Monday, August 24, 2009

LT - eviction - police involvement - civil rights action

Gerhart v. State Police - ED Pa. - August 13, 2009

The court refused to dismiss plaintiffs' sec. 1983 claims against two Pennsylvania State Police officers who forced them out of their mobile home. The real property on which the home was affixed had been sold at a sheriff's sale. However the PSP officers apparently were not acting pursuant to any specific court order, allowing them to force Plaintiff from their home, but rather only pursuant to the request of the buyer at the sheriff's sale.

The claims against the officers, the Commonwealth, and the state police, in their official capacities, were dismissed. "Section 1983 only imposes liability on “persons,” and Section 1985(3) only imposes liability on “two or more persons” who conspire together. 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985(3). For the purposes of Section 1983, state agencies and state officers in their official capacities are immune from liability because they are not considered “persons” "within the meaning of the statute.

Section 1983 - Fourth Amendment
However, the plaintiffs did allege "sufficient facts to state a claim that Defendant State Troopers violated Plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment rights. The Fourth Amendment protects a person’s right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures . . . .”...

To establish a violation of the Fourth Amendment, Plaintiff must show that the “defendant’s actions (1) constituted a search or seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, and (2) were unreasonable in light of the surrounding circumstances.” ....A seizure occurs when there is a meaningful interference with a person’s possessory interest in his property. ...The acts of police officers in assisting an illegal eviction without an order, a writ, a warrant, or any other statutory authority can constitute an unreasonable seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Here, Plaintiffs allege that Defendant State Troopers evicted Plaintiffs from their mobile home and padlocked their door to prevent reentry without an order or legal authority. It is clear that such conduct, if true, plausibly amounts to an interference with Plaintiffs’ possessory interests. Plaintiffs also allege that the State Troopers lacked a court order and knowingly had no legal authority to evict Plaintiffs. Such behavior states a claim for an unreasonable seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment.... See Open Inns, 24 F. Supp. 2d at 424 (holding that police officers who actively assist a private party to evict a tenant “without an order, a writ, a warrant, or any statutory authority [engage in] precisely the type of unreasonable behavior that the Fourth Amendment forbids”); accord Soldal, 506 U.S. at 68 (holding that the towing of a trailer was a seizure “subject to Fourth Amendment scrutiny even though no search within the meaning of the Amendment [took] place”); Gale v. Storti, 608 F. Supp. 2d 629, 633-34 (E.D. Pa. 2009).

Fourteenth Amendment
Plaintiffs have also sufficiently alleged that Defendant State Troopers violated Plaintiffs’ Fourteenth Amendment rights. “The fourteenth amendment prohibits state deprivations of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” ...It is “well established that possessory interests in property invoke procedural due process protections.” At the core of procedural due process jurisprudence is the right to advance notice of significant deprivations of liberty or property and to a meaningful opportunity to be heard.”. To state a procedural due process claim, a plaintiff “must establish that the officers were acting as state actors when they deprived him of a property interest to which he had a legitimate claim of entitlement without the process he deserved.” . Here, as Plaintiffs allege that they were given no notice or opportunity to be heard prior to the State Troopers evicting them from their home, there is no question that Plaintiffs have sufficiently stated a claim that state actors deprived them of their property without due process of law.

official immunity
The Third Circuit has held that “it is not for law enforcement officers to decide who is entitled to possession of property.” See Abbott, 164 F.3d at 149. Rather, “it is the domain of the courts.” Further, the question of whether Defendant State Troopers acted reasonably is a fact-intensive inquiry.... This case is similar to Gale v. Storti, 608 F. Supp. 2d 629 (E.D. Pa. 2009), where various defendants moved for dismissal of the plaintiffs’ constitutional claims arising out an allegedly unlawful eviction. The district court noted that the relevant qualified immunity inquiry is “whether or not the officers made a reasonable mistake as to what the law requires,” and concluded that “[a]nswering this depends on a factual inquiry, particularly, exactly what documents were provided to the officers prior to going to the premises and what the contents of these documents were.”

As in Gale, there are simply too few settled facts in this case to definitively determine at this point whether the alleged constitutional violations by Defendant State Troopers were reasonable, thereby rendering the Troopers immune from liability under the doctrine of qualified immunity. There is a question as to whether Defendant State Troopers evicted Plaintiffs without legal authority and whether the State Troopers made a reasonable mistake as to what the law requires. These questions depend on a factual inquiry that has not yet been conducted. See id.; see also Open Inns, 24 F. Supp. 2d at 420 (noting on summary judgment that qualified immunity was inappropriate where the defendant officers, in repossessing the plaintiffs’ property, “went far beyond the ministerial act of serving process or doing their common law duty of keeping the peace”).

Plaintiffs’ Section 1983 claims cannot be dismissed on the ground of qualified immunity. Simply stated, at this preliminary stage, the Court finds that Plaintiffs have stated a claim that Defendant State Troopers unreasonably violated clearly established laws