Nicholas Malfitano Jan. 7, 2016, 9:28am


PHILADELPHIA – A federal appeals court has affirmed the dismissal of a multimillion-dollar civil rights lawsuit filed against the City of Wilkes-Barre, the Wilkes-Barre Police Department and several of its officers and building inspectors.

Heard before judges D. Michael Fisher, Patty Shwartz and Robert E. Cowen, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania’s dismissal of a complaint from appellant Robert Harriott. In this case, the Court’s ruling was per curiam.

Harriott first filed suit against the defendants on June 5, 2014, seeking $52 million in damages. Harriott alleged his rights had been violated by the conduct of the Wilkes-Barre police in connection with the arrest of third parties at a property he owned, as well as the conduct of building code inspectors who, after being summoned by the police, accused Harriott of violating building safety codes and operating an illegal boarding house.

Over the next year, a magistrate judge recommended the dismissal of both the initial complaint and a later amended version due to violations of Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, improper naming of defendants and failure to state claims against certain defendants.

On June 1, after the deadline to file objections to the magistrate judge’s second recommendation had passed, Harriott filed an untitled document reiterating allegations made in his amended complaint and again included a request for $52 million in damages.

The following week, the district court adopted the magistrate judge’s report and dismissed the City of Wilkes-Barre, the Wilkes-Barre Police Department, and Officers Christopher Benson and James Conmy with prejudice for failure to state a claim, and remaining defendants Robert Collins, Sgt. Jim Sheridan, the City’s Code Enforcement Department, plus Building Code Official Frank Kratz and then-Operations Department Deputy Director Michael Simonson without prejudice, for failure to comply with Rules of Civil Procedure.

After Harriott failed to file an amended complaint within a mandated 14-day window, the district court dismissed the case outright. In response, Harriott appealed to the Third Circuit.

Harriott’s appeal centered on three beliefs: “(1) The District Court erred in rejecting his June 1 untitled filing in its June 8 order; (2) The City of Wilkes-Barre was improperly dismissed on June 8; and (3) The Magistrate Judge was biased.”

With respect to Harriott’s first argument that his untitled court filing in response to the Magistrate Judge’s report should not have been rejected as untimely, the Third Circuit pointed to Harriott filing the aforementioned untitled document two weeks past its May 18 deadline, on June 1 – and not informing the Court of apparently receiving the magistrate judge’s recommendations and report late in the mail, or likewise requesting leave to file his objections at a later time because of this.

On his belief the City of Wilkes-Barre was improperly dismissed from the complaint, the Third Circuit stated Harriott’s case “contained no allegations whatsoever of a policy, custom, or practice of the City that resulted in the alleged harm”, and thus failed to allege sufficient facts to state a claim against the City of Wilkes-Barre.

“A municipality cannot be held liable in a [Monell] action on a theory of respondeat superior,” the Third Circuit said in its decision. “Instead, liability may be imposed only where it can be shown that the municipality had a policy, regulation, custom, or practice that led to the alleged constitutional violation.”

Finally, in reference to Harriott’s accusation of bias on the part of the magistrate judge, the Third Circuit “carefully reviewed the record and detected nothing that raises an inference of bias.”

“Accordingly, we will affirm District Court’s judgment,” the Third Circuit said.

The plaintiff represented himself in this proceeding, while the defendants retained no legal representation.

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit case 15-2718

U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania case 3:14-cv-01087

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at nickpennrecord@gmail.com

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