Articles Posted in Civil Rights

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.In 1990, 19-year-old Bennett was sitting in the passenger seat of a getaway car when his conspirator entered a jewelry store to commit a robbery, shooting the clerk and killing her. Bennett was convicted of first-degree murder. After a capital sentencing hearing, the jury returned a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Two state courts later vacated Bennett’s first-degree murder conviction, finding that the trial court erroneously instructed the jury that it could convict Bennett of first-degree murder based on the shooter’s intent to kill. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed, reinstating the conviction. The Third Circuit granted Bennett’s federal habeas corpus petition, finding that the trial court’s erroneous jury instructions deprived him of due process of law. The court analyzed the issue de novo, concluding that Bennett’s due process claim was not adjudicated on the merits in state court. Due process is violated when a jury instruction relieves the government of its burden of proving every element beyond a reasonable doubt. There is “‘a reasonable likelihood’ that the jury at Bennett’s trial applied the instructions in a way that relieved the state of its burden of proving the specific intent to kill. View "Bennett v. Superintendent Graterford SCI" on Justia Law

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Nixon suffered from mental health problems. He sometimes lived with his long-time partner, Haberle, and their children. On May 20, 2013, he had “a serious mental health episode,” told Haberle that he was suicidal, broke into a friend’s home and took a handgun, then went to his cousin’s apartment. Haberle contacted Nazareth Police. Officer Troxell obtained a warrant for Nixon’s arrest and went to the apartment with other officers, who suggested getting Pennsylvania State Police crisis negotiators or asking Haberle to communicate with Nixon. Troxell called the other officers “a bunch of f[---]ing pussies.” He knocked and identified himself as a police officer. Nixon promptly shot himself. The Third Circuit affirmed, in part, the dismissal of Haberle’s suit. She claimed that Troxell unconstitutionally seized Nixon and that Nixon’s suicide was the foreseeable result of a danger that Troxell created, and violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. 12101-213 by failing to modify Borough policies and procedures to ensure that disabled individuals would have their needs met during police interactions. Troxell merely knocked on the door and announced his presence, which is not enough to violate the Fourth Amendment. Even if there had been a seizure, it would have been pursuant to a valid warrant and not unlawful. Troxell’s actions do not “shock the conscience.” The court remanded to allow Haberle to amend her ADA claim. View "Haberle v. Troxell" on Justia Law

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Paladino, a New Jersey State Prison inmate, filed a 42 U.S.C. 1983 civil rights action against prison employees alleging a number of constitutional claims. The district court granted summary judgment on many of his claims, finding that he failed to exhaust administrative remedies, as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995. The Third Circuit affirmed with respect to most of Paladino’s claims but vacated with respect to Paladino’s excessive force claim based on an alleged 2010 assault, finding a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether he exhausted that claim because there was a conflict between the prison’s records and Paladino’s deposition testimony. Some type of notice and an opportunity to respond are needed before a district court elects to decide factual disputes regarding exhaustion. View "Paladino v. Newsome" on Justia Law

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During Greene’s 1996 trial for murder, robbery, and conspiracy, the prosecution introduced the redacted confessions of Greene’s non-testifying codefendants. Pennsylvania’s High Court summarily dismissed an appeal in which Greene argued that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1998 "Gray" holding, decided after the Superior Court rejected Greene’s Confrontation Clause claim, entitled him to relief. Pennsylvania courts also rejected his post-conviction petitions. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the denial of Greene's 2004 habeas petition, noting that Gray had not sought certiorari relief after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court dismissed his appeal and did not assert his “Gray” claim in his state post-conviction petition. Three years later, Greene filed a pro se Rule 60(b)(6) motion to vacate, arguing that appellate counsel rendered ineffective assistance in failing to advise Greene to petition the U.S. Supreme Court, citing the Court’s 2012 decision (Martinez v. Ryan) that “[w]here, under state law, claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel must be raised in an initial-review collateral proceeding, a procedural default will not bar a federal habeas court from hearing a substantial claim of ineffective assistance at trial if, in the initial-review collateral proceeding, there was no counsel or counsel in that proceeding was ineffective.” The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of relief, citing the Supreme Court’s 2017 holding (Davila v. Davis) that “a federal court [may not] hear a substantial, but procedurally defaulted, claim of ineffective assistance of appellate counsel when a prisoner’s state post-conviction counsel provides ineffective assistance by failing to raise that claim.” View "Greene v. Superintendent Smithfield SCI" on Justia Law

