Partial civil immunity granted to disgraced judge in 'Kids for Cash' case

By Jon Campisi | Feb 7, 2012

A federal judge in central Pennsylvania has partially granted and partially denied a motion by disgraced former Luzerne County judge Mark Ciavarella to dismiss a lawsuit against him by a juvenile who was caught up in the judicial corruption case known as “Kids for Cash.”

Ciavarella, one of two judges who presided over what were later found to be tainted juvenile judicial proceedings in the Luzerne County court system early last decade, was named as a defendant in Gillette v. Ciavarella, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania back in April 2011.

In the complaint, plaintiff James Gillette alleges he was denied his right to legal counsel and due process when he was brought before Ciavarella during a court proceeding in June 2004 in which he faced charges of assault, terroristic threats, harassment, disorderly conduct and criminal mischief.

Gillette claimed he was incarcerated “almost continuously” between the summer of 2004 and the fall of 2008.

Gillette’s complaint was filed by his mother, Erica Michaliga. The lawsuit named additional defendants, including former Luzerne County Judge Michael Conahan, Ciavarella’s coconspirator; PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care, the two privately run detention facilities where juveniles were allegedly sent in exchange for money; and Robert Mericle, the developer of the detention centers.

Gillette’s civil action contained three counts: alleged violations of the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, an alleged conspiracy to violate RICO and alleged civil rights violations.

Ciavarella moved to dismiss the claims against him in late May 2011. The former judge, who was eventually convicted of racketeering and income tax evasion stemming from his role in the conspiracy to send juveniles to privately run detention facilities in exchange for compensation, was sentenced to nearly three decades in prison last summer.

In his motion to dismiss in the Gillette case, Ciavarella argued that he was protected by absolute judicial immunity, which grants judges immunity from civil damages for judicial acts that are in the “clear absence of jurisdiction.”

In his memorandum opinion, which was filed at the federal courthouse in Harrisburg Jan. 31, U.S. District Judge Richard Caputo ruled, just as he had in another civil suit against Ciavarella, that the former judge was entitled to partial judicial immunity.

Citing the prior ruling in Wallace v. Powell, Caputo wrote that Ciavarella was shielded by judicial immunity for his courtroom conduct, “in other words, his juvenile delinquency determinations and the sentences he imposed – because this was judicial action within his jurisdiction. However, I held that Mr. Ciavarella’s other alleged actions, such as coercing probation officials to change their recommendations, did not fall within the doctrine of immunity. Because the case at bar involves the same allegations as those in Wallace, my analysis is the same.”

Western PA Child Care also moved to dismiss the suit for various reasons. For one thing, the organization argued that Gillette failed to state a claim under Section 1983 of the federal civil rights law. WPACC also argued that it did not act under color of state law, and additionally that the plaintiffs did not plead causation.

The judge ruled against that motion, writing that WPACC mischaracterized the nature of Gillette’s claim. Caputo therefore allowed the civil rights claims against the defendants to stand.

WPACC also moved to dismiss on the grounds that it purportedly did not act under color of state law. The judge again disagreed, ruling that, just as he had in Wallace v. Powell, that the defendants’ challenge in this respect is better suited for the summary judgment stage “at which point all parties can marshal evidence in support of their positions.”

WPACC also moved to dismiss the RICO claims against it. The defendant argued that the plaintiffs didn’t have standing to assert a civil RICO claim; they asserted that the plaintiffs’ claims are untimely and they stated that the plaintiffs have not alleged a substantive RICO violation.

Caputo, however, ruled that the plaintiffs do have standing because they suffered a direct injury. He also ruled that the statute of limitations for a RICO claim had not expired because the plaintiffs “have adequately established fraudulent concealment.”

“Plaintiffs have alleged that the Defendants took many actions to hide their conspiracy, such as forging documents,” the judge wrote. “This is sufficient to establish ‘active misleading.’”

The judge also let stand the RICO conspiracy claim, writing that the motion to dismiss was denied because he determined that the plaintiffs set forth a substantive RICO claim.

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