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Taha v. Bucks County Pennsylvania

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

October 4, 2019




         This certified class action arises from a decision by Defendants Bucks County Correctional Facility ("BCCF") and Bucks County in January 2011 to create an "Inmate Lookup Tool" ("the ILT"). Through the ILT, Defendants published information online about 66, 799 individuals who had been held or incarcerated at various times over the course of decades at the BCCF. One of the individuals whose information was published, Plaintiff Daryoush Taha, filed this lawsuit on behalf of himself and all persons whose criminal history record information was made available on the ILT. He claimed that by publishing this information, Defendants violated Pennsylvania's Criminal History Record Information Act ("the CURIA"), 18 Pa. C.S.A. § 9101 et seq. The Court granted Plaintiff partial summary judgment on liability. At trial, the only issue for the jury was whether Defendants willfully violated the CHRIA. See 18 Pa. C.S.A. § 9183(b)(2) ("Exemplary and punitive damages of not less than $1, 000 nor more than $10, 000 shall be imposed for any violation of this chapter . .. found to be willful.") (emphasis added). At the close of evidence, the jury returned a verdict finding Defendants committed willful violations and awarded each class member $1, 000 in punitive damages.

         Prior to the case going to the jury, Defendants had twice moved pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50 for judgment as a matter of law, which the Court denied in both instances. Presently before the Court are Defendants' post-trial motions, including a renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50, and a Motion for a New Trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59, or, in the alternative, a Motion for Remittitur. For the reasons that follow, Defendants' motions shall be denied.

         I. FACTS

         In September 1998, Plaintiff Taha was arrested by the Bensalem Police Department and transported to the BCCF, where he was charged with harassment, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest. His photo was taken. He was released the following day and, eventually, the Court of Common Pleas of Bucks County ordered the Clerk of Courts of Bucks County, the Bucks County District Attorney, the district court, and the arresting agency to expunge Plaintiffs "arrest and other criminal records." See Taha v. Bucks County, 2016 WL 2345998, at *1 (E.D. Pa. May 4, 2016) (''Taha II").

         In 2008, Defendants created the ILT. In January 2011, Defendants launched the enhanced version of the ILT at issue in this case-an internet-accessible and searchable database that included information about "individuals who had been held or incarcerated at the BCCF from 1938 onward, a total of 66, 799 people." Taha v. County of Bucks, 862 F.3d 292, 297 (3d Cir. 2017) ("Taha III"). Defendants made public through the internet information about the various class members, including name, race, weight, hair and eye color, arrest dates, arrest charges, and where available, the Federal Bureau of Investigation numbers ("FBI numbers") and state fingerprint identification numbers ("State ID numbers"). Id.[1]

         Harris Gubernick was the Director of the Bucks County Department of Corrections from 2002 until February 2011, which spans the time when the ILT was first created and when the enhanced version with additional information and photographs was introduced. At trial, Gubernick testified that he had little familiarity with the CHR1A beyond his training for certification and that he delegated "[t]he planning and the implementation" of the ILT to his subordinate, Clarke Fulton. Fulton was the Bucks County Department of Corrections' Captain of Administrative Affairs and was charged with overseeing software applications, assisting in litigation defense, and implementing the ILT. Despite Fulton's job description, he testified that Gubernick made the final decisions affecting the scope of the data posted on the ILT. Furthermore, he testified that he considered Gubernick more knowledgeable than he and that Gubernick "had a longer experience with the [CHRIA] law." Each man thus indicated the other was the decisionmaker regarding the ILT.

         The authoritative guide to the CHRIA is the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Criminal History Record Information Act Handbook ("the Handbook"), which Defendants' witnesses sometimes referred to as "the Bible." The trial was infused with disputes as to what falls within the definition of "criminal history record information" for the purposes of the CHRIA. In their post-trial briefing, Defendants rely on Chart 9 of the Handbook, which describes Section 9122 of the CHRIA, to justify their reading of the term. But neither Fulton nor Gubernick consulted the Handbook while implementing the ILT. Fulton last read the Handbook during his training in 2003, eight years before the enhanced ILT was rolled out, and Gubernick never consulted the Handbook at all regarding compliance with the CHRIA. Gubernick also testified that he relied on Section 9104 of the CHRIA to support his conclusion that "criminal history record information" was information from a rap sheet and that charge information from court documents did not constitute criminal history record information. He acknowledged, however, that the term "rap sheet" does not appear in the statute, and he never sought clarification to confirm his understanding was correct.

         The Commonwealth Law Enforcement Assistance Network ("CLEAN") is a database containing criminal record information, which is maintained by the state police for law enforcement purposes. Information on CLEAN, including FBI and State ID numbers that identify individuals, is classified as confidential, and Defendants knew that CLEAN information was meant to be confidential. Indeed, Fulton received Pennsylvania Justice Network ("JNET") training, which discussed the careless use of CLEAN information.

