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Wright v. Wenerowicz

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

February 27, 2018

MICHAEL WENEROWICZ et al., Defendants.


          JOSEPH F. LEESON, JR. United States District Judge

         Presently before the Court in this § 1983 suit is a petition by counsel for Plaintiff William L. Wright, III to appoint a guardian ad litem for his client on the grounds that Wright is incompetent and refuses to communicate with him. Wright, a death row inmate, was previously found by state courts to be incompetent to discharge his attorney in the context of collateral proceedings challenging his capital conviction. This finding remains undisturbed. This Court will therefore grant the petition and, in the exercise its discretion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 17, appoint a third-party guardian ad litem to represent Wright's interests in conjunction with his appointed counsel.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Wright is currently under a death sentence for a murder he committed in 1998. See Commonwealth v. Wright, 78 A.3d 1070, 1072 (Pa. 2013). After his conviction was affirmed on direct appeal, his counsel filed a petition under Pennsylvania's Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA). Id. at 1072-73. It came to light that Wright's counsel had filed the PCRA petition on his behalf and without his consent, as he had stopped communicating with his counsel. Id. at 1073. Wright's counsel raised the possibility that Wright was incompetent to waive his post-conviction rights, including his right to counsel. Id. During a videoconference with the PCRA court in October 2010, Wright stated that he had declined all visits and phone calls with counsel, had returned all mail unopened, and that he wanted to discharge his counsel and discontinue his PCRA proceedings. Id.

         Given the gravity of the matter, the PCRA court appointed a psychiatrist and a psychologist to evaluate Wright's competency to make decisions about his appeal rights and his relationship with his counsel. Id. The two experts conducted a thorough review of Wright's mental health records (which numbered approximately 6, 000 pages) and performed a two-and-a-half hour clinical evaluation. Id. at 1074. At an evidentiary hearing in January 2012, they testified that Wright “displayed cognitive rigidity, paranoid ideations, and personality disorders” to the degree that he “was severely impaired in his decision-making and . . . incompetent to make a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary decision to waive counsel.” Id. Based on that testimony, the PCRA court recognized that Wright “had demonstrated a pattern of thwarting the attempts of individuals who could aid him, and of viewing opportunities for him to advance his case as conspiracies against him.” Id. at 1076. As a result, the PCRA court adjudged Wright to be incompetent to waive his right to counsel. Id.

         In October 2013, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the PCRA court's finding that Wright was incompetent. Id. at 1087. The Supreme Court found that the PCRA court properly relied upon Wright's pattern of “distrusting, discharging, and cutting off all communications with a long list of attorneys and other professionals who could have assisted [his] case.” Id. at 1086. The Supreme Court concluded that Wright “is prone to engage in delusional and distorted thinking involving imagined conspiracies by such individuals, and that, based on such thinking, his ability to assist counsel in his own defense has been, and continues to be, significantly compromised.” Id.

         In January 2014, Wright, acting pro se, brought the instant civil suit against a number of prison officials associated with Pennsylvania's Graterford State Correctional Institution. ECF No. 1. Wright claims that, while incarcerated at Graterford following his murder conviction, he was placed in a cell with another inmate who was known to suffer from mental illness and have violent tendencies. According to Wright, this other inmate attacked him, causing significant injuries.

         Wright's pattern of distrusting his attorneys has continued to the present case. Wright was appointed a lawyer from the Prisoner Civil Rights Panel of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania; however, Chief Judge Petrese B. Tucker permitted Wright to discharge the first lawyer who volunteered to take his case after the lawyer did not file an opposition to a partial motion to dismiss. See ECF Nos. 19, 22, 31, 33. Wright's current lawyer, Jeremy Ibrahim, later volunteered to take Wright's case. ECF No. 49. Chief Judge Tucker scheduled a status conference which Wright was able to attend by a video link to his prison. Several days before the conference, Wright sent a letter to the court complaining that Attorney Ibrahim had not yet met with him and threatened to file a “Notice of Termination” if Attorney Ibrahim did not meet with Wright in a specific interview room at Graterford within ten days. ECF No. 53. A few weeks later, after this case was reassigned to the undersigned, ECF No. 56, Wright did in fact file a “Notice of Termination.” ECF No. 57. Wright sought to discharge Attorney Ibrahim for failing to promptly visit him at Graterford and failing to protect him from “attacks” that he claims that Chief Judge Tucker made against him during the videoconference. Id. Wright reiterated his complaints against Attorney Ibrahim in a letter dated May 10, 2016. ECF No. 63.

         On June 27, 2017, Attorney Ibrahim filed a petition for the appointment of a guardian ad litem for Wright pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 17(c). ECF No. 67. Attorney Ibrahim relates that he did in fact travel to Graterford to meet with Wright, but that Wright refused to meet with him unless it was in a specific area reserved for use when attorneys have documents to pass to their clients. As Attorney Ibrahim was unwilling to represent falsely that he had to pass documents to Wright to secure his preferred meeting place, Attorney Ibrahim left without meeting Wright. Attorney Ibrahim asserts that because Wright has been found to be incompetent, he is unable to act on his own behalf in this litigation and, as a result of his refusal to interact with Attorney Ibrahim, he remains unrepresented. Thus, he argues, Rule 17(c) requires this Court to appoint a guardian ad litem or issue another appropriate order to protect Wright's interests. The defendants support the petition for a guardian ad litem. ECF No. 67.

         Wright, however, does not. He argues that because he had filed a “Notice of Termination” intending to terminate Attorney Ibrahim, Attorney Ibrahim does not represent him and cannot file a petition on his behalf. ECF No. 69. Wright states that the only attorney representative he will accept is an attorney from the Prisoner Civil Rights Panel, and on the condition that “such attorney must be compliant and cooperative with [Wright.]” Id. Wright also mentions that the only non-attorney guardian he would accept would be his mother. Id. In a letter subsequent to his opposition, Wright states that he received an envelope from Attorney Ibrahim, but that he immediately returned it, and will not have any future contact with Attorney Ibrahim. ECF No. 70.

         In light of Wright's response, this Court contacted his mother to explore the possibility of her serving as a guardian for her son; however, she responded that she was unwilling to do so. ECF No. 76. This Court then contacted Monica I. Wiggins, Executive Director of Community Services for the ARC Alliance, a social service agency that provides guardianship services, about the possibility of her serving as Wright's guardian. Wiggins expressed her consent during a telephone conference with the parties, ECF No. 78, and again by letter to this Court, ECF No. 79.


         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 17, a court “must appoint a guardian ad litem-or issue another appropriate order-to protect a minor or incompetent person who is unrepresented in an action.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 17(c)(2). If a guardian ad litem is appointed, the guardian then has authority to act on the person's behalf in connection with the case, “with authority to engage counsel, file suit, and to prosecute, control and direct the litigation. As an officer of the court, the guardian ad litem has full responsibility to assist the court to ‘secure a just, speedy and inexpensive determination' of the action.” Noe v. True, 507 F.2d 9, 12 (6th Cir. 1974) (per curiam) (quoting Fong Sik Leung v. Dulles, 226 F.2d 74, 82 (9th Cir. 1955) (Boldt, J., concurring)).

         III. ...

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