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Brown v. Joseph

decided: June 22, 1972.


Staley, Aldisert and Hunter, Circuit Judges.

Author: Aldisert


ALDISERT, Circuit Judge.

The question presented is whether a court-appointed trial attorney employed by the Public Defender's Office of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, may be held liable to respond in damages in an action alleging constitutional deprivation under 42 U.S.C. § 1983*fn1 brought by a former client in a state criminal proceeding. The district court held that the complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, reasoning that the defendant was not acting under color of state law.

Arrested in Cleveland, Ohio, Brown waived extradition to Pennsylvania where he was charged with multiple counts of armed robbery, receiving stolen goods, larceny, assault and battery, and operation of a motor vehicle without the owner's consent. At arraignment he refused the services of the Public Defender. He subsequently repeated this refusal on at least two other occasions. When his case was finally called for trial, Brown, represented by the Public Defender, entered a guilty plea and was sentenced. There was no appeal. State post conviction proceedings were commenced, and relief was denied; the denial was affirmed by the state appellate court. This action under the Civil Rights Act followed.

The Pennsylvania Public Defender Act, 16 Pa.Stat.Anno. § 9960.1 et seq., provides for the creation of this office in each of the state's counties, except Philadelphia. § 9960.3. The Public Defender is appointed by the County Commissioners, § 9960.4; his salary and that of his assistants are established by the county salary board, § 9960.5; office space, furniture, equipment and supplies are furnished by the county, § 9960.9. His duties are set forth in § 9960.6:

a. The Public Defender shall be responsible for furnishing legal counsel, [for appropriate cases including criminal matters] to any person who, for lack of sufficient funds, is unable to obtain legal counsel.

The office is funded from county public tax revenues.*fn2 In this respect, the public nature of the office does not differ substantially from the office of the Allegheny County District Attorney. Moreover, there appears to be no substantial difference in the statutory authority for the creation and powers of a public prosecutor and a public defender in Pennsylvania.*fn3

Thus, it is argued that, aside from concepts of immunity, if the prosecutor acts "under color of any statute . . . of any State," and therefore comes within the jurisdictional purview of § 1983, so should the public defender. Both are engaged in the same basic function in a state criminal proceeding: one represents the prosecution; the other, the defendant. Both offices are mandated by statute. Their functions are the same; only their respective clients are different.

But it is precisely the difference in the clients, argues the appellee, which marks the major and fundamental difference in the attorney-client relationship, and the legal consequences flowing therefrom. Because the prosecutor represents the state, the collective citizenry of the Commonwealth constitutes his sole client. His relationship to this client from the beginning to the end is a public one, representing the state and its interests at all times. Every professional decision made by him is performed not only "under color of . . . statute," but also under "the regulation, custom, or usage" of that state for one purpose -- to advance and protect the interest of the state. Thus, the district attorney must be compared to other public officers associated with state criminal processes whose functions are generally, if not universally, construed to be within the color of Pennsylvania state law, such as law enforcement officers, correctional supervisors, and administrative officers.

The Public Defender argues that once his appointment in a given case is made, his public, or state, function ceases, and that thereafter he functions purely as a private attorney, concerned with and absorbed by one interest -- that of serving a private client. His professional relationship with his client takes on all the incidents and considerations attendant upon a private attorney-client relationship, except one: the public pays his fee. His standard of competency within Sixth Amendment standards must comport with that reflecting normal competence of all defense counsel whether privately retained, volunteered, or publicly paid. United States v. Moore, 432 F.2d 730 (3d Cir.1970). He has but one loyalty -- and that is to his client, and not to the state, or to the collective citizenry thereof.

Therefore, he argues, with considerable persuasion, that every aspect of his professional relationship to his client, within the framework of ethical representation thereof, which conceivably could form the subject matter of a claim under § 1983, is performed by him not as a representative of the state, under color of state law, but in the context of a private practitioner. The attorney-client confidential relationship is preserved. His client is not the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, whose legislative processes created his office; nor the people of Allegheny County, who appoint him to office and pay his salary. His client is a private individual, who, by reason of indigence, is unable to retain and compensate other counsel. Essentially he is state-paid private counsel, assigned the responsibility of protecting the interests and defending the rights of a client. It is settled in this circuit that a private attorney is not a state officer so as to bring his actions within the purview of § 1983. Steward v. Meeker, 459 F.2d 669 (3d Cir. 1972); Habda v. Wysocker, 458 F.2d 537 (3d Cir.1972); United States ex rel. Wilkins v. Banmiller, 325 F.2d 514, 516 (3d Cir.1953).

Moreover, we have recently held that a New Jersey lawyer "acting voluntarily by assignment from a pool of attorneys of the Essex County Legal Aid-Criminal Division, was performing his duties solely for [the client] to whom he owed the absolute duty of loyalty, as if he were a privately retained attorney. N.J.S.A. 2A:158A-11. Therefore, the affidavits demonstrate that defendant was not acting 'under color of state law, custom or usage' within the meaning of the Civil Rights Act, see Pugliano v. Staziak, 231 F. Supp. 347 (W.D.Pa. 1964), aff'd per curiam, 345 F.2d 797 (3d Cir.1965), and no triable issue of fact upon which relief may be granted remained in the case." Thomas v. Howard, 455 F.2d 228 (3d Cir.1972). Peake v. County of Philadelphia, 280 F. Supp. 853, 856 (E.D.Pa. 1968), held that a member of the Philadelphia Voluntary Defender Association, in part subsidized by the state and local government "is a private individual acting in a professional capacity" and therefore not amenable to a § 1983 action.

Concededly, there are differences between a court-appointed lawyer from a pool of volunteers, Thomas, or from an agency funded by private contributions, Peake, and one serving full time in a public office paid ...

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