Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller was largely unsuccessful in her bid to have a federal appeals court revive numerous claims she brought against members of the county government and legal community. But her legal action will proceed on one track in the wake of the court’s decision Aug. 2.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed several holdings by the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania that last year tossed Parks Miller’s claims. But the Third Circuit did revive one claim Parks Miller brought against her former paralegal for breach of fiduciary duty, reversing the district court.
Parks Miller’s lawsuit is rooted in allegations the defendants made that Parks Miller had forged Centre County Court of Common Pleas Judge Pamela Ruest’s signature on a bail order.
Parks Miller has said, and repeated in her complaint and other filings, that the allegedly forged document was a “pretend” bail order, intended to be used in a sting operation.
She alleged that her paralegal, Michelle Shutt, gave information about the order to other Centre County lawyers and “fabricated the forgery story.” Parks Miller further alleged the county officials wrongly hired a special attorney to handle the forgery allegations, and released her phone records, all in an attempt to harm her.
Parks Miller’s suit alleged defamation, fraud, injurious falsehood, conspiracy, concerted tortious conduct and other claims against 12 defendants.
The claims against her paralegal, Shutt, included a claim for breach of fiduciary duty. That claim stemmed from Shutt allegedly forwarding a confidential email from the District Attorney’s Office to another law firm. Parks Miller has argued that Shutt sent the allegedly confidential email to get a job with the Masorti Law Group, whose owner is a defendant in the case.
The Middle District last year dismissed all of Parks Miller’s claims, according to Third Circuit Judge Thomas Hardiman.
Among other things, the district court said the breach of fiduciary claim against Shutt was untenable because the allegedly confidential email at issue had been initially sent to 11 other people, so it could “hardly be considered private property capable of being stolen,” Hardiman said.
Hardiman, however, disagreed with that reasoning.
“The number of people who received a communication sheds no light on its confidential status,” Hardiman said. “If the recipients each have an independent duty not to disclose its contents, then the email remains confidential. Thus we will vacate the judgment of the district court as to this claim.”
Margolis Edelstein attorney Mary Lou Maierhofer, who is representing Centre County and several members of the county government, said her clients are “extremely happy” about the ruling.
“The appeals court continues to validate what the county did, and what its representatives did,” Maierhofer said. “We hope that this ends the litigation, but we’ll have to see.”
Jacob Cohn of Gordon & Rees, who is representing defendants Sean McGraw and Andrew Shubin—both defense attorneys—said Parks Miller’s suit was aimed at intimidating his clients. He also noted that his clients are pursuing a motion seeking damages in connection with the appeal.
“It was a frivolous appeal of a frivolous claim,” Cohn said.
Stephanie VanHorn of Engle Kauffman, who represented Philip Masorti, said the claims were untenable and should not have been brought.
“We’re very happy with this outcome. It’s the one we expected from the beginning,” she said.
Parks Miller’s attorney, Bruce L. Castor Jr. of Rogers Castor, could not be reached for comment. Kathleen Yurchak of Steinbacher, Goodall & Yurchak, who represented Shutt, did not return a call for comment.
Both Art Heinz, spokesman for the Administrative Office Of the Pennsylvania Courts, which represented Ruest, and Haggerty Hinton & Cosgrove attorney Timothy Hinton, who represented defense attorney Bernard Cantorna, declined to comment.