         Fulton was the JNET Terminal Agency Coordinator ("JTAC"), and as such, he had access to the JTAC training manual. In 2008, Fulton inquired of a corporal with the Pennsylvania State Police as to whether posting the FBI and State ID numbers on the ILT was permissible, and was told that it "might be"-an answer which Fulton testified raised "some question in my mind." Fulton then consulted the JTAC training manual, which "did not speak ... directly in terms of dissemination" but did say that "information on the CLEAN network is considered confidential." He interpreted this to mean State ID and FBI numbers "were not protected" and made no further effort to investigate whether they could be disseminated.

         Gubernick and Fulton met periodically with what they referred to as the Criminal Justice Advisory Board ("CJAB"), which included representatives from the district attorney, the public defender, county administration, and the Department of Corrections, among others, from Bucks County and other counties. There was no testimony presented regarding the CJAB's mission or whether it was within the group's purview to advise on the appropriate use of criminal history record information. Gubernick testified that no one at CJAB raised any flags about posting the data on the internet because the ILT issue "was never raised by anyone." At the January 2011 CJAB meeting, "no one mentioned" the privacy of the 67, 000 people who interacted with the BCCF between 1938 and 2011.

         Gubernick testified that prior to launching the Bucks County ILT, he analyzed the ILTs of other counties-Montgomery and "possibly" Fayette and Berks. He clicked on the home pages and was not able to click through to the rest of the counties' sites. He did not contact administrators in those counties. Defendants did not present testimony about whether they knew in 2011 whether other counties had received complaints or citations in connection with their ILTs.

         Defendants never sought legal advice in the course of implementing the ILT. Fulton testified that during his 35-year career, he only sought legal advice from the County Solicitor once when he became aware of a discrepancy concerning the Department of Corrections' interpretation of a new Pennsylvania law concerning DNA blood samples. He never had a discussion with any lawyer regarding compliance with the CHRIA, and Gubernick never instructed him to obtain an opinion from the County Solicitor. Indeed, during the 2011 changes to the ILT, nobody sought guidance from the County Solicitor, the Pennsylvania Attorney General, or outside counsel.

         Gubernick and Fulton both understood that privacy was an important part of the CHRIA. Gubernick testified that he had concerns about publicly posting confidential information. Fulton testified that he understood the need for the confidentiality of inmate records and understood that improper exposure of criminal history record information could ruin reputations. He appreciated the dangers of that information falling into the hands of third-party operators like because his daughter's mugshot had been disseminated on the internet in that manner, and, on two occasions, she had asked him to pay to have her mugshot removed from the site, which he did.

         Fulton testified that in 2011, he did not believe that "any of the information on [the] ILT could be considered CHRIA." Gubernick was asked whether, in 2011, he had "any thought in [his] mind at all that [he] could be possibly breaking the law?" He responded: "Absolutely not." But Fulton knew the 2011 changes, which included adding photographs, to the ILT were "dramatic." Gubernick also had concerns about publicly posting confidential information. Yet Defendants did nothing to customize the ILT to remove confidential information. Fulton did not reach out to the software vendor to ask about customizing the ILT until March 2013. He was also unaware of any inspection by any agency approving how Defendants handled the CHRIA.

         Nor did Defendants address requests to have outdated or incorrect information removed from the ILT. One man, concerned that the ILT posting of information about his father was hurting his father's ability to find a job, emailed Bucks County about his father's record, explaining that it incorrectly stated that his father had spent a week incarcerated in 1995 when, in fact, he had only spent one weekend. Fulton received the email but never responded to it.


         Plaintiff sued on December 7, 2012, alleging that Defendants violated the CHRIA by disseminating "criminal history record information," 18 Pa. C.S.A. § 9102 (defining the term), in a manner prohibited by the Act. Taha v. Bucks County, 172 F.Supp.3d 867, 872 (E.D. Pa. 2016) ("Taha I"). The Court held Defendants did violate the CHRIA, id, and subsequently certified a class of "all persons whose criminal history record information was made available on the BCCF Inmate Lookup Tool," Taha v. Bucks County, 2016 WL 2346000 (E.D. Pa. May 4, 2016) (order); see also Taha II, 2016 WL 2345998, at *4. The Third Circuit affirmed the class certification decision, agreeing that "the only remaining factual issue is whether defendants willfully violated CHR1A," Taha III, 862 F.3d at 309, because punitive damages are required under the statute in a minimum amount of $1, 000 when a plaintiff shows that any violation of the CHRIA was willful, seel8Pa. C.S.A. § 9183(b)(2).[2]


