Pinkney v. Meadville

Decision Date03 April 2020
Docket NumberCase No. 1:19-cv-167
CourtU.S. District Court — Western District of Pennsylvania
PartiesKOBE PINKNEY, Plaintiff v. MEADVILLE, PENNSYLVANIA, et al, Defendants



[ECF NOS. 53, 55, 57 & 59]

I. Introduction

This action arises out of a witness's mistaken identification of Plaintiff Kobe Pinkney as the perpetrator of a brutal assault upon a bar patron, Pinkney's resulting arrest on aggravated assault and related charges, followed by his exoneration and the dropping of all charges against him, and a prosecutor's statement to the press that Pinkney nevertheless remained a suspect of the crime. Pinkney brings this action against the City of Meadville, Pennsylvania (Meadville), Meadville Police Chief Michael J. Tautin (Chief Tautin), Meadville Police Officer Jared Frum (Officer Frum), Allegheny College (Allegheny), Allegheny College Police Sergeant William Merchbaker (Sergeant Merchbaker), Crawford County First Assistant District Attorney Paula DiGiacomo (ADA DiGiacomo), the Meadville Tribune (Tribune), Community Newspaper Holding, Inc. (CNH), and Tribune reporter Keith Gushard (Gushard).

Pinkney's Amended Complaint (ECF No. 50), which is the operative pleading before the Court, asserts the following claims under federal law: Fourth Amendment claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983 alleging "unlawful stop and detention" against Sergeant Merchbaker (Count I) and false arrest, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution against Officer Frum (Counts II-IV); a Fourteenth Amendment equal protection claim alleging racial discrimination pursuant to §1983 and 42 U.S.C. §1981 against Officer Frum and Sergeant Merchbacker (Count V); and municipal and supervisory liability claims pursuant to §1983 and §1981 against Meadville, Chief Tautin, Allegheny and Sergeant Merchbaker (Count VI). The Amended Complaint asserts the following claims under Pennsylvania state law: false light defamation against ADA DiGiacomo, Gushard, the Tribune and CNH (Count VII) as well as Allegheny and Sergeant Merchbaker (Count VIII); invasion of privacy against the Tribune, CNH and Gushard (Count IX) and ADA DiGiacomo (Count X); intentional infliction of emotional distress against Sergeant Merchbaker, Allegheny, ADA DiGiacomo, Gushard, the Tribune and CNH (Count XI), and conversion against Meadville (Count XII), which is erroneously designated as Count X of the Amended Complaint.

All defendants have moved to dismiss the claims against them pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) as follows: ADA DiGiacomo at ECF No. 53, Officer Frum, Meadville and Chief Tautin at ECF No. 55, CNH, Gushard and the Tribune at ECF No. 57, and Allegheny and Sergeant Merchbaker at ECF No. 59. For the reasons discussed herein, the Court will grant the motions filed on behalf of Officer Frum, Meadville, Chief Tautin, Allegheny and Sergeant Merchbaker to the extent they attack the sufficiency of Pinkney's federal law claims. The Court will decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Pinkney's state law claims against these defendants as well as the claims against ADA DiGiacomo, Gushard, the Tribune and CNH. These claims will be dismissed without prejudice.1

II. Material Facts

Pinkney's Amended Complaint alleges the following facts, which the Court accepts as true for purposes of all pending motions:

On April 7, 2019, at approximately 1:30 am, Officer Frum, while on routine patrol in the area of the Meadville Academy Theatre, observed four males walking near an establishment known as Julian's Bar. ECF No. 50, ¶17. Two of the men were carrying a third male, later identified as Rhett Happel, whose left side of his face was severely swollen and who later underwent emergency surgery to treat serious injuries to his face. Id., ¶¶18, 21. Officer Frum summoned an ambulance to the scene, and while the group waited for the ambulance to arrive, one of the males volunteered that he believed that Happel had been assaulted and speculated that the attack had been motivated by a report that Happel had drugged a female the police had found unconscious in the bathroom of Julian's Bar the previous night. Id., ¶¶19-20.

