Articles Posted in Civil Rights

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Zimmerman, a former employee of the Pennsylvania legislature, sued current and former high ranking officials of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, including a former Attorney General who subsequently became Governor, under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging that the defendants were all involved in bringing criminal charges against him and that those charges amounted to malicious prosecution in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments and Pennsylvania law. Zimmerman was one of nine staff members arrested after the “Computergate” investigation, which involved receiving bonuses for campaign-related work performed on state time. Zimmerman was charged with intentionally hindering an investigation “by concealing or destroying evidence of a crime.” The charges were subsequently dismissed. The Third Circuit reversed the district court’s denial of the defendants’ motion for judgment on the pleadings. There was probable cause to initiate those criminal proceedings; Zimmerman cannot establish a prima facie case of malicious prosecution. View "Zimmerman v. Corbett" on Justia Law

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J&S sought Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection. The estate's largest asset was an Altoona, Pennsylvania building, in which Phoenician previously operated a restaurant. Trustee Swope rejected Phoenician’s lease to facilitate the building's sale. Phoenician attempted to remove property from the closed restaurant; Swope objected. After learning that Phoenician had canceled its insurance and that heating could be an issue with anticipated frigid weather, Swope met with Phoenician’s principal, Obeid and a contractor. Obeid gave Swope a key to the premises; the contractor recommended that the thermostat be set to 60 degrees. Obeid did not do so, the pipes burst, and the property flooded. A disaster restoration company refused to work on the property. Swope asked for another meeting to assess the damage. Obeid demanded that the meeting be rescheduled and held without J&S's principal, Focht; Swope declined, tried to inspect the premises, and discovered the key Obeid had given her did not work. Focht then had the locks changed. Swope retained the only key and provided both parties with only “supervised access.” Phoenician unsuccessfully sought to regain possession. The court indicated that Swope was protected by the automatic stay, which precluded Phoenician from interfering with the property, and dismissed Phoenician’s suit against Swope under 42 U.S.C. 1983 for wrongful eviction, claiming Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment violations. The Third Circuit agreed that Swope was entitled to qualified immunity and took appropriate action to preserve the Estate Property without violating clearly-established law. View "J & S Properties, LLC v. Phoenician Meditteranean Villa, LLC" on Justia Law

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Despite repeatedly asserting his innocence, Satterfield was convicted of first-degree murder in 1985 and sentenced to life in prison. After years of direct and collateral litigation, the district court, acting on his habeas petition, found that his ineffective assistance of counsel claim meritorious. The Third Circuit reversed, finding his petition barred by Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act’s (AEDPA’s) one-year statute of limitations, 28 U.S.C. 2244(d)(1). Years later, the Supreme Court decided, in McQuiggin v. Perkin, that a petitioner who can make a credible showing of actual innocence can overcome that limitations period. Satterfield sought relief from the judgment denying his habeas petition, characterizing McQuiggin’s change in law as an extraordinary circumstance to justify relief under FRCP 60(b)(6). The district court denied Satterfield’s motion. The Third Circuit vacated, holding that changes in decisional law may, under certain circumstances, justify Rule 60(b)(6) relief. “A district court addressing a Rule 60(b)(6) motion premised on a change in decisional law must examine the full panoply of equitable circumstances in the particular case.” In this case, the court did not articulate the requisite equitable analysis. If Satterfield can make the required credible showing of actual innocence, an equitable analysis would weigh heavily in favor of deeming McQuiggin’s change in law, as applied to Satterfield’s case, an exceptional circumstance justifying Rule 60(b)(6) relief. View "Satterfield v. District Attorney Philadelphia" on Justia Law

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The American Civil Rights Union (ACRU) challenged the Philadelphia City Commissioners’ failure to purge the city’s voter rolls of registered voters who are currently incarcerated due to a felony conviction. Because state law prohibits felons from voting while they are in prison, the ACRU argues that the National Voter Registration Act, 52 U.S.C. 50207, requires the Commissioners to remove them from the voter rolls. The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. The unambiguous text of the Act states that while states are required to make reasonable efforts to remove registrants for certain reasons, states are merely permitted—not required— to provide for removal of registrants from the official list based on criminal conviction. The 2002 Help America Vote Act, 42 U.S.C. 15301, also cited by ACRU, contains no private right of enforcement. View "American Civil Rights Union v. Philadelphia City Commissioner" on Justia Law

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Mann, a Palmerton Area School District football player, experienced a hard hit during a practice session. While some players thought that Sheldon may have been exhibiting concussion-like symptoms, he was sent back into the practice session by Coach Walkowiak. Sheldon then suffered another violent collision and was removed from the practice field. He was later diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. Sheldon’s parents asserted that Walkowiak violated Sheldon’s constitutional right to bodily integrity under a state-created danger theory of liability and that the District was accountable under a “Monell” theory. The Third Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendants. Walkowiak’s alleged conduct, if proven at trial, would be sufficient to support a jury verdict in favor of Mann on his state-created danger claim, but the right in question—to be free from deliberate exposure to a traumatic brain injury after exhibiting signs of a concussion in the context of a violent contact sport—was not clearly established in 2011. Walkowiak was entitled to qualified immunity. There was not sufficient evidence to warrant a jury trial on the Monell claim against the District. View "Mann v. Palmerton Area School District" on Justia Law

