Federal judge in Phila. remands to state court retaliation suit by man against City of Easton, police officials

By Jon Campisi | Oct 2, 2013

A federal judge has sent back to state court a lawsuit by a man claiming he

A federal judge has sent back to state court a lawsuit by a man claiming he

was harassed by Easton, Pa. police officers in retaliation for helping his mother sue the Northeastern Pennsylvania city.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence F. Stengel, of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, remanded to the Northampton County Court of Common Pleas a civil complaint by Julius Lockhart against the City of Easton.

Stengel simultaneously dismissed the plaintiff’s federal claims with prejudice and declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state claims, which will now be addressed by a state judge.

In his lawsuit, which was originally filed in Northampton County Court in early January of last year and subsequently removed by attorneys representing the defendants to the federal venue, Lockhart alleges that he suffered retaliation at the hands of city and police officials in response to the plaintiff’s assisting his mother with her own civil action against the city.

The mother’s case stemmed from allegations that a vehicle belonging to her was wrongfully held in a city impound lot and later damaged while in city custody.

Lockhart contends that soon after he aided his mother with her litigation in the summer of 2009 he began being harassed by city cops.

The alleged harassment took the form of being pulled over on the street without cause, being told by one officer that law enforcement would “get you and you better watch out,” and being informed by another officer that “you don’t go messing with the police.”

That last comment was allegedly made after Lockhart went to the Easton police station to report the alleged threats by the first officer.

The alleged harassment, the suit says, culminated with the “dramatic search” of the plaintiff’s home and business premises by officers in tactical gear with weapons drawn.

The man claims his young daughter continues to have nightmares, experience post-traumatic stress, and otherwise fear police officers due to the search.

During the search, officers even used dynamite to bust open the glass door, the complaint states.

The search produced nothing but some minor drug paraphernalia, to which the plaintiff pleaded guilty.

Officers also eventually returned to Lockhart the man’s legally purchased weapons that were seized during the raid.

The lawsuit goes on to state that one officer continued to drive by Lockhart’s property soon after the place was “bombed,” pointing his fingers and laughing at the plaintiff.

The suit says that Lockhart and his family continually live in fear.

“He has not been able to maintain his business or keep a job,” the complaint reads. “His reputation has been sullied publicly.”

According to the complaint, police reportedly acted on a tip about drug activity at the plaintiff’s home when they decided to raid the place, although Lockhart maintains that he has never viewed a copy of the search warrant.

The suit says that Lockhart, who is black has worked in the entertainment and advertising industry with local talent and well-known models and recording artists.

The complaint contained counts of civil rights violations in addition to state law claims of false imprisonment, negligence, negligent supervision, conspiracy, conversion, assault, and state constitutional claims.

In a Sept. 17 memorandum, Stengle, the federal judge, granted judgment in favor of the defendants on all of Lockhart’s federal civil rights claims.

On what Stengle called the “epicenter” of the plaintiff’s claims, the validity of the search warrant, the judge disagreed with Lockhart that the warrants were not supported by probable cause.

“The affidavits underlying the warrants gave the magisterial district judge a substantial basis for finding probable cause, and even if they did not, [police are] entitled to qualified immunity,” Stengle wrote.

Qualified immunity, Stengle pointed out, shields government officials from civil liability as long as their conduct doesn’t violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of citizens.

In his ruling, Stengle did determine that the various state law claims could proceed, although he declined to take jurisdiction over them himself, instead remanding the case to Common Pleas Court.

The case will be transferred to Northampton County where a state trial judge will take over the matter.

The defendants named in the litigation are the City of Easton, Police Officer Eric Campbell, Detective Kevin Krische and Police Chief Larry Palmer.

Philadelphia attorney Lynanne B. Wescott is representing the plaintiff while the defendants are being represented by West Chester, Pa. lawyers David J. MacMain and Erica Wilson of Lamb McErlane.

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