         A. Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b) provides that "[n]o later than 28 days after the entry of judgment... the movant may file a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law and may include an alternative or joint request for a new trial under Rule 59." The grant of a motion for judgment as a matter of law after trial is warranted "only if, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmovant and giving it the advantage of every fair and reasonable inference, there is insufficient evidence from which a jury reasonably could find liability." Lightning Lube, Inc. v. Witco Corp., 4 F.3d 1153, 1166 (3d Cir. 1993). In considering the evidence, "the court may not weigh the evidence, determine the credibility of witnesses, or substitute its version of the facts for the jury's version." Id. "Although judgment as a matter of law should be granted sparingly, a scintilla of evidence is not enough to sustain a verdict Id. Ultimately, "[t]he question is not whether there is literally no evidence supporting the party against whom the motion is directed but whether there is evidence upon which the jury could properly find a verdict for that party." Id. (internal quotation omitted). In other words, judgment as a matter of law should be granted if the record is "critically deficient of that minimum quantum of evidence from which a jury might reasonably afford relief." Dawson v. Chrysler Corp., 630 F.2d 950, 959 (3d Cir. 1980) (internal quotation omitted). Because the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, the Court in ruling on judgment as a matter of law must examine the record "in a light most favorable to the plaintiff," giving him the benefit of all reasonable inferences, "even though contrary inferences might reasonably be drawn." Dudley v. S. Jersey Metal, Inc., 555 F.2d 96, 101 (3d Cir. 1977).

         B. Motion for New Trial

         On motion, a court may grant a new trial "for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court." Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a)(1)(A). However, "it should do so only when 'the great weight of the evidence cuts against the verdict and ... a miscarriage of justice would result if the verdict were to stand.'" Leonard v. Stemtech Int'l Inc., 834 F.3d 376, 386 (3d Cir. 2016) (quoting Springer v. Henry, 435 F.3d 268, 274 (3d Cir. 2006)). The power to grant a new trial is limited to ensure that a court "does not substitute its judgment of the facts and the credibility of the witnesses for that of the jury." See Id. (quoting Delli Santi v. CNA Ins. Cos., 88 F.3d 192, 201 (3d Cir. 1996)); Sheridan v. E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Co., 100 F.3d 1061, 1076 (3d Cir. 1996) (en banc).

         C. Motion for Remittitur

         Under Rule 59(e), a party may seek alteration or amendment of the verdict. The Third Circuit has explained that courts reduce damages awards in one of two circumstances, which are often colloquially referred to as "remittitur": when a court reduces an award as excessive or legally unsupported to satisfy constitutional due process concerns, and when it considers an award unreasonable on the facts of the case at hand. Cortez v. Trans Union, LLC, 617 F.3d 688, 715-16 (3d Cir. 2010); Spence v. Bd. of Educ. of Christina Sch. Dist., 806 F.2d 1198, 1201 (3d Cir. 1986). "There must be a rational relationship between the specific injury sustained and the amount awarded." Gumbs v. Pueblo Int'l, Inc., 823 F.2d 768, 773 (3d Cir. 1987). "While a district court has discretion in determining whether a jury's verdict is excessive, it is undisputed that the court may not vacate or reduce the award merely because it would have granted a lesser amount of damages." Motter v. Everest & Jennings, Inc., 883 F.2d 1223, 1230 (3d Cir. 1989).

         IV. DISCUSSION[3]

         Underlying the analysis of each of these motions is a challenge by Defendants to the jury instruction regarding the definition of "willfulness." At trial, the jury was instructed, in relevant part:

"Willful" does not mean that Defendants intended to violate the CHRIA law, or intended to harm Mr. Taha or class members. It does not mean that Defendants acted with malice or ill will. But it requires plaintiff to prove more than that Defendants were negligent or careless or made an honest mistake.
A willful violation of the CHRIA law means that Defendants acted with reckless disregard or indifference to their legal obligations. A person has committed a willful violation for purposes of CHRIA if he or she acts with reckless disregard or indifference to their legal obligations.
Plaintiff does not have to show that Defendants were aware their actions violated CHRIA in order to prove reckless disregard or indifference in violating the law. Defendants could have held a mistaken belief about CHRIA and still could have acted with reckless disregard or indifference. The issue for you is whether, in the facts and circumstances of this case, Defendants were reckless or indifferent in violating CHRIA.

         In evaluating the jury instruction on willfulness, Defendants urge the Court to consider it in tandem with the jury instruction regarding the amount of punitive damage, which was:

... [I]f you decide that the County willfully violated CHRIA, it is your job to set the amount of punitive damages. The Act entitles the Plaintiff and each class member to a sum of not less than $1, 000 nor more than $10, 000 if you find that the County's violation of CHRIA was willful.
Rather CHRIA mandates - or to put it another way - requires imposition of these statutory damages for any willful violation.
It is up to you to set the amount of damages between $1, 000 and $10, 000 based upon all the evidence of this case. In determining an amount of punitive damages, you must consider whether the County subjectively appreciated the risk of harm to individuals protected by CHRIA. You must not consider whether and to what extent individual class members were harmed by the County's violation.

         The instructions addressed the only open issues at trial: (1) whether Defendants' violations were "willful"; and, (2) what amount of punitive damages should be imposed.

         Defendants contend that the Court's instruction to the jury on the definition of "willful" under the CHRIA was erroneous because it did not accurately reflect the definition of the word under Pennsylvania common law. They further argue that the Court's use of subjective-appreciation-of-the-risk language in its instruction on punitive damages but not in its instruction on willfulness compounded the error in that it inappropriately suggested to the jury ...

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