D’Angio v. Borough of Nescopeck, 34 F. Supp. 2d 256,
265 (M.D. Pa. 1999)); Brown v. Pa. State Dep’t of Health, 514 F. Supp. 2d 675, 678
n.7 (M.D. Pa. 2007) (same).
Unreasonable Search and Seizure of Rothermel
Rothermel also asserts a claim for unreasonable search and seizure against
Trooper Grbich. (See Doc. 4 at 14 & ¶¶ 66-67). The claim stems from “searches of
[Rothermel’s] person, clothes, and belongings, and the continued detention and
incarceration of [Rothermel] for over two days.” (Id. ¶ 66). The count does not
concern Rothermel’s initial arrest. It is titled to include Trooper Grbich as a
defendant but is silent with respect to his role in the alleged unconstitutional
searches and ongoing detention. (Id. ¶¶ 66-68). Indeed, the allegations supporting
this count pertain only to “the County, the Parole Office, the Prison,” and several
employees thereof. (Id.) The search and seizure count against Trooper Grbich is
subject to dismissal for this reason alone. Rothermel appears to concede as much
by failing to respond to these points and effectively abandoning the claim. See
Brice, 528 F. Supp. 2d at 516 n.19 (citing D’Angio, 34 F. Supp. 2d at 265); Brown,
514 F. Supp. 2d at 678 n.7 (same).
State Law Claim
Trooper Grbich asserts that plaintiffs’ claim under the Pennsylvania
Constitution is without merit because he had probable cause to stop and arrest
Rothermel. We find that plaintiffs’ state law constitutional claim fails for more
fundamental reasons. First, neither Pennsylvania’s General Assembly nor its
courts recognize a private cause for damages under the state constitution. See
Pocono Mountain Charter Sch. v. Pocono Mountain Sch. Dist., 442 F. App’x 681,
687 (3d Cir. 2006) (nonprecedential) (quoting Jones v. City of Phila., 890 A.2d 1188,
1208 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2006)); O’Donnell v. Cumberland Cty., 195 F. Supp. 3d 724,
730-31 (M.D. Pa. 2016) (collecting cases). Equitable remedies remain available to
redress state constitutional violations, see Pocono Mountain, 442 F. App’x at 688
(quoting Moeller v. Bradford Cty., 444 F. Supp. 2d 316, 320-21 (M.D. Pa. 2006);
Jones, 890 A.2d at 1216), but we determined supra that plaintiffs fail to plead
entitlement to an equitable remedy against Trooper Grbich.
Second, although Trooper Grbich has not invoked statutory sovereign
immunity in response to plaintiffs’ state constitutional claim, see 1 PA. CONS.
STAT. § 2310, he is ostensibly protected thereby. The Commonwealth’s statutory
sovereign immunity is broader in scope than Eleventh Amendment immunity and
shields state employees “in both their official and individual capacities.” Kintzel
v. Kleeman, 965 F. Supp. 2d 601, 606 (M.D. Pa. 2013) (emphasis added) (quoting
Larsen v. State Emps.’ Ret. Sys., 553 F. Supp. 2d 403, 420 (M.D. Pa. 2008)); see also
Brautigam v. Fraley, 684 F. Supp. 2d 589, 593-94 (M.D. Pa. 2010) (collecting cases).
For all of these reasons, we will dismiss plaintiffs’ state law constitutional claim
against Trooper Grbich with prejudice.
The Dauphin County Defendants
The Dauphin County defendants seek dismissal of plaintiffs’ amended
complaint on several grounds, asserting: first, that the Clerk of Courts’ Office
and the Sheriff’s Office are arms of the Commonwealth entitled to Eleventh
Amendment immunity; second, that neither the Prison, the Sheriff’s Office, nor
the Clerk of Courts office is a “person” for purposes of Section 1983; third, that
all Dauphin County defendants are entitled to quasi-judicial immunity; and fourth,
that plaintiffs fail to adequately plead a Monell claim against the Dauphin County
defendants. (See Doc. 29 at 4-10).
