Nicholas Malfitano Mar. 1, 2016, 12:03pm


PHILADELPHIA – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has said it won’t reopen an Erie man’s civil rights violation case, affirming a decision from the trial court.

In a per curiam ruling, judges Michael A. Chagares, Cheryl Ann Krause and Morton I. Greenberg opted to uphold a decision from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, which had chosen not to reopen a civil rights violation case filed by Rosha Williams.

Williams was arrested and charged with several offenses in Pennsylvania state court, but after a suppression hearing, an Erie County Court of Common Pleas judge found the police officer who arrested Williams acted without probable cause.

This ruling led Williams to file the civil rights case against Officers Jonathan Nolan and Ryan Victory, the Erie Police Department and Assistant District Attorney Michael Burns for false arrest and illegal search and seizure. Williams alleged the defendants were all involved in his arrest and prosecution.

Burns moved to dismiss through asserting prosecutorial immunity and asked for a more definite statement regarding any allegation of his personal involvement in the alleged unlawful arrest. The District Court ordered Williams to file an amended complaint to this effect, which he did.

However, this amended complaint only included the allegations against Burns and not Nolan, Victory or the Erie Police Department.

Burns would later be dismissed from the complaint in November 2011.

Those latter defendants argued Williams’ amended complaint superseded the original one and filed for judgment on the pleadings. Though a magistrate judge ordered Williams’ counsel to respond to that motion, ultimately none was submitted, and thus the judge treated the amended complaint as the operative one.

Since no claims were remaining against the police defendants, the District Court adopted the magistrate judge’s recommendation and granted their motion for judgment on the pleadings in November 2012.

Nearly 17 months later, in April 2014, Williams moved to reopen the case, claiming he had no notice of the case even being dismissed, either from his counsel or the District Court. Williams cited his “counsel’s inadvertence” as justification for this reopening. Though the magistrate judge recommended the case be reopened due to the same lack of action on the part of Williams’s counsel, the District Court did not follow suit.

“The District Court noted that it could reopen the case under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60, but it declined to do so, citing the ‘extraordinary passage’ of time since the case had been dismissed,” the Third Circuit said. “In addition, the District Court found no reason to reopen the case because Williams’s submissions to that point – including the original complaint – suggested a lack of merit.”

The District Court also noted Williams’ “proper recourse” was filing an action against his counsel. This decision led Williams to appeal to the Third Circuit, claiming the District Court abused its discretion in denying his re-opening.

“Williams’s allegation – that that his counsel’s ‘inadvertence’ in failing to respond to Defendants’ motion resulted in the judgment against him – could be grounds for relief under Rule 60(b)(1), which permits a party to seek relief from a final judgment on the grounds of ‘inadvertence’ or ‘excusable neglect,” the Third Circuit said.

“However, a motion under Rule 60(b)(1) must be brought no later than one year after the judgment was entered. Here, Williams filed his motion approximately 17 months after the District Court entered judgment against him,” the Third Circuit added.

Ultimately, the Third Circuit concurred with the rationale of the District Court.

“The District Court denied Williams’s motions, in part, because it found that an ‘extraordinary’ amount of time had passed since his case was dismissed,” the Third Circuit said. “Williams did not move to reopen his case for nearly 17 months after the District Court entered judgment. Williams did not offer an explanation for this delay.”

The Third Circuit said it did not understand why Williams he did not seek to have his counsel replaced after he supposedly severed communication with the appellant or inquire about the status of his case, and concluded by affirming the original ruling of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

“Accordingly, inasmuch as Williams sought relief under Rule 60(b)(6), we perceive no abuse of discretion in the District Court’s determination that Williams did not do so within a reasonable time,” the Third Circuit said.

The plaintiff was represented by Anthony Rodriques in Erie.

The defendants were represented by Edmond R. Joyal Jr. of the Law Office of Joseph S. Weimer, in Pittsburgh.

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit case 14-3288

U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania case 1:10-cv-00014

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

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