On April 4, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit decided the case of Mirabella v. Villard, et al., a civil rights case brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging, inter alia, violations of their First Amendment rights by local officials. Although the Court of Appeals concluded that the Mirabellas adequately alleged both a retaliation claim and a violation of their right to petition, it concluded that the rights allegedly violated “were not clearly established for the purpose of qualified immunity.” The Court of Appeal reversed the District Court’s ruling on the local officials motion to dismiss with instruction to enter judgment in their favor.
The Mirabellas alleged that the management of a public wetlands controversy by members of the Montgomery Township, Pennsylvania, Board of Supervisors amounted to a violation of their constitutional rights. The Mirabellas had petitioned their local government for assistance in resolving a contentious dispute with their neighbors regarding the wetlands abutting their properties and, at the same time, threatened the local government with litigation. At some point, they were barred from communicating directly with any members of the local government other than through the Township’s counsel. Moreover, they were instructed that if they filed a lawsuit in response, then the officials would move the court to impose sanctions on the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs complained that these actions were unconstitutional, and sought redress in a Section 1983 action.
The District Court dismissed most of their complaint, but agreed that the constitutional violations could be heard, and denied qualified immunity to two of the local supervisors.
The Court of Appeals agreed that the local officials actions adversely affected the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights to petition their government, and to be free of any retaliatory action, but also held that the officials were nevertheless entitled to qualified immunity because the rights allegedly violated were not clearly established. The District Court’s ruling was set aside, and the Court of Appeals remanded the matter to the lower court to enter judgment in favor of the local government officials.