Justia Civil Rights Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
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On October 25, 2011, Appellant Nicole B.’s then-eight-year-old son N.B. was sexually assaulted by three of his male fourth-grade classmates in a bathroom at his public elementary school in the City of Philadelphia. According to Appellant, N.B. had endured two months of pervasive physical and verbal harassment at school leading up to the sexual assault. During that time, both Appellant and N.B. reported the harassment to his teacher and to school administrators, to no avail. In November 2011, Appellant withdrew N.B. from the elementary school after learning of the attack. Over two years later, in 2014, Appellant filed an administrative complaint with the Human Relations Commission against the Philadelphia School District (“District”) in her individual capacity and on N.B.’s behalf, asserting claims of discrimination on the basis of gender and race under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (“PHRA”). The Human Relations Commission rejected Appellant’s complaint as untimely, because it was filed beyond the 180-day time limit. In this appeal by allowance, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered whether principles of equitable tolling found in PHRA, or Pennsylvania’s Minority Tolling Statute (“Minority Tolling Statute”), applied to an otherwise untimely complaint. After review, the Supreme Court found the PHRA’s equitable tolling provision applied to a minor whose parent failed to satisfy the applicable statute of limitations for filing an administrative complaint prior to the minor reaching the age of majority. By this finding, the Court reversed the order of the Commonwealth Court. View "Nicole B. v. Philadelphia Sch. Dist., et al." on Justia Law

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In this appeal by allowance, the issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was whether application of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (“PHRA”) to the judicial branch of our tripartite form of government violated separation of powers principles. On April 3, 1989, the Lehigh County Court of Common Pleas (“CCP”) Office of Adult Probation hired Appellant Michael Renner as a Parole Officer. In July 2011, Appellant informed Lehigh County Chief Probation Officer John Sikora that he had been diagnosed with a serious mental health condition and was hospitalized; he was subsequently absent from work for 4 to 6 weeks. During Appellant’s absence, Sikora telephoned him numerous times to confirm the legitimacy of Appellant’s condition. Upon his return to work, Appellant alleged Sikora and Lehigh County Benefits Manager Mark Surovy, both of whom supervised Appellant, pressured Appellant to resign or take a leave of absence. Appellant confronted Sikora about his hostilities towards him, but Sikora refused to discuss the matter. Subsequently, in March 2014, Sikora terminated Appellant for failing to administer a urine test to an offender under his supervision. Appellant claimed the test was not required and that the reason for his termination was pretextual. Appellant protested his termination to then-President Judge of the CCP Carol McGinley, but Judge McGinley refused to take any action. As a result, Appellant claimed he could not obtain other employment in any other court system, and, in 2014, he filed a charge of unlawful discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which was dual-filed with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (“PHRC”), against Lehigh County Adult Probation, Sikora, and Surovy. Thereafter, Appellant completed training as a municipal officer, and, subsequently, was offered a police officer position by Northampton and Fountain Hill Boroughs. Appellant alleged that the CCP and Lehigh County learned that Appellant was offered employment as a police officer, and caused an order to be issued banning Appellant from possessing a firearm or taser in the Lehigh County Courthouse, Old Courthouse, and Government Center. As a result, Northampton and Fountain Hill Boroughs rescinded their employment offers. Appellant eventually got his gun possession ban lifted, but as a condition, the CCP and Lehigh County required him to undergo a medical exam, which Appellant contended was a violation of the PHRA. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded that application of the PHRA to the judiciary would violate separation of powers principles, and thus, affirmed the order of the Commonwealth Court. View "Renner v. CCP of Lehigh Co., et al" on Justia Law

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Appellant William Rohland was an inmate confined at SCI-Huntingdon. In 2005, he was charged in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, with various offenses. He was ultimately sentenced on those charges in November 2006 to one-to-five years’ imprisonment, and was required as part of his sentence to pay restitution, fines, and costs. Thereafter, in 2007, Appellant was convicted in Luzerne County on two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment. As of December 2016, the Department of Corrections' records reflected Appellant still owed approximately $2,300 in connection with his Lackawanna County sentence, although the incarceration aspect of that sentenced had expired. Thus, the prison’s business office sent Appellant a memorandum notifying him of the amount owed and indicating that the prison would begin making periodic Act 84 deductions from his inmate account to satisfy that obligation. The memo also gave instructions on how Appellant could challenge the deductions. The issue this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review was whether the deductions from an inmate account could continue after Appellant finished serving the prison-term portion of the sentence while still incarcerated on a separate sentence. The Supreme Court determined the Department had clear legal authorization under Act 84 to effectuate such deductions. That being the case, the Supreme Court determined the Commonwealth Court acted properly in granting the Department's motion for summary judgment. View "Rohland v Business Office, Dept. of Corrections" on Justia Law

