#TheyLied Malicious Prosecution / Abuse of Process / Emotional Distress Claim Can Go Forward

From Skinner v. Hadlockdecided Thursday by Judge Michael Baylson (ED Pa.):

Skinner alleges that Hadlock falsely accused him of raping her in September 2018 while Hadlock was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Masters of Social Work program.

Skinner, who was the program counselor at a housing-for-the-homeless social work program and Hadlock’s graduate assignment supervisor at the time, was arrested in January 2019 and incarcerated for nearly two years while awaiting trial. In December 2021, Skinner’s criminal trial commenced; At the end of Hadlock’s testimony and before the end of the prosecutor’s case, the prosecutor moved to withdraw the case with prejudice due to new evidence produced at trial. The trial judge granted the motion and Skinner’s criminal case was terminated. Skinner now brings the above claims against Hadlock. Hadlock also maintains a civil suit in state court against the housing program and the University of Pennsylvania, which she filed in December 2018.…

[A.] Abuse of Process Claim

To state a claim for abuse of process under Pennsylvania law, the plaintiff must show (1) that the defendant used a legal process against the plaintiff, (2) primarily to accomplish a purpose for which the process was not designed, and (3) harm has been caused to the plaintiff.

Pennsylvania state claims for abuse of process and malicious prosecution are “separate and distinct.” The former is “a perversion of a process after it is issued” and the latter is “the wrong initiation of such process.” When looking at abuse of process, it “is not… the wrongful initiation of criminal or civil proceedings; it is the misuse of process, no matter how properly obtained, for any purpose other than that it was designed to accomplish.” Importantly, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has characterized that “[t]he improper purpose usually takes the form of coercion to obtain a collateral advantage, not properly involved in the proceeding itself…. There is, in other words, a form of extortion, and it is what is done in the court of negotiation, rather than the assurance of the process itself, which constitutes the tort.”

Skinner alleges that Hadlock initiated and maintained the criminal proceeding against Skinner primarily to bolster Hadlock’s civil case against the University of Pennsylvania and the DePaul USA housing program. Skinner alleges that Hadlock hired a plaintiff’s law firm to pursue a civil action (not against Skinner) before reporting anything to the police and that when Hadlock finally went to the police, she showed them text messages she had intentionally fabricated to support her claims. Skinner argues this shows Hadlock abused the criminal justice system while knowing she had consented to having sex with Skinner, all to put additional pressure on her civil case opponents….

Hadlock did much more than initiate proceedings here—Skinner alleges that she tested against him at a preliminary hearing and at his criminal trial. It wasn’t cross-examination at the criminal trial itself until the prosecutor learned of evidence suggesting Hadlock fabricated her text messages, which resulted in the criminal moving to terminate the action with prejudice before he had even finished presenting his case. According to the Amended Complaint, Hadlock had already been confronted with the same evidence produced by Skinner’s criminal cross-examination at her earlier deposition in her civil trial case, indicating that she did not inform the prosecutor about the new exculpatory evidence prior to the criminal trial ….

While Hadlock may be right that this is a case of first impression, Skinner’s allegation that Hadlock pursued proceedings against him to bolster a collateral civil case seeking a money award against other parties appears to square with the type of ‘extortion’ contemplated by the highest court in the state in Matter of Larsen. An abuse of process claim brought against a victim who initiated and helped maintain a criminal proceeding against her accused attacker may appear novel, but the facts as alleged in this case meet the standard to survive this motion absent a precedential case saying otherwise….

[B.] Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress…

Under Pennsylvania law, a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress requires that the plaintiff show (1) the conduct was extreme and outrageous; (2) the conduct was intentionally reckless; (3) the conduct caused emotional distress; (4) and the distress was severe. Courts have recognized valid IIED claims at the motion to dismiss stage related to allegedly false accusations of sexual assault or rape. Hungerford v. Jones (DNH 1997); Roberts v. Total (ED Pa. 1995)….

The Court finds that a campaign of lying maintained over a period of time allegedly to bolster a civil case initiated earlier, which results in a person’s extended incarceration, can constitute extreme and outrageous behavior. See Roberts (Finding allegedly false rape allegations which resulted in plaintiff’s incarceration could extreme and outrageous behavior)….

[C.] Malicious Prosecution

Under Pennsylvania law, a claim for malicious prosecution requires the plaintiff show (1) the defendant initiated a proceeding, (2) the criminal proceeding ended in the plaintiff’s favor, (3) the proceeding was initiated without probable cause, and (4) the defendants acted maliciously or for a purpose other than bringing the plaintiff to justice.

Hadlock argues that she did not act maliciously by initiating the criminal proceeding against Skinner and, alternatively, that probable cause existed for the prosecution, vitiating Skinner’s claim. She argues that Skinner’s having had sex with her multiple times, Skinner’s position as supervisor over her and Skinner’s prior criminal history are sufficient on their own to satisfy the probable cause. On the other hand, Skinner argues that any probable cause supporting his arrest and prosecution was based on falsified information from Hadlock in the form of her false statements and fabricated evidence.

At the outset, the Court notes that despite the potential merit of Hadlock’s arguments, courts are decisive to dismiss claims that probable existed to arrest this early in the litigation and before any discovery has occurred. “Courts should exercise caution before granting a defendant summary judgment in a malicious prosecution case when there is a question of whether there was a probable cause for the initiation of the criminal proceeding because, ‘generally, the existence of probable cause is a factual issue.'” “…

As to Hadlock’s contention that her actions were not malicious, the Court finds that Skinner has pled sufficient facts to suggest that Hadlock fabricated and manipulated evidence that she used to initiate criminal proceedings against him, which can be construed as malicious given the timing of the civil case. Further discovery as to the initiation of the criminal proceedings is necessary….

The court, however, rejected the false arrest and false imprisonment claims on statutes of limitations grounds; it concluded that they needed to be filed within two years of the arrest, not within two years of the dropping of the charges.

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