Nicholas Malfitano Jun. 22, 2016, 9:01am


PHILADELPHIA – A federal appellate court has determined a Philadelphia man’s civil rights complaint claims against the Philadelphia Police Department, Philadelphia Parking Authority, Philadelphia Traffic Court and Pennsylvania Department of Transportation are “meritless”, and thus dismissed his appeal on that ground.

In a per curiam ruling handed down June 15, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit judges Michael A. Chagares, Joseph A. Greenaway Jr. and Leonard I. Garth ruled as baseless appellant O.C. Sorrell’s claims against the aforementioned agencies, due to sovereign immunity.

“Sorrells brought suit in the District Court against the Philadelphia Police Department, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the Philadelphia Traffic Court, and the Philadelphia Parking Authority,” the Third Circuit said. “Sorrells alleged that he was unlawfully detained and that his vehicle was unlawfully confiscated on the ground that his vehicle’s license plates were obstructed.”

As a result, all of the agencies in question moved to dismiss Sorrells’ complaint, though the parking authority was never properly served, according to the Third Circuit Court. When Sorrells failed to respond to the dismissal motions, the District Court granted each one on a basis of no-contest, and alternatively, because Sorrells had not sued “proper, non-immune defendants.”

The District Court also, sua sponte dismissed the claims against the Philadelphia Parking Authority due to their presumed frivolity, with all dismissals in this case being delivered with prejudice.

“Sorrells appealed. On appeal, the Philadelphia Traffic Court filed a motion to summarily affirm, in which the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation subsequently joined. Sorrells then filed a response opposing summary affirmance of the District Court’s dismissal of all of the defendants,” the Third Circuit stated.

In the eyes of the appellate court, Sorrells did not properly plead his case by showing a civil rights violation, or to properly name parties attached with the lawsuit.

“There is no substantial question that in this case Sorrells cannot bring a federal civil rights action against the Philadelphia Police Department, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, and the Philadelphia Traffic Court,” the Third Circuit said. “First, as the District Court correctly observed, the Philadelphia Police Department is not a proper party, as a suit against a municipal agency should name the municipality itself. But even construing Sorrells’ complaint as against the City of Philadelphia, Sorrells did not plead that any municipal policy, custom, or practice led to the purported constitutional violations at issue, as a viable municipal liability claim requires.”

The Third Circuit added the District Court was also correct to conclude that the Eleventh Amendment “bars the suit against the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the Philadelphia Traffic Court, because those are state entities”, and rejected Sorrells’ attempt to pierce the veil of sovereign immunity.

“Sorrells appears to argue that they were engaged in ‘commercial activity’ of some kind. But nothing in Clearfield Trust Co. v. United States, Bank of the United States v. Planters’ Bank, or any other case that Sorrells cites holds that sovereign immunity is lost simply because imposing fines is purportedly some manner of commercial activity, as Sorrells apparently argues,” the Third Circuit said.

The appellate court further ruled there was “no substantial question” the District Court was correct to dismiss the case against the Philadelphia Parking Authority, due to Sorrells’ asserted legal basis for the alleged illegal seizure of his vehicle being that “the relevant vehicle-registration-plate law did not apply to him because of his purported status as a “Moorish American National” and therefore he was only subject to Moroccan law – a theory the Third Circuit termed as “indisputably meritless.”

“Finally, the District Court was also correct to dismiss the case with prejudice because the jurisdictional and pleading defects in this case are incurable. Because the appeal presents no substantial question, we will summarily affirm the District Court’s judgment,” the Third Circuit said.

The defendants are represented by Jonathan Cooper of the City Of Philadelphia’s Law Department, Michael Daley of the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts and Barry N. Kramer of Pennsylvania’s Office of the Attorney General, also in Philadelphia.

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit case 16-1301

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania case 2:15-cv-05558

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

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