Led by a memorandum of law filed by the defendants in the civil “kids for cash” suit with direct ties to Luzerne County government, several individuals in the case have filed motions to dismiss an amended complaint filed by one class of plaintiffs earlier this fall.
Nearly all the defendants who sought to dismiss claims filed by Joseph Rimmer and Zane Farmer — five in all — argued the plaintiffs failed to plead necessary elements, lacked required factual support and fell short in several attempts to state a claim.
Rimmer and Farmer, who were sentenced to juvenile detention centers by former Luzerne County Common Pleas Court Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. in 2003 and 2004 respectively, joined in July a group of six other cases alleging Ciavarella teamed with another former judge, Michael T. Conahan, and several individuals to create a “quid pro quo” environment in which children would be sentenced to a private juvenile detention facility in exchange for payments.
After the defendants named in Rimmer Belanger v. Ciavarella filed motions to dismiss in August, Rimmer and Farmer filed an amended complaint last month.
In it, they alleged Luzerne County officials created a “culture of corruption” that led to numerous civil rights violations.
“The damage caused by Ciavarella and Conahan’s greed is beyond imagination,” wrote Rimmer’s and Farmer’s attorneys, Daniel C. Levin and Arnold Levin of Levin Fishbein Sedran & Berman in Philadelphia. “Thousands of children had their lives negatively affected, if not destroyed, by their conduct. The damage to the parents of these children, including their relationship with their children, was similarly affected.”
Earlier, the attorneys wrote: “Ciavarella and Conahan could not have acted alone, however. Instead, in order for their bribery scheme to work, they need the assistance of several officials in the Luzerne County government, including the County Manager, two County Commissioners and Luzerne County’s chief probation officer.”
All of the cases in the so-called “kids-for-cash” suit stem from federal racketeering charges alleging Ciavarella and Conahan took more than $2.8 million from Robert J. Powell, a former co-owner of a private detention facility, PA Child Care, and Robert K. Mericle, the builder of the facility.
Conahan has pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges and Ciavarella is awaiting trial.
But while the criminal charges make their way through the system, several civil suit defendants have spent time isolating themselves from lawsuits.
The former judges, for one, have been successful in that regard.
Judge A. Richard Caputo of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, who has consolidated all the “kids-for-cash” cases to one docket, previously ruled that Conahan and Ciavarella were partially protected from claims because of judicial immunity. Neither, Caputo ruled, could be held liable for his in-court actions. Caputo, however, ruled that the two men can still be sued for their out-of-court actions related to the alleged conspiracy.
Caputo, in his decisions, also dismissed claims filed against Luzerne County in one of the cases because municipal liability can only be established when “unconstitutional actions” are committed by final policymakers for the county. Judges, probation officers, district attorney’s office officials and public defender’s office officials could not be considered final policymakers for the county, Caputo ruled.
Those rulings came down before Rimmer and Farmer even filed their amended complaints, leaving defendants already cleared in other cases to cite Caputo’s previous decisions.
County officials, in their motion to dismiss claims filed against them by Rimmer and Farmer, seemed to take the biggest advantage of that strategy.
“This last complaint is filled with hyperbole and sensationalized conclusions, but it contains no factual allegations against any of the Luzerne-Defendants,” Deborah H. Simon of Elliott Greenleaf & Dean in Blue Bell, Pa., wrote in a memorandum of law supporting the county’s motion to dismiss. “Its lynchpin is its own catchphrase that the Luzerne-Defendants must be liable due to a ‘culture of corruption.’”
Joining the county in filing motions to dismiss were Powell, Mericle, PA Child Care and Sandra M. Brulo, the probation department’s former deputy director of forensic programs.
Caputo previously dismissed claims against Brulo that had been filed by a separate plaintiff, ruling that there were “no specific factual allegations” made against her.
“Instead, there are blanket assertions about what all defendants did collectively, many of them consisting of legal conclusions, such as defendants aiding and abetting each other in this conspiracy,” Caputo wrote in Dawn v. Ciavarella .
He later added that the Dawn complaint was “littered with the type of bald assertions and legal conclusions warned against by the [U.S.] Supreme Court” in its recent decisions in Bell Atlantic v. Twombly and Ashcroft v. Iqbal .
Remaining as defendants in the earlier cases were Conahan, Ciavarella, Powell and Mericle. Several companies with ties to Mericle and Powell — notably Mericle company, the juvenile detention facility and its parent company and Vision Holdings, a company owned by Powell to allegedly help funnel money to the judges — all remain as defendants, as well.
In Rimmer Belanger , however, Powell, Mericle and PA Child Care all set forth similar arguments to have claims against them dismissed.
The individuals in the latest suit, the defendants argued, cannot receive damages for their placements in juvenile detention facilities because they have not proven they were actually innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted and they cannot hold the defendants in the case on several of the civil rights claims because they failed to offer the necessary proof.
In fact, according to Powell, the plaintiffs published key factual errors in their amended complaint by writing that Powell had acknowledged the money he paid to the judges amounted to “a ‘quid pro quo for the sentencing of youth to the facilities owned by [PA Child Care and Western PA Child Care] as well as [for] ensuring the future relationship between Luzerne County and these for-profit juvenile detention facilities.”
“[T]he record of the factual basis for Powell’s guilty plea makes clear that Powell denied knowledge of (let alone any complicit agreement in) actions by other defendants to violate the rights of plaintiffs in specific juvenile proceedings,” Powell’s attorney, Mark B. Sheppard of Mongtomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads in Philadelphia, wrote in the motion to dismiss.
“Accordingly, the complaint cannot rely upon Powell’s plea agreement or his plea hearing as a basis for alleging that Powell specifically intended to cause (or reasonably should have known that his actions would case) the judges to deprive any juveniles appearing before them of any of their constitutional rights.” •