Articles Posted in Civil Rights

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Plaintiffs, two African-American men, were hired by STI, a staffing agency, as general laborers, for Chesapeake oil and natural gas company. Shortly thereafter, the only other African-American male on the crew was fired. Plaintiffs allege that: when they arrived at work on several occasions, someone had anonymously written “don’t be black on the right of way” on the sign-in sheets; although they have more experience working on pipelines than their non-African-American coworkers, they were only permitted to clean around the pipelines rather than work on them; and, when working on a fence-removal project, a supervisor stated that if they had “niggerrigged” the fence, they would be fired. Plaintiffs reported the offensive language and were fired two weeks later without explanation. They were rehired shortly thereafter, but terminated again for “lack of work.” Plaintiffs sued, alleging harassment, discrimination, and retaliation, 42 U.S.C. 1981. The court dismissed, finding that the alleged harassment was not “pervasive and regular,” that there were not sufficient facts demonstrating intent to fire Plaintiffs because of their race, and that Plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that an objectively reasonable person would have believed that the supervisor's comment was unlawful. The Third Circuit reversed, finding Plaintiffs’ harassment and retaliation claims plausible and that the district court incorrectly “jettisoned” the burden-shifting formula. The correct standard for evaluating harassment is “severe or pervasive.” A single incident can amount to unlawful activity. View "Castleberry v. STI Group" on Justia Law

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In 2014, father had partial custody of S.H.; S.H. accused mother of abuse and fled from her home to father. Father sought a temporary order of full custody. A Pennsylvania judge granted mother emergency custody. S.H. was referred to Centre County’s Children and Youth Services (CYS) because of the abuse allegations. CYS concluded that the allegation did not meet the definition of child abuse but continued its investigation, giving S.H. the option of moving into a group home or remaining with his mother. S.H. did not want to stay with her. Mother arranged for S.H. to stay in Youth Haven and objected to any contact with father, claiming that she had sole custody. CYS and Youth Haven allowed contact. After a visit, father complained about Youth Haven, which told CYS that S.H. could not stay due to problems with father. CYS informed father that he could no longer contact S.H. at Youth Haven. Hamilton filed a federal suit, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, alleging that conspiracy to deprive him of his constitutional rights by “placing S.H. in a shelter tantamount to confinement” and “arbitrarily and capriciously terminating all paternal visits and contact.” While that case progressed, S.H. left Youth Haven. A new Pennsylvania judge vacated the prior emergency custody order, granted father physical custody of S.H., and prohibited contact between S.H. and mother. The Third Circuit affirmed dismissal, finding that the case was mooted when father obtained custody. View "Hamilton v. Bromley" on Justia Law

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Geraci, part of a police watchdog group, attended an anti-fracking protest at the Philadelphia Convention Center, carrying her camera and a pink bandana that identified her as a legal observer. When the police acted to arrest a protestor, Geraci moved to record the arrest without interfering. An officer pinned Geraci against a pillar for a few minutes, preventing her from observing or recording the arrest. Fields, a Temple University sophomore, was on a public sidewalk where he observed officers across the street breaking up a party. He took a photograph. An officer ordered him to leave. Fields refused; the officer arrested him, confiscated and searched Fields’ phone, and opened several photos. The officer released Fields with a citation for “Obstructing Highway and Other Public Passages.” The charge was later withdrawn. Fields and Geraci brought 42 U.S.C. 1983 claims, alleging First Amendment retaliation. Although the Police Department’s official policies recognized their First Amendment right, the district court granted the defendants summary judgment on those claims, finding no evidence that plaintiffs’ “conduct may be construed as expression of a belief or criticism of police activity.” The Third Circuit reversed, noting that every circuit that has addressed the issue has found that the First Amendment protects the act of photographing or otherwise recording police officers conducting their official duties in public. View "Fields v. City of Philadelphia" on Justia Law

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De Ritis became an Assistant Public Defender for Delaware County in 2005. After being promoted to the “trial team,” De Ritis was told, in 2012, that he would be transferred back to the juvenile court unit. De Ritis contends that others told him that he was transferred because De Ritis’s clients were not pleading guilty fast enough. De Ritis assumed the information was accurate. He informed judges, private attorneys, and his colleagues that he was “being punished” for “taking too many cases to trial.” De Ritis did not discuss the issue with his supervisor, Roger. Denied a transfer back to the trial team, De Ritis contacted the County Solicitor, who contacted Roger and was told that De Ritis “was not performing well.” Roger learned of De Ritis’s allegations and fired him. De Ritis brought suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, claiming that the termination violated De Ritis’s First Amendment rights. The district court denied the Public Defender’s motion for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. The Third Circuit reversed. The First Amendment does not protect the speech at issue: statements made while performing official job responsibilities, speculative comments about the reason for a perceived demotion, and recklessly false rumors circulated to government officials. View "De Ritis v. McGarrigle" on Justia Law

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The fathers of minor children in New Jersey challenged the state law governing child custody proceedings between New Jersey parents. In a suit against state court judges, under 42 U.S.C. 1983, they argued that the “best interests of the child” standard that New Jersey courts use to determine custody in a dispute between two fit parents is unconstitutional. The fathers alleged that their parental rights were restricted, or that they were permanently or temporarily separated from their children, by order of the New Jersey family courts without adequate notice, the right to counsel, or a plenary hearing, i.e. without an opportunity to present evidence or cross-examine and that although mothers and fathers are, in theory, treated equally in custody disputes under New Jersey law, in practice courts favor mothers. The Third Circuit affirmed dismissal of the suit, after holding that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine did not bar the suit, which was not challenging the state court judgments, but the underlying policy that governed those judgments. The court concluded that the judicial defendants were not proper defendants, having acted in an adjudicatory capacity and not in an enforcement capacity. View "Allen v. DeBello" on Justia Law

