E-Alert Case Updates
Delaware Federal Court Examines Pleading Requirements For False Arrest, False Imprisonment, and Malicious Prosecution Claims
Scheing v. Fountain
Scheing v. Fountain involved a lawsuit for false arrest, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution by Plaintiff who had been arrested for theft and fraud. The arresting officer subsequently filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The United States District Court for the District of Delaware concluded that Plaintiff failed to plead essential elements of each claim. Thus, the Court dismissed the case.
By way of factual background, on July 22, 2013, the Vadalas, an elderly couple, contracted with Plaintiff Hans Scheing (“Plaintiff”), to repair or replace a failed septic tank at the Vadalas’ home. Mr. Scheing performed soil testing that day in order to determine the type of septic system that would be required. Afterwards, Mr. Scheing purportedly provided updates to the Vadalas on numerous occasions regarding ongoing services and repairs to the property. On September 10, 2013, Mrs. Vadala filed a complaint with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (“DNREC”) claiming that Plaintiff failed to perform the contracted work. Plaintiff alleged that Mrs. Vadala made this claim “falsely.” On October 14, 2013, Officer Casey Fountain, a DNREC employee, obtained a warrant for Mr. Scheing’s arrest for felony theft and home improvement fraud. Plaintiff alleged that Officer Fountain filed the warrant without first verifying whether Mrs. Vadala’s complaint was “accurate,” and that a few days before the issuance of the arrest warrant, Plaintiff received the soil report from his expert.
On October 21, 2013, Officer Fountain purportedly contacted Mr. Scheing and told him that she wanted to “talk about some contracts.” Plaintiff claimed that later, while at the police station, Mr. Scheing told Officer Fountain that he did the soil test, but Officer Fountain said that there was nothing Mr. Scheing could say or do to prevent his arrest, and arrested him. On November 6, 2013, the criminal charges against Mr. Scheing were dismissed by the Delaware Court of Common Pleas. Then, in January 2014, Mr. Scheing was indicted by a grand jury on four (4) felony charges, including theft and home improvement fraud. Those claims were dismissed on September 16, 2014. On November 6, 2015, Plaintiff filed a lawsuit against Officer Fountain for false arrest, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution. Subsequently, Officer Fountain filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).
The Court began its analysis by noting that the “gist” of Plaintiff’s claims was that Officer Fountain “conducted an insufficient investigation” before obtaining the arrest warrant and grand jury indictment. The Court noted, however, that this alone was “not enough where Plaintiff fails to plead essential elements of each claim.”
Regarding Plaintiff’s first claim, the Court noted that a plaintiff will succeed on a claim for false arrest made pursuant to a warrant only if there is evidence (1) “that the officer knowingly and deliberately, or with a reckless disregard for the truth, made false statements or omissions that create a falsehood in applying for a warrant;” and (2) “that such statements or omissions are material, or necessary, to the finding of probable cause.” See Wilson v. Russo, 212 F.3d 781, 786-87 (3d Cir. 2000); Sherwood v. Mulvihill, 113 F.3d 396, 399 (3d Cir. 1997). The Court found, however, that Plaintiff’s complaint contained “no allegations, not even in conclusory terms, that Officer Fountain made false statements or omitted exculpatory information in her application for the arrest warrant.” Having failed to allege any of these facts, the Court concluded that Plaintiff’s claim for false arrest failed as a matter of law.
Next, the Court found that Plaintiff’s claim for false imprisonment also failed, because “an arrest based on probable cause cannot become the source of a claim for false imprisonment.” See Groman v. Twp. of Manalapan, 47 F.3d 628, 636 (3d Cir. 1995); Neefe v. Layfield, 2005 WL 2977782, at *4 (D. Del. Nov. 7, 2005) (“Because the arrest was lawful, Plaintiff’s unlawful imprisonment claim must fail”). The Court noted that “the existence of probable cause… is typically a question of fact,” however, “a court may conclude that probable cause existed as a matter of law if the evidence, viewed most favorably to a plaintiff, would not reasonably support a contrary factual finding.” See Sherwood, 113 F.3d at 401. The Court explained that probable cause exists “when the facts and circumstances within the arresting officer’s knowledge are sufficient in themselves to warrant a reasonable person to believe that an offense has been or is being committed by the person to be arrested.” See Orsatti v. New Jersey, 71 F.3d 480, 483 (3d Cir. 1995). The Court further explained that “once an officer believes she has probable cause, she is not required to undertake an exhaustive investigation in order to validate the probable cause.” See Merkle v. Upper Dublin Sch. Dist., 211 F.3d 782, 790 (3d Cir. 2000) (explaining that an officer had probable cause, even though he did not interview every possible witness, because he had a credible report from a witness to the alleged crime).
Turning to the facts of the case, the Court found that Plaintiff “failed to allege facts showing that Officer Fountain lacked probable cause in obtaining the warrant.” Plaintiff acknowledged that Officer Fountain met with the victim, Mrs. Vadala, on multiple occasions to discuss her complaint. According to the Court, these meetings were sufficient to give Officer Fountain probable cause for an arrest. See Merkle, 211 F.3d at 790 (finding sufficient facts to establish probable cause for an arrest where police officer “possessed knowledge of a credible report from a credible eyewitness”). The Court explained that just because Officer Fountain did not take some additional action to corroborate Mrs. Vadala’s complaint, did not mean that Officer Fountain lacked probable cause for an arrest.
Finally, the Court found that Plaintiff also failed to state a claim for malicious prosecution. The Court explained that to prove malicious prosecution, a plaintiff must show that: (1) “the defendant initiated a criminal proceeding;” (2) “the criminal proceeding ended in plaintiff’s favor;” (3) “the defendant initiated the proceeding without probable cause;” (4) “the defendant acted maliciously or for a purpose other than bringing the plaintiff to justice;” and (5) “the plaintiff suffered deprivation of liberty consistent with the concept of seizure as a consequence of a legal proceeding.” See Estate of Smith v. Marasco, 318 F.3d 497, 521 (3d Cir. 2003). The Court found that an analysis of each of the elements was not required, noting that Plaintiff had “clearly failed to allege facts in support of the third element, an absence of probable cause.” The Court explained that all of the same facts regarding probable cause that Plaintiff failed to allege with respect to the false arrest and false imprisonment claims, also demonstrated a failure to state a malicious prosecution claim. See Davis v. Rinehart, 2014 WL 4749192, at *4 (D. Del. Sept. 22, 2014) (holding that a malicious prosecution claim failed because plaintiff failed to show lack of probable cause for his arrest). Accordingly, the Court concluded that the claim for malicious prosecution, like the claims for false arrest and false imprisonment, must be dismissed for failure to state a claim. Thus, the Court granted Officer Fountain’s motion to dismiss.
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