Three days later, on April 10, 2019, Officer Frum interviewed a witness at the Allegheny College Public Safety Building, with the assistance of Sergeant Merchbaker, the Interim Director of Public Safety for Allegheny. Id., ¶22. The witness told Officer Frum and Sergeant Merchbaker that the assailant was an African American male, approximately six feet tall, with braided hair, who walked up to Happel when he was in the bathroom of Julian's Bar, tapped Happel's shoulder from behind and then punched Happel on the left side of his face as Happel turned around. Id., ¶23. According to the witness, the assailant walked to another area of Julian's Bar and eventually existed the establishment. Id., ¶24. After the assault, the witness was contacted by Happel's friend, Evan Haines, who sent the witness a Facebook photo of Jared Shaw, a white male who had been observed at Julian's Bar with the assailant on the evening of the assault, and an African-American male, later identified as Pinkney. Id., ¶25. Both Shaw and Pinkney are football players at Allegheny. Id., ¶¶28."The witness recognized [Pinkney] as the man that he saw punch Rhett Happel." Id., ¶26. Haines showed the witness two additional photographs of Shaw and Pinkney together, and "both times the witness identified [Pinkney] as the assailant." Id., ¶27. Happel later recalled "that, moments prior to the assault, Jared Shaw and his girlfriend, who has a first name of 'Chloe,' confronted him inside the bar, accusing him of drugging Chloe the night before, causing her to fall unconscious." Id., ¶29. Shaw and Chloe followed Happel to the men's bathroom where Happel was attacked. Id., ¶30.

The Amended Complaint further alleges that the Meadville Police Department deemed Shaw a "person of interest, for possibly conspiring with the assailant out of retaliation for Happel drugging Chloe" and, therefore, was apparently aware the foregoing facts. Id., ¶31. "Consequently, the police offered [Shaw] immunity from prosecution, in exchange for [Shaw] identifying the assailant."2 Id., ¶32. Despite this offer of immunity, Shaw refused to cooperate with the police. 33.

On April 11, 2019, Officer Frum filed a criminal complaint and affidavit of probable cause against Pinkney charging him with aggravated assault in violation of 18 Pa.C.S.A. §2702(a)(1), simple assault in violation of 18 Pa.C.S.A. §2701(a)(1), harassment in violation of 18 Pa.C.S.A. §2709(a)(1), and disorderly conduct in violation of 18 Pa.C.S.A. §5503(a)(1). Consistent with the allegations of the Amended Complaint, Officer Frum's affidavit of probable stated that a witness had described Happel's attacker as "an African American male approximately six feet tall with braided hair" and specifically identified Pinkney as the assailant:

On April 10, 2019, at approximately 16:30 hours, I interviewed a witness at the Allegheny College Public Safety building. The witness provided an audio recorded statement and stated that they were standing in line for the bathroom. They stated that an African American male approximatelysix feet tall with braided hair walked up to Happel. They stated that he then tapped Happel on the shoulder and when Happel looked around the male punched him once int eh left side of the face. They stated that the male then walked to the town tavern side of the establishment. They stated a short time later they walked into that area and did not see the male anymore.
The witness stated that they were contacted by Happle's (sic) friend, Evan Haines, and was sent picture of a white male and a black male. they recognized the white male as Jared Shaw and the black male as Kobe Pinkney. they recognized Pinkney as the black male that punched Happel. They stated that Haines sent two more picture and they were both pictures of Pinkney.

ECF No. 55-1, p. 6 (emphasis added).3

A magisterial district judge issued a warrant for Pinkney's arrest on April 11, and that same day, Sergeant Merchbaker removed Pickney from his college philosophy lecture, and Officer Frum proceeded to place him under arrest. ECF Nos. 50, ¶34; 50-1. Following Pinkney's arrest, Meadville Police secured a search warrant for his dormitory room at Allegheny to seize a ring believed to have been worn by Pinkney on the night of the assault so that forensic testing could be performed upon the ring. ECF No. 50, ¶54 & Exhibit 2. Pinkney was later released on bail. ECF No. 50, ¶37.

Gushard first reported Pinkney's arrest and the alleged circumstances surrounding the assault upon Happel in an article published in the Tribune on April 15, 2019. ECF No. 50, ¶39; ECF No. 50-1, pp.16-17. The April 15 article reported the factual allegations against Pinkney as recited in Officer Frum's affidavit of probable cause and other public records associated with thecharges against Pinkney. Id. Specifically, Gushard's April 15 article identified Pinkney by name and home address and reported that he was "facing charges that he hit another man in the face so hard the victim had to have emergency surgery" and that "Pinkney punched the man in the face sometime between 1 and 1:28 a.m. April 7 at Julian's Bar & Grill for allegedly drugging a female, but the victim 'was wrongfully being accused,' according to court documents." Id. The article went on to report the information provided by the eyewitness as recounted in the affidavit of probable cause, including the details of Pinkney's alleged assault upon Happel. Id.

After Pinkney's arrest, numerous witnesses came forward and claimed that Pinkney did not assault Happel and that he had not even been at Julian's bar on the night of the assault. At least one witness specifically identified a different African American male, Josiah Williams, as...

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