Respondeat Superior Liability
As a threshold matter, we will dismiss Count I to the extent it purports to
state a claim against the Prison and Count II to the extent it purports to state a
claim against both Dauphin County and the Prison. These counts do not concern
actions taken directly by the County or the Prison. (See Doc. 4 ¶¶ 58-68). Rather,
the counts concern actions taken by employees of both entities and seek to hold the
entities liable for their employees’ acts. (See id.) Municipalities and other local
governments are “persons” for purposes of Section 1983 liability, Monell v. N.Y.C.
Dep’t of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 690 (1978), but such entities may not be held
liable under a theory of respondeat superior liability. Bd. of Cty. Comm’rs v. Brown,
520 U.S. 397, 403 (1997) (citing Monell, 436 U.S. at 692); see also Colburn v. Upper
Darby Twp., 946 F.2d 1017, 1027 (3d Cir. 1991). Claims of municipal liability must
instead be predicated on a municipal policy or custom that caused the challenged
action. See Monell, 436 U.S. at 691-95. Plaintiffs properly assert a Monell claim in
Count III against, inter alia, Dauphin County, the Prison, the Sheriff’s Office, and
the Clerk of Courts Office. (See Doc. 4 ¶¶ 69-78). Counts I and II will be dismissed
with prejudice as to Dauphin County and the Prison.
Municipal liability arises when a government causes an employee to
violate another’s constitutional rights by an official custom or policy. Monell, 436
U.S. at 690-94; see also Montgomery v. De Simone, 159 F.3d 120, 126 (3d Cir. 1998).
To establish liability under Monell, a plaintiff must identify the challenged policy or
custom, demonstrate proper attribution to the public entity, and show a causal link
between the execution of the policy or custom and the injury suffered. See Natale
v. Camden Cty. Corr. Facility, 318 F.3d 575, 583-84 (3d Cir. 2003). A policy exists
when a decisionmaker possessing final authority to establish public policy with
respect to the disputed action issues an official proclamation, policy, or edict. Id. at
584 (quoting Kneipp, 95 F.3d at 1212). By contrast, a custom is an act that is not
formally approved but is nonetheless “so widespread as to have the force of law.”
Id. (quoting Brown, 520 U.S. at 404). A plaintiff may also establish municipal
liability by showing that a policymaker failed to take affirmative action despite an
obvious need to correct the “inadequacy of existing practice [which is] so likely to
result in the violation of constitutional rights” that inaction exhibits “deliberate
indifference” to the need. Id. (quoting Brown, 520 U.S. at 417-18).
Before addressing the merits of plaintiffs’ Monell claim, we first identify the
appropriate defendant. Plaintiffs name Dauphin County itself as a defendant, as
well as several constituent entities of the County, including the Prison, the Clerk
of Courts Office, and the Sheriff’s Office. The County itself is the only appropriate
defendant sub judice. Within our judicial district, courts uniformly hold that prisons
and sheriff’s offices are merely administrative subdivisions of the county and are
not separate legal entities subject to liability independent thereof. See, e.g., Rios
v. Dauphin Cty. Prison, No. 4:17-CV-671, 2017 WL 2118288, at *2 (M.D. Pa. May 16,
2017); Gresh v. Huntingdon Cty., No. 1:15-CV-1466, 2016 WL 1162320, at *4 (M.D. Pa.
Mar. 24, 2016). Likewise, although no court has yet been tasked to decide whether a
county clerk of court is a “person” for purposes of stating a Section 1983 claim, the
Pennsylvania Constitution designates the clerk of court as a county officer.5 See PA.
CONST. art. IX, § 4. We will dismiss plaintiffs’ Monell claim with prejudice as to the
Prison, the Clerk of Courts Office, and the Sheriff’s Office.
As for the merits, the amended complaint fails to state a claim. Plaintiffs
cursorily aver that Dauphin County “refused to adequately train, direct, supervise,
or control employees” to prevent constitutional violations. (Doc. 4 ¶ 75). To prevail
on a failure to train claim, a plaintiff ordinarily must demonstrate a “pattern of
similar constitutional violations” committed in the past by untrained employees.