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Bradley was Director of Budget and Financial Planning at the West Chester University of Pennsylvania (WCU). During preparation of a budget report for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, Bradley was instructed to increase a line item by several million dollars, to “swing” a multi-million dollar surplus to a multi-million dollar deficit. She was told that the report “was a political document[,] and if you don’t present this deficit, your appropriation money is at risk.” At a meeting of WCU’s Budget Committee, Bradley stated that alterations were “unethical and quite frankly, [possibly] illegal.” Her supervisor expressed his displeasure, stating that her “future was at risk.” Bradley subsequently circulated a memorandum documenting her concerns. Two years later, Bradley was assisting with a meeting of WCU’s Enrollment Committee. She presented her supervisor’s proposed budget, then answered a question and presented an alternate budget, which, she believed, “presents reality.” Although she was expected to speak at a presentation the next day, Bradley refused to do so unless she could present her version of the budget. Her supervisor told Bradley that her contract would not be renewed. Arguing that her termination was in retaliation for speech protected by the First Amendment, she sued. The Third Circuit affirmed dismissal. The institutional defendants were entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity; her speech was pursuant to her official duties, and, therefore not constitutionally protected. View "Bradley v. West Chester University of Pennsylvania" on Justia Law

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Bradley was Director of Budget and Financial Planning at the West Chester University of Pennsylvania (WCU). During preparation of a budget report for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, Bradley was instructed to increase a line item by several million dollars, to “swing” a multi-million dollar surplus to a multi-million dollar deficit. She was told that the report “was a political document[,] and if you don’t present this deficit, your appropriation money is at risk.” At a meeting of WCU’s Budget Committee, Bradley stated that alterations were “unethical and quite frankly, [possibly] illegal.” Her supervisor expressed his displeasure, stating that her “future was at risk.” Bradley subsequently circulated a memorandum documenting her concerns. Two years later, Bradley was assisting with a meeting of WCU’s Enrollment Committee. She presented her supervisor’s proposed budget, then answered a question and presented an alternate budget, which, she believed, “presents reality.” Although she was expected to speak at a presentation the next day, Bradley refused to do so unless she could present her version of the budget. Her supervisor told Bradley that her contract would not be renewed. Arguing that her termination was in retaliation for speech protected by the First Amendment, she sued. The Third Circuit affirmed dismissal. The institutional defendants were entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity; her speech was pursuant to her official duties, and, therefore not constitutionally protected. View "Bradley v. West Chester University of Pennsylvania" on Justia Law

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Karns and Parker (Plaintiffs), evangelical Christian ministers, were preaching and carrying signs on the railway platform at NJ Transit's Princeton Junction Station. Parker had previously been informed that a permit was required to engage in noncommercial speech on NJ Transit property. Neither had a permit. NJ Transit Officers had been instructed that if they observed an individual engaging in non-commercial speech without a permit, an officer should explain the permitting rules and take “appropriate enforcement action” if the individual, aware of the requirement, continues to engage in non-commercial expression. In response to a dispatch call, officers approached Plaintiffs and informed them of the requirement. Parker responded that he had been preaching at the station for years without any permit. The officers then asked for identification. Parker produced an expired college identification card. Karns refused to provide identification. The officers arrested Plaintiffs for obstruction and defiant trespass. Karns was acquitted. Parker’s defiant trespass conviction was reversed. Plaintiffs filed complaints, alleging violations of the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments. The Third Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendants. NJ Transit is an arm of the state, entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity for itself and the officers in their official capacities. The officers, as individuals. were entitled to qualified immunity on claims of selective enforcement and retaliation, and had probable cause to believe that Plaintiffs were engaged in criminal trespass. View "Karns v. Shanahan" on Justia Law

