Woman found not guilty in Lower Merion arson case can continue malicious prosecution lawsuit

By Mary Ann Magnell | Aug 20, 2018

PHILADELPHIA — A U.S. District court judge granted in part a defendant’s motion for summary judgment in a civil rights complaint that stemmed from a 2012 fire that resulted in the arrest of a California woman for arson.

Plaintiff Michele Owen Black was later found not guilty of all charges. She then sued the detectives who investigated the fire, the Lower Merion chief fire officer and the Lower Merion deputy fire marshal. According to the filing, she also brought “state law claims of malicious prosecution, intentional infliction of emotional distress and false imprisonment against the Individual Defendants.”

Judge Anita B. Brody discussed her findings in the 53-page filing on Aug. 15 from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. 

Summary judgment was granted on the §1983 claims against the individual defendants listed in the case, as well as the Monell claims raised against Lower Merion and Montgomery County; they did not meet the standards of the Fourth Amendment context. 

Summary judgment was also granted as uncontested on all state law claims against defendant State Trooper Robert Pomponio, an Alternate Deputy Fire Marshal.

The defendants’ summary judgment was denied against the state law claims of malicious prosecution, false imprisonment and intentional inflection of emotional distress against Detective John Fallon, Lower Merion Deputy Fire Marshal Frank Hand, Lower Merion Chief Fire Officer Charles McGarvey, and Lower Merion Detectives Gregory Henry and Bryn Garner. 

In her decision, Judge Brody stated that the “general public is entitled to protection from abuse of authority and from the embarrassment, humiliation, and expense of being wrongfully prosecuted for a crime.” 

The plaintiff complained that in the course of the investigation, pertinent information was left out of the report regarding the experience of the officers involved and that pieces of evidence were not tested or inspected by electrical experts. 

Judge Brody agreed with the plaintiff in that there were “genuine disputes of material fact as to the adequacy of the investigation, Black has raised a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the Individual Defendants initiated the proceedings against her without probable cause and with malice.”

The event that spurred this litigation was a Nov. 21, 2012, fire that broke out in a third floor room of Black’s childhood home after she had been going through family possessions. After the contentious investigation in question, Ms. Black was charged with “arson endangering persons and property, reckless burning or exploding, failure to report or control dangerous fires, risking catastrophe, criminal mischief, and recklessly endangering another person.” 

The fire was found to be electrical in nature and a jury found Black not guilty of all charges in less than 40 minutes.

The home, which had been sold two days before the fire occurred, had “knob and tube” wiring that created a fire hazard; the new buyer could not get homeowner’s insurance until the wiring was upgraded.    

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Civil Action Case No. 14-6702


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