New opinion — township officials violated their constituents’ First Amendment rights but win on qualified-immunity grounds

Mirabella v. Villard — civil — reversal — Restrepo

A husband and wife, both lawyers, got into a dispute with their neighbors and tried to get their local government officials to help them. When the township didn’t do what the couple asked, they sent the board an email that said the board’s refusal put them “in the position of having to sue neighbors” and “the Township will be an indispensable party in this litigation.” The then-chair of the township board (he’s since become a county judge) thereafter told the couple, “Please never contact me, the Board of Supervisors or the Township employees directly. . . . The dye is caste.” The couple sued the township and the supervisors, alleging First Amendment retaliation and right-to-petition claims, and the district court denied the defendants qualified immunity.

Today, the Third Circuit reversed, holding that while the couple adequately pled both retaliation and right-to-petition claims, neither right had been clearly established. The court quoted prior precedent that “‘defining constitutional rights and only then conferring immunity … is sometimes beneficial to clarify the legal standards governing public officials.”

Joining Restrepo were Fuentes and Shwartz. Arguing counsel were Harry Mahoney of Deasey Mahoney & Valentini for the defendants and John Mirabella for himself and his wife in a rare grant of oral argument to a pro se litigant.

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