PITTSBURGH - The ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit today on behalf of a Greensburg man and his former attorney, who were sued by the city of Greensburg in retaliation for pursuing an unsuccessful federal civil rights case against the city and four of its police officers. The lawsuit claims that the city’s actions violate the Petition Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which protects an individual’s right to sue the government. Reed Smith LLP worked with the ACLU on a pro bono basis in filing the case.
In June 2012, plaintiff Edward F. Wisneski, represented by his attorney, Robert M. Owsiany, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Greensburg and four of its police officers alleging excessive use of force after he was struck with a Taser, punched in the face, and forcibly removed from his vehicle during the course of an arrest on July 4, 2010. The court dismissed his case in April.
Instead of seeking attorney’s fees and costs in the federal court case, as it could have requested under the law, the city of Greensburg filed a new lawsuit against both Wisneski and Owsiany in the Court of Common Pleas for Westmoreland County. The city claimed, without any factual basis, that the federal civil rights case constituted abuse of process and wrongful use of civil proceedings under Pennsylvania law.
The new lawsuit forces Wisneski and Owsiany to incur the burden and expense of defending themselves against Greensburg’s claims.
City officials have said that their purpose in filing the lawsuit is to deter others from filing similar suits. The city solicitor threatened another lawyer with a similar lawsuit if he filed a civil-rights suit against the City on behalf of his client.
“If the city of Greenburg’s lawsuit against our clients is allowed to proceed, it would set a very dangerous precedent. Individuals whose civil rights have been violated will be reluctant to exercise their constitutional right to file a lawsuit, as they face the risk that the city will use its vast resources to retaliate against them if they are unsuccessful,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
“Moreover, these individuals will likely be unable to find lawyers to represent them, as most private lawyers would not take these cases if they risk being subject to suit themselves,” he added.
The lawsuit argues that the First Amendment bars governmental entities from filing lawsuits against individuals who have sued them for civil-rights violations because of the risk that such suits will chill people from exercising their right to petition the government. It asks the court to prohibit Greensburg from proceeding with its lawsuit against Wisneski and Owsiany.
“The driving force behind the city’s lawsuit against our clients is to punish them for filing a civil rights action against the police and deter others from filing similar suits,” said Kathleen Nandan, an attorney at Reed Smith who is representing Owsiany and Wisneski pro bono.
Sarah Hansel, another Reed Smith attorney on the case added, “This is designed to prevent citizens from exercising their constitutional rights. We are filing this case to ensure that everyone has access to the judicial system without fear of intimidation or retaliation.”
The case is Owsiany v. City of Greensburg. Wisneski and Owsiany are represented by Sara Rose and Witold Walczak of the ACLU-PA and Kathleen Nandan and Sarah Hansel of the international law firm Reed Smith.
More information, including a copy of the lawsuit, can be found at: www.aclupa.org/owsiany