Defendants dismissed from suit by former Pa. judge tied to 'Kids for Cash' judicial scandal

By Jon Campisi | Oct 28, 2013

A lawsuit filed by a former northeastern Pennsylvania trial court judge has

been cut down significantly, with the federal jurist overseeing the case dismissing claims against most of the defendants named in the civil rights action, which was tied to the so-called “Kids for Cash” judicial scandal.

In an order filed at the U.S. District Court in Harrisburg earlier this month, Judge A. Richard Caputo removed most of the defendants who had been named in a civil action by former Luzerne County Common Pleas Court Judge Ann Lokuta over the woman’s removal from office.

In her civil suit, which was filed earlier this year, Lokuta, the first woman ever to serve on the Luzerne County Court, alleged that disgraced former county judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan conspired with others to have Lokuta tossed from the bench due to her cooperation with investigators looking into corruption at the courthouse.

In what soon became known as the “Kids for Cash” scandal, considered the largest such scandal to taint the judiciary in the state’s history, Ciavarella and Conahan were charged with sending juvenile offenders facing minor offenses to for-profit detention centers in return for large illegal payoffs.

Ciavarella, a former family court judge, was subsequently convicted on racketeering, conspiracy and other charges, and sentenced to 28 years in federal prison.

Conahan, who served as the president judge in Luzerne County, was sent to prison for 17 years after pleading guilty in connection with the case.

Lokuta, who was first elected to the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas in 1991, and survived a retention vote a decade later, was removed from the Luzerne County bench in late 2008, three years shy of the end of her second term, after the state’s Court of Judicial Discipline determined that she had mistreated court employees and lawyers and that she often was late or absent from court, according to past news reports.

The state Supreme Court upheld the CJD’s ruling in January 2011.

Lokuta claimed in her lawsuit that Ciavarella and Conahan helped to orchestrate the disciplinary charges against her because of the woman’s cooperation with federal investigators in the criminal case against the two former jurists.

In his Oct. 9 ruling, Caputo, the federal judge overseeing Lokuta’s civil case, dismissed with prejudice from the litigation Angela Sallemi, a court stenographer; former Luzerne County court administrator William Sharkey, Sr.; former county court Prothonotary Jill Moran; and two Judicial Conduct Board lawyers who had brought the disciplinary charges against Lokuta to the CJD, Joseph A. Massa, Jr. and Francis J. Puskas.

Caputo agreed that many of Lokuta’s claims were barred by a statute of limitations, that they were barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine, and that Lokuta failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

Massa and Puskas had also argued that prosecutorial immunity bars many of Lokuta’s clams against them given their involvement with bringing the disciplinary charges that led to the CJD removing Lokuta from the bench.

Caputo agreed, writing that the two are entitled to such immunity for the majority of the conduct about which Lokuta complains.

As part of her suit, Lokuta sought an order reinstating her to her former position as a state trial judge, but Caputo noted in his ruling that the federal court lacks such subject matter jurisdiction over the request.

The same went for Lokuta’s request for permission to run for future judicial office in the commonwealth.

Caputo cited the Rooker-Feldman doctrine in his decision dismissing these claims.

The doctrine says a federal district court is precluded from entertaining an action if the requested relief would reverse a state court decision or void its ruling.

Caputo also dismissed Lokuta’s Fourteenth Amendment, Fifth Amendment, Sixth Amendment and First Amendment claims, the latter specifically because Lokuta failed to file her claims within the applicable statute of limitations.

Lokuta additionally asserted a civil conspiracy claim against the defendants pursuant to Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act.

Caputo, too, dismissed the claim due to the fact that it was not timely filed.

The judge did not allow Lokuta to amend her claims against the defendants because, as he wrote, the grounds for dismissal of Lokuta’s complaint are “not curable by amendment.”

Meanwhile, Ciavarella and Conahan, the currently imprisoned disgraced former judges, were allowed to remain as defendants in the case at this point in time.

Ciavarella, Caputo noted, has filed an answer and defense to the complaint and Conahan has not yet responded to the litigation or filed a motion to dismiss the action.

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