Justia Civil Rights Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
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In the visiting room, a friend handed Pennsylvania inmate Thomas a bag of M&Ms. He ate one and then quickly drank soda. A guard, believing that Thomas had ingested contraband, removed him to a dry cell for observation until natural processes allowed the ingested contraband to be retrieved. The sink and toilet were capped. Dry cells lack all linens and moveable items other than a mattress. Inmates’ clothes are exchanged for a smock; their movements are carefully controlled to prevent them from concealing or disposing of contraband. To expedite his release from the dry cell, Thomas was offered and accepted laxatives. Over the next four days, Thomas had 12 bowel movements and was x-rayed. No evidence of contraband was found. He was confined to the dry cell for five more days. After exhausting his administrative remedies, Thomas filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The district court granted the defendants summary judgment. The Third Circuit reversed in part. Whether there was a penological justification to continue Thomas’s confinement in the dry cell after four days constitutes a disputed issue of material fact. When confinement in a dry cell is not foul or inhuman and serves a legitimate penological interest, it will not violate the Eighth Amendment. View "Thomas v. Tice" on Justia Law

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Janine, a secretary in the judicial chambers of her sister Joan, was charged with conspiring with another sister, a State Senator, to divert the services of legislative staff for the benefit of Joan’s campaign for a seat on the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. The 2010 charges ended in a mistrial. In 2011, before Janine was retried, prosecutors filed new charges relating to activities in Joan’s judicial chambers. Janine was found guilty on all charges. She sought habeas corpus relief, arguing that her retrial on the 2010 charges should have been barred by the Double Jeopardy Clause. A Magistrate Judge wrote a Report & Recommendation that Janine was not “in custody” for purposes of habeas jurisdiction because she challenged only her convictions on the 2010 charges but had received no penalty for them. The R&R advised the parties that they had 14 days to file objections. No objections were filed. The district court adopted the R&R. About two weeks later, Janine filed a motion under Rule 60(b)(1) claiming that her lawyer had given the R&R to his assistant, assuming that the assistant would send the R&R to Janine and that Janine would inform him if she wanted to file objections. The assistant did not forward the R&R; the lawyer never followed up. The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of relief. Janine’s failure to timely respond to the R&R is the kind of claim foreclosed by 28 U.S.C. 2254: “ineffectiveness or incompetence of counsel during ... collateral post-conviction proceedings.” The court also agreed that Janine was not in custody. View "Orie v. District Attorney Allegheny County" on Justia Law

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Planned Parenthood was the site of numerous clashes between opponents and advocates of abortion rights, including bomb threats, vandalism, and blockades. The police deployed an overtime detail to maintain order. After Pittsburgh was declared a financially distressed municipality in 2003, the detail was discontinued. Police were called as needed. The clinic reported an “obvious escalation.” The City Council held hearings on proposed legislation. Many witnesses expounded on the competing interests and expressed a desire to protect both free speech and access to healthcare, including abortions. A member of the police overtime detail attested that the criminal laws were not adequate. The Ordinance states that “[n]o person or persons shall knowingly congregate, patrol, picket or demonstrate” in a 15-foot “buffer zone” outside the entrance of any hospital or healthcare facility. Plaintiffs engage in leafletting and “peaceful . . . one-on-one conversations” conducted “at a normal conversational level and distance” intended to dissuade listeners from obtaining an abortion. The city asserted that the Ordinance applies to this “sidewalk counseling,” The Third Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the city, concluding that the Ordinance does not cover sidewalk counseling and thus does not impose a significant burden on speech. The Ordinance prohibits “congregat[ing],” “patrol[ling],” “picket[ing],” and “demonstrat[ing],” saying nothing about leafletting or one-on-one conversations. Nor does it mention a particular topic or purpose. With respect to the listed activities, the Ordinance is “narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest.” View "Bruni v. City of Pittsburgh" on Justia Law

