Justia Civil Rights Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
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Tyson handed his gun to Powell and waited in the getaway car while Powell shot and killed two men in a stopped van. A Monroe County, Pennsylvania jury convicted Tyson of two counts of first-degree murder as an accomplice. In seeking post-conviction relief in state court, Tyson claimed his trial counsel was ineffective for not objecting to the court’s erroneous instruction, which he argued allowed the jury to find him guilty without finding he possessed the requisite intent to kill.In federal habeas proceedings, the district court held the state court reasonably applied federal law in finding his trial counsel was not ineffective and denied relief. The Third Circuit reversed, finding a strong likelihood the jury convicted Tyson as an accomplice to first-degree murder without finding he possessed the specific intent to kill. There was no language in the instruction that would lead the jury to connect the requisite intent to kill to the role of an accomplice. In light of the instruction’s “profound impropriety,” the court concluded that trial counsel acted unreasonably in failing to object. Counsel’s failure to object to the court’s instruction led to the likelihood that the jury interpreted the law in a way that lessened the Commonwealth’s burden of proof. View "Tyson v. Superintendent Houtzdale SCI" on Justia Law

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Alita, her son, and her stepfather died in a fire that engulfed their Philadelphia apartment. With the building already burning, Alita had called 911. A fire department operator instructed her to remain inside, promising help was on the way. Firefighters initially drove to the wrong location and, at the scene, never learned that the family was waiting. The firefighters extinguished the blaze without a search, leaving all three trapped in their home where they perished from smoke inhalation. Days passed before firefighters returned and discovered their bodies. Their estates sued the city and two fire department employees.The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the suit. The state-created danger theory does not apply. The dispatcher did not act affirmatively to create the danger, but only failed to communicate the family’s location, and the operator’s behavior did not shock the conscience. The employees neglected to relay the information through error, omission, or oversight. There is no plausible allegation that the city was deliberately indifferent to anyone’s substantive due process rights. Rejecting a negligence argument based on the history of problems at the residence, and failure to fix the building’s fire hazards, the court reasoned that the city was immune from these claims because it had insufficient control over the building. View "Johnson v. City of Philadelphia" on Justia Law

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Three Pennsylvania teachers who obtained tenure contracts under the state’s Public School Code brought a claim under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging that the Scranton School District deprived them of rights under the Contracts Clause when it applied a Pennsylvania law, Act 2017-55, to suspend them from employment. Act 55 amended the Public School Code to authorize the suspension of tenured teachers for economic reasons. Act 55 took effect after the plaintiffs entered into tenure contracts; they claimed the change in the law allowing for their suspensions based on economic reasons amounted to a substantial impairment of their tenure contract rights and that the suspensions were not a necessary or reasonable way to address the District’s financial problems.The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the claim. The teachers failed to state a section 1983 claim premised on the Contracts Clause because their complaint and its exhibits show that the suspensions were necessary and reasonable measures to advance the significant and legitimate public purpose of combatting the budget shortage. View "Watters v. Board of School Directors of the City of Scranton" on Justia Law

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Porter co-owned property with a partner. His wife, Debra, held an unrecorded $2.8 million mortgage on the property. Unbeknownst to Porter, his partner obtained a second mortgage on the property from Commerce. That mortgage went into default. The property was listed at a mortgage foreclosure sheriff’s sale. The Porters filed lawsuits before the sale. A Pennsylvania court awarded Debra damages for the title company’s failure to record her mortgage but declined to have it retroactively recorded and denied a motion to postpone the sale. A federal declaratory judgment action, claiming that Debra’s unrecorded mortgage had priority over Commerce’s mortgage, was still pending. Porter contacted the Sheriff’s Office before the sale and sought Commerce’s assurance that it would inform bidders about the pending lawsuit. Commerce’s attorney never arrived at the sale, so when the property came up for sale, Porter stood up to make the announcement. Sheriff’s Office attorney Chew and Deputy Stewart ordered him to stop speaking. They put Porter in a chokehold, placed him in handcuffs, and dragged him from the room. Porter and a deputy required medical attention. Porter was convicted of misdemeanor resisting arrest.On Porter's s Monell claim against Philadelphia based upon its unwritten policy of not allowing non-bidders to comment at a sheriff’s sales, the jury awarded him $750,000. The Third Circuit vacated the judgment. Chew’s unendorsed actions did not become municipal policy. There is no evidence that municipal decision-makers were aware of Chew’s inconsistent implementation of the no-comment policy or that Chew had previously used force to enforce it. Because the sheriff’s sale is a nonpublic forum, the Sheriff’s Office policy prohibiting comments is valid; it is viewpoint neutral and reasonable in light of the city’s right to preserve the property under its control for the use to which it is lawfully dedicated. View "Porter v. City of Philadelphia" on Justia Law