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Vickers punched his victim once but the victim suffered a fractured skull, brain hemorrhaging, and was in a coma for four days. Pennsylvania law provides that for a criminal case to be tried without a jury, “[t]he judge shall ascertain from the defendant whether this is a knowing and intelligent waiver, and such colloquy shall appear on the record. The waiver shall be in writing, made a part of the record, and signed by the defendant, the attorney for the Commonwealth, the judge, and the defendant’s attorney.” Those procedures were not followed in Vickers’s case. The judge found Vickers guilty. Vickers sought state post-conviction relief, claiming ineffective assistance of counsel. Because Vickers’s private attorney had been replaced by a public defender, the attorney was unaware that the process had not been followed, but recommended that Vickers pursue a bench trial for strategic reasons and thought that Vickers wanted a bench trial. The court concluded that Vickers “freely, voluntarily, and intelligently waived his jury trial rights.” Vickers sought habeas relief, 28 U.S.C. 2254. The Third Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of relief. The proper prejudice inquiry is whether there is a reasonable likelihood that, but for his counsel’s deficient performance, Vickers would have exercised his Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. He failed to make that showing. View "Vickers v. Superintendent Graterford SCI" on Justia Law

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Gillette, an inmate at Golden Grove Correctional Facility on St. Croix, filed suit alleging various constitutional and statutory claims relating to his medical care and failure to protect. Gillette moved the district court to convene a three-judge court under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 18 U.S.C. 3626. The court denied Gillette’s motion, finding that he had not satisfied the prerequisites for convening a three-judge court: the party seeking a prisoner release order must show that “a court has previously entered an order for less intrusive relief that has failed to remedy the deprivation of the Federal right sought to be remedied through the prisoner release order” and that “the defendant has had a reasonable amount of time to comply. Before the court could adjudicate the merits of Gillette’s claims, he filed an appeal. The Third Circuit dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. The order denying Gillette’s motion for a three-judge court is neither a final order nor subject to any exception to the final judgment rule, View "Gillette v. Prosper" on Justia Law

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A Harrisburg, Pennsylvania ordinance prohibits persons to “knowingly congregate, patrol, picket or demonstrate in a zone extending 20 feet from any portion of an entrance to, exit from, or driveway of a health care facility.” Individuals purporting to provide “sidewalk counseling” to those entering abortion clinics claimed that the ordinance violated their First Amendment rights to speak, exercise their religion, and assemble, and their due process and equal protection rights. The court determined that the ordinance was content-neutral because it did not define or regulate speech by subject-matter or purpose, so that intermediate scrutiny applied, and reasoned that it must accept as true (on a motion to dismiss) claims that the city did not consider less restrictive alternatives. The claims proceeded to discovery. In denying preliminary injunctive relief, the court ruled that plaintiffs did not demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits. The Third Circuit vacated. In deciding whether to issue a preliminary injunction, plaintiffs normally bear the burden of demonstrating likelihood of prevailing on the merits. In First Amendment cases where the government bears the burden of proof on the ultimate question of a statute’s constitutionality, plaintiffs must be deemed likely to prevail for purposes of considering a preliminary injunction unless the government has shown that plaintiffs’ proposed less restrictive alternatives are less effective than the statute. View "Reilly v. City of Harrisburg" on Justia Law

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Roquet, is a psychologist at the Avenel Special Treatment Unit (STU), where Oliver, a sexually violent predator, has been civilly committed for treatment. At least annually, the Treatment Progress Review Committee (TPRC) interviews each detainee and considers a range of materials to formulate a recommendation about whether the patient should progress to the next step in the program. Roquet, a member of the TPRC, wrote a report that recommended that Oliver not advance in treatment. The Report recognized that this was “not consistent” with Oliver’s treatment team's recommendation, but concluded that Oliver “had not fully met the treatment goals,” provided a detailed overview of Oliver’s sexual and non-sexual offenses, diagnostic history, and clinical treatment, and summarized the results of Oliver's interview, including that “it appears that he denies, minimizes or justifies much of his documented offense history,” and that “[h]e did not demonstrate remorse for his crimes or empathy for his victims.” Oliver sued, alleging retaliation for his First Amendment-protected participation in legal activities on behalf of himself and other STU residents. The Third Circuit concluded that Roquet was entitled to qualified immunity, reasoning that Oliver pleaded facts reflecting that Roquet based her recommendation on the medically-relevant collateral consequences of his protected activity, but has not sufficiently pleaded that the recommendation was based on the protected activity itself. View "Oliver v. Roquet" on Justia Law

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Court erred in dismissing civil rights claims as time-barred without considering whether inmate exhausted administrative remedies and whether limitations period should be tolled. Wisniewski, a Pennsylvania inmate, filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983. He worked as an aide in the prison’s law library. Believing that prison policies were harming inmates’ ability to access the courts, he registered complaints. Based on his possession of another inmate’s grievance forms, Wisniewski was found guilty of engaging in or encouraging unauthorized group activity, possession or circulation of a petition, possession of contraband, and lying to an employee. The charges were dismissed after Wisniewski spent 90 days in the Restricted Housing Unit. Wisniewski alleged additional retaliation: removal from his job, tampering with his television, denying him yard time, delaying his disciplinary confinement release, and interfering with his access to legal materials and the photocopier. The district court dismissed the claims arising out of events that occurred more than two years before the filing of the complaint and dismissed the remaining First Amendment retaliation claims for failure to state a claim. The Third Circuit reversed in part; the district court erred in dismissing the claims as time-barred without considering whether Wisniewski properly exhausted administrative remedies and to what extent the limitations period should be tolled. View "Wisniewski v. Fisher" on Justia Law

Posted in: Civil Rights