The U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the dismissal of Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller’s lawsuit.
The court issued a ruling Wednesday that said U.S. District Judge Matthew Brann was correct in his assessment of the case in regard to most charges and 12 of the 13 defendants.
“We agree with the district court that nearly every claim is untenable, and we will affirm its judgment as to those claims,” wrote Judge Thomas Hardiman.
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The one surviving count is breach of fiduciary duty against Parks Miller’s former paralegal Michelle Shutt.
Shutt’s allegations that Parks Miller forged the signature of Judge Pamela Ruest on a fake bail order as part of an investigation into a murder-for-hire of an assistant DA was the catalyst for the controversy that engulfed the DA’s office starting in January 2015.
The allegations were raised publicly by local attorneys at a Centre County commissioners meeting. Parks Miller referred the issue to the Office of the Attorney General, which presented it to an investigating grand jury that decided the signature was not a forgery.
The DA subsequently sued Shutt, Ruest, the commissioners, the attorneys and the county, as well as its administrator and solicitor. Brann dismissed all charges, calling them “inartful” and “vitriolic.”
Parks Miller alleged a variety of charges, including defamation, false light, intentional infliction of emotional distress, abuse of process and constitutional claims.
The court agreed with Brann that Parks Miller failed to establish many of those claims. Those included legal malpractice against solicitor Louis Glantz, who represented the county and not the DA. There was also malicious prosecution, which failed because Parks Miller was never prosecuted.
“Parks Miller’s complaint is unclear what specifically she deemed to be retaliatory,” Hardiman wrote.
But the court did agree that as Parks Miller’s employee, Shutt had a duty of confidentiality that may have been breached when she later went to work for Philip Masorti, one of the defense attorneys named in the suit.
“Parks Miller alleged that Shutt breached her fiduciary duty by forwarding confidential emails before she quit the district attorney’s office and by using those emails to get hired by Masorti’s law firm,” Hardiman wrote.
Brann dismissed that argument because 11 people received those confidential email, making them, in his opinion, not private property. The appellate court disagreed.
“If the recipients each have an independent duty not to disclose its contents, then the email remains confidential,” he wrote.
That remaining charge will now be sent back to the circuit court for “further consideration.”
“I am pleased with the Third Circuit Court’s decision,” said Centre County’s attorney, Mary Lou Maierhofer. “The appeals courts continue to validate the actions of the county and its representatives. I would hope that this ends this chapter of the litigation commenced by Ms. Parks Miller.”
Parks Miller’s attorney, former Pennsylvania attorney general Bruce Castor, said he is still evaluating the court’s opinion and deciding on next steps. However, he did take notice of one part of the decision, in which Hardiman used the word “exonerated” to describe the grand jury’s take on the allegations.
“This is precisely what happened, but all I read in news accounts is that ‘the grand jury chose not to recommend charges’ or words to that effect. In truth, the grand jury found DA Parks Miller actually innocent. The continual failure of media accounts to accurately report the DA’s complete vindication has done incalculable harm to DA Parks Miller’s reputation,” he said.
In fact, Castor made that argument before the court in May and got push back from one of the judges, who said, “I’m not so sure that’s an accurate statement. … It seems to me that what the grand jury did was choose not to file any charges against your client.”
Castor did not address the dismissed charges but commented on the surviving claim against Shutt, who he called “arguably the most culpable actor.”
“The other defendants can plead ignorance of knowing Shutt took the confidential emails that set the dominoes falling. So at this point, it certainly appears that Michelle Shutt will take the entire fall for all the damages incurred by DA Parks Miller, whether she was solely responsible or not. Without Shutt’s disloyalty to the commonwealth, all of the negative consequences that flowed to DA Parks Miller would not have happened,” he said.
Shutt’s own case against Parks Miller was also dismissed by Brann and is being appealed to the Third Circuit.
Parks Miller filed two new lawsuits last week against Bellefonte borough, Bellefonte police and Chief Shawn Weaver, Centre County Commissioner Michael Pipe, former Ferguson Township police Officer Brian Sprinkle and his current employer, digital forensics company PATC Tech, as well as a new case against Centre County. No information is available on the nature of those suits.
Parks Miller lost the May primary to Bernie Cantorna, one of the defense attorneys she named as a defendant in the suit.