Superior Court rules against man fighting murder conviction who sued his lawyer

By Dee Thompson | Jul 24, 2017

HARRISBURG – The state Superior Court has affirmed a lower court's granting of summary judgment to an attorney sued for malpractice by a prison inmate he had formerly represented.

A decision in Dennis Horton v. James S. Bruno was released July 3 after an appeal from the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, where summary judgment had been granted to Bruno. Horton appeared pro se to appeal the ruling. 

Dennis Horton has been in prison since 1994, serving time for second-degree murder. Under the Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) Bruno represented Horton from 2009 until 2011.

Bruno was reported to the state Disciplinary Board by Horton and two other clients and his law license was suspended for two years after 2011.

According to the Commonwealth Court's decision written by Judge Paula Francisco Ott, “Horton contends the trial court erred or abused its discretion by: (1) denying his pretrial motion to amend his complaint; (2) denying his motion to compel Bruno to produce certain documents; and (3) granting Bruno’s motion for summary judgment.” 

Two years after he was convicted of murder, Horton filed a petition under the PCRA regarding his lawyer’s alleged failure to subpoena medical records. That petition was denied. 

A second petition was filed in 2006 “raising an after-discovered facts time bar exception,” the court ruling said. It was dismissed in 2007. Bruno was appointed to represent Horton in 2009 and filed an amended petition, which Horton alleged in 2010 was evidence of ineffective representation. 

According to Ott’s order, “On Oct. 18, 2010, [Horton] appealed, contending that, among other things, his 'after-discovered' medical records of his knee injury, which occurred about a month before the crime, entitled him to a time bar exception.” Horton claimed his knee injury would have rendered him unable to have committed the crime.

Bruno was permitted to withdraw as Horton’s counsel after a hearing. 

In affirming the lower court’s judgment, Ott notes: “(B)ecause Horton could not have overcome the PCRA’s time-bar even if Bruno had obtained the absent documents, Bruno’s ineffectiveness was not the proximate cause of Horton’s injury. Accordingly, the trial court properly granted Bruno’s motion for summary judgment.”

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