Connick, 563 U.S. at 62. However, the Supreme Court has suggested that there
exists a “narrow range of circumstances” in which a single violation may support
failure-to-train liability. Brown, 520 U.S. at 409. Plaintiffs do not set forth a pattern
of prior incidents putting Dauphin County on notice of a training or supervision
deficiency. (See generally Doc. 4). Nor have plaintiffs alleged that the need for
Several district courts have, however, found that a clerk of court is not a
“person” under Section 1983 because the office is entitled to Eleventh Amendment
immunity. The Clerk of Courts Office and the Sheriff’s Office sub judice each seek
dismissal on this ground. (Doc. 29 at 4-6). They cite several unpublished district
court decisions for the proposition that both offices are part of the Commonwealth
court system which share in the state’s sovereign immunity. (Id.) The question is
more nuanced than the cited authority suggests because, as noted above, the state
constitution designates clerks of court and sheriffs as “[c]ounty officers” rather than
state officers. See PA. CONST. art. 9, § 4. Conflicting decisional law reflects that this
issue is far from settled. Compare O’Neal v. Bedford Cty., No. 3:16-CV-62, 2017 WL
244866, at *4 (W.D. Pa. Jan. 19, 2017) (immunity applies regardless of county officer
designation) with Open Inns, Ltd. v. Chester Cty. Sheriff’s Dep’t, 24 F. Supp. 2d 410,
422 (E.D. Pa. 1998) (immunity does not apply due to county officer designation).
Because we will dismiss plaintiffs’ claims against these defendants on other
grounds, we need not address this question.
training was “so obvious” as to justify single incident liability. See City of Canton
v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 390 (1989). Indeed, plaintiffs allege no specific facts at all to
substantiating their failure to train claim.
Plaintiffs further make the sweeping claim that Dauphin County maintains a
“policy and practice” of authorizing employees to violate and cover up violations of
citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights. (Doc. 4 ¶¶ 71-72). Other than this conclusory
assertion, the amended complaint does not support the existence of a municipal
policy, custom, or practice of violating citizens’ rights. Plaintiffs seem to recognize
as much, conjecting that the isolated incident described in the amended complaint
could not have occurred but for an institutional policy or practice and requesting
discovery to “substantiate their claims.” (Doc. 37 at 12-13). These vague assertions
and generalized supposition do not withstand Rule 12 scrutiny. See Groman, 47
F.3d at 637; see also Santiago, 629 F.3d at 131. We will dismiss plaintiffs’ Monell
claim against Dauphin County.
Leave to Amend
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals requires district courts to grant leave
to amend in civil rights cases when a curative amendment is conceivable. See
Fletcher-Harlee Corp., 482 F.3d at 251; Grayson, 293 F.3d at 108. To the extent
plaintiffs’ claims are not subject to dismissal with prejudice as noted herein, the
court will grant plaintiffs an opportunity to amend their pleading, as more fully
articulated in the forthcoming order.
Unknown Individual Defendants
Plaintiffs also assert claims against various “unknown” employees of
Dauphin County, the Parole Office, the Prison, the Sheriff’s Office, the Clerk of
Courts Office, and the State Police. (See Doc. 4 ¶¶ 7-12). These defendants have
not yet been identified or served by the plaintiffs. Plaintiffs have now had the
benefit of discovery and are approaching the recently-extended fact discovery
deadline. (See Doc. 45). The court will order plaintiffs to identify the “unknown”
defendants in a second amended pleading within twenty days of the date of this
memorandum and to thereafter effect service in accordance with the Federal Rules
of Civil Procedure. We caution plaintiffs that noncompliance with this directive
will result in dismissal of the “unknown” defendants. See FED. R. CIV. P. 4(m).
The court will grant in part and deny in part defendants’ motions (Docs. 22,
25, 26) to dismiss, as more fully articulated herein. An appropriate order shall issue.
/S/ CHRISTOPHER C. CONNER
Christopher C. Conner, Chief Judge
United States District Court
Middle District of Pennsylvania
September 29, 2017
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