Can You File a Civil Rights Action Against the District Attorney ?

In Pettit v. Namie, A.2d, Pa. Cmwlth (filed, August 10, 2007) Frederick Brilla filed a civil rights action against district attorney Pettit alleging that Pettit unlawfully deprived him of his property. A jury returned a verdict finding Pettit liable for violating Brilla's constitutional rights by depriving him of the use of his property. The jury awarded no compensatory fees, $ 1.00 in nominal damages and $ 100,000 in punitive damages finding that Pettit acted "maliciously or in reckless or callous disregard of, or indifference to" Brilla's constitutional rights. Thereafter, Pettit sought reimbursement from the County and its Board of Commissioners (Collectively, County). Although the Washington Commissioners voted to indemnify Pettit, the County Controller advised them that he was denying payment to Pettit. Pettit then filed a complaint in mandamus and for declaratory judgment. Ultimately, the trial court granted Pettit's motion for summary judgment with respect to his claim for declaratory relief and determined that County was required to indemnify Pettit for the judgment entered against him in Brilla's federal civil rights action and that County was required to reimburse Pettit for reasonable attorney's fees and costs incurred in pursuing post-trial motions and appeals in federal court. On appeal, the Court affirmed. This court observed that, pursuant to 42 Pa. C.S. 8548(a), when an action is brought against an employee of an agency, the employee is entitled to indemnification unless his acts are judicially determined to be crimes, actual fraud, actual malice or willful misconduct, 42 Pa. C.S. 8550. This court concluded that the jury verdict that Pettit's conduct was in reckless disregard of the plaintiff's rights and was "malicious, wanton or oppressive" was not the equivalent of willful misconduct. In addition, the award of punitive damages was also insufficient to establish willful misconduct such that Pettit was entitled to indemnification. The Court also determined that 42 Pa. C.S. 8547 obligates an agency to reimburse an employee, acting in his capacity as a public officer, for legal expenses incurred in defending a claim.