PHILADELPHIA – A federal judge has ordered litigation alleging civil rights violations committed by members of the Philadelphia Police Department to be remanded to state court.

On Nov. 15, Judge Michael M. Baylson said the civil rights lawsuit filed by plaintiff Ronald Corbitt against Philadelphia Police Department officers Thomas Horner, Marco Lombardi and John Craig would in fact be returning to the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas.

In response to an alleged physical altercation on July 14, 2014, Corbitt filed a state law complaint on Sept. 20 against Horner, Lombardi and Craig containing five counts: assault and battery, reckless disregard for safety, outrageous conduct causing severe emotional distress, civil conspiracy and false arrest/false imprisonment/malicious prosecution.

As defendants Horner and Lombardi motioned to remove the case to federal court, alleging appropriate jurisdiction over civil rights claims, on Oct. 18. Corbitt opposed this motion, believing state law governs the claims of his complaint and not the U.S. Constitution – leading the defendants’ motion to come before Baylson.

“Removing defendants’ arguments must fail for several reasons. First, by inviting the Court to draw a negative inference from plaintiff’s failure to ‘identify the Pennsylvania Constitution as the sole source for the ‘rights’ he alleges to have been violated, removing defendants improperly shift the burden established in the context of motions to remand removed cases,” Baylson said.

“The law is clear that ‘it is the removing party’s burden to demonstrate the existence of federal subject matter jurisdiction,’ not plaintiff’s burden to affirmatively establish that his claims are exclusively encompassed by state law. Moreover, removing defendants offer no reason to conclude that the ‘rights’ they allegedly violated were not ‘rights’ the state statutes could, and were designed to, protect,” Baylson added.

According to Baylson, the critical component to the issued ruling was the defendants not meeting their burden to show the removal of the case to federal court was proper.

“Courts consistently reject as a valid basis for removal the fact that a plaintiff’s claims, though facially devoid of a federal claim, are nonetheless capable of encompassing federal civil rights claims,” Baylson said, and cited precedent supporting this perspective in the form of the Ruchka v. Husfelt case.

Decided in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania in 2008, that case ruling read “state common law causes of action can be claimed as violations of the [federal Constitution] does not mean that they must be.”

Baylson pointed to that Court deciding “Pennsylvania’s common law torts of false imprisonment, assault and battery, intentional and negligent use of force, and malicious prosecution existed long before Section 1983 was enacted, and nothing in the language or history of that legislation suggests that Congress intended that any state claim that could possibly be pled as a federal civil rights claim must be so pled by a plaintiff.”

“The reasoning articulated in Ruchka applies to this case with equal force. Plaintiff has made clear his intention only to pursue state law claims. Accordingly, removing defendants have failed to carry their heavy burden of showing that this action properly resides in federal court. For the foregoing reasons, plaintiff’s motion to remand will be granted,” Baylson stated.

Therefore, the case was remanded to the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas and Corbitt’s motion to dismiss was denied.

The plaintiff is represented by Brian S. Chacker of Gay Chacker & Mittin, in Philadelphia.

The defendants are represented by Matthew J. McColgan and Thomas J. Wagner of The Law Offices of Thomas J. Wagner and John Joseph Coyle of the City of Philadelphia’s Law Department, all also in Philadelphia.

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania case 2:16-cv-05450

Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas case 150502026

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

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