Justia Civil Rights Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
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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

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The Borough brought misdemeanor criminal charges against the owner for abandoning inoperable vehicles, appliances, and other trash on his property, in violation of ordinances and statutes. During a status conference, the judge stated that, after the expiration of 20 days, the Borough could enter and start the clean-up; 21 days after the hearing, the Borough began cleaning the property without the owners’ permission or a warrant. Believing some of the removed items to be valuable, the owners sent a cease-and-desist letter and eventually filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983 with state law claims for conversion and trespass.The district court that it lacked jurisdiction under the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, which precludes federal district courts from exercising jurisdiction over appeals from state court judgments. Meanwhile, the owner was convicted of the public nuisance charge. The Third Circuit reversed. The Rooker-Feldman doctrine is narrow and defeats federal subject-matter jurisdiction only under limited circumstances. There is a precise four-pronged inquiry. When even one of the four prongs is not satisfied, it is not proper to dismiss on Rooker-Feldman grounds. This case does not satisfy all four prongs. Any injury the owners suffered was not “caused by” a state court judgment; even if the Borough lacked independent authority to seize the property, the state court “acquiesced in” or “ratified” the Borough’s seizure of the property rather than having “produced” it. The owners did not challenge the state court judgment but brought independent constitutional claims. View "Vuyanich v. Borough of Smithton" on Justia Law

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Dondero served as the Lower Milford Township Chief of Police from 2006-2016. Dondero’s relationship with the Township Supervisors was rocky. While on duty in 2015, Dondero, then the only active member of the police department, suffered temporary “serious and debilitating injuries” from entering a burning building. While incapacitated, Dondero received disability benefits under Pennsylvania’s Heart and Lung Act (HLA). He went more than two months without contacting his boss, Koplin. In 2016, Koplin requested updated medical documents to verify his continued qualification for HLA benefits. Weeks later, citing financial concerns, the Supervisors passed a resolution to disband the Township police department. From the date of Dondero’s injury through the elimination of the police department (more than nine months) the Pennsylvania State Police provided Township residents full-time police coverage at no extra cost to the Township taxpayers.Dondero filed suit, alleging First Amendment retaliation, violations of substantive and procedural due process, unlawful conspiracy under 42 U.S.C. 1983 and 1985, municipal liability based on discriminatory Township policies, and a violation of the Pennsylvania state constitution. The Third Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the Township on all counts. No pre-termination hearing was required when the Township eliminated its police department and Dondero’s other claims lack merit. View "Dondero v. Lower Milford Township" on Justia Law

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In 2002, Randolph was arraigned on two counts of first-degree murder, attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and five counts of aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury. The government sought the death penalty. Welch was appointed to Randolph’s defense and a trial date was set. Randolph’s relationship with Welch deteriorated immediately. Randolph expressed his dissatisfaction in court. Welch assured the court that he was committed to Randolph’s defense. The court twice delayed the trial. Randolph continued to complain about Welch and to ask about proceeding pro se, ultimately deciding against it. Randolph later secured the funds necessary to replace Welch with his choice of counsel, Stretton. Stretton, on the Wednesday before the Monday on which trial was to begin, entered his appearance and sought a delay. Welch supported Randolph’s desire to switch lawyers.Citing previous delays and the proximity to trial, the trial court denied a continuance and declined to delay Monday morning’s jury selection by three hours so that Stretton could attend a previously scheduled, mandatory engagement. When Stretton did not appear for jury selection, the court rejected his entry of appearance. Randolph had to proceed to trial represented by Welch, was convicted, and was sentenced to death. On federal habeas review, the Third Circuit affirmed the district court's determination that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision unreasonably applied clearly established federal law, warranting de novo review of Randolph’s Sixth Amendment right to the counsel of his choice claim. View "Randolph v. Secretary Pennsylvania Departmartment of Corrections" on Justia Law

