Phila. judge denies city’s bid to dismiss suit by ‘outed’ gun license applicants

By Jon Campisi | Sep 4, 2013

A Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge has denied a preliminary bid by

the City of Philadelphia to dismiss a lawsuit filed by gun license applicants who allege they suffered harm when their information was made publicly available via the Internet in apparent violation of state law.

In an Aug. 27 order, Common Pleas Court Judge Jacqueline Allen overruled defense preliminary objections in the case, ordering the defendants to file an answer to the plaintiffs’ amended class action lawsuit within 20 days.

A host of John and Jane Doe defendants filed suit late last year over claims that they were harmed when they were improperly identified through the website of the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections.

The plaintiffs argue that under the state’s Uniform Firearms Act, personal identifying information connected to applications for a License to Carry Firearms is to remain confidential in the commonwealth.

Nevertheless, L&I last year displayed the names of such individuals who either had their carry license applications denied, or the licenses themselves revoked, in an online mapping feature that was displayed on L&I’s website.

The feature, L&I officials contended, was created with the intent of improving governmental transparency by making information about various types of licenses throughout the city more easily accessible.

In Philadelphia, the police department’s Gun Permits Unit is in charge of approving or denying applications, while L&I hears appeals in cases where licenses were either denied or revoked.

In other Pennsylvania counties, sheriffs do both.

The Web feature, which was up for about four to five days, was taken down at the urging of the Philadelphia Police Department, citing public safety concerns with regard to the publication of such information.

Mere days after filing the lawsuit, attorneys representing both the plaintiffs and the defendants – the latter includes the city, L&I, the police department’s Gun Permits Unit, Mayor Michael Nutter and others – agreed to a stipulation in which the case would remained sealed because of the confidential nature of the litigation.

(The plaintiffs didn’t want to be identified in court papers because the very nature of the case has to do with privacy laws whereas gun license information is concerned).

The court then allowed the complaint to be filed with the plaintiffs retaining anonymity, hence the John and Jane Doe designations.

In last week’s judicial order, Allen overruled preliminary objections that had been filed by Deputy City Solicitor Amanda C. Shoffel on behalf of the defendants.

In the city’s filing, Shoffel attempted to argue that the complaint should be dismissed because the governmental agencies are immune from suit.

The claims, Shoffel wrote, should fail as a matter of law because they are barred by the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act.

“City Departments are not legal entities which can be sued,” Shoffel wrote, noting that Commonwealth Court has held it is “reversible error for the Court of Common Pleas to allow suits against City Departments” under state law.

The state Supreme Court has also previously held specifically that L&I is immune to such litigation, Shoffel stated.

“Plaintiffs here want this Court to construe the language of the Uniform Firearms Act as an exception to this well-settled rule,” she wrote.

A memorandum did not accompany Allen’s one-page judicial order, so it was difficult to ascertain what the judge’s legal justification was for allowing the litigation to move forward at this stage of the game.

Lawyers representing the plaintiffs are soon expected to file a motion for class certification in the case.

The number of potential class members has not yet been made publicly available.

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