Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Dismissal of State-Created Danger Claim Reversed

Dismissal of State-Created Danger Claim Reversed

by David M. Reutter

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court’s order dismissing a civil rights action that alleged the disclosure of a confidential informant’s status established a state-created danger in violation of his due process rights.

The suit at issue was filed by the estate of Frank P. Lagano, who was fatally shot on April 12, 2007 in front of a diner in East Brunswick, New Jersey. The complaint argued that the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office (BCPO) and former BCPO Chief of Detectives Michael Mordaga were liable because BCPO employees had improperly revealed to members of organized crime that Logano was an informant, and that disclosure led to Logano’s murder.

The New Jersey federal district court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the suit. On appeal, the Third Circuit addressed each of the lower court’s alternative theories to support the dismissal.

The first theory was that neither the BCPO nor Mordaga were “persons” amenable to suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, § 1985 or the New Jersey Civil Rights Act (NJCRA). Precedent held that local government bodies and their officials are “persons” under § 1983 and § 1985, while state agencies and officials acting in their official capacity are not.

The district court found that the “BCPO was acting within its classical function of investigating criminal activities and conducting criminal prosecutions in respect to Mr. Lagano,” and that Mordaga was acting in his official capacity as the Chief of Detectives for BCPO, a state agency. That rationale, the Third Circuit held on October 15, 2014, was erroneous in light of the factual allegations in the case.

The alleged facts indicated Lagano and Mordaga had a personal relationship. It could be inferred “that Mordaga was not performing classic investigatory and prosecutorial functions when he urged Lagano to retain a specific attorney on the assurance that this attorney could make Lagano’s [legal] problems disappear,” the appellate court wrote. The “disclosure of Lagano’s status as a confidential informant was unrelated to any lawful investigative or prosecutorial function.” As such, those allegations supported a state-created danger claim that BCPO and Mordaga did not act exclusively in classic law enforcement and investigative functions, making dismissal improper. Additionally, Mordaga was sued in his individual capacity; for the same reasons, the NJCRA claim was improperly dismissed.

As to BCPO’s claim of sovereign immunity, the Third Circuit remanded that issue for the district court to decide 1) whether payment for any judgment would come from the state; 2) the status of the agency under state law; and 3) what degree of autonomy the agency has.

The Court of Appeals then turned to the defendants’ qualified immunity defense. While there is generally no liberty interest in requiring the state to affirmatively protect its citizens, such a claim may proceed if the four prongs of the state-created danger theory are proven. Lagano’s estate met that burden by alleging he was murdered as a result of the defendants or their agents disclosing his status as a confidential informant to members of organized crime families.

On the final issue, the Third Circuit held the estate’s claim of an illegal search and seizure of Lagano’s home in December 2004 was barred by the two-year statute of limitations for such claims. The district court’s judgment was affirmed in part and vacated and remanded in part. See: Estate of Lagano v. Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office,769 F.3d 850 (3d Cir. 2014).

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Estate of Lagano v. Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office