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For much of his life, Wallace has suffered from severe mental illness, including bipolar disorder with psychotic features, chronic depression, ADHD, and major affective disorder. On February 28, 2000, Wallace, during a severe psychotic episode, got into bed with his wife, Eileen, and used the knife to stab Eileen to death. Wallace then dressed, stowed the knife in a drawer, and locked the house, leaving Eileen’s body behind. Wallace took a train to Philadelphia where he planned to commit suicide. Police were waiting for him; his mother had disclosed his whereabouts. Wallace admitted to stabbing Eileen, acting on a belief that death would set her spirit free. Wallace pleaded guilty but mentally ill to third-degree murder and related crimes. He missed the January 2002 deadline for a federal habeas corpus petition and filed in September 2015, arguing that his mental illness so hampered his ability to think clearly that he could not reasonably have been expected to file earlier.The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the petition, concluding that Wallace was not entitled to equitable tolling to extend the filing deadline. Although Wallace claimed that his prescribed use of the drug Ritalin may have exacerbated his psychosis, rendering him involuntarily intoxicated or legally insane at the time of his crime such that he could not form the mens rea necessary for murder, the court declined to employ the “actual innocence gateway,” to excuse him from the deadline. View "Wallace v. Superintendent Mahanoy SCI" on Justia Law

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Brown was shot and killed at a Philadelphia playground. Several witness accounts implicated Baxter and McBride as the shooters. Baxter was convicted of first-degree murder, criminal conspiracy to engage in murder, and first-degree possession of an instrument of a crime with intent to employ it criminally.The trial judge had described the Commonwealth’s burden of proof, “beyond a reasonable doubt,” “the highest standard,” stating that the Commonwealth “is not required to meet some mathematical certainty” or “to demonstrate the complete impossibility of innocence.” A “doubt that would cause a reasonably careful and sensible person to pause, to hesitate, to refrain from acting upon a matter of the highest importance to your own affairs or to your own interests” "If you were advised by your loved one’s physician that that loved one had a life-threatening illness and that the only protocol was a surgery, very likely you would ask for a second opinion.... You’d probably start researching the illness ... if you’re like me, call everybody you know in medicine... At some moment, however, you’re going to be called upon to make a decision.... If you go forward, it’s because you have moved beyond all reasonable doubt. "[R]easonable doubt must be a real doubt” and “may not be a doubt that is imagined or manufactured to avoid carrying out an unpleasant responsibility.”Baxter's federal habeas corpus petition argued for the first time that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the reasonable doubt instruction. The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of relief. The reasonable doubt instruction did not prejudice Baxter, given the evidence of his guilt. View "Baxter v. Superintendent Coal Township SCI" on Justia Law

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An Oklahoma court ordered Boyd to stay away from his ex-wife and his son, surrender his firearms, and undergo a mental health evaluation. After his arrest in Pennsylvania with a loaded handgun, Boyd was convicted of possessing a firearm while subject to a domestic violence protective order, 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(8).The Third Circuit affirmed. After Boyd’s trial, the Supreme Court issued “Rehaif,” requiring that the government show both that a defendant was subject to a qualifying protective order at the time he possessed a gun and that he knew about the protective order. The district court had not instructed the jury on this knowledge element, but the error was harmless, given the overwhelming evidence of Boyd’s knowledge, including his own admissions in a letter to the court. The admission into evidence of statements that Boyd made about harming the Trump family did not contribute to the verdict, leaving any error harmless. Statements in the prosecution’s closing argument that accused the defense of “misleading” the jury, were also harmless given the context, jury instructions, and weight of the evidence.Section 922(g)(8) does not violate the Second Amendment as applied to Boyd and others whose protective orders were issued without an explicit finding that they pose a credible threat to their intimate partners or their children. The application of section 922(g)(8) survives heightened scrutiny; the statute is substantially related to the goal of reducing domestic violence, an indisputably important state interest. View "United States v. Boyd" on Justia Law