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Chester v. Beard

September 28, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Judge Kane


This putative class action is brought by three plaintiffs, Frank Robert Chester, Zachary Wilson, and Donald Hardcastle ("Plaintiffs"), each of whom has been convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in Pennsylvania. Plaintiffs allege that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's practice of executing condemned prisoners by means of lethal injection subjects them to an unnecessary risk of excruciating pain and suffering and therefore violates Plaintiffs' rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment and to due process of law under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Plaintiffs seek preliminary and permanent injunctive relief to enjoin Defendants from executing Plaintiffs by lethal injection as currently authorized and implemented by the Commonwealth.

Now pending before the Court is Defendants' collective motion to dismiss the complaint. In support of their motion, Defendants assert that the Court lacks jurisdiction over this action because Plaintiffs lack standing to sue, and additionally because the complaint was not timely filed. Defendants further argue that the complaint fails to advance any claim cognizable under either the Eighth or Fourteenth Amendments, insisting that a recent plurality decision of the United States Supreme Court "makes it clear that allegations about a state's lethal injection protocol of the sort found in the complaint here are insufficient to state claims of constitutional harm." (Doc. No. 43, at 4.) Upon consideration, the Court disagrees with Defendants' characterization of this action and the issues presented, and further disagrees that the Supreme Court's decision in Baze v. Rees absolutely forecloses Plaintiff's challenge to Pennsylvania's lethal injection protocol. Accordingly, for the reasons discussed below, the motion will be denied and discovery will proceed.


A motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint, Kost v. Kozakiewicz, 1 F.3d 176, 183 (3d Cir. 1993), and is properly granted when, taking all factual allegations and inferences as true, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Markowitz v. Northeast Land Co., 906 F.2d 100, 103 (3d Cir. 1990). The burden is on the moving party to show that no claim has been stated. Johnsrud v. Carter, 620 F.2d 29, 33 (3d Cir. 1980). Thus, the moving party must show that Plaintiff has failed to "set forth sufficient information to outline the elements of his claim or to permit inferences to be drawn that these elements exist." Kost, 1 F.3d at 183 (citations omitted). A court, however, "need not credit a complaint's 'bald assertions' or 'legal conclusions' when deciding a motion to dismiss." Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906, 908 (3d Cir. 1997).

The Supreme Court's opinion in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), has altered the standard of review for a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 230 (3d Cir. 2008). In construing the Rule 12(b)(6) standard generally, the Court required the plaintiff to provide more than a formulaic recitation of a claim's elements that amounted to mere labels and conclusions. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555-56. Additionally, the Court held that the complaint's "factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Id. at 555. The Third Circuit has held that this language in Twombly applies generally to all motions brought under Rule 12(b)(6) and summed up the Twombly standard as follows: "stating . . . a claim requires a complaint with enough factual matter (taken as true) to suggest the required element. This does not impose a probability requirement at the pleading stage, but instead simply calls for enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary element." Phillips, 515 F.3d at 234 (internal quotations and citations omitted). After Twombly, it is still true that "courts accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief." Id. at 232 (quoting Pinker v. Roche Holdings Ltd., 292 F.3d 361, 374 n.7 (3d Cir. 2002)).


A. Standing

Defendants contend that each Plaintiff lacks standing to prosecute this action and, therefore, that the Court is without lawful authority under Article III of the United States Constitution to exercise jurisdiction over this matter. In essence, Defendants contend that although each of the Plaintiffs is under a death sentence, whether any of the Plaintiffs will actually be affected by the Commonwealth's lethal-injection protocol is "unknown" and, with respect to two of the plaintiffs, "speculative." (Def. Br. at 8.) Defendants suggest that none of the Plaintiffs has a sufficient personal interest in challenging the constitutionality of Pennsylvania's lethal-injection protocol until they are under an active death warrant, signed by the Governor.

The Court finds that detailed analysis of this argument as it relates to Plaintiffs Wilson and Hardcastle is unnecessary because it was addressed and ruled upon by Judge Padova before this action was transferred to this Court from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.*fn1 "Under the law of the case doctrine, 'when a court decides upon a rule of law, that decision should continue to govern the same issue in subsequent stages of the same case'." American Civil Liberties Union v. Mukasey, 534 F.3d 181, 187 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Christianson v. Colt Indus. Operating Corp., 486 U.S. 800, 816 (1988) (further citations omitted); see also Hamilton v. Leavy, 322 F.3d 776, 786 (3d Cir. 2003) ("The law of the case doctrine limits relitigation of an issue once it has been decided in an earlier stage of the same litigation."). Notably, the doctrine applies to subsequent rulings made by different judges in the same case. Casey v. Planned Parenthood of Souteastern Pennsylvania, 14 F.3d 848, 856 n.11 (3d Cir. 1994). Although the doctrine operates to limit relitigation of issues once they have been decided, it does not preclude reconsideration of previously decided issues in extraordinary circumstances, such as where (1) new evidence is available; (2) a supervening new law has been announced; or (3) the earlier decision was clearly erroneous and would create manifest injustice. In re City of Phila. Litig., 158 F.3d 711, 718 (3d Cir. 1998).

Defendants have not relied upon any of these "extraordinary circumstances" in urging the Court to revisit Judge Padova's ruling with respect to Messrs. Wilson's and Hardcastle's standing, but instead suggest only that because subject matter jurisdiction is "such an important issue," the Court should reconsider the matter. (Def. Br. at 6.) Although recognizing the fundamental requirement of Article III standing and its role in limiting the federal courts' exercise of jurisdiction, the Court does not find that Defendants have presented a sufficient basis for the Court to reconsider an issue that Judge Padova squarely addressed and answered before transferring this action to the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Accordingly, the Court finds that Judge Padova's ruling with respect to standing shall continue to be applied in this case.

As noted, Judge Padova's earlier ruling addressed only the standing of Messrs. Wilson and Hardcastle, and did not reach the issue of Mr. Chester's standing because Defendants did not previously challenge it. If anything, Chester's standing is even more apparent than the standing of his fellow plaintiffs because he alone has not yet obtained habeas relief. Nevertheless, Defendants contend that because Mr. Chester is not presently under an active death warrant signed by Pennsylvania's governor, he should be found to lack sufficient personal interest in this litigation to permit his challenge to Pennsylvania's lethal injection protocol. In short, Defendants contend that Mr. Chester and his co-plaintiffs lack standing because none faces "imminent execution." (Def. Br. at 6.) Though they refer the Court to familiar case law articulating the general rules regarding Article III standing, Defendants cite no authority that specifically supports their assertion that plaintiffs challenging the constitutionality of a death- penalty protocol must wait until they are under an active death warrant in order to have standing to challenge a state's method of execution. Upon consideration, the Court agrees with Judge Padova that the fact that each of the plaintiffs in this action is subject to a death sentence confers upon them a sufficient personal stake in this litigation to satisfy Article III's standing requirements. Accordingly, Defendants' motion to dismiss this action under Rule 12(b)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction will be denied.

B. Statute of Limitations

Defendants next argue that Plaintiffs' claims were not filed timely within the two-year statute of limitations period applicable to actions brought in Pennsylvania under 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983. Defendants contend that the two-year limitations period began running for each Plaintiff on July 17, ...

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