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Fallon was terminated by his employer, Mercy Catholic Medical Center, because he refused to be inoculated against flu. He opposed the vaccine because he believed that it might do more harm than good. Mercy required its employees to receive the vaccine unless they qualified for a medical or religious exemption. Fallon sought the exemption on religious grounds. Mercy ruled that he did not qualify and terminated him when he continued to refuse the vaccine. Fallon sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, arguing that his termination constituted religious discrimination. The district court dismissed his case with prejudice because his beliefs, while sincere and strongly held, were not religious in nature. The court considered the full text of an essay that was partially quoted in Fallon’s complaint but not submitted in full until Mercy attached it to a reply brief with its motion to dismiss. The Third Circuit affirmed. Fallon’s beliefs do not occupy a place in his life similar to that occupied by a more traditional faith. His objection to vaccination is therefore not religious and not protected by Title VII. The court rejected Fallon’s argument that only the portions of the essay, which were quoted in the complaint, should have been considered. View "Fallon v. Mercy Catholic Medical Center" on Justia Law

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In 2012, minor political parties challenged Pennsylvania’s election laws under the First and Fourteenth Amendment, 42 U.S.C. 1983. Minor parties gather a considerable number of signatures to place candidates on the ballot; the validity of those signatures can be challenged. A successful challenge may result in an award of costs (which may be considerable). The threat of these high costs has deterred some candidates. The court held that the statutes were, in combination, unconstitutional as applied to the parties, and ultimately adopted the Commonwealth’s proposal, based on a pending Pennsylvania General Assembly bill, that minor party candidates be placed on the ballot if they gather two and one-half times as many signatures as major party candidates must gather for the office of Governor, at least 5,000 signatures must be gathered with at least 250 from at least 10 of the 67 counties. For other statewide offices, the bill required 1,250-2,500 signatures with at least 250 from at least five counties. The court did not find any facts, nor explain its decision. The Third Circuit vacated, finding the record inadequate to support the signature gathering requirement. The appropriate inquiry is concerned with the extent to which a challenged regulation actually burdens constitutional rights and is “fact-intensive.” The court can impose the county-based signature-gathering requirements if it concludes that the requirements would have no appreciable impact on voting rights. View "Constitution Party of Pennsylvania v. Cortes" on Justia Law

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Barna attended a School Board meeting and expressed concerns on behalf of himself and friends. Board President Markovich responded that Barna should bring his friends. Barna replied, “my friends have guns.” Markovich asked Barna to leave a subsequent meeting. Barna stated: “I may have to come after all of yous” and went after a Board member. A security guard restrained Barna. The superintendent informed Barna that he could attend Board meetings but would be banned from future attendance if he engaged in disorderly conduct. Barna subsequently attended meetings without incident until, in October 2011. Barna became confrontational after being denied the opportunity to ask questions, stating: “Do you want to fight?” During a recess, Barna uttered “[s]on of a bitch” within earshot of attendees. The Board solicitor sent Barna a letter barring him from attending Board meetings, school extracurricular activities, and from “be[ing] physically present” on the campus. Barna was permitted to submit written questions, which the Board would answer in a timely manner. Barna sued, alleging violations of his First Amendment right to free speech and First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to be free from unconstitutional prior restraint. The court granted defendants summary judgment, citing qualified immunity. The Third Circuit affirmed in favor of the individual officials in their individual capacities but vacated with respect to the Board and the individual officials in their official capacities. The district court overlooked Supreme Court precedent that municipalities do not enjoy qualified immunity from suit for damages under 42 U.S.C. 1983. View "Barna v. Board of School Directors Panther Valley School District" on Justia Law