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Bright v. Westmoreland County

April 4, 2006

JOHN BRIGHT, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS CAPACITY AS ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF ANNETTE BRIGHT, DECEASED, APPELLANT
v.
WESTMORELAND COUNTY; TAMI WHALEN, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HER CAPACITY AS A PROBATION OFFICER FOR WESTMORELAND COUNTY; RICHARD YESKO, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS CAPACITY AS A PROBATION OFFICER FOR WESTMORELAND COUNTY; ANTHONY C. GUINTA, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS CAPACITY AS PROBATION SUPERVISOR FOR WESTMORELAND COUNTY; CITY OF MONESSEN; CARL FRANZAGLIO, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS CAPACITY AS A POLICE OFFICER FOR THE CITY OF MONESSEN; PAUL S. KUNTZ, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS CAPACITY AS COURT ADMINISTRATOR FOR THE WESTMORELAND COUNTY COURT OF COMMON PLEAS; JOHN PECK, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS CAPACITY AS DISTRICT ATTORNEY OF WESTMORELAND COUNTY; CHARLES KOSCHALK



On Appeal From the United States District Court For the Western District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civil Action No. 03-cv-01072) District Judge: Hon. Arthur J. Schwab.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stapleton, Circuit Judge

PRECEDENTIAL

Argued October 19, 2005

BEFORE: SMITH, STAPLETON and NYGAARD, Circuit Judges.

OPINION OF THE COURT

John Bright, on behalf of himself and his daughter Annette's estate, appeals from an order dismissing his complaint for failure to state a claim. That complaint purports to allege a Substantive Due Process claim under the "state-created danger doctrine" and several state law claims. For present purposes, we accept the facts alleged in Bright's complaint as true. Based on those facts, we will affirm the judgment of the District Court.

I.

Thirty-four-year-old defendant Charles Koschalk ("Koschalk") pled guilty to a charge of corrupting the morals of a twelve-year-old girl, Annette Bright's sister. He was sentenced to 23 months of probation. As conditions of his probation, he was to have no contact with his 12-year-old victim and no unsupervised contact with any other minor. On probation, Koschalk was under the supervision of Westmoreland County Adult Probation Department and three of its employees -- defendants Tami Whalen, Richard Yesko, and Anthony Guinta. During his probation, Koschalk continuously violated his parole by attempting to carry on a relationship with the 12-year-old victim of his crime.

The complaint alleges the following with respect to one of those probation violations and the ensuing proceedings:

16. On or about MAY 4, 2001, AT 20:09 hrs, Defendant Probation Officer Tami Whelan personally observed and confronted Defendant Koschalk with the twelve year old victim, unsupervised, at the Target Store in Greensburg. The probation officer considered this a direct violation of the Court Order.

17. Defendant Probation Officer Whelan prepared a report in support of a violation petition on or about May 16, 2001.

18. On or about June 15, 2001, a formal violation document alleging the above unauthorized contact was signed by Probation Officer Richard Yesko for Probation Officer Whelan.

19. On or about June 18, 2001, Probation Supervisor Anthony C. Guinta signed the violation document requesting that a final revocation hearing be scheduled for Defendant Koschalk.

20. On or about June 27, 2001, a Petition to Revoke Defendant Koschalk's probation was filed through Defendant District Attorney's office by and through an assistant district attorney.

21. On or about August 6, 2001, the Westmoreland County Court Administrator's Office issued a notice that a hearing on the Petition for Revocation was scheduled for August 28, 2001 before the Honorable William J. Ober of the Court of Common Pleas of Westmoreland County.

First Amended Complaint, App. at 54a-55a.

In late June, 2001, Bright called defendant Officer Carl Franzaglio of the City of Monessen Police Department to ask him to arrest Koschalk. Officer Franzaglio had some familiarity with the case because he was the prosecuting officer in the proceeding against Koschalk stemming from his crime against the 12-year-old. After Bright described the situation, Officer Franzaglio assured Bright that immediate action would be taken, but no detention of Koschalk occurred.