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Pittsburgh Lieutenant Kacsuta saw brothers Beyshaud and Will leaving a store and thought that Beyshaud was holding synthetic marijuana, which reportedly was being sold from the store. She followed them, calling for backup. The brothers subsequently obeyed her direction to sit down. Will gave her his identification, then emptied his pockets. They did not have synthetic marijuana, but Kacsuta thought they had made an underage tobacco purchase. Beyshaud was 18 but did not have identification. Will’s identification confirmed he was over 18. Five officers, including Warnock and Welling, arrived. A dashboard camera recorded subsequent events. Kacsuta tossed Will's identification to the ground. Beyshaud reached for it, but Kacsuta stepped on it. The brothers complained that they were being harassed. Will took one or two steps toward Kacsuta and Warnock. Welling grabbed Will and slammed him into the wall, then on to the pavement. Beyshaud stood and attempted to punch Welling. Warnock deployed his taser, causing Beyshaud to fall to the ground. The brothers did not resist as six officers handcuffed them. They were convicted of disorderly conduct and harassment. The brothers sued Pittsburgh and police officers under 42 U.S.C. 1983.The Third Circuit reversed the denial of summary judgment on the excessive force claim against Kacsuta, who did not have an opportunity to intervene in Welling’s use of force. The court affirmed the denial of summary judgment to Welling. Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Will, a jury could conclude that Welling’s use of force was objectively unreasonable, even taking Will’s disorderly conduct into account. Welling knew that Will was unarmed and outnumbered. The court dismissed, for lack of jurisdiction, Warnock’s argument concerning state law claims. View "El v. City of Pittsburgh" on Justia Law

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The Center for Investigative Reporting sought a permanent injunction that would require the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) to run an advertisement on the inside of SEPTA buses. The advertisement promotes the Center’s research on racial disparities in the home mortgage lending market. SEPTA rejected the advertisement under two provisions of its 2015 Advertising Standards, which prohibit advertisements that are political in nature or discuss matters of public debate.The Third Circuit reversed the district court and ordered injunctive and declaratory relief. The challenged provisions of the 2015 Standards violate the First Amendment; they are incapable of reasoned application. The court noted the absence of guidelines cabining SEPTA’s General Counsel’s discretion in determining what constitutes a political advertisement and that the Center had demonstrated at least some instances of arbitrary decision-making. View "Center for Investigative Reporting v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority" on Justia Law

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In 1993, Tazu left his native Bangladesh, entered the U.S. without inspection, and applied for asylum based on political persecution. Eight years later, an IJ denied that application. Tazu appealed to the BIA, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. In 2003, the BIA denied his appeal, giving him 30 days to depart. Nearly six years later, he was detained for removal. An attempt at removal failed. His passport had expired; the airline would not let him board the plane. A passport would not likely be issued quickly. In 2009, Tazu was granted supervised release. He complied with the terms of his release, held a job, paid taxes, and raised his children. Seeking a provisional waiver, in 2017, his son, a U.S. citizen, filed Form I-130, which was approved. Tazu did not immediately take the next step, a Form I212. In 2019, the government got Tazu’s renewed passport and re-detained him for removal. He sought habeas relief in New Jersey, filed his Form I-212, and moved to reopen his removal proceedings based on ineffective assistance of counsel. He lost on every front.The Third Circuit ordered the dismissal of the habeas petition; 8 U.S.C. 1252(g) strips courts of jurisdiction to review any “decision or action by the Attorney General to ... execute removal orders.” Section 1252(b)(9) makes a petition for review—not a habeas petition—the exclusive way to challenge a removal action and funnels Tazu’s claims to the Second Circuit. Tazu has a petition for review pending in the Second Circuit. He can stay with his family while that litigation is pending,. View "Tazu v. Attorney General United States" on Justia Law

