Filed Date: April 10, 2012
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On April 10, 2012, the Public Defender of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Luzerne County. Represented by the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the plaintiff alleged that his termination was threatened because of complaints he had made against the county about the lack of funding for the public defender's office, lack of attorneys for the public defender's office, and inability to adequately represent clients. The plaintiff alleged that the threatened termination would violate his 1st and 14th Amendment rights and he sought injunctive relief. The plaintiff also requested a temporary restraining order to prevent his removal from the position of Chief Public Defender for Luzerne County, preliminary and permanent injunctions, and attorneys' fees.
The same day, the plaintiff in this case, along with citizens who were unable to obtain a public defender based on lack of availability, filed a class action in state court under the Civil Rights Act, §1983, and Article I, § 9 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The class action sought to compel the County to increase resources for the Public Defender. Plaintiffs requested an order requiring Defendants to promptly appoint private or conflict counsel when the Office of the Public Defender (OPD) declines representation of any adult defendant due to excessive workloads or lack of resources. The plaintiffs also sought a writ of mandamus compelling the defendants to lift the hiring freeze; an order allowing the plaintiff Public Defender to continue with his work until the OPD had adequate resources to represent all indigent adult criminal defendants prosecuted in Luzerne County; a peremptory judgment compelling defendants to provide necessary funding so that the OPD is capable of providing representation to all qualified indigent defendants prosecuted in Luzerne County that satisfy the standards set by the U.S. and Pennsylvania Constitutions; and attorneys' fees and costs.
In the federal court case, the plaintiff moved for a preliminary injunction. On April 19, 2012, the parties entered a stipulation requesting withdrawal of the plaintiff's request for preliminary injunction. The judge approved the request to withdraw that same day. The terms of the withdrawal stipulated that the plaintiff shall remain in his official capacity as public defender, that he will not be subject to any adverse employment action in retaliation for protected First Amendment activity, and that his job was not in imminent danger. The case was dismissed on March 11, 2013.
The class action was assigned to Judge Joseph Augello. On June 15, 2012, Judge Augello ordered the county to lift the hiring freeze, immediately provide confidential meeting space for OPD clients and lawyers, provide counsel for people turned away from the OPD either by hiring private counsel or by expanding OPD, and not to turn away any more indigent clients. Judge Aurello also ordered the parties to meet and create a plan to fix the problems with OPD. The parties attended mediation for months but could not agree to a solution. The county replaced the Chief Public Defender in April 2013 and asked the court to dismiss the class action, arguing that only the chief public defender could sue the county over the condition of the OPD. Judge Augello agreed with the county and dismissed the case on October 22, 2013.
The plaintiffs for the class action appealed to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, arguing that the clients of the OPD were entitled to bring suit to protect their rights. On October 14, 2014, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court affirmed the ruling. As part of its opinion, the Court noted that mandamus was not an available form of relief because the Appellants had not demonstrated a clear right to relief.
The plaintiffs next appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which changed the name to Kuren v. Luzerne to reflect the that Flora was no longer a party to the suit. Because of the importance of the case, the U.S. Department of Justice as well as numerous national legal organizations, including the American Bar Association and the Innocence Project, filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of the plaintiffs.
In a landmark opinion issued on September 28, 2016, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court noted that Gideon v. Wainwright extends the Sixth Amendment right to counsel to state courts, and also noted that Sixth Amendment violations need not await conviction and sentencing. As such, the Court ruled that public defender clients have the right to sue counties to force them to provide adequate funding to their public defender offices, as long as they demonstrate “the likelihood of substantial and immediate irreparable injury, and the inadequacy of remedies at law.” Here, the Court found that the plaintiffs met that standard by demonstrating the possible risk of injury due to Luzerne County’s alleged failure to provide adequate funding.
With respect to the mandamus, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s decision, ruling that the writ of mandamus was not an available remedy in this case. The Court stated that mandamus is employed to compel the performance of a ministerial duty, or to compel action in matters involving judgment and discretion. It is not used to direct the exercise of judgment or discretion in a particular way, as the Appellants sought here by requesting that the hiring freeze be lifted.
The case was remanded for proceedings consistent with the opinion. The docket for the trial court's proceedings could not be found. The case is now closed.
Frances Hollander (4/7/2015)
Justin Hill (1/11/2020)
For PACER's information on parties and their attorneys, see: https://www.courtlistener.com/docket/12979873/parties/flora-v-luzerne-county/
Caputo, A. Richard (Pennsylvania)
Borland, Kimberley D. (Pennsylvania)
Carmody, Matthew John (Pennsylvania)
Dean, John G (Pennsylvania)
Brown, Paulette (New Jersey)
Caputo, A. Richard (Pennsylvania)
Leavitt, Mary Hannah (Pennsylvania)
Mannion, Malachy Edward (Pennsylvania)
See docket on RECAP: https://www.courtlistener.com/docket/12979873/flora-v-luzerne-county/
Last updated July 26, 2023, 3:06 a.m.
State / Territory: Pennsylvania
Filing Date: April 10, 2012
Case Ongoing: No
The Public Defender of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania and public defender clients
Public Interest Lawyer: Yes
Filed Pro Se: No
Class Action Sought: Yes
Class Action Outcome: Unknown
Causes of Action:
Prevailing Party: Plaintiff
Nature of Relief:
Source of Relief:
Form of Settlement:
Content of Injunction: