Justia Civil Rights Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
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Shorter, a transgender woman, has undergone hormone replacement therapy; her body is “openly female.” In 2015, she entered a Federal Correctional Institution to begin a 96-month sentence for creating a fraudulent “tax service.” Despite knowing that Shorter was transgender, prison officials first housed her in a room without a lock with 11 men. Prison officials screened her risk for sexual assault under the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 regulations and concluded she was at “significantly” higher risk than other inmates because she presented as transgender, was small in stature, and had previously been sexually assaulted at another prison. Later, in an unlocked two-person cell, she was assigned a sex offender as her cellmate. Although the prison’s psychology department agreed Shorter should be transferred, she remained in the cell furthest from the officers. Shorter alleges that despite her repeated requests and grievances, she was ultimately stabbed and raped by a fellow inmate. She brought a pro se suit under “Bivens,” claiming officials violated her Eighth Amendment rights by deliberate indifference to the substantial risk that another inmate would assault her.Citing 28 U.S.C. 1915 and 1915A, the district court dismissed her complaint sua sponte before allowing her to serve the defendants. The Third Circuit reversed. Shorter’s case falls comfortably within one of the few contexts in which the Supreme Court has recognized a Bivens remedy. Shorter adequately pleaded a violation of the Eighth Amendment. View "Shorter v. United States" on Justia Law

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Rought sold fentanyl to Carichner, who provided some to Giberson. Both overdosed. Giberson was revived with Narcan; Carichner died. Rought was indicted for possession of fentanyl with intent to distribute resulting in death and serious bodily injury. Days later, he was interrogated by the FBI. After being advised of his rights verbally and in writing, he answered questions about his drug use and his supplier but said he did not want to talk about Carichner’s death without a lawyer. The interrogating agents respected his wishes and turned the questioning to other subjects. In discussing those other subjects, however, Rought quickly brought the conversation back around to Carichner and made incriminating statements.The district court denied Rought’s motion to suppress the statements. A jury convicted him. The Third Circuit affirmed. Invocations of the right to counsel during custodial interrogations can be “limited.” After a limited invocation, interrogation can continue on topics not covered by the invocation. If the suspect, without prompting from law enforcement, then voluntarily reinitiates discussion of a covered topic and waives her previously invoked rights, it “is quite consistent with the Fifth Amendment” for the suspect’s statements about a covered topic to be admissible at trial. View "United States v. Rought" on Justia Law

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For many years, a 265-acre tract in Robinson Township, Pennsylvania hosted a gun range with over 800 members. In 2008, the range’s then-owner pleaded guilty to possessing weapons as a convicted felon, and the Club closed for about a decade. In 2017, Drummond leased the property for the retail sale of firearms and a shooting range. The Township then permitted "Shooting Ranges" in Industrial and Special Conservation zoning districts; Interchange Business Districts (IBD) could host “Sportsman’s Clubs.” Residents complained that renewed “use of high power rifles” at the Club would pose a “nuisance” and a “danger.” The Board amended the IBD rules, covering Drummond's property, limiting Clubs to “pistol range, skeet shoot, trap and skeet, and rimfire rifle[]” practice; defining a “Sportsman’s Club” as a “nonprofit entity formed for conservation of wildlife or game, and to provide members with opportunities for hunting, fishing or shooting”; and switching Clubs to a “conditional use.”Drummond sued, alleging that the rules restrict his customers’ efforts to acquire firearms and maintain proficiency and were facially unconstitutional. The Third Circuit vacated the dismissal of the complaint. In identifying which rules invade the Second Amendment, courts identify historical outliers—laws that lack traditional counterparts. In applying heightened scrutiny, courts look for laws with few parallels in contemporary practice. The more “exceptional” a rule, the more likely the government has overlooked less burdensome “options that could serve its interests.” The challenged zoning rules constitute outliers, and the pleading-stage materials fail to justify their anomalous features. View "Drummond v. Robinson Township" on Justia Law

