Federal judge dismisses some defendants in Luzerne County judicial scandal class action suit

Jon Campisi Dec. 3, 2011, 8:25am

A federal judge in Pennsylvania has dismissed a handful of defendants in a civil suit filed on behalf of relatives of victims of what is said to be one of the worst judicial scandals in Pennsylvania history.

In his 22-page opinion issued Nov. 30, U.S. District Court Judge A. Richard Caputo of the Middle District of Pennsylvania, dismissed Luzerne County, the county’s juvenile probation department and three former county officials from a complaint filed in relation to the so-called “Kids for Cash” scandal that rocked the commonwealth in 2008.

Two county jurists, Juvenile Court Judge Mark Ciavarella and Senior Common Pleas Court Judge Michael Conahan, have since been imprisoned after being found guilty of a kickback scheme in which they would send youths charged with only minor infractions to privately run juvenile detention facilities in exchange for compensation.

In August, Ciavarella was sentenced to 28 years in prison. The following month, Conahan was sentenced to 17-and-a-half years behind bars.

In his latest ruling, Caputo dismissed some defendants from the litigation but left others to defend against the claims.

Caputo dismissed three claims against Robert Powell, the lawyer who admitted to paying millions in kickbacks to the two former judges, but left a punitive damages claim against him intact.

Similarly, the judge dismissed the ‘interference with familial relationships’ and other claims against Mid-Atlantic Youth Services, PA Child Care and Western PA Child care, the privately run detention facilities where the children were sent in return for cash, but refused to dismiss punitive damages claims against the agencies.

Sandra Brulo, the former deputy director of forensic programs at the county’s probation department, was dismissed as a defendant, but only in part. The judge dismissed Sixth and Eighth Amendment claims against her, and ruled that she has “quasi-judicial immunity” for all claims stemming from her sentencing recommendations, but he refused to dismiss section 1983 claims and punitive damages claims against Brulo.

Brulo has partial sovereign immunity because the county’s probation department technically falls under the state’s Unified Judicial System.

In Pennsylvania, state entities are typically immune from civil litigation.

The judge dismissed ‘interference with familial relationships’ and other claims against Robert Mericle and Mericle Construction but did not dismiss the punitive damages and section 1983 claims against the builder of the youth detention facilities.

The judge did dismiss all claims against Luzerne County, the Luzerne County Department of Juvenile Probation, former county manager and chief clerk Sam Guesto, and former county commissioners Greg Skrepenak and Todd Vanderheid.

Caputo ruled that the plaintiffs, in their second amended complaint, failed to state any claims against the aforementioned parties.

The case, Wallace v. Powell, was first filed in February 2009 shortly after the judicial scandal unfolded.

The initial plaintiff, Florence Wallace, had filed the claim on behalf of her minor daughter and others similarly situated.

The case eventually became a class action, with the main plaintiffs being Angela Rimmer Belanger, Joseph Rimmer, Kelly Farmer and Zane Farmer, all of who are Luzerne County, Pa. residents.

The suit claims that the defendants conspired to violate the civil rights of the plaintiffs' children when the youngsters were sent to the privately run detention facilities.

The scheme, the lawsuit states, violated the kids’ “individual and collective civil rights through the widespread scheme and subversion of the Luzerne County juvenile justice system.”

According to background information included in the judge’s ruling, defendants Powell and Mericle paid approximately $2.6 million in bribes to the two judges, Ciavarella and Conahan, to ensure the placement of the juveniles in the detention facilities built by Mericle and his construction firm.

“In Pennsylvania, juveniles retain the same rights as other criminal defendants, including the right to due process of law and the right to counsel,” the ruling stated.

The scheme often involved the judges sentencing the youths to terms of incarceration for only minor offenses.

Ciavarella also typically adjudicated cases “without any of the procedural protections normally associated with juvenile cases, including giving the juveniles legal counsel to protect their rights,” the judge’s ruling stated.

The scandal, dubbed “Kids for Cash,” sent shockwaves throughout the Pennsylvania legal community and beyond. The case made headlines nationally. It was even featured in the Michael Moore documentary film “Capitalism: A Love Story.” The director sought to show how greed and the desire for power could even affect the sacred judiciary.

According to a Friday story in Philadelphia’s Legal Intelligencer newspaper, those representing Luzerne County and its former officials appeared pleased that the judge dismissed them as defendants in the civil suit.

“It’s a significant impact on the case because Luzerne County was the deep pocket and Luzerne County was the target for all these civil plaintiffs lawsuits,” attorney Timothy T. Myers, of the firm Elliot Greenleaf & Siedzikowski, told the paper.

The law firm was handling defense for the county defendants.

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