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Orie, a former state senator, used her government-funded legislative staff to do fundraising and campaigning for her reelection. When the Commonwealth investigated, she tried to hide and destroy documents. Orie's sisters, including a Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice, were also charged. At trial, Orie introduced exhibits with directives to her chief of staff, not to do political work on legislative time. The prosecution determined that these exhibits had forged signatures. The court found that the forged documents were “a fraud on the Court,” and declared a mistrial. The Secret Service subsequently found that many of the exhibits were forged. During Orie’s second trial, the prosecution's expert testified that Orie’s office lease barred her staff from using that office for anything besides legislative work. Orie unsuccessfully sought to call an expert to testify that the senate rules let staff do political work from legislative offices on comp time. Orie was convicted of theft of services, conspiracy, evidence tampering, forgery, and of using her political position for personal gain, in violation of the Pennsylvania Ethics Act. The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of her federal habeas petition, first finding that it lacked jurisdiction to consider her Ethics Act challenge because she is not in custody for those convictions. The court rejected a double jeopardy argument. The state court reasonably found that a mistrial was manifestly necessary because the forged documents could have tainted the jury’s verdict. Orie did not show that her senate-rules expert’s testimony would have been material, so she had no constitutional right to call that witness. View "Orie v. Secretary Pennsylvania Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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Javitz accepted an “at-will” position as Luzerne County's Director of Human Resources. Javitz participated in meetings with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which resulted in ASFSCME filing an unfair labor practices suit. Javitz claimed that a document filed in that lawsuit was a transcript of the meetings. She suspected that a county employee had recorded the meeting without Javitz’s consent—a crime under Pennsylvania law. Javitz's supervisor agreed that the meeting may have been recorded; they met with the District Attorney, who indicated that she would refer the matter to the Office of the Attorney General due to a conflict of interest. Javitz claims that the County Manager intervened and instructed the District Attorney to drop the matter. Javitz followed up about the investigation. Javitz alleges that county employees retaliated against her. Within weeks Javitz was fired. The County maintains that Javitz was fired because of her conduct toward unions, her failure to follow directions, and her handling of employment applications. The district court rejected her claims under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The Third Circuit affirmed that Javitz did not have a property interest in her employment; her termination did not violate her due process rights. The court reversed as to a First Amendment claim: Who Javitz spoke to, what she spoke about, and why she spoke fall outside the scope of her primary job duties. Javitz was a citizen speaking to a matter of public concern. View "Javitz v. County of Luzerne" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs, part-time Worthington police officers, were paid hourly wages. The Borough terminated their employment without affording any process. Plaintiffs sued under 42 U.S.C., claiming that the state’s Borough Code or Tenure Act conferred a constitutionally-protected property interest in their continued employment and that the lack of any process violated their due process rights. The Third Circuit certified questions of state law to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. That court responded that the “civil service protections embodied in the Borough Code and the Tenure Act are ... intended to govern all borough police forces” and the Borough Code's “normal working hours” criterion 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 is implicated. The Borough Code's exclusion for “extra police” does not apply to part-time officers who are not extra police. In this case, the plaintiffs were part-time officers, but not necessarily “extra police” so the exclusion was irrelevant. An hourly wage compensation that satisfies the Borough Code criteria of being officers “paid a salary or compensation." Part-time work “is not dispositive.” The Third Circuit concluded that the plaintiffs may have a property interest sufficient to support their procedural due process claims and remanded. View "Evan Townsend v. Borough of Worthington" on Justia Law

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The Authority's Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre holds up to 10,000 people and hosts athletic and other commercial entertainment events. The Arena is set back and fenced apart from the public road. Patrons drive on an access road, park in an Arena parking lot, and then walk on a concrete concourse to the “East Gate” and “West Gate” entrances. “All persons are welcome to express their views” at the Arena; protesters must stand within “designated area[s]” on the concourse and “[h]andouts can only be distributed from within” those areas. The designated areas are two “rectangular enclosure[s] constructed from bike racks,” next to the Gates. The policy bans protesters from using profanity or artificial voice amplification. LCA, an animal rights group wanting to protest circus events, sued under 42 U.S.C. 1983. The trial court found that the Authority was “a public governmental entity acting under color of state law” and entered a preliminary injunction that allowed up to 20 protesters to distribute literature and talk to patrons within a circumscribed section of the concourse; protesters could not block ingress or egress. LCA protested under those terms at 2016-2017 circus performances. At a subsequent trial, LCA introduced evidence that protesters in the "designated areas" attracted little attention and videos showing nonconfrontational interactions with no abnormal congestion. The Arena expressed concerns about unruly protestors and argued that the location condition minimizes congestion and security risks. The court found all three restrictions violated the First Amendment. The Third Circuit reversed in part. The concourse’s function is to facilitate pedestrian movement; a policy sensibly designed to minimize interference with that flow is not unreasonable. The Arena did not establish that the bans on profanity and voice amplification are reasonable. View "Pomicter v. Luzerne County Convention Center" on Justia Law

