PHILADELPHIA – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit says a U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylania judge will not be recused from presiding over a civil discrimination case.

Judges Theodore A. McKee, Kent A. Jordan and L. Felipe Restrepo decided in a per curiam decision released on Nov. 15 that plaintiffs Gnana M. Chinniah and Suganthini Chinniah would not be granted a petition for mandamus in their desire to have District Court Judge Yvette Kane recused from their lawsuit.

“The Chinniahs are property owners in East Pennsboro Township who in 2008 brought an action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 alleging that the township and its building inspector and code enforcement officer treated them differently because they were of Indian descent and adhere to Hinduism,” the Third Circuit said.

“After a four-day trial before Judge Kane, a jury found for the defendants on all claims. The Chinniahs’ counsel then withdrew, and the Chinniahs appealed. In March 2015, we affirmed the judgment of the District Court,” the Third Circuit added. (U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania Case 2:08-cv-1330)

The appellate court added the Chinniahs filed a motion in the District Court several months later according to Federal Rule of Civil procedure 60(b)(6), seeking relief from the judgment entered on the jury verdict. They argued that because of “improper” contacts between jurors, counsel, and court staff, their counsel altered his trial strategy that a “virtual abandonment” of their case occurred.

The District Court denied the Rule 60(b)(6) motion, and the Chinniahs appealed. In December 2015, the Third Circuit Court affirmed the judgment of the District Court.

“In November 2015, the Chinniahs filed another lawsuit in the District Court that was assigned to Judge Kane. They again brought civil rights claims against the township and its building inspector and code enforcement officer, and they also included as defendants counsel involved in the 2008 lawsuit and various county officials,” the Third Circuit said. [This lawsuit remains pending before the District Court]

“On Feb. 3, 2016, the Channiahs filed a recusal motion, which the District Court denied in a Feb. 11, 2016 order. On Sept. 30, 2016, the District Court denied reconsideration of that order, and the Channiahs filed this mandamus petition,” the Third Circuit added.

The appellate judiciary explained mandamus is the proper way to examine the denial of a recusal motion.

“The Chinniahs argue that there is ‘ an appearance of partiality in this case that warrants Judge Kane’s recusal.’ They point to ‘Judge Kane’s apparent desire to protect her court staff from inquiry,’ ‘some undisclosed prior relationship between Judge Kane and the law firm to which she personally referred the Chinniahs for representation at the 2013 trial in the 2008 case,’ and ‘some possible personal knowledge of or connection between Judge Kane and persons involved in the 2015 case in the same community where Judge Kane is believed to reside,” the Third Circuit said.

“The Chinniahs contend that Judge Kane’s partiality was evidenced by “the manner in which the Rule 60(b) Motion in the 2008 case was decided, i.e. that she never held a hearing on the issue of the improper jury contact to conduct any inquiry into them,” and her subsequent refusal to revisit the allegations of improper jury contact in her denial of the motion for recusal in this case,” the Court added.

In the end, the appellate court was not swayed by the Chinniahs’ reasoning.

“The Chinniahs have not made a persuasive case for mandamus relief. Their allegations about her ‘prior relationship’ and ‘possible personal knowledge’ of defendants are unsupported and speculative, and their allegation that she has not adequately addressed the issue of ‘improper’ jury contacts amounts to nothing more than dissatisfaction with a legal ruling,” the Third Circuit stated.

The defendants are represented by Donald L. Carmelite, Edwin A.D. Schwartz and Nichole M. Ehrhart of Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin in Camp Hill, David J. MacMain and Tricia M. Ambrose of the MacMain Law Group in Malvern and Christopher E. Ballod of Pietragallo Gordon Alfano Bosick & Raspanti, in Pittsburgh. 

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit case 15-2911

U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania 1:15-cv-02240

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at nickpennrecord@gmail.com

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