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Reitz v. County of Bucks

September 8, 1997

R OWN INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY AS WELL AS THE EXECUTRIX OF THE ESTATE OF GEORGE REITZ, SR.; DAVID REITZ, SR.; DAVID REITZ; ANDREA REITZ; LINDA REITZ, WIFE OF GEORGE REITZ, JR.; BY GEORGE ENTERPRISES; WINGAIT FARMS, INC.; GEORGE J. REITZ, JR.

v.

COUNTY OF BUCKS; BUCKS COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY'S OFFICE; ALAN RUBENSTEIN; WILLIAM MOORE; GRANT'S AUTO SALVAGE, INC.; CHARLES M. GRANT; JENNIFER NICOLA; BLUE BAY FARM; JENNIFER NICOLA D/B/A BLUE BAY FARM; T. GARY GAMBARDELLA; CHARLES R. GRANT; QUAKERTOWN VETERINARY CLINIC ANGELINE REITZ (IN HER OWN INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY AND AS THE EXECUTRIX OF THE ESTATE OF GEORGE REITZ, SR.), DAVID REITZ, ANDREA REITZ, LINDA REITZ, BY GEORGE ENTERPRISES, WINGAIT FARMS, INC., AND GEORGE J. REITZ, JR., APPELLANTS



An Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania

Civil Action No. 95-6603

Before: MANSMANN, NYGAARD and ROSENN, Circuit Judges.

Rosenn, Circuit Judge.

Filed September 8, 1997

Argued June 12, 1997

OPINION OF THE COURT

This appeal, arising from what should have been a simple state forfeiture proceeding, raises a number of complex questions concerning federal constitutional rights violations. The plaintiffs are members of a large family of which one was convicted of violating Pennsylvania narcotics laws. They brought a federal action for damages under 42 U.S.C. Section(s) 1983 and also included various state law claims alleging the District Attorney's Office of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, delayed the return of plaintiffs' seized property for almost a year after ordered to do so by the county court. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of all defendants on the Section(s) 1983 claim and declined to exercise pendant jurisdiction over the remaining state law claims. We conclude that the individual prosecuting attorneys are not entitled to qualified immunity on the Section(s) 1983 claim alleging the mismanagement of the property after it had been ordered returned to the plaintiffs and that the plaintiffs' claims rise above ordinary negligence. We affirm summary judgment on the Section(s) 1983 claim as to both municipal defendants and the grant of absolute immunity to the prosecutors; we vacate the summary judgment in favor of the prosecutors on the basis of qualified immunity and the judgment in favor of the remaining defendants and remand.

I.

On or about May 8, 1992, state law enforcement officials raided Wingait farms (owned by George Reitz, Jr.["Reitz, Jr."] and his wife, Linda), and arrested Reitz, Jr. for possession and delivery of marijuana in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Following his arrest, the County, acting pursuant to state forfeiture laws, specifically 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Section(s) 6801, seized real estate and a wide variety of personal property, from antiques to horses, ostensibly belonging to Reitz, Jr. State law authorizes the seizure of property that facilitated a criminal act or constituted proceeds of the criminal act. An attorney representing Angeline Reitz and David Reitz, the mother and brother-in-law of Reitz, Jr., wrote the District Attorney's Office of Bucks County to inform them that certain property did not belong to Reitz, Jr., had no connection to his illegal activity, and was not subject to forfeiture under Pennsylvania law. The District Attorney's Office did not respond to this letter, and the attorney of Angeline Reitz and David Reitz then filed a Petition with the Court of Common Pleas of Bucks County for the Return of Property pursuant to Pennsylvania Rule of Criminal Procedure 324. On June 23, 1992, the court granted the petition and ordered certain items of property returned to the petitioners "forthwith." Some of the property was returned soon thereafter, but the bulk of the property allegedly remained in the custody of the District Attorney.

The Reitz family then petitioned the county court for a hearing on the return of the personal property. The court granted the petition, but at the request of the District Attorney delayed the hearing until the completion of the criminal proceedings against Reitz, Jr. At the hearing, the court ordered some of the property returned by way of an involuntary non-suit against the Commonwealth. As to the remaining property, a jury determined that most of the property seized had not been used to facilitate any violation of the state law and thus found it had been improperly seized. The property, however, was not immediately returned by the District Attorney's Office. The District Attorney's Office asserts that this was due to a dispute between members of the Reitz family concerning to whom the property should be returned. The Reitz family has asserted that this dispute was resolved, as attested to by stipulations from the family establishing ownership of the property in question. Moreover, they assert that there were alternatives available to the District Attorney to determine the ownership of the claimed property, including judicial action, rather than simply retaining the property in violation of the court order.

The Reitz family further alleges that, due to incomplete and inaccurate information furnished to the Internal Revenue Service ("IRS") by the District Attorney's Office, the property was then subjected to a tax lien in February, 1994, while the property was still in their custody. The District Attorney's Office petitioned the court to have the seized property transferred to the custody of the IRS; the court ordered the transfer on February 22, 1994. The court vacated this order three days later. By this time, however, the proceeds of a number of bank accounts had already been transferred to the IRS, including one account previously adjudged to be the property of By George Enterprises and thus not subject to forfeiture. Plaintiffs then brought suit in the federal district court to challenge the tax lien.

To obtain relief from the tax lien, the plaintiffs were compelled to petition the Court of Common Pleas of Bucks County for an order confirming that most of the property had been improperly seized and that the District Attorney's Office and the Commonwealth had no interest in or claim to that property. The court entered an order on June 17, 1994, declaring again that the "Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and/or Bucks County District Attorney's Office shall have no further interest or claim to the items referenced in the above-matter." The order further directed the District Attorney's Office to provide the plaintiffs with any information needed to challenge the IRS levy. Armed with this order, the plaintiffs pursued their federal challenge to the tax lien. On September 13, 1994, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ordered the abatement of the levy and the release of all improperly-seized property. The bulk of the property was returned in October, 1994, although certain improperly-levied proceeds were not returned until 1995. The plaintiffs further allege that some property has never been returned.

The plaintiffs then filed this suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania against Bucks County, the Bucks County District Attorney's Office, District Attorney Alan Rubenstein, Assistant District Attorney William Moore, Assistant District Attorney T. Gary Gambardella, and assorted caretakers of the real and personal property seized by the District Attorney's Office. The plaintiffs allege that the named defendants failed to comply with court orders directing the return of their property and intentionally or negligently mishandled said property, causing diminution in value or destruction of the property. Count I of plaintiffs' claim is a 42 U.S.C. Section(s) 1983 action; the plaintiffs allege that the seizure of the property, the subsequent delays in returning property, and the manner in which the property was kept evidence a policy and practice on the part of the Bucks County and the District Attorney's Office that violates the plaintiffs' civil rights. The plaintiffs further argue that the individual defendants' behavior violated their rights under the Second, Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments. The remaining nine counts allege state tort and contract claims. The defendants moved for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of ...


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