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Jeffrey was at home in York County, Pennsylvania with his daughter, young grandson, and their pet dog, Ace, a seven-year-old Rottweiler/Labrador Retriever mix. Jeffrey opened the door to let Ace outside, unaware that Trooper Corrie and other officers were swarming his property to serve an arrest warrant on an armed robbery suspect believed to be living there. Corrie heard Trooper Drum yell “whoa” several times, prompting Corrie “to turn around.” He saw a large dog coming toward him, “already mid-leap, within an arm’s reach.” Ace “was showing teeth, and growling in an aggressive manner.” Corrie says he “backpedaled to create distance,” and Ace circled around him, “attempt[ing] to attack.” Corrie “believe[s] there was another snarl,” and he fired a shot. Ace “began to come after [him] again.” Corrie fired a second shot and then a third. The dog yelped, ran to Jeffrey, and died within minutes. Trooper Drum stated that Ace had behaved aggressively. The family did not witness the incident.The family sued Corrie, claiming unlawful seizure under the Fourth Amendment and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Third Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of Corrie. The use of deadly force against a household pet is reasonable if the pet poses an imminent threat to the officer’s safety, viewed from the perspective of an objectively reasonable officer. Unrebutted testimony established that Act aggressively charged at Corrie, growled, and showed his teeth, as though about to attack. View "Bletz v. Corrie" on Justia Law

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In 2008, State Trooper DiLillo stopped a car for speeding. Allen was the passenger. His uncle, Andrew, was driving. Allen had rented the vehicle. Each man was subject to an outstanding warrant. They were placed under arrest. Allen admitted that he had marijuana on his person. DiLillo discovered baggies of marijuana in Allen’s shoes. Trooper Nugnes arrived; DiLillo left with the men. When a tow truck arrived, the driver attempted to unlock the car and accidentally opened the trunk. Nugnes told the truck driver not to do anything and pulled out something wrapped in black plastic, which Nugnes correctly believed to be a bundle of heroin.The court denied Allen’s motion to suppress the heroin, finding that the evidence was in plain view. Allen pled guilty, admitting in court that: there was heroin in the car and that he intended to distribute it. On remand, the trial court heard testimony from the tow truck driver and Nugnes and was “not persuaded, by even the preponderance of the evidence, that the mannitol or the heroin was visible prior to the trooper’s incursion into the trunk.” The Supreme Court of New Jersey vacated Allen’s conviction because of Nugnes’s warrantless search.Allen filed a 42 U.S.C. 1983 suit. The Third Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendants. Allen did not establish a malicious prosecution claim because he failed to show that his case was terminated in a way indicative of his innocence. With respect to claims against the state police, New Jersey has not waived its Eleventh Amendment immunity. View "Allen v. New Jersey State Police" on Justia Law

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In 2006, a McVey assisted living resident fell and suffered injuries that resulted in his death. An investigation led to a homicide charge against Geness, a permanently mentally disabled McVey resident. A judge deemed Geness incompetent to stand trial and ordered him transferred to a psychiatric hospital for assessment. Approximately 10 months after his arrest, Geness was transferred to a psychiatric facility where he was deemed incompetent with a “poor” prognosis for improvement. He remained imprisoned for years, while his case remained on the court’s monthly “call of the list.” About five years after Geness’s arrest, a second competency evaluation was conducted, at the prison. It was again determined that Geness was incompetent to stand trial and unlikely to improve. A judge released him for involuntary commitment to a Long Term Structured Residence. Geness’s case remained the monthly “call of the list.” In 2015, a judge entered a nolle prosequi order. After nine years in custody without a trial, Geness was released.Geness sued the county and city, former detective Cox, and McVey under the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. 12131, and the Fourteenth Amendment, 42 U.S.C. 1983. All defendants were dismissed except Cox. Following a remand, Geness added ADA “Title II” and Fourteenth Amendment claims against the Commonwealth and the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC). The Third Circuit remanded for dismissal of AOPC. While Congress abrogated sovereign immunity for Title II claims, Geness has not stated a Title II claim against AOPC, which had no power over the disposition of his case. There is no allegation regarding how AOPC’s alleged failure to contact the Supreme Court connects to Geness’s disability. View "Geness v. Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts" on Justia Law