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Negligent Handling of Property Not Barred by Sovereign Immunity

by David Reutter

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania affirmed a trial court's denial of Stephen Palmer's claim of "conversion" of his personal property by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC). It reversed and remanded his claim of negligent handling of that property.

Palmer, a DOC prisoner, complained that the actions or inactions of John Doe Sergeant, COI Disabiela, Sgt. Myers, John Doe, and Superintendent John Kerestes caused him to lose possession of his personal property. He was involuntarily placed in a restricted housing unit (RHU) for disciplinary reasons. His desk lamp and typewriter ribbons were not properly inventoried or stored, so they were lost.

Palmer's institutional grievances were denied. His suit in the trial court was held to be frivolous. He appealed to the Commonwealth. The court upheld the trial court's sovereign immunity bar of the "conversion" claim. The taking of the property to place a prisoner in RHU constituted "lawful justification for the taking, so sovereign immunity attached. There was also no proof of any intent to deprive him of the property, or to damage it.

The commonwealth did reverse and remand the trial court's denial of Palmer's negligence claims. The record and law proved that the defendants took responsibility for Palmer's property when they placed him in RHU. Policy required that they inventory and store his property. The defendants' failure to adhere to their responsibility resulted in the loss. It was error to apply sovereign immunity because the officials acted outside of their scope of duty.

The commonwealth did find that 42 U.S.C. §1983 was not applicable because deprivation of a prisoner's personal properties not recognized in a §1983 claim. Also, it could not apply to Kerestes, as supervisor, without proof of his personal involvement. No personal involvement was alleged. The course was remanded in part, for further review.

See: Palmer v. Doe, 136 A. 3d IIII (8a Cmwlth, filed 2016) unpublished.

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Related legal case

Palmer v. Doe