The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has agreed to take up a case in which the Commonwealth Court previously ruled that a State Police trooper acting within the scope of his employment is immune from suit under the doctrine of sovereign immunity, even if his actions cause intentional harm.
The justices granted allocatur in a one-page order issued June 5, taking up a single question: “Was [respondent] acting within the scope of his employment throughout his entire encounter with the motorist, and thus entitled to JNOV on the basis of sovereign immunity?”
A unanimous three-judge Commonwealth Court panel found last November in Justice v. Lombardo that sovereign immunity made irrelevant the details of an incident in which Shiretta Justice was allegedly injured by trooper Joseph Lombardo during an altercation following a traffic stop. Because he was within the scope of his employment and authorized in his behavior, he was protected by sovereign immunity and the trial court erred in denying his motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict in Justice’s lawsuit against him, the court said in a published opinion.
“Whether his conduct was reasonable or not, intentional or not, tortious or not, carried out for an improper motive or not, are all irrelevant because Trooper Lombardo’s use of force in placing Ms. Justice’s hands behind her back and ‘wrestling’ with her to apply handcuffs was of the same general nature as that authorized or incidental to the conduct authorized, and use of force, in general, by state troopers is not unexpected,” Senior Judge Dan Pellegrini wrote for the court.
Justice and Lombardo provided different accounts of a Nov. 27, 2013, traffic stop on Interstate 76 in Philadelphia, in which he pulled her over and issued her tickets for driving with a suspended license and failing to use a turn signal, Pellegrini said. The dispute arose as Justice waited for a friend to give her a ride home from where her vehicle was parked alongside the highway barrier, as Lombardo requested.
Justice claimed that Lombardo “had a nasty demeanor, jumped on her, twisted her arm behind her back and tried to push her to the ground,” Pellegrini said. She claimed that she suffered a sprained arm, wrist and back due to the allegedly excessive use of force.
Lombardo, meanwhile, claimed that Justice was uncooperative and resistant, cursing at him throughout the nearly hourlong incident. He testified that he grabbed her arm only to bring her back to his patrol car and handcuffed her only after she began to resist him, Pellegrini said.
A jury returned a $160,000 verdict in Justice’s favor on her claims of assault and battery, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, false arrest, false imprisonment and abuse of process, and Lombardo’s JNOV motion was denied by the trial court.
On appeal, Lombardo argued that he acted within the scope of his employment and is therefore entitled to sovereign immunity, and Pellegrini agreed.
Justice’s claims were all intentional tort claims, which are covered by sovereign immunity for state employees acting within the scope of their employment, Pellegrini said.
Lombardo argued that he was doing exactly what he was employed to do and took action to enforce the Vehicle Code and ensure public safety, while Justice asserted that his use of force was “completely unacceptable and completely gratuitous, excessive or unreasonably motivated by his personal anger,” Pellegrini said.
But the only question at issue was whether the conduct was authorized by the employer, Pellegrini said, and the conduct Justice complained of was of the same general nature as Lombardo’s authorized conduct. Lombardo is directed by the Pennsylvania State Police to enforce all the laws of the state, to make warrantless arrests, and to use force where necessary to carry out those purposes, “so the use of force by a police officer in carrying out his duties is not unexpected,” Pellegrini said.
Given the nature of his job, Lombardo was therefore acting within the scope of his employment and is protected by sovereign immunity, the court found.
Thomas Fitzpatrick of Mincey & Fitzpatrick, who represented Justice, said he and his client are “very happy” that the Supreme Court agreed to take up their appeal.
“We look forward to making an argument to the court and continuing to seek justice in this matter,” Fitzpatrick said.
A spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania State Police said the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation.