COLLATERAL ESTOPPEL-INDEMNIFICATION-CIVIL RIGHTS-POLICE MISCONDUCT

December 1st, 2022 by Rieders Travis in Civil Rights

McGuire v. City of Pittsburgh, 2022 Pa. LEXIS 1684 (S. Ct. November 23, 2022) (Wecht, J.)  This case involves a dispute about whether the City of Pittsburgh has a statutory duty to indemnify one of its police officers for a judgment entered against him in a federal civil rights lawsuit. We reject the argument that a federal jury’s finding that a police officer acted “under color of state law” for purposes of Section 19831 necessarily constitutes a “judicial determination” that he also acted within the “scope of his office or duties” for purposes of the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act. Thus, we affirm. In late 2012, 16-year-old Shane McGuire and a group of his friends smashed pumpkins and stacked bricks on the doorstep of a home in McGuire’s neighborhood. The teens were still on the property when the homeowner—City of Pittsburgh Police Officer Colby Neidig—arrived home with his wife and children. McGuire watched the family’s reaction to the vandalism and then banged on the front door and ran away, accidently tripping over his own brick boobytrap in the process. Neidig heard the commotion, saw McGuire running, and gave chase. After a half-mile pursuit, Neidig caught McGuire, knocked him to the ground, and punched him in the face. Neidig was not wearing his police uniform at the time, nor did he identify himself as a police officer. Neidig called 911 and restrained McGuire until Officer David Blatt, an on-duty City of Pittsburgh police officer, arrived. Two years later, McGuire filed a federal lawsuit against Neidig, Blatt, and the City of Pittsburgh, asserting excessive use of force in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 19833 and state law assault and battery claims. Blatt and the City were dismissed from the case at the summary judgment stage, and the claims against Neidig proceeded to a jury trial. Ultimately, the jury returned a verdict in McGuire’s favor, finding that Neidig used unreasonable force against McGuire while acting under color of state law under Section 1983, and that Neidig was liable for McGuire’s assault and battery claims as well. The jury awarded McGuire damages for all three claims. After molding the jury’s verdict into a single award and adding attorney’s fees to that amount, the court entered judgment against Neidig for $235,575. Neidig did not seek indemnification from the City of Pittsburgh. Instead, he assigned to McGuire his right to sue the City for indemnification either under the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act (“PSTCA”), 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 8541-8564, or under any other legal theory. McGuire then sued the City in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas (“the trial court”), seeking a declaratory judgment that the City was statutorily obligated to indemnify Neidig under Subsection 8548(a) of the PSTCA. The trial court held a jury trial in August 2019 and the jury returned a verdict in favor of the City. The jury concluded that Neidig was not acting within the scope of his duties when he assaulted McGuire, meaning that the City was not required to indemnify Neidig under the PSTCA.[1] McGuire then appealed to the Commonwealth Court, which affirmed in a published decision. On appeal, McGuire claimed that the City was collaterally estopped from arguing that Neidig was not acting within the scope of his office or duties as a City of Pittsburgh police officer when he used force against McGuire because the federal jury had already concluded that Neidig assaulted McGuire while acting under color of state law. In McGuire’s view, “color of state law” (for purposes of Section 1983) is synonymous with the “scope of office or duties” (as used in the PSTCA), and the City therefore was estopped from relitigating the issue in state court. The court held that “the determination in the instant Federal Court Action that Neidig acted under color of law does not dictate that Neidig acted within the scope of his employment” for purposes of the PSTCA. In support of that conclusion, the Commonwealth Court cited federal precedent holding that “a determination that [a police officer] acted ‘within the scope of his office or employment’ does not inevitably flow from a concession that he acted ‘under color of’ Pennsylvania law.”  As a result, the Commonwealth Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment. The “color of state law” inquiry turns on whether the public employee purported to exercise official state authority, not whether he or she was authorized—or reasonably believed himself or herself to be authorized—to act in a certain way. This means that “a police officer may sometimes act both ‘under color of state law’ and beyond the scope of his or her employment.” Thus, indemnity in an excessive force case like this one might turn on factors that largely are irrelevant under Section 1983’s “color of state law” inquiry, such as whether the officer reasonably believed that his conduct was authorized by his employer, or whether he was motivated subjectively by a desire to serve his employer. Here, it is a moot question whether the trial court erred in submitting to a jury the issue of whether Neidig injured McGuire “within the scope of his office or duties” because the answer to that question cannot possibly affect the outcome of this case, making it an entirely hypothetical controversy. Even if McGuire is correct that “whether Neidig acted in the ‘scope of his office or duties’ was required to be determined in the Federal Litigation,” and that the only question for the state court was whether it had been, then the judgment still should be affirmed because, as we have explained above, the federal jury simply did not consider whether Neidig acted within the scope of his office or duties. In summary, we reject the argument that a federal jury’s finding that a police officer acted “under color of state law” for purposes of Section 1983 constitutes a “judicial determination” that he acted within the “scope of his office or duties” for purposes of the PSTCA. Given that conclusion, McGuire cannot prevail on the merits of this appeal even if he were to convince us that the trial court erred in allowing a jury to consider anew whether Neidig acted within “the scope of his office or duties” when he used force against McGuire. Thus, we decline to consider McGuire’s subsidiary issues, and we affirm. Chief Justice Todd and Justices Dougherty and Brobson join the opinion. Justice Donohue files a concurring opinion in which Justice Mundy joins. The Late Chief Justice Baer did not participate in the decision of this matter.

[1] Had the jury concluded that Neidig was acting within the scope of his duties, it then would have considered whether Neidig’s conduct amounted to “willful misconduct,” a finding that would negate the City’s duty to indemnify. Given the jury’s verdict, however, it did not reach the willful-misconduct question.

Attorney Cliff Rieders

Attorney Cliff RiedersCliff Rieders is a Nationally Board Certified Trial Lawyer practicing personal injury law. A large part of his practice involves multi-district litigation, including cases related to pharmaceuticals, vitamin supplements and medical devices. He is admitted in several state and federal courts, as well as the Supreme Court of the United States. Rieders is the past regional president of the Federal Bar Association and is a life member of the distinguished American Law Institute, which promulgates proposed rules adopted by many state courts. He is a past president of the Pennsylvania Association for Justice, formerly Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association. As a founder of the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority, he served on the Board for 15 years.

Not only has Rieders held many highly esteemed, leadership positions, he authored legislation related to the Patient Safety Authority and the Mcare Act, which governs medical and hospital liability actions in Pennsylvania. He authored texts upon which both practitioners and judges rely, including Pennsylvania Malpractice Laws and Forms, and Financial Responsibility Law Issues in Pennsylvania, the latter governing auto and truck collisions in Pennsylvania. In addition, he wrote several books on the practice of law in Pennsylvania regarding wrongful death and survivor actions, insurance bad faith, legal malpractice claims and worker rights, among others. Rieders also serves as a resource to practitioners as a regular speaker for Celesq, an arm of the world’s largest legal publisher, Thomson Reuters West Publishing.

As recognition of his wide range of contribution to his profession and of his dedication to protecting the rights of his clients, he received numerous awards, among them the George F. Douglas Amicus Curiae Award, the Milton D. Rosenberg Award, the B’nai B’rith Justice Award, and awards of recognition from the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers. [ Attorney Bio ]

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