Malicious Prosecution • Defamation • Negligence • Sovereign Immunity • Scope of Employment

Schell v. Guth, PICS Case No. 14-0468 (Pa. Commw. March 19, 2014) Brobson, J. (33 pages).

Where criminal charges that were ultimately dropped were supported by probable cause stemming from the testimony of the alleged victims, the investigating officers could not be held civilly liable for their roles in the investigation; and where an arrestee alleged the negligent use of excessive force in the arrest, the arresting officer enjoyed the privilege of sovereign immunity. Reversed and remanded.

Appellee Timothy Schell, formerly a Pennsylvania State Police trooper, brought an action against appellants Raymond Guth and Francis Barrett, both also PSP troopers, alleging tort claims of malicious prosecution, defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligence. Appellants brought a motion for summary judgment in the trial court, arguing that Schell’s claims were barred by sovereign immunity. The trial court denied the motion, and appellants appealed.

Schell’s claims arise out a criminal/internal affairs investigation against Schell conducted by Guth, a criminal investigator stationed in Schell’s troop, and Barrett, an IAD investigator stationed in Harrisburg, stemming from allegations of inappropriate and unlawful contact with a minor female, and stalking of an unrelated adult female. Guth conducted the criminal investigation into both matters after being assigned both cases by his supervisor. After his investigation, and on the testimony of both females, Guth submitted his reports along with proposed criminal charges to the district attorney, who approved all charges; Guth filed the charges, supported with affidavits of probable cause. However, all charges but one were dismissed by the trial court. Schell was found not guilty of the remaining charge after bench trial.

At the same time Guth was assigned to the criminal investigation, Barrett was assigned by his supervisor to conduct an internal administrative investigation into both matters. However, pursuant to PSP procedures, Barrett paused his investigation pending the outcome of criminal proceedings, although he kept informed of the course of the prosecution. After the verdict, Barrett resumed his investigation, including following up on multiple reports of possible improper contact Schell may have had with other women. Barrett submitted his investigation report on both matters, which included Guth’s criminal investigative report, but did not recommend any discipline or opinion on whether Schell had violated PSP regulations. However, Schell was dismissed from the PSP for violation of eight regulations relating to his contact with the minor female.

In reversing the trial court’s ruling on appellants’ motion for summary judgment, the court noted that commonwealth employees acting within the scope of their duties enjoy sovereign and official immunity from suit, except as waived in certain situations involving negligence.

The court found that all undisputed facts established that both appellants were following orders and acting in the scope of their assigned duties and that all conduct that forms the basis of Schell’s claims occurred in the performance of those duties.