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Franklin v. Sessions

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

December 21, 2017

JEFFERSON B. SESSIONS, III, Attorney General of the United States; THOMAS E. BRANDON, Acting Director, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; CHRISTOPHER A. WRAY, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation; and THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendants.



I. Introduction

         Presently pending before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 31, 36.) Defendants Attorney General Jefferson B. Sessions, III, Acting Director Thomas E. Brandon, Director Christopher A. Wray, and the United States of America move for summary judgment on all currently pending counts[2] of the Second Amended Complaint. (See ECF No. 34 at 9.) Plaintiff Alton C. Franklin ("Mr. Franklin") likewise moves for summary judgment on all remaining counts of the Second Amended Complaint. (See generally ECF No. 40.) These motions have been fully briefed and are ripe for disposition. (See ECF Nos. 31-43, 47-52.)

         This case arises from Defendants' determination that Mr. Franklin's less-than-24-hour involuntary stay in a hospital for an involuntary emergency mental health examination pursuant to Section 302 of the Pennsylvania Mental Health Procedures Act ("Section 302 of the MHPA"), 50 Pa. Stat, and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 7302, resulted in a complete prohibition of Mr. Franklin's ability to ever legally acquire, possess, or use a firearm in his private capacity for the purposes of federal law, namely for the purposes of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4) ("Section 922(g)(4)"). Mr. Franklin challenges Defendants' position on numerous grounds - on most of which the Court will not now offer an opinion. However, the Court is persuaded that, by its own terms, Section 922(g)(4) does not restrict Mr. Franklin's ability to possess firearms based on a brief emergency mental health examination pursuant to Section 302 of the MPHA that was justified by only the ex parte decisions of a police officer, an unspecified official in the county administrator's office, and a single physician.

         Section 922(g)(4) bars firearms possession for only "any person . . . who has been adjudicated as a mental defective or who has been committed to a mental institution." 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4). Under the undisputed material facts presented to this Court, Mr. Franklin is not such a person. Therefore, similar to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in United States v. Rehlander, 666 F.3d 45 (1st Cir. 2012), this Court concludes that Mr. Franklin's right to acquire, possess, and use firearms is unaffected by Section 922(g)(4) because Mr. Franklin was not "adjudicated as a mental defective" or "committed to a mental institution." 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4).

         This Court offers no opinion on any of the remaining claims or arguments of the parties, including, inter alia, alleged violations of Mr. Franklin's rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment and the Second Amendment. Rather, the undisputed material facts before this Court show that, by its plain terms and under the canon of constitutional avoidance, Section 922(g)(4) simply does not provide for a restriction of Mr. Franklin's ability to acquire, possess, or use firearms.

         For the reasons that follow, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 36) is GRANTED only as to the inapplicability of the restrictions of Section 922(g)(4) to Mr. Franklin. Otherwise, the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment (ECF Nos. 31, 36) are DENIED AS MOOT at this time.

         II. Jurisdiction and Venue

         All of Mr. Franklin's claims arise under the Constitution and laws of the United States. The Court, therefore, has jurisdiction over this case pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331. And, because a substantial part of the events giving rise to Mr. Franklin's claims-namely, his emergency mental health examination-occurred in the Western District of Pennsylvania, venue is proper in this district pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b)(2).

         III. Procedural History

         Mr. Franklin initiated this action by filing his Complaint on February 3, 2016 (ECF No. 1), which he followed with his First Amended Complaint shortly thereafter on March 15, 2016. (ECF No. 3.) Mr. Franklin's First Amended Complaint alleged four counts against all Defendants: (1) two separate violations of the NICS Improvement Amendments Act ("NIAA"), (2) a violation of the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the United States Constitution, (3) a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, and (4) a violation of the Second Amendment. (ECF No. 3.)

         On April 11, 2016, Defendants filed their Partial Motion to Dismiss. (ECF No. 5.) By Memorandum Opinion and Order of November 18, 2016, the Court dismissed Count I and Count II of the Amended Complaint. See Franklin v. Lynch, No. 3:16-CV-36, 2016 WL 6879265 (W.D. Pa. Nov. 21, 2016). The Court granted Mr. Franklin leave to replead his claim under Section 101 of the NIAA, which Mr. Franklin did in his Second Amended Complaint filed on November 30, 2016. (ECF No. 26.)

         Mr. Franklin's Second Amended Complaint added some additional content and reorganized its prior claims. (See ECF No. 26.) The Second Amended Complaint is organized into five counts: (1) a violation of Section 101(c) and Section 105 of the NIAA; (2) a violation of Section 101(a)(4)(D) and Section 101(b)(2)(B) of the NIAA; (3) a violation of the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the United States Constitution; (4) a violation of Franklin's Fifth Amendment right to due process; and (5) a violation of the right to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment. (Id. at ¶¶ 49-109.) However, Mr. Franklin concedes that Count I and Count III of the Second Amended Complaint were dismissed by the Court's Memorandum Opinion and Order of November 18, 2016 (ECF No. 23) and explains that he included those two counts only "to preserve the issue for appeal, should it become necessary." (See ECF No. 26 at 12 n.3, 19 n.7.) Mr. Franklin's request for relief is extensive, featuring various forms of declarative and injunctive relief and attorney fees and costs. (Id. at 26-29.)

