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Andrea Coleman-Hill v. Governor Mifflin School District

December 2, 2010

ANDREA COLEMAN-HILL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
GOVERNOR MIFFLIN SCHOOL DISTRICT, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lynne A. Sitarski United States Magistrate Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Presently before the Court is Plaintiff Andrea Coleman-Hill's Motion for Sanctions Pursuant to Pennsylvania Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct 3.6 (Doc. No. 26). Defendant Governor Mifflin School District has opposed this motion (Doc. No. 29).*fn1

Plaintiff's Motion for Sanctions arises out of the conduct of Defendant's counsel, Jonathan P. Riba, Esq. Specifically, Plaintiff claims that a press release prepared by Mr. Riba and posted on the Defendant's website violates Rule 3.6 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct, and warrants sanctions. I find that sanctions are not appropriate under the circumstances presented here. Plaintiff's Motion for Sanctions is DENIED.

I. FACTS

This action involves alleged racial discrimination against Plaintiff Andrea Coleman-Hill ("Plaintiff") by her employer, Defendant Governor Mifflin School District ("the District").

Plaintiff alleges that the District's superintendent, Dr. Mary T. Weiss, violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, 43 P.S. § 951 et seq., by mistreating Plaintiff on account of her race.

The local newspaper, The Reading Eagle, has published newspaper articles concerning this case. Both parties' attorneys (the District's Mr. Riba and Plaintiff's Ms. Robin J. Gray) have provided comments to the press on multiple occasions. (Def.'s Resp. to Pl.'s Mot. Sanctions Ex. A; Pl.'s Mot. ¶¶ 7-9, Ex. B, Ex. C). As relevant to this motion, Mr. Riba wrote and posted a press release on the District's website on November 9, 2010, which provided a general description of the parties' position, detailed the outcome of the District's prior Motion for Sanctions, and responded to Ms. Gray's quotes in a previous newspaper article. (Pl.'s Mot. Ex.

C). Essentially, the press release issued by Mr. Riba describes this Court's November 4, 2010 Memorandum and Order (Doc. Nos. 23, 24), denies that the District withheld documents containing evidence of discrimination, and provides information on how to obtain a copy of this Court's decision. The majority of the information within the press release is publicly-available on the docket.*fn2

On November 15, 2010, Plaintiff filed the instant motion for sanctions based on Mr. Riba's alleged violation of Rule 3.6 of the Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct. Plaintiff claims that the press release was intended to "defame and humiliate Plaintiff's counsel and to attempt to prejudice the outcome of the litigation." (Pl.'s Mot. ¶ 18). As a result, Plaintiff seeks an Order prohibiting the District's attorneys from issuing "any press releases" regarding this case.

(Pl.'s Proposed Form of Order, Doc. No. 26). Thus, Plaintiff requests that this Court issue a "gag order." Plaintiff also seeks attorney's fees incurred in bringing the instant motion.*fn3

II. LEGAL STANDARDS

In determining whether a gag order is appropriate, "the Court must be convinced, not merely suspect, that there is a substantial likelihood that extra-judicial statements by counsel, in light of the circumstances of the case, will materially prejudice the pending proceedings." Constand v. Cosby, 229 F.R.D. 472, 475 (E.D. Pa. 2005) (Robreno, J.) (citing Gentile v. State Bar of Nev., 501 U.S. 1030, 1075 (1990)). The Supreme Court has upheld the "substantial likelihood to materially prejudice" standard as a permissible balance between an attorney's right to free speech protected by the First Amendment and the state's interest for fair judicial determinations. See U.S. v. Scarfo, 263 F.3d 80, 93 (3d Cir. 2001) (citing Gentile, 501 U.S. at 1075). Nevertheless, thwarting attorney public comments via a gag order is not always the answer.*fn4 Constand, 229 F.R.D. at 478. Therefore, "[a]ny limitation on the attorney's speech must be narrow and necessary, carefully aimed at comments likely to influence the trial or judicial determination." Scarfo, 263 F.3d at 93 (citing Gentile, 501 U.S. at 1075).

We are certainly mindful of the fact that attorneys are held to ethical standards that prohibit certain conduct. According to the Local Rules of Civil Procedure, the district courts apply "the Rules of Professional Conduct adopted by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, as amended from time to time by that state court," i.e. the Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct. E.D. Pa. R. Civ. P. 83.6 (Rule IV(B)) (2010). Violations of the rules "shall constitute misconduct and shall be grounds for discipline." Id.; In re E. Sugar Antitrust Litig., 697 F.2d 524, 530 (3d Cir. 1982) (citing Kramer v. Scientific Control Corp., 534 F.2d 1085 (3d Cir. 1976)) ...


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