Pennsylvania Record

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Judge dismisses prisoner's civil case against U.S. probation officers

By Jon Campisi | Dec 12, 2012

A U.S. District judge in Philadelphia has granted a motion to dismiss a suit that had been filed

by two federal probation officers who were facing a civil rights suit by a prisoner who claimed certain information in a presentencing report compiled by the defendants had violated his constitutional rights.

In a Dec. 11 opinion filed at the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Judge Joel H. Slomsky granted the motion of U.S. Probation Officers Megan A. Maier and Sandra Luehrs-Shaw to dismiss Gregory Howard Ladner’s amended complaint in his civil case against the two women.

Ladner had been convicted in 2005 of making false statements to a federal firearms licensee, background information on the case shows.

In January 2006, Ladner was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment and ordered to report to federal prison 30 days later to begin his sentence.

Rather than turning himself in, however, Ladner ended up obtaining a passport and fleeing the country.

Ladner wasn’t discovered until the spring of 2009, at which time he was arrested in the Philippines for reported sexual abuse, the record shows.

Upon being deported back to the United States, Ladner was charged with several offenses, including the failure to surrender for service of a sentence, giving a false statement on his passport application, and escape.

Ladner pled guilty to the failure to surrender for service of a sentence offense and agreed to waive certain appellate rights as part of his guilty plea agreement.

The other remaining charges were dismissed.

Prior to Ladner’s sentencing, Maier and Luehrs-Shaw, the two probation officers, prepared a presentence investigation report, the contents of which were eventually challenged by Ladner as containing violations of Ladner’s constitutional rights.

It was that report that was subject to Ladner’s civil rights suit against the two women.

The defendants subsequently filed a motion to dismiss the complaint and moved to strike a filing by Ladner that appeared to amend his pro se complaint.

Background information on the case shows that Ladner’s attorney objected to four factual matters in the presentence report: a reference to Ladner’s alleged sexual abuse of his “girlfriend” in the Philippines, an incident denied by Ladner; a failure to mention Ladner’s receipt of a high school equivalency diploma; a statement that Ladner had a prior conviction for aggravated battery in Illinois, which Ladner contended was for battery only; and an implication that Ladner had lied about his ability to speak a dialect of the Filipino language.

When Ladner appeared for sentencing on Aug. 16 in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, his criminal attorney only objected to the accuracy of the information in the presentence report with regard to the alleged sexual abuse of the woman in the Philippines, the record shows.

A judge, however, ultimately ruled that that information could remain in the report.

Ladner was then sentenced to 14 months in federal prison followed by three years of supervised release and a fine.

In Ladner’s civil complaint, the plaintiff alleged that the two probation officers violated his civil rights, including his due process rights, by willfully and knowingly committing strong discrimination, making false statements with “vindictiveness, prejudice, malicious intent,” and committed an obstruction of justice against Ladner in their presentence reports that caused the plaintiff “much mental pain, suffering, stress, depression, shame,” and damages to his character.

Ladner further asserted that the defendants made prejudicial and false statements against him in the report, and that the women wrongfully included information on Ladner’s alcohol abuse.

In his opinion, Judge Slomsky wrote that Ladner’s lawsuit is barred because it is an “impermissible collateral attack on his criminal sentence.”

Citing the U.S. Supreme Court case of Heck v. Humphrey, Slomsky wrote that a prisoner in custody could not bring an action for monetary damages challenging state actions related to a criminal sentence without first proving that the sentence had been reversed or invalidated on appeal.

“The Court stated that this holding was consistent with the long-standing principle that ‘civil tort actions are not appropriate vehicles for challenging the validity of outstanding criminal judgments,’” Slomsky wrote.

The above-cited case applies equally to a federal defendant attempting to challenge his sentence, the judge wrote.

“Plaintiff is attempting to do in this case what Heck v. Humphrey prevents – an impermissible challenge in a civil rights case to a sentence imposed in a criminal case,” Slomsky wrote.

The judge wrote that Ladner, through his civil action, is merely attempting to rehash arguments that were presented both to the district judge during sentencing and before the Third Circuit Court of Appeals on appeal.

Furthermore, Slomsky wrote that the two probation officers are protected from suit by qualified immunity, and therefore immune from civil action.

A government actor is shielded from suit unless a plaintiff establishes a violation of a constitutional right, the judge wrote, and in this case, the plaintiff was unable to sufficiently allege such a violation.

In the end, the judge granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss, and denied all outstanding motions as moot.

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