PHILADELPHIA – Appellate court judges have decided to remand a civil rights action tied to an arson investigation to its trial court, for further proceedings and analysis on whether the concept of qualified immunity applies to one of the case’s defendants.

On Nov. 15, Judges Kent A. Jordan, Joseph A. Greenaway Jr. and Marjorie O. Rendell remanded plaintiff Albert Muth’s case against Dauphin County Criminal Investigation Division Fire Investigator Dennis A. Woodring, Det. Jeffrey Shriver of the Pennsylvania State Police’s Harrisburg Bureau, the City of Harrisburg, Dauphin County and State Farm Fire and Casualty Company to the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania – in order to determine whether or not Shriver is entitled to qualified immunity.

Muth owned a rental property in Harrisburg which was damaged by fire, an incident Shriver investigated and deemed “suspicious.” Four months after the fire, Shriver filed three state law felony charges against Muth, including arson endangering person, causing or risking catastrophe and insurance fraud.

Included with the charging form was Shriver’s affidavit of probable cause supporting the charges, which led Pennsylvania State Police to arrest Muth at work and bring him in for arraignment. Muth was released on a $50,000 unsecured bond and subjected to non-monetary bail conditions.

Three years after Shriver filed the felony charges and probable cause affidavit, the Commonwealth filed an application for nolle prosequi, abandoning Muth’s prosecution on all charges. Muth then filed the instant federal civil action against Shriver, another investigator, his insurance company, and Dauphin County.

Muth’s chief claim is that the defendants acted, both jointly and individually, to violate his Fourth Amendment right against unlawful seizure, as incorporated against the states by the Fourteenth Amendment, by engaging in malicious prosecution.

Several defendants, including Shriver, filed motions to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, explaining Muth did not prove violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The Court granted the motion to dismiss in part, but it did not dismiss the malicious prosecution count against Shriver, which led Shriver to appeal.

Jordan outlined qualified immunity as “not merely immunity from liability, but rather immunity from suit, operating to free the recipient from the burdens of litigation”, and that the District Court “properly considered Shriver’s qualified immunity at the threshold of litigation, before discovery, in the context of a motion to dismiss but did not complete the analysis.”

Jordan commented when evaluating a claim of qualified immunity, courts engage in a two-pronged inquiry: Whether the officer’s conduct violated a federal right and whether the law was “clearly established” at the time of the violation, with the burden of proof levied upon the defendant to show they have qualified immunity.

“We have recognized that courts are free to examine the two prongs of the qualified immunity analysis in either order. For efficiency, a court may elect to consider the ‘clearly established’ prong first because, if that prong is not satisfied, then qualified immunity applies,” Jordan said.

Jordan explained if a court chooses to first consider whether the conduct in question violated a constitutional right, then both prongs of the test must be completed to determine if qualified immunity applies. In the instant case, the District Court proceeded by considering whether Muth had pleaded a legally sufficient case for malicious prosecution such that his Fourth Amendment rights had been violated.

At the time, the Court said that “the allegations of plaintiff’s amended complaint suffice to state a claim for malicious prosecution pursuant to Section 1983.” But, it also stated it had not reached “a definitive determination that defendant Shriver violated plaintiff’s constitutional rights” – leading it not to be clear “whether the Court completed the first prong of the qualified immunity inquiry.”

“Regardless, the District Court should not have reached a decision on Muth’s motion to dismiss without completing the second prong of the qualified immunity analysis. Even if Muth had plausibly claimed a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights, the Court should have still considered whether…Shriver would have been on notice that his actions were unlawful. Failing to do so was error and requires us to return this matter to the District Court,” Jordan said.

“For the foregoing reasons, we will vacate the District Court’s order to the extent it denied Shriver’s Rule 12(b)(6) motion and will remand the case for additional proceedings to fully evaluate whether Shriver is entitled to qualified immunity,” Jordan concluded.

The plaintiff is represented by Devon M. Jacob of Jacob Litigation, in Mechanicsburg.

The defendants are represented by Donald L. Carmelite and John P. Gonzales of Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin in Camp Hill and Philadelphia, Frank J. Lavery Jr. and Joshua M. Autry of Lavery Faherty in Harrisburg and Gary A. Drakas of Forry Ullman, in Bethlehem.

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit case 15-4101

U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania case 1:14-cv-01798

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at nickpennrecord@gmail.com

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