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Jury selection in Howell’s 2004 prosecution consisted of two venire panels. The first included 35 individuals, two of whom were black; both were excused for hardship. The second panel included 25 potential jurors, all of whom were white. Howell, a black man, was convicted for the 2002 felony murder of a white man by an all-white jury. Before jury selection, Howell filed a Motion to Ensure Representative Venire, arguing that he was entitled to a jury pool that represented a fair cross-section of the community, particularly with respect to race. The court held a hearing on Howell’s allegations that black individuals were systemically under-represented in Allegheny County’s jury pools and considered expert testimony that black individuals made up 4.87% of Allegheny County’s jury pool but made up 10.7% of the population of Allegheny County eligible for jury service. The court denied Howell’s motion. The Pennsylvania Superior Court held that Howell had not been denied a trial by a fair cross-section of the community. In Howell’s federal habeas proceeding, the court assumed, without deciding, “that the Superior Court erred in requiring [Howell] to show discriminatory intent,” but concluded that Howell failed to establish a Sixth Amendment violation because other courts found no constitutional violation in cases with higher percentages of disparity. The Third Circuit affirmed. Any underrepresentation in Howell’s jury pool was not caused by a systematically discriminatory process. View "Howell v. Superintendent Rockview SCI" on Justia Law

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Bank of Hope sued Ryu for embezzling money from its customers. As the case went on, Ryu began sending letters to the Bank’s shareholders, alleging that the Bank’s claims were baseless and were ruining his reputation. He hoped that the letters would pressure the Bank to settle. The Bank asked the magistrate judge to ban Ryu from contacting its shareholders. The district court affirmed the magistrate’s order imposing that ban. The Third Circuit vacated. The district court marshaled no evidence that this restriction on speech was needed to protect this trial’s fairness and integrity and it considered no less-restrictive alternatives. Courts have inherent power to keep their proceedings fair and orderly. They can use that power to order the parties before them not to talk with each other, the press, and the public. The First Amendment, however, requires an explanation of why restricting speech advances a substantial government interest, consider less-restrictive alternatives, and requires that the court ensure that any restriction does not sweep too broadly. View "Bank of Hope v. Chon" on Justia Law

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Freethought proposed an ad to run on Lackawanna County public buses: “Atheists” with the group’s name and website. County of Lackawanna Transit System (COLTS) rejected the ad under its 2011 policy, prohibiting ads for tobacco, alcohol, firearms, political candidates; ads that in COLTS’s “sole discretion” were “derogatory” to racial, religious, and other specified groups; and ads that are “objectionable, controversial[,] or would generally be offensive to COLTS’[s] ridership. In promulgating the policy, COLTS considered vandalism directed at atheist posts in other locations. In 2013, COLTS added a prohibition on ads: that promote the existence or non-existence of a supreme deity, deities, being or beings; that address, promote, criticize or attack a religion or religions, religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs; that directly quote or cite scriptures, religious text or texts involving religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs; or [that] are otherwise religious in nature. The Third Circuit concluded that the policy discriminates based on viewpoint and violates the First Amendment. Government actors cannot restrict speech because they “disapprov[e] of the ideas expressed.” That a message is “decidedly religious in nature” does not relegate it to second-class status Even if COLTS’s ban on religious speech were viewpoint neutral, it is not reasonable. COLTS never received a complaint about an ad, even one sponsored by a racist and anti-Semitic blog. No one complained about the religious and political ads COLTS ran before it enacted its policies. View "Northeastern Pennsylvania Freethought Society v. County of Lackawanna Transit System" on Justia Law