On July 15, 2001, before his probation revocation hearing was scheduled, Koschalk shot and killed Annette Bright, the eight-year-old sister of the victim of his earlier crime. Koschalk murdered Annette Bright to retaliate against the family for its efforts to prevent him from seeing the 12-year-old victim.

Bright's complaint concludes its statement of a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 with the following allegations:

The aforementioned acts, coupled with the inexplicable delay of nearly ten weeks in processing the revocation petition and/or the failure to initiate arrest and/or detention in the face of known probation violations . . . constituted a state-created danger . . . . The homicide was directly and proximately caused by the affirmative acts and/or the deliberate indifference and/or failure to enforce, despite actual knowledge, the court-ordered conditions of probation. Further, the effect of direct confrontation with Koschalk, coupled with the aforementioned inexplicable delay emboldened Koschalk into believing that he would not confront effective law enforcement action as he progressed with his scheme to retaliate against the Bright family.

First Amended Complaint at ¶¶ 30(h), 31, App. at 58a.

In addition to the violation of Annette Bright's federal civil rights, Bright's complaint also alleges state law wrongful death and survival claims against all of the defendants and assault and battery claims against Koschalk.

The District Court granted the defendant's Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss the § 1983 state-created danger claims. It concluded that these claims "must fail . . . because the state actors did not use their authority to create an opportunity for harm that would not otherwise have existed." District Ct. Op., App. at 13a-14a. The District Court also dismissed Bright's state law claims against the state-actor defendants on the ground that they were entitled to immunity under the Pennsylvania Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 8541, et seq. ("PPSTCA"). Finally, the District Court declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims against Koschalk. This timely appeal followed.

II.

We begin our evaluation of Bright's "state-created danger" claim with a review of the Supreme Court's decision in DeShaney v. Winnebago Cty. Soc. Servs. Dept., 489 U.S. 189 (1989). Joshua DeShaney was physically abused by his father. The respondents, social workers and local officials, had ample reason to believe Joshua's father was abusing him and, at one point, secured temporary custody of Joshua. They ultimately returned Joshua to his father, however, and the violence continued, resulting in severe brain damage. Joshua and his mother "sued respondents claiming that their failure to act deprived [Joshua] of his liberty in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment." Id. at 191. The Supreme Court held that it did not, and affirmed a summary judgment for the respondents.

Based upon its text, history, and case law, the Court concluded that the Due Process Clause did not impose an affirmative obligation on the state to protect its citizens:

The Clause is phrased as a limitation on the State's power to act, not as a guarantee of certain minimal levels of safety and security. It forbids the State itself to deprive individuals of life, liberty, or property without "due process of law," but its language cannot fairly be extended to impose an affirmative obligation on the State to ensure that those interests do not come to harm through other means. Nor does history support such an expansive reading of the constitutional text.

Its purpose was to protect the people from the State, not to ensure that the State protected them from each other.

Consistent with these principles, our cases have recognized that the Due Process Clauses generally confer no affirmative right to governmental aid, even where such aid may be necessary to secure life, liberty, or property interests of which the government itself may not deprive the individual.

DeShaney, 489 U.S. at 195-96.

Significantly for present purposes, the petitioners in DeShaney contended that, even if there was no affirmative duty to protect the public generally, "a special relationship" existed between Joshua and the state giving rise to such a duty "because the State knew that Joshua faced a special danger of abuse at his father's hands, and specifically proclaimed, by word and by deed, its intention to protect him against that danger." DeShaney, 489 U.S. at 197. The Supreme Court expressly "reject[ed] this argument." Id. at 198. It held that it is only when the state takes custody of a citizen, thereby depriving him of his liberty, that it assumes an affirmative duty to protect him or her from harm.

[Our cases] stand only for the proposition that when the State takes a person into its custody and holds him there against his will, the Constitution imposes upon it a corresponding duty to assume some responsibility for his safety and general well-being. . . . The affirmative duty to protect arises not from the State's knowledge of the individual's predicament or from its expressions of ...


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