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Trinh sued Fineman, who had been appointed by the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County as a receiver in a case involving the dissolution of Trinh’s beauty school. She alleged that Fineman did not give her a proper accounting of the escrow account related to that case and accused him of theft. The district court dismissed the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, explaining that Trinh had not raised “any claims arising under federal law or [alleged] that the parties are citizens of different states.” The Third Circuit remanded to allow Trinh to amend her complaint. Her amended complaint asserted that Fineman, as the receiver, was “abusing his state power.”The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the complaint. Although Trinh’s complaint arguably raised a section 1983 claim, Fineman, as a court-appointed receiver, is entitled to absolute, quasi-judicial immunity from suit when acting with the authority of the court. Erroneous, controversial, and even unfair decisions do not divest a judge of immunity. Fineman was duly appointed by the state court and the transcript of that court's hearing reflects that the judge was aware of, and approved of, all of his expenditures. View "Trinh v. Fineman" on Justia Law

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Lozano, a former Marine, was discharged for medical reasons and suffers from severe asthma, impaired airway, limited motion in his knees and ankle, and total blindness in one eye. Lozano has a handicapped parking permit and a permit for tinted windows on his car. Lozano’s car was parked partly within a handicapped parking space when Sergeant Dorilus arrived. Dorilus could not see the handicapped placard on the dashboard and required Lozano to provide his license and registration, and his permits for handicapped parking and tinted windows. Dorilus claims that Lozano “reeked of alcohol.” Lozano denied having consumed any alcohol and refused to submit to the field sobriety test, claiming he was physically unable to do so. Dorilus arrested Lozano. Officer Hernandez was “present” throughout these events. At the station, Hernandez helped process Lozano. Other officers gave Lozano two breathalyzer tests, but could not provide a sufficient breath sample. During a third breathalyzer test, Lozano had an asthma attack and had to be taken to the hospital. Dorilus charged Lozano with DUI and refusal to take a breath test, After Lozano provided medical records, the charges were dismissed.Lozano subsequently sued under 42 U.S.C. 1983 and the New Jersey Civil Rights Act The district court denied the officers’ qualified immunity summary judgment motions. The Third Circuit reversed as to Officer Hernandez, who was not involved in arresting or charging Lozano and therefore is entitled to qualified immunity. View "Lozano v. New Jersey" on Justia Law

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On various dates between March and July 2020, the Governor and Secretary of Health of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania entered orders to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Plaintiffs, Pennsylvania citizens, elected officials, and businesses, challenged three pairs of directives: stay-at-home orders, business closure orders, and orders setting congregation limits in secular settings. The district court concluded that the orders violated the U.S. Constitution. While the appeal was pending, circumstances changed: more than 60% of Pennsylvanians have received a COVID vaccine. An amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution and a concurrent resolution of the Commonwealth’s General Assembly now restricts the Governor’s authority to enter the same orders. In addition, the challenged orders have expired by their own terms. The Third Circuit vacated the judgment and dismissed an appeal as moot. No exception to the mootness doctrine applies View "County of Butler v. Governor of Pennsylvania" on Justia Law

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Jacobs, in Cumberland County Jail awaiting trial for a weapons charge, got into a fight with Hanby, another inmate. Less than 30 seconds after the fight ended, corrections officers entered the dorm and identified Hanby as one of the fighters. The officers removed Hanby and took him to the medical unit. About 15 minutes later, officers returned for Jacobs. In a suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, Jacobs claims that as the officers removed him from his cell, they violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to be free from excessive force amounting to punishment.The officers moved for summary judgment on the ground of qualified immunity. After reviewing the record, including a security video, the district court denied the motion, finding that a reasonable jury could find that the officers used gratuitous force and that any reasonable officer would have known that such force was unlawful. The Third Circuit affirmed, first noting the objective standard used in analyzing claims by pretrial detainees. The Supreme Court has made clear that officers may not expose inmates to gratuitous force divorced from any legitimate penological purpose. Here, reasonable jurors could conclude that the officers were not facing a disturbance or any threat to jail security. When they returned for Jacobs they found the inmates orderly and compliant. Jacobs posed no threat throughout the encounter. View "Jacobs v. Cumberland County" on Justia Law

