On August 3, 2017, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a federal civil rights lawsuit victims filed against Ross Township, Pennsylvania officials. The victims sought recovery for their injuries and the deaths of their family members when Township resident Rockne Newell opened fire on innocent bystanders attending a 2013 Supervisors meeting. Three people were killed and others severely wounded.
Newell had been feuding with Township officials over the conditions of his property, which were deplorable. Newell lived in a storage shed, built an illegal culvert in a stream, stored junk on his property and used buckets as a toilet.
Enforcement Action Ends with Township Acquiring Title
Neighbors complained but the Township was unable to get Newell to clean up the property. The Township authorized its attorney to file suit against Newell for fines and an order of compliance.
Eventually, the Township asked the Monroe County sheriff to sell the property at a judicial sale for the fines. There were no bidders and the Township acquired ownership of the property.
Newell Opens Fire Spraying Audience Members with Bullets
Reportedly angry at losing his property, Newell appeared at the August 5, 2013 Supervisors meeting and opened fire. Those wounded and killed had no role in the enforcement action the Township had filed. Although angry at the Supervisors, Newell shot haphazardly, targeting no audience members in particular. The effects on all those present, even those not physically injured, survive to this day.
Newell pleaded guilty in Monroe County Court and was sentenced to life in prison.
Federal Civil Rights Lawsuit
The victims and their families sued in federal court in Scranton. They named as defendants, the Township, all three Township supervisors, the Township’s lawyer John Dunn, and Monroe County Sheriff Todd Martin. They claimed officials violated their federal constitutional rights.
The plaintiffs alleged that Newell himself was the victim of a twenty-plus year campaign to acquire his property and that officials enforced zoning, environmental, and nuisance laws disproportionally. They claim officials should have known that Newell was emotionally unstable and that their enforcement of the Township’s laws triggered Newell’s emotional response.
The plaintiffs also blamed Sheriff Martin for having failed to protect and warn them after hearing that Newell made threats during the process leading to the sheriff’s sale of his property.
DeShaney’s State-Created Danger Rule
In DeShaney v. Winnebago County, 489 U.S. 189 (1989), the U.S. Supreme Court held that “nothing in the language of the Due Process Clause itself requires the State to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens against invasion by private actors.” However, it also held that even given this general rule, a plaintiff may nevertheless recover if the harm suffered was a result of a “state-created danger.” Plaintiffs claimed the state-created danger was the officials’ abuse of legal process to harass Newell and, ultimately, to force him off his land.
In response to motions to dismiss, Scranton federal District Court Judge Malachy Mannion ruled that Newell stated no claim against the defendants based on the DeShaney principal that government officials have no general duty to protect the public from harm caused by private actors. The Third Circuit agreed in a non-precedential opinion authored by Judge McKee.
Rationale for Decision
Ultimately, the Court ruled that the plaintiffs’ claims were simply too tenuous to hold Township officials liable.
First, the Court held that the harm here was not a “foreseeable” or “fairly direct” consequence of Defendants’ actions. It stated that it could not conclude that Newell’s act of murdering township residents at a public mass shooting was a direct or foreseeable consequence of enforcing zoning ordinances and satisfying a judgment. It noted that the officials did not actually know that Newell would appear at the meeting and choose to shoot people.
Second, there is a distinction between harm that occurs to an identifiable person and harm that occurs to a random individual with no connection to the harm-causing party who “happened to be in the path of danger.” The court characterized this as a random attack on people who happened to be in the path of danger.
3rd Circuit Sympathetic but Rejects Claims
The Third Circuit was sympathetic to the plaintiffs although unconvinced they stated a claim:
“In denying Plaintiffs’ claims and affirming the District Court, we by no means wish to diminish the devastation wreaked by this unspeakably horrifying, senseless, and tragic act of violence. Furthermore, we are not insensitive to the extraordinary disruption that Newell’s actions caused everyone in the community. However, binding precedent of our own court and the Supreme Court of the United States limits the extent to which liability can be imposed on state or municipal actors based on the criminal actions of third parties.”
Plaintiffs have 14 days to ask for a rehearing including an en banc rehearing. They also have the option of asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear an appeal. However, given that the 3rd Circuit’s decision based on the DeShaney opinion is consistent with the law applied in the other circuits, it is very unlikely the U.S. Supreme Court would agree to hear this case.
Had the court decided that plaintiffs stated a claim, it would have had a very disruptive effect on the legal system. Our local government officials have a duty to enforce ordinances and laws. If they must avoid enforcing those laws on people who might become upset and act out in destructive ways, our laws would go unenforced. Consider the District Attorney who files charges that angers a criminal defendant so much that he becomes enraged and harms people. As a matter of policy, are we forbidden to enforce our laws against emotionally unstable people?
Interested in Reading the Case?
The 3rd Circuit’s non-precedential opinion may be downloaded for free using this link: http://bit.ly/RossTwp
NEWMAN WILLIAMS Shareholder, Jerry Geiger, represented Monroe County Sheriff Todd Martin and Ross Township Attorney John Dunn in this case.