On September 18, 1996, the National and Pittsburgh chapters of the ACLU in conjunction with a private attorney, filed a 42 U.S.C. §1983 class-action lawsuit in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. The suit was filed on behalf of three named indigent defendants who sought to represent all present and future indigent criminal defendants in the jurisdiction. Named defendants included the Allegheny County Salary Board, three County Commissioners, and the Chief Public Defender.
Plaintiffs' suit alleged that the inadequacies of the Allegheny County public defender system violated the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the federal constitution, as well as state constitutional and statutory law. Specifically, Plaintiffs complained of unmanageable caseloads, inadequate resources and facilities, deficient policies and procedures (including the lack of standards and oversight), inadequate training, and the complete denial of services to some indigent individuals. Plaintiffs sought declaratory and injunctive relief to remedy the deficiencies alleged. Specifically, Plaintiffs requested that the court issue preliminary and permanent injunctions requiring Defendants to provide a constitutionally adequate Public Defender System in Allegheny County.
In their December 3, 1996 answer to Plaintiffs' complaint, Defendants alleged that they had already implemented a number of improvements to the public defender system and requested that the court dismiss Plaintiffs' complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The Defendants' motion to dismiss was presumably denied by the court, as the suit was set to go to trial in May 1998.
On January 17, 1997, the United Steelworkers of America (ALF-CIO-CLC), a union which represented the nonsupervisory attorneys employed in the Office of the Public Defender, filed a motion to intervene in the suit.
On March 19, 1998, two months before the trail date, the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County (Judge Robert P. Horgos), denied a motion for summary judgment which had been filed by Defendants.
On May 13, 1998, on the eve of trial, the Plaintiffs and Defendants entered into a Settlement Agreement and Consent Decree. Under the terms of the settlement, the County agreed to increase funding and staffing levels, adopt policies and procedures (including practice standards based on national standards as well as mechanisms for oversight), adopt and expand training programs, and temporarily guarantee approximate resource parity between the County Public Defender's Office and the County District Attorney's Office.
The Settlement Agreement provided that the court would retain jurisdiction over the case until December 31, 2003. The agreement also provided for a court-appointed consultant responsible for aiding in the administration of the agreed-upon reforms and filing periodic written reports with the court. Finally, the agreement specified that, if noncompliance arose, Plaintiff's counsel would be entitled to seek a finding of contempt or other appropriate relief whereby the court's continuing jurisdiction could be extended.
On May 14, 1998, the day after settlement was reached, Plaintiffs and Defendants entered into a Side Agreement with the Union. The Side Agreement provided that representatives of the Office of the Public Defender's union and non-union staff would be included in the development and implementation of reforms contemplated by the Settlement Agreement. The Side Agreement further provided that the Union would be entitled to petition the Court if it believed that any policy promulgated during the implementation of the Settlement Agreement violated the Collective Bargaining Agreement between union-employees and the County. Finally, the Side Agreement also provided that the Union's January 17, 1997 motion to intervene would be held in abeyance indefinitely without prejudice to the Union to renew it.
Also subsequent to the parties' entry into the May 13, 1998 Settlement Agreement, two of the Defendants named in the suit (the Chief Public Defender, and Allegheny County) entered into a separate Memorandum of Understanding with the Union. Under the terms of this Memorandum, the Union agreed to the prohibition of private practice among new hires in the Public Defender's Office in return for starting salary parity with new hires at the Prosecutor's Office.
On November 1, 1999, a Consultant Agreement was entered into between the parties and The Spangenberg Group, the court-appointed consultant. This agreement called upon The Spangenberg Group to submit reports to the court every six months in order to document the progress made under the Settlement Agreement. The first of these reports was submitted to the court on May 8, 2000.
On June 25, 2003, Plaintiffs filed a motion requesting that Defendants either be directed to comply with the terms of the consent decree or be held in contempt. Specifically, Plaintiffs alleged that the failure of the Public Defender's Office to require attorneys to adhere to written practice standards, to model practice standards after national standards, to provide proper training and adequate support staff, and to implement a system of oversight and supervision had both left the Defendants in noncompliance with the terms of the Settlement Agreement and left the Public Defender's Office unable to deliver adequate representation to its clients.
Although the Defendants initially filed responsive papers denying the allegations set forth in the Plaintiffs' contempt motion, they ultimately decided to forgo litigation on the merits of the motion and agreed to instead extend the court's continuing jurisdiction by consent for an additional two-year period. The court's jurisdiction was thereby extended until 2005.
Plaintiffs filed a second contempt motion in 2005. This time, the Defendants chose to litigate the matter on the merits and won a finding by the court that Defendants were in substantial compliance with the terms of the Settlement Agreement. The court's jurisdiction over the case thus finally ceased in 2005.
More information about this case is available at http://www.aclupa.org/issues/criminaljustice/ajobleftundoneVidhya Reddy - 02/05/2008