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Three decades ago, Vogt and McClearn were part of a group who took Landry to a quarry, forced Landry off a cliff into the water, then rolled a “huge rock” in behind him. Landry suffered blunt force trauma and drowned. McClearn pleaded guilty to third-degree murder. McClearn’s testimony linked Vogt to Landry’s death. A jury convicted Vogt of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life without parole. McClearn sent a letter to Vogt dated October 2016, recanting his testimony. McClearn wrote that he had a different partner in crime that night; Vogt was “passed out in the car” and did not have “anything to do with” Landry’s murder. The prison’s policy is to reject mail lacking a return address, so it rejected the letter. Six months later, Vogt contacted a Postal Service reclamation center looking for a different mailing. The Post Office returned several items, including McClearn’s letter. By then, McClearn was dead.Vogt filed a grievance about the letter’s rejection. The prison denied it as untimely. In Pennsylvania post-conviction proceedings, he challenged his guilty verdict and argued the letter supported his actual innocence. The court dismissed his petition as untimely. In a subsequent pro se federal complaint, Vogt claimed the rejection of the mail without notice violated his right to procedural due process and claimed his First Amendment right to access the courts was violated. He sought damages under 42 U.S.C. 1983. Meanwhile, the state court vacated the dismissal of Vogt’s post-conviction petition. The Third Circuit vacated the dismissal of Vogt’s section 1983 complaint. Under Supreme Court precedent, prisons must notify inmates when their incoming mail is rejected. View "Vogt v. Wetzel" on Justia Law

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In 1995, Rosado shot and killed Nguyen. Rosado was almost eighteen and a half years old. He pleaded guilty in Pennsylvania state court to first-degree murder and was sentenced to mandatory life without parole. He collaterally attacked his conviction in state and federal court, unsuccessfully claiming ineffective assistance of counsel. The Supreme Court subsequently decided, in Miller v. Alabama, that the Eighth Amendment bars mandatory life-without-parole sentences for criminals who were under eighteen when they committed their crimes. Four years later, the Court held that Miller’s rule applies retroactively.Rosado brought another state habeas petition arguing that Miller’s rule applies to his case. State courts dismissed his petition as time-barred and then affirmed that dismissal. In 2018, he sought permission to file a second federal habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. 2254. Though the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act normally bars second petitions, Rosado claimed to fall within an exception because he relied on Miller’s new, retroactive rule. The Third Circuit denied relief. Rosado waited more than six years after Miller to bring his challenge, past AEDPA’s one-year deadline for asserting newly recognized rights. Miller is limited to prisoners who were under 18 when they committed their crime, so his claim does not rely on Miller’s new rule. View "In re: Rosado" on Justia Law

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Kengerski, a Captain at the Allegheny County Jail, made a written complaint to the jail Warden alleging that a colleague had called his biracial grand-niece a “monkey” and then sent him a series of text messages with racially offensive comments about his coworkers. Seven months later, Kengerski was fired. He contends the firing was retaliation for reporting his colleague’s behavior and sued t under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. 2000e-3(a). The district court granted the defendant summary judgment, holding that Kengerski, who is white, could not maintain a claim for Title VII retaliation.The Third Circuit vacated. Title VII protects all employees from retaliation when they reasonably believe that behavior at their work violates the statute and they make a good-faith complaint. Harassment against an employee because he associates with a person of another race, such as a family member, may violate Title VII by creating a hostile work environment. A reasonable person could believe that the Allegheny County Jail was a hostile work environment for Kengerski. Kengerski may not ultimately succeed on his retaliation claim or even survive summary judgment on remand. The county claims that it fired him for an unrelated reason that is unquestionably serious: mishandling a sexual harassment claim. View "Kengerski v. Harper" on Justia Law