A federal judge dealt a severe blow to most of the claims in Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller’s defamation lawsuit Wednesday.
U.S. Judge Matthew Brann filed six opinions, plus orders, in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, dealing with individual motions to dismiss filed by the various defendants in the case. That was a lot, but then again, there were 12 defendants named in the suit, including Centre County itself, the three commissioners who held office in 2015, the county solicitor, the county administrator, Judge Pamela Ruest, Parks Miller’s former paralegal and four defense attorneys.
The case rose after Parks Miller became the subject of controversy, and an investigation, in 2015. That paralegal alleged her former boss had forged Ruest’s signature on a document as part of an operation to prosecute someone who made death threats against one of Parks Miller’s assistant district attorneys. The situation blew up, prompting discussion at commissioners meetings, search warrants on her office and more.
The Office of Attorney General investigated the charges. A grand jury recommended that no charges be brought, something the judge did highlight in his various documents.
However, Brann dismissed almost all of the 13 separate charges Parks Miller levied against some or all of the defendants, calling the suit “inartfully” framed and “spiked with vitriol.”
Parks Miller’s amended complaint consists of 311 rambling paragraphs so inartfully pled that the reader can barely discern who said what about Parks Miller in order to substantiate her claims.
U.S. Judge Matthew Brann
He also denied her the ability to amend most of those complaints, as she had already done once, calling the suit “quite evidently an irrepealably flawed pleading.”
“To allow Parks Miller a third bite at the apple would contravene fundamental notions of justice. ...” Brann wrote.
The exception to that was her arguments against commissioners Steve Dershem and Michael Pipe, then-commissioner Chris Exarchos, solicitor Louis Glantz and administrator Tim Boyde, and the county itself.
Parks Miller asserted Fourth Amendment claims against the named individuals for search and seizure. While Brann dismissed the case she brought against them in their official capacities, he did permit her to refile against them individually, if she could allege “personal involvement.”
When it comes to the county, she will have to prove that there was a “policy or custom” that allowed such searches and seizures.
But with so many parties involved, there were many feelings about the rulings, not the least of which came from Centre County President Judge Thomas King Kistler.
“The Centre County Court of Common Pleas is pleased to welcome ... Ruest back to hearing cases in the criminal division of the court, after her long-awaited dismissal from the legal action filed by the district attorney against the county of Centre and many officials of the county,” he said in a statement just hours after the opinions were issued.
The county’s attorney, Mary Lou Maierhofer, said she believes the case to be entirely over.
“The county is extremely pleased with Judge Brann’s well written and thoughtful decision dismissing all the claims against it and its current/former representatives. While Ms. Parks Miller has an opportunity to file a second amended complaint to try to make a claim only under a Fourth Amendment, search and seizure claim, I do not believe that she can make such since the county and its representatives were not involved,” she said.
Parks Miller’s attorney is not exactly on the same page.
“We’re very disappointed with the decision. It will take some time to break down everything the court wrote, and then I will discuss with the DA whether, and more probably what, to appeal,” said Bruce Castor.
Castor is also Pennsylvania’s solicitor general, appointed so by Attorney General Kathleen Kane in March. Parks Miller made him a special ADA, as well.
“The grand jury found as a fact that county officials failed to follow the statutes. The grand jury found as a fact that the judge signed the order, meaning it also found as a fact that the affidavit was false. Without hesitation, others ‘piled on,’ hoping to ruin the reputation of the DA. Her office was searched. They tried to have her arrested and imprisoned. All flowing from a false affidavit that so many people wanted to be true, but wasn’t,” Castor said.
It is incomprehensible to me our system of justice holds no one accountable for what these people did to an elected official who only wants to lock up criminals to make Centre County a safer place.
Stacy Parks Miller’s attorney, and Pennsylvania solicitor general, Bruce Castor
“It is incomprehensible to me our system of justice holds no one accountable for what these people did to an elected official who only wants to lock up criminals to make Centre County a safer place. Something she is very good at doing. If this can happen to the district attorney, it can happen to anyone without fear of punishment. I find that concept hard to accept,” he said.
Parks Miller was vehement in her opposition to the ruling.
“Many actors were dismissed from this suit due to immunity,” she said. “I would not crow about technical dismissals if I were any of the persons involved because that does not mean they are innocent of the claims. It merely means their actions are protected by a doctrine that protects elected officials and government even when they commit wrongdoing, and that is truly sad news for our community. Many still serve the public. To think they could behave like this openly and keep those jobs and be immune from liability is downright scary. Too big to be held accountable? Maybe. It is frankly despicable.”
The other side saw reason to celebrate.
“I could not be more pleased with Judge Brann’s decision, which vindicates the rights of citizens to speak out against even the most powerful public officials,” said Andrew Shubin, one of the named defendants.
One of the other defense attorneys named in the case said the suit didn’t intimidate him.
“It never concerned me really,” said Philip Masorti. “Her lawsuit was so clearly retaliatory and so clearly vindictive and so clearly designed to quash, quell or disturb those individuals who have taken a stand against her, I didn’t think it would have any traction, and the federal court agreed.”
Her lawsuit was so clearly retaliatory and so clearly vindictive and so clearly designed to quash, quell or disturb those individuals who have taken a stand against her, I didn't think it would have any traction, and the federal court agreed.
Defense attorney and defendant Philip Masorti
Masorti’s adversarial relationship with the DA’s office, as well as conjecture that he intended to pursue that position himself were noted in the documents, but Brann found it did not constitute defamation or any of the other alleged wrongs.
“It is certainly not uncommon for opposing counsel to be critical of one another. What Masorti expressed was his displeasure at opposing counsel’s techniques, perhaps using less than ideal language, but not words that should rise to the level of liability of defamation,” he wrote.
But Masorti did say that he hopes to see some changes in the courthouse.
“This was a waste of time and money. People just haven’t been focused on their jobs. Perhaps it’s time she start paying attention to the job she was elected to do,” Masorti said. “What’s not over is she’s still in office. I’m hoping she’ll be gone in advance of the election. Criminal justice in Centre County has degenerated.”
“I will continue to do my job faithfully as it is my calling. I have received overwhelming support from the community and for that, I am grateful,” Parks Miller said in a statement. “I will not let a handful of bullies who failed miserably at trying to set me up for a crime push me out or chase me away from my job. This should open the eyes of the public however as to the power of a small but politically motivated group. This community should not fall for it, should reject it as unjust and should want accountability for people like this. Not because it is me, but because it could be them next.”