         Most pertinent here, Defendants filed their Motion for Summary Judgment on January 31, 2017. (ECF No. 31.) Mr. Franklin responded with his own Motion for Summary Judgment on March 2, 2017. (ECF No. 36.) All briefing and responses to these two motions concluded on April 14, 2017. (See ECF Nos. 31-43, 47-52.)

         IV. Factual History

         The following facts are undisputed unless otherwise noted.[3]

         The present case arises from Mr. Franklin's involuntary stay in two Pennsylvania hospitals for an emergency mental health examination, in accordance with Section 302 of the MPHA. (ECF No. 35 ¶ 1; ECF No. 43 ¶ 1; ECF No. 42 ¶ 1; ECF No. 50 ¶ 1.) On September 22, 2002, Mr. Franklin arrived at a local police station in Bedford, Pennsylvania with approximately 20 cuts on his arms. (ECF No. 35 ¶¶ 2-4; ECF No. 43 ¶¶ 2-4; ECF No. 42 ¶¶ 1, 3; ECF No. 50 ¶¶ 1, 3.) These lacerations resulted from a "drinking game" in which Mr. Franklin, who was distraught from a recent breakup, and a friend would hit the other person with a butter knife during the course of a card game. (ECF No. 35 ¶¶ 2-4; ECF No. 43 ¶¶ 2-4; ECF No. 42 ¶¶ 1, 3; ECF No. 50 ¶¶ 1, 3.)

         Upon arrival at the police station, Mr. Franklin spoke with Officer Chris Simons ("Officer Simons") and said that he "need[ed] to talk to someone." (ECF No. 35 ¶ 2; ECF No. 43 ¶ 2; ECF No. 42 ¶ 4; ECF No. 50 ¶ 4.) Officer Simons noted that Mr. Franklin "appear[ed] distraught from a recent break-up in a relationship" and "appear[ed] to be delusional, " at which point Officer Simons completed "an application for involuntary commitment." (ECF No. 35 ¶¶ 3, 5; ECF No. 43 ¶¶ 3, 5; ECF No. 42 ¶ 4; ECF No. 50 ¶ 4.) By completing the application, Officer Simons attested that Mr. Franklin was "severely mentally disabled" and "pose[d] a clear and present danger of harm to others or to himself." (ECF No. 35 ¶ 5; ECF No. 43 ¶ 5.) Officer Simons's application indicated that Mr. Franklin had "[substantially mutilated [himself] or attempted to mutilate [himself] substantially and that there is [a] reasonable probability of mutilation unless adequate treatment is afforded." (ECF No. 35 ¶ 6; ECF No. 43 ¶ 6.) Officer Simons's application further stated that Mr. Franklin:

has acted in such manner as to evidence that [he] would be unable, without care, supervision, and the continued assistance of others, to satisfy [his] need for nourishment, personal or medical care, shelter, or self-protection and safety, and that there is a reasonable probability that death, serious bodily injury or serious physical debilitation would ensue within 30 days unless adequate treatment were afforded under the act[.]

(ECF No. 35 ¶ 6; ECF No. 43 ¶ 6.)

         James W. Redmond, "an official in the county administrator's office, "[4] reviewed Officer Simons's application and completed a warrant for Mr. Franklin to be admitted to a medical facility for treatment for up to 120 hours. (ECF No. 35 ¶ 8; ECF No. 43 ¶ 8.) Officer Simons then transported Mr. Franklin to UPMC Bedford Memorial Hospital ("UPMC Bedford"), where Franklin was involuntarily admitted for a mental health examination at approximately 1:50 a.m. (ECF No. 35 ¶ 10; ECF No. 43 ¶ 10; ECF No. 42 ¶¶ 4-5; ECF No. 50 ¶¶ 4-5.)

         Mr. Franklin's treating physician, Dr. Christine M. Pluto ("Dr. Pluto") observed Mr. Franklin's lacerated arms, opined that Franklin "is severely mentally disabled and in need of treatment, " and added that "[Mr. Franklin] should be admitted to a facility designated by the County Administrator for a period not to exceed 120 hours." (ECF No. 35 ¶ 10; ECF No. 43 ¶ 10.) Dr. Pluto diagnosed Mr. Franklin with "acute psychosis" and Mr. Franklin was transferred to Somerset Hospital at approximately 4:00 a.m. on September 22, 2002. (ECF No. 35 ¶¶ 10-11; ECF No. 43 ¶¶ 10-11; ECF No. 42 ¶ 6; ECF No. 50 ¶ 6.) Mr. Franklin was released at an unspecified time later that same day, i.e., September 22, 2002, with a total hospital stay of less than 24 hours. (ECF No. 42 ¶¶ 1, 6; ECF No. 50 ¶¶ 1, 6.)