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit certified a question of law to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Plaintiffs William DeForte and Evan Townsend were employed as police officers with the Borough of Worthington (the “Borough”). Neither officer was salaried or received benefits. Instead, they were paid hourly wages and, moreover, were simultaneously employed by other police forces. The Borough’s police force consisted of four part-time officers, including Plaintiffs. On November 5, 2012, the Borough terminated Plaintiffs’ employment without affording any process. Plaintiffs brought separate actions (which were consolidated) against the Borough at the federal district court. Plaintiffs asserted, inter alia, that the Borough Code or the Tenure Act conferred a constitutionally-protected property interest in their continued employment, and the lack of any process associated with their dismissal violated their federal due process rights. They requested relief under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. The Borough moved for summary judgment. In ruling on the motion, the district court considered whether Plaintiffs were entitled to civil-service protections in connection with their dismissal under either the Police Tenure Act, or the Borough Code, The Supreme Court, answering the two-part question forwarded by the Third Circuit: (1) the civil service protections embodied in the Borough Code and the Tenure Act were broadly in pari materia insofar as they were intended to govern all borough police forces; and (2) when calculating the size of a borough police force in any given case, the same test should be used. More particularly, the “normal working hours” criterion contained in the Borough Code should be employed to determine how many members a borough police force has for purposes of deciding whether the Tenure Act’s two-officer maximum or the Borough Code’s three-officer minimum was implicated. View "Deforte v. Boro of Worthington" on Justia Law

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A jury found that Pennsylvania State Police (“PSP”) Trooper Joseph Lombardo was acting outside the scope of his employment based on his use of force in an incident following a routine traffic stop. Accordingly, Trooper Lombardo was unable to benefit from the protections of sovereign immunity and judgment was entered against him and in favor of Shiretta Justice. The trial court affirmed, denying Trooper Lombardo’s post-trial motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (“JNOV”) and a new trial. On appeal, the Commonwealth Court reversed, concluding that Trooper Lombardo’s conduct fell within the scope of his employment and remanded for the entry of JNOV in favor of Trooper Lombardo. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed and remanded, finding that because the jury’s determination was reasonably inferable from the facts, the Commonwealth Court erred in disturbing the verdict. The matter was remanded back to the Commonwealth Court to consider the trial court’s denial of Trooper Lombardo’s motion for a new trial. View "Justice v. Lombardo" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to determine whether the General Assembly abrogated high public official immunity when it enacted Section 6111(i) of the Pennsylvania Uniform Firearms Act (UFA), 18 Pa.C.S. sections 6101-6187. Appellees John Doe 1, John Doe 2, John Doe 3 and Jane Doe 1 were adult individuals residing in Franklin County who each applied for a license to carry a firearm (LTCF) by submitting an application to the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department. Subsequently, appellees filed the underlying eight-count class action complaint against Franklin County officials, pertinent here, Sheriff Dane Anthony (Sheriff Anthony, collectively, appellants), claiming, inter alia, violations of the confidentiality provision of Section 6111(i) and seeking damages. Appellees alleged they and several other applicants received notification of the approval, renewal, denial or revocation of their LTCF applications from appellants via postcards sent through the United States Postal Service (USPS), and the postcards were not sealed in an envelope. Appellees alleged, inter alia, appellants’ use of postcards to notify LTCF applicants of the status of their applications resulted in the notices being “visible [to] all individuals processing, mailing and serving the mail, as well as, [to] any individual receiving the postcard at the address, who may or may not be the applicant or license holder.” Appellees claimed these actions constituted “public disclosure” in violation of Section 6111(i). Central to this appeal is Count III of the Complaint, in which appellees specifically alleged Sheriff Anthony, in his management and leadership of the Sheriff’s Office, “instituted and directed the disclosure of confidential LTCF application information to the public, employees of the County and Sheriff’s Office not authorized under the UFA, [USPS] employees and other third parties at the same address who use the same mailbox as the LTCF applicant in violation of 18 Pa.C.S. §6111(i).” With regard to Count III, appellants sought dismissal of all claims against Sheriff Anthony on the basis that he was immune from suit as a high public official for any actions he took in his official capacity as Sheriff of Franklin County. The trial court sustained most of the preliminary objections and dismissed the entire complaint. Relevant here, the court concluded Sheriff Anthony qualified as a high public official, and was therefore immune from liability for any acts performed in his official capacity as sheriff. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held the General Assembly did not abrogate high public official immunity through Section 6111(i), and thus reversed the Commonwealth Court on this issue. View "John Doe v. Franklin Co. Sheriff's Office" on Justia Law

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This case comes to us for a second time to determine if the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) was exempted from the jurisdiction of the City of Philadelphia (the City) via the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations (Philadelphia Commission) and the provisions of the Philadelphia Fair Practices Ordinance (FPO). This case originated in seven administrative proceedings against SEPTA that individuals instituted with the Philadelphia Commission from July 2007 through April 2009, alleging violations of the FPO. At least two of the administrative complaints included claims of types of discrimination against which the FPO offers protection, but that the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA) did not cover. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court previously remanded this case to the Commonwealth Court to ascertain the legislative intent regarding this issue by employing the analysis set forth in “Dep‘t of Gen. Serv. v. Ogontz Area Neighbors Ass‘n,” (483 A.2d 448 (Pa. 1984)). On remand, the Commonwealth Court determined that, applying the Ogontz test, the language and statutory scheme of the relevant statutes revealed the legislature‘s intent to exempt SEPTA from actions brought under the FPO. The Supreme Court found the Commonwealth Court did not err in its determination that, under the first prong of the Ogontz analysis, the statutory language and legislative scheme of the enabling legislation disclosed the legislature‘s intent to exclude SEPTA from the jurisdiction of the FPO. The order of the Commonwealth Court was therefore affirmed. View "SEPTA v. City of Philadelphia" on Justia Law