Justia Civil Rights Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

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Garrett sued under 42 U.S.C. 1983, claiming deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs and retaliation. Garrett alleged that, while incarcerated, he had been prescribed a wheelchair and walker. When he was transferred to SCI Houtzdale in 2014, medical staff allegedly discontinued Garrett’s use of a walker and wheelchair, forbade him from receiving walking assistance from other inmates, and discontinued his “psych” medication. He acknowledged in his complaint that he had filed grievances but the grievance process was not complete. The district court dismissed many of pro se Garrett’s claims for failure to exhaust administrative remedies under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 42 U.S.C. 1997e(a), and dismissed the remainder for failure to satisfy the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure “short and plain statement” requirement, Rule 8. The Third Circuit vacated. Garrett’s original complaint was defective because, as a prisoner when he filed it, he failed to first exhaust his administrative remedies. Two years later, Garrett filed an amended and supplemental complaint (TAC) under Rule 15, which superseded Garrett’s prior complaints. The TAC’s claims relate back to the original complaint because they concern the same core operative facts. When he filed the TAC, Garrett was no longer a prisoner and was not subject to the PLRA’s administrative exhaustion requirement. The TAC cured the original filing defect. The claims in Garrett’s pro se complaint are sufficiently “short” and “plain” and adequately put the defendants on notice of Garrett’s claims. View "Garrett v. Wexford Health" on Justia Law

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Velazquez and his girlfriend had a physical altercation. He threatened her at his preliminary hearing and, from prison, sent threatening letters. Velazquez refused to enter his detention cell; the guard sustained scratches during the struggle. Velazquez was charged with burglary, intimidating a witness, terroristic threats, harassment, and aggravated assault. Due to Velazquez’s history of mental illness, his attorney advised him to enter a guilty but mentally ill (GBMI) plea under Pennsylvania law, waiving the right to a jury trial. If that plea is accepted, the defendant may receive mental health treatment while serving her sentence. A judge may not accept a GBMI plea unless she examines certain reports, holds a hearing, and determines that the defendant was mentally ill at the time of the offense. If the judge does not accept the GBMI plea, the right to a jury trial is returned. Velazquez’s GBMI plea was not accepted. The judge did not examine reports nor hold a hearing and did not determine whether Velazquez was mentally ill. Velazquez’s right to trial was not reinstated. The judge recorded that Velazquez had entered a normal guilty plea. Counsel did not object. The Third Circuit granted relief on Velazquez’s habeas petition, finding ineffective assistance of counseI. The district court had habeas jurisdiction although the petitioner merely asserted that the wrong guilty plea was entered. The requisite prejudice can be shown although the appropriate plea would not have resulted in a reduced sentence. View "Velazquez v. Superintendent Fayette SCI" on Justia Law

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Haberle’s long-time partner, Nixon, suffered from severe mental illness. Nixon committed suicide during an encounter with the Nazareth Police Department. Haberle alleged that the Department’s failure to accommodate mentally disabled individuals constituted a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. 12101–213. After a remand, Haberle filed an amended complaint. The district court dismissed it for failure to allege intentional discrimination. The Third Circuit again reversed and remanded. Haberle’s complaint raises a plausible claim that the Police Department was deliberately indifferent in failing to enact policies accommodating mental disability. Haberle alleges Department officers and its chief “routinely” encountered “mentally challenged individuals,” including two named individuals and that officers were often “verbally abusive” and “harassing,” and performed arrests without accommodating the individuals’ disabilities. In response to those and similar events, Officer Lahovski drafted a policy to guide Department interactions with disabled individuals, relying on his personal mental health training, Police Department procedures, and consultation with mental health professionals. Haberle alleged that in drafting that proposed policy, Lahovski identified the grave risks to mentally challenged persons as a result of the Police Department continuing to operate without proper policies and procedures for the accommodation of mentally disabled persons, but the Department did not adopt that or any other accommodation policy. View "Haberle v. Borough of Nazareth" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania House of Representatives begins most legislative sessions with a prayer. Plaintiffs challenged two practices: the House invites guest chaplains to offer the prayer, but it excludes nontheists (those who do not espouse belief in a god or gods, though not necessarily atheists) from serving as chaplains on the theory that “prayer” presupposes a higher power and visitors to the House chamber pass a sign asking them to stand for the prayer, and the Speaker of the House requests that audience members “please rise” immediately before the prayer. At least once a House security guard pressured visitors who refused to stand. The Third Circuit upheld the practices as to the Establishment Clause because only theistic prayer can satisfy the historical purpose of appealing for divine guidance in lawmaking, the basis for the Supreme Court taking as a given that prayer presumes a higher power. Legislative prayer is government speech and not open to challenges under the Free Exercise, Free Speech, and Equal Protection Clauses. With respect to the statement “please rise” for the prayer, the court held that the single incident involving pressure from a security guard is moot. The sign outside the House chamber and the Speaker’s introductory request that guests “please rise” are not coercive. View "Fields v. Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives" on Justia Law