         In the following years, Mr. Franklin obtained a Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice, a paralegal certification, and became a Certified Nursing Assistant. (ECF No. 42 ¶ 10; ECF No. 50 ¶ 10.) Mr. Franklin became a Corrections Officer in the State of Kentucky -a job in which he was authorized to possess a handgun while in his official capacity pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 925(a)(1). (ECF No. 42 ¶¶ 11, 14; ECF No. 50 ¶¶ 11, 14.) Mr. Franklin has since been terminated from that position. (ECF No. 42 ¶ 11; ECF No. 50 ¶ 11.) The termination of Mr. Franklin's employment as a Corrections Officer in Kentucky was, at least, in part due to Defendants' actions and interpretations of law because the correctional facility required that Mr. Franklin take his firearm home at night.[5] (ECF No. 42 ¶ 11; ECF No. 50 ¶ 11.)

         On March 11, 2013, Mr. Franklin was informed that he was prohibited from possessing a firearm in a private capacity after he challenged the determination by the FBI National Instant Check System ("NICS") that he was prohibited from purchasing a firearm. (ECF No. 42 ¶ 12; ECF No. 50 ¶ 12.) Defendants contend that Mr. Franklin lost his private capacity firearm rights by operation of 18 Pa. Stat, and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6105(c)(4) and 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4).[6] (ECF No. 42 ¶ 13; ECF No. 50 ¶ 13.)

         On July 1, 2015, Mr. Franklin petitioned the Bedford County Court of Common Pleas for relief pursuant to 18 Pa. Stat, and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 6105(f). (ECF No. 42 ¶ 16; ECF No. 50 ¶ 16.) On October 14, 2014, the Honorable Travis Livengood ("Judge Livengood") issued an order finding that Mr. Franklin "may possess a firearm without presenting a danger to himself or others." (ECF No. 35 ¶ 13; ECF No. 43 ¶ 13; ECF No. 42 ¶ 16; ECF No. 50 ¶ 16.) Judge Livengood added that Mr. Franklin "no longer suffers from the mental health condition that was the basis of the original civil commitment, " that Mr. Franklin was "fully released and discharged from all treatment, supervision, and monitoring from said commitment and has been since September 2002, " and that Mr. Franklin's "involuntary confinement for evaluation and treatment was based solely on a medical finding of mental disability and not after hearing by a court, board, commission, or other authority and that Petitioner has not been adjudicated as a 'mental defective.'" (ECF No. 42 ¶ 16; ECF No. 50 ¶ 16.)[7] Lastly, Judge Livengood ordered that Mr. Franklin was "hereby fully relieved of any and all firearms disabilities imposed in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania deriving from his civil commitment... in September 2002, " and that this "civil commitment... in September 2002 shall not be a basis of a denial of a Pennsylvania license to carry firearms." (ECF No. 42 ¶ 17; ECF No. 50 ¶ 17.)

         Despite receiving state relief, Mr. Franklin has refrained from purchasing, possessing and using firearms in his private capacity because he reasonably fears arrest, prosecution, incarceration, and fine for allegedly violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(4). (ECF No. 42 ¶ 19; ECF No. 50 ¶ 19.) Confirming Defendants' position on this issue, Kevin White-Philadelphia Division Counsel for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ("ATF")-informed Mr. Franklin that, regardless of his receipt of state relief, Mr. Franklin remains prohibited under federal law from purchasing, possessing, and using firearms in his private capacity, but could continue to possess and use firearms in his official capacity as a state correctional officer. (ECF No. 42 ¶ 20; ECF No. 50 ¶ 20.) ATF Division Counsel White also stated that no mechanism for relief exists for Mr. Franklin for his federal prohibition of private firearm possession. (ECF No. 42 ¶ 20; ECF No. 50 ¶ 20.)

         Mr. Franklin wishes to purchase both a handgun and a long gun for the purpose of defending himself, his home, and his family. (ECF No. 42 ¶ 23; ECF No. 50 ¶ 23.) Mr. Franklin is over the age of 21; not under indictment; has no record of felony or misdemeanor domestic violence; has never been convicted of a crime punishable by more than a year; is not a fugitive from justice; is not addicted to or using any controlled substance; has no history of being adjudicated a mental defective; has never been dishonorably discharged from the Armed Forces; -has never renounced his citizenship; and is not the subject of a restraining order relating to an intimate partner. (ECF No. 42 ¶ 24; ECF No. 50 ¶ 24.) Mr. Franklin has never been involuntarily examined for any mental health purposes since the aforementioned involuntary emergency mental health examination on September 22, 2002. (ECF No. 42 ¶ 18; ECF No. 50 ¶ 18.)