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In 1997, Wilkerson and Hill had a verbal confrontation. Wilkerson struck Hill in the head with a gun, then shot Hill in the chest. Wilkerson was charged with multiple crimes. In jury instructions, the judge stated that an attempted murder conviction would require a finding Wilkerson “did a certain act,” “alleged to be a shooting,” while a conviction for aggravated assault would require finding “that [Wilkerson] caused or attempted to cause serious bodily injury.” The judge did not specify that the shooting could not both serve as the basis for an attempted murder conviction and as the “attempt[] to cause serious bodily injury” for aggravated assault. The jury convicted on both counts on a general verdict form that did not specify whether the “serious bodily injury” finding underlying the aggravated assault conviction related to the shooting or the preceding assault. In federal habeas proceedings, the Third Circuit rejected Wilkerson’s double jeopardy argument that the jury instructions permitted conviction on both offenses based on the shooting alone. The state court’s rejection of that claim was not “contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law.” The court rejected, as untimely, Wilkerson’s “Apprendi” challenge to the imposition of an enhanced sentence for attempted murder based on a finding by the judge, but not the jury, that the victim suffered serious bodily injury and a claim that counsel was ineffective for not objecting to that finding. View "Wilkerson v. Superintendent Fayette SCI" on Justia Law

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In 2002, Hoffner was convicted of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, distribution of methamphetamine, and unlawful use of a communication facility. The district court applied the career offender guideline, U.S.S.G. 4B1.1, based upon Pennsylvania convictions Hoffner incurred in the 1980s, one for simple assault and another for burglary, robbery, and conspiracy. Hoffner’s direct appeal and habeas corpus petition were unsuccessful. In 2012, he filed an unauthorized second habeas corpus petition. In 2015, he filed the pro se motion seeking to file a successive habeas corpus petition, 28 U.S.C. 2255(h)(2), citing the Supreme Court’s 2015 “Johnson” holding that the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act is unconstitutionally vague. Hoffner was sentenced under an identical residual clause that existed until recently in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines’ career offender guideline, U.S.S.G. 4B1.2(a)(2). The Third Circuit granted the petition. Hoffner made a “prima facie showing,” 28 U.S.C. 2244(b)(3)(C), of the pre-filing requirements for a successive habeas corpus petition: the rule on which his claim relies is a new rule of constitutional law that has been made retroactive to cases on collateral review by the Supreme Court and the claim was previously unavailable. View "In re: Hoffner" on Justia Law

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Parker, an indigent prisoner and prolific pro se litigant, initiated about 40 civil matters over a short period of time. In 2014, Parker filed suit, claiming that officials subjected him to false arrest, malicious prosecution, and the use of excessive force during his 2011 arrest, and sought to proceed in forma pauperis (IFP). The court granted the IFP motion and considered the case under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 28 U.S.C. 1915(g), which directs a court to dismiss a case “at any time” if it determines that the “action or appeal is frivolous or malicious; fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted; or seeks monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief.” The court concluded that Parker’s claims were time-barred and dismissed the complaint with prejudice. This was Parker’s first strike under the PLRA “three strikes” rule. which limits a prisoner’s ability to proceed IFP if the prisoner abuses the judicial system by filing frivolous actions. Parker’s next strikes arose from the dismissals, as “frivolous,” of two 2015 civil rights complaints. The Third Circuit affirmed, stating that an indigent prisoner appealing a district court’s imposition of his “third strike” may not proceed IFP for that appeal without demonstrating that he is in imminent danger of serious physical injury. View "Parker v. Montgomery County Correctional Facility" on Justia Law

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Geisinger Medical Center, a private hospital that operates clinical training, partnered with Bloomsburg University, which teaches in the classroom, to establish the Nurse Anesthetist Program. Geisinger provides certificates upon completion of its clinic and Bloomsburg confers Master of Science degrees to students who complete both the coursework and the clinical component. Geisinger’s policies, including its drug and alcohol policy, apply to students participating in the clinic; drug tests “may be administered upon reasonable suspicion of substance abuse,” and any worker “who refuses to cooperate ... shall be subject to disciplinary action, including termination” without pre-termination hearing or process. Geisinger has sole authority to remove an enrollee from the clinical program. The Program's Director, a Geisinger nurse anesthetist, Richer, was a joint employee of Geisinger and Bloomsburg. Richer terminated Borrell, who had previously been a Geisinger RN, for refusing to take a drug test after another nurse reported that Borrell used cocaine and “acted erratically” on a recent trip. Richer had previously “noticed that Borrell appeared disheveled on a few occasions.” Richer claimed he acted as Director of the clinical training portion and that Bloomsburg played no part in the decision. Borrell requested, but did not receive, a formal hearing from Bloomsburg, then filed a 42 U.S.C. 1983 action. The Third Circuit reversed summary judgment in favor of Borrell, concluding that the defendants were not state actors. View "Borrell v. Bloomsburg University" on Justia Law

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Williams, an African-American woman, claimed that she was subjected to constant harassment by her supervisors at the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, faced a hostile work environment, and was ultimately constructively discharged from her position as a Human Relations Representative. After taking leave under the Family Medical Leave Act, she had not returned to work. She filed suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, seeking damages for the loss of her job and the harm sustained to her physical and emotional health. She included claims against her former supervisors, claiming that they violated her rights under Title VII and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and were liable under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of all defendants. The Third Circuit affirmed, finding that violations of Title VII and the ADA may not be brought through section 1983, given the comprehensive administrative scheme established by Title VII and the ADA. Those statutes require plaintiffs to comply with particular procedures and/or to exhaust particular administrative remedies prior to filing suit. In addition, Williams presented no triable issues of fact on her Title VII claims against the Commission. View "Williams v. Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission" on Justia Law