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Englewood amended its ordinances to address aggressive antiabortion protests that had been regularly occurring outside of a health clinic that provided reproductive health services, including abortions. Some of the “militant activists and aggressive protestors” support violent reprisal against abortion providers. The ordinance restricted the use of public ways and sidewalks adjacent to healthcare facilities during business hours to persons entering or leaving such facility; the facility's employees and agents; law enforcement, ambulance, firefighting, construction, utilities, public works and other municipal agents within the scope of their employment; and persons using the public way solely to reach another destination. The ordinance created overlapping buffer zones at qualifying facilities. Turco, a non-aggressive “sidewalk counselor,” filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging violations of her First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, assembly, and association. The district court concluded that the statute was overbroad and not narrowly tailored to serve the government’s interest. The Third Circuit reversed, finding that genuine issues of material fact preclude the entry of summary judgment to either side. The buffer zones’ exact impact on the sidewalk counselors’ speech and the concomitant efficacy of their attempts to communicate is unclear. Turco admitted that she continued to speak with patients entering the clinic. The city considered and attempted to implement alternatives before creating the buffer zone. View "Turco v. City of Englewood" on Justia Law

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The five Petitioners were convicted, among other offenses, of violating 18 U.S.C. 924(c)(1)(A), which proscribes the use or carry of a firearm during and in relation to a “crime of violence” or “drug trafficking crime,” as well as the possession of a firearm in furtherance of any such crime. Section 924(c)(3) defines “crime of violence” to mean a felony offense that “(A) has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person or property of another” (elements clause) or “(B) that by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense” (residual clause). Each petitioner filed a second or successive habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. 2255(h)(2) to challenge their sentences section 924(c), arguing that 924(c)(3)’s residual clause is unconstitutionally vague, given its textual similarity to the residual clauses found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Johnson v. United States, (2015), and Sessions v. Dimaya (2018). The Supreme Court subsequently found 924(c)(3)(B) unconstitutionally vague, United States v. Davis, (2019). The Third Circuit granted the petitions, noting that they are now timely under Davis, precluding the need for analysis of the applicability of Johnson and Dimaya. View "In re: Williams" on Justia Law