         V. Legal Standard

         "Summary judgment is appropriate only where . . . there is no genuine issue as to any material fact. . . and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Melrose, Inc. v. Pittsburgh, 613 F.3d 380, 387 (3d Cir. 2010) (quoting Ruehl v. Viacom, Inc., 500 F.3d 375, 380 n.6 (3d Cir. 2007)); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Issues of fact are genuine "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); see also McGreevy v. Stroup, 413 F.3d 359, 363 (3d Cir. 2005). Material facts are those that will affect the outcome of the trial under governing law. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. The Court's role is "not to weigh the evidence or to determine the truth of the matter, but only to determine whether the evidence of record is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Am. Eagle Outfitters v. Lyle & Scott Ltd., 584 F.3d 575, 581 (3d Cir. 2009). "In making this determination, 'a court must view the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all inferences in that party's favor.'" Farrell v. Planters Lifesavers Co., 206 F.3d 271, 278 (3d Cir. 2000) (quoting Armbruster v. Unisys Corp., 32 F.3d 768, 777 (3d Cir. 1994)).

         The moving party bears the initial responsibility of stating the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the record that demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. If the moving party meets this burden, the party opposing summary judgment "may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials" of the pleading, but "must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Saldana v. Kmart Corp., 260 F.3d 228, 232 (3d Cir. 2001) (quoting Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 n.ll (1986)). "For an issue to be genuine, the nonmovant needs to supply more than a scintilla of evidence in support of its position -there must be sufficient evidence (not mere allegations) for a reasonable jury to find for the nonmovant." Coolspring Stone Sup-ply v. Am. States Life Ins. Co., 10 F.3d 144, 148 (3d Cir. 1993); see also Podobnik v. U.S. Postal Serv., 409 F.3d 584, 594 (3d Cir. 2005) (noting that a party opposing summary judgment "must present more than just bare assertions, conclusory allegations or suspicions to show the existence of a genuine issue") (internal quotation marks omitted).

         VI. Discussion

         A. The Court's Approach to the Issues Raised in the Parties' Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment

         Mr. Franklin offers numerous challenges to the Defendants' position that Mr. Franklin cannot acquire, possess, or use a firearm in his private capacity, and both parties offer lengthy, well-reasoned arguments on the various issues raised in this case. (See ECF Nos. 34, 40, 41, 49, 52.) However, the Court will not now reach most of these issues because the claims raised by Mr. Franklin's Second Amended Complaint and the issues raised by the parties' briefs are properly -and more narrowly -resolved through the interpretation and application of Section 922(g)(4) to the undisputed material facts of this case and the procedures provided for by Section 302 of the MHPA.

         While this narrow disposition of this matter leaves many of the specific, novel legal issues raised and argued by the parties undecided, the Court deems it inappropriate to adjudicate or opine on issues -regardless of their novelty -when the examination of such issues is not necessary to fully resolve the case before it.

         Indeed, the United States Supreme Court and fundamental adjudicatory principles suggest that this Court "should forbear resolving this issue." Camreta v. Greene, 563 U.S. 693, 705 (2011). The "longstanding principle of judicial restraint requires that courts avoid reaching constitutional questions in advance of the necessity of deciding them." Id. (quoting Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Ass'«., 485 U.S. 439, 445 (1988)); see also Ashwander v. TVA, 297 U.S. 288, 346-47 (1936) (Brandeis, J., concurring). The "fundamental principle" of judicial restraint provides that courts should neither "anticipate a question of constitutional law in advance of the necessity of deciding it" nor "formulate a rule of constitutional law broader than is required by the precise facts to which it is to be applied." Washington State Grange v. Washington State Republican Party, 552 U.S. 442, 450-51 (2008) (quoting Ashwander, 297 U.S. at 346-47); see also North Carolina v. Covington, 137 S.Ct. 1624, 1626 (2017) (emphasizing "the need to act with proper judicial restraint").

         Therefore, the Court concludes that it would be unnecessary, improper, and violative of the fundamental principle of judicial restraint to decide the Second Amendment, Fifth Amendment, and other statutory issues raised by the parties when this case can be fully and rightly decided without reaching these broader issues. The Court's holding regarding the inapplicability of Section 922(g)(4) restrictions to Mr. Franklin moots the other issues raised in this case and, thus, the Court does not decide or offer any opinion on them. The Court's holding in this case pertains only to an interpretation of Section 922(g)(4) and an application of Section 302 of the MHPA.

         B. The Meaning of Section 922(g)(4)

         1. The Terms of the Statute and Definitions of the ...

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