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Inmate Mammana felt ill after eating and visited the medical ward. A physician assistant checked Mammana’s blood sugar level, and told Mammana “to return the following day after eating.” For several days, Mammana continued to feel ill after eating and returned to the medical ward. The physician assistant referred Mammana to Allenwood’s psychologist, who could not determine the cause of Mammana’s discomfort. Medical Assistant Taylor said she would not re-admit Mammana to the medical ward, despite having never examined Mammana. Nonetheless, Mammana was escorted back to the medical ward. After taking his blood pressure, Taylor accused him of “harassment, stalking, and interference with the performance of duties.” Mammana was transferred to administrative segregation. Mammana refused his assigned segregation cell and was placed into the “Yellow Room,” which was regarded as “mental and physical abuse.” Mammana was stripped of his clothing and given only “paper-like” coverings; the room had a “bright light” "24 hours a day” and was “uncomfortably cold.” Mammana had no bedding or toilet paper. Mammana continued to feel ill, yet his requests for medical treatment were refused. Mammana remained in the Yellow Room for four days. A hearing board eventually concluded “there was no basis” for Taylor’s report. Mammana remained in administrative segregation for four months after leaving the Yellow Room. The district court dismissed his claims under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The Third Circuit vacated the dismissal of his Eighth Amendment claim; Mammana has adequately alleged a sufficiently serious deprivation rather than merely “uncomfortable” conditions. View "Mammana v. Federal Bureau of Prisons" on Justia Law

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Pennsylvania inmate Shifflett was attacked by fellow inmates who broke his jaw. The surgery on his jaw went badly, causing him intense pain for most of a year. He alleges he was denied adequate pain medication and given the run-around by different providers, each saying it was someone else’s responsibility. Shifflett claims he had still not received fully adequate corrective surgery over eight months later. The district court dismissed his suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983 for deliberate indifference to severe medical need in violation of the Eighth Amendment and retaliation in violation of the First Amendment, finding that he had not exhausted his administrative remedies within the prison system as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996, 42 U.S.C. 1997e. The Third Circuit reversed and remanded with instructions to appoint counsel and to permit the filing of an amended complaint. A prisoner exhausts his administrative remedies as soon as the prison fails to respond to a properly submitted grievance in a timely fashion. Shifflett exhausted his remedies and acquired the right to file in federal court when the prison did not decide the initial appeal of his grievances within the time limits specified by the grievance policy. View "Shifflett v. Korszniak" on Justia Law

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In 1987, Romansky was convicted of car theft-related crimes. His case worked its way through the Pennsylvania courts and eventually generated a federal habeas corpus petition. The district court denied “Romansky’s lengthy, multifaceted petition” and declined to grant a certificate of appealability. The Third Circuit granted a certificate of appealability on two issues. The court then affirmed, concluding that the petition is not timely under 28 U.S.C. 2244(d) as to claims concerning the events surrounding Romansky’s first trial in 1987. Romansky’s post-conviction claim as to that trial was not resolved until 1997; the limitations period would have expired one year later, in 1998. This petition, alleging that he was deprived of due process by the discrepancy between the conspiracy charge as described in the charging documents and the charge as presented to the jury, was not filed until 2009. The sentence imposed in 2000 after a retrial was not a new judgment on the undisturbed counts of conviction. Romansky was not denied the effective assistance of counsel when his lawyer during the 2000 retrial and resentencing refused to raise the issue of the 1987 conspiracy-charge discrepancy despite repeated requests that he do so. View "Romansky v. Superintendent Greene SCI" on Justia Law

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In 1944, the Lehigh County Board of Commissioners unanimously adopted a county seal and agreed to purchase a flag depicting it. Commissioner Hertzog, who designed and voted for the seal, explained two years later: “in center of Shield appears the huge cross in canary-yellow signifying Christianity and the God-fearing people which are the foundation and backbone of our County.” The cross is partially obscured by a depiction of the Lehigh Courthouse and surrounded by many other symbols representing history, patriotism, culture, and economy. The seal appears on county-owned property and on various government documents, and on the county’s website. The district court found the seal unconstitutional under the Lemon test as modified by the endorsement test, after asking whether the cross lacked a secular purpose and whether a reasonable observer would perceive it as an endorsement of religion. The Third Circuit reversed, finding that the seal does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment under the Supreme Court’s 2019 decision in American Legion v. American Humanist Association. The court reasoned that a presumption of constitutionality applies to longstanding symbols like the Lehigh County seal and that the evidence does not show “discriminatory intent” in maintaining the symbol or “deliberate disrespect” in the design itself. View "Freedom From Religion Foundation v. County of Lehigh" on Justia Law