Philadelphia Inquirer, Pennsylvania
By MARYCLAIRE DALE (Associated Press)
Sep. 13, 2007
[Excerpts] Despite "grave concerns" about the alleged failure of police to arrest an abusive officer who later shot his wife, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday that she cannot seek damages from the officers. Jill Burella did not have a constitutional right to police protection from her husband's abuse, according to a decision by a three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals... The panel, citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent, said in part that state employees have qualified immunity from alleged failures to act, even if they can be sued for overt actions that cause harm. George Burella, a 10-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department, fatally shot himself in January 1999 after shooting his wife in the chest; she survived...
"Although the Philadelphia Police Department's apparent disregard of Jill Burella's numerous pleas for help raises a serious question as to whether this was but one example of a larger pattern of mishandling domestic violence complaints, we cannot agree that the factual allegations and evidence... satisfy the requirements" for relief, the court said...Court: Police guarded by immunity in abuse case
By Kathleen Brady Shea
Fri, Sep. 14, 2007
[Excerpts] ...Joe Grace, a spokesman for Mayor Street, said the city was gratified that the court backed the city's legal analysis... In the suit, originally filed in February 2000, Jill Burella alleged that the Police Department knew her husband had a history of violence and mental problems but consistently failed to take action to protect her...
The suit, which includes the couple's three children as plaintiffs, details a pattern of abuse dating to 1996, including numerous 911 calls...According to the suit, George Burella was twice hospitalized for psychiatric treatment, once after a suicide attempt; was suspended without pay from the police force twice for incidents not related to his wife; and repeatedly violated protection-from-abuse orders, at least twice in the presence of other officers...
I'M DOING THIS FOR JILL, WHEREVER SHE IS:
Excerpted section from Court's 34 page Opinion, Burella v. Philadelphia:
We set forth in some detail the long and protracted history of physical and emotional abuse in this case because it is central to Jill Burella's claim that Philadelphia police officers knew about the abuse, but nevertheless failed to act, thereby violating her due process and equal protection rights.
The abuse began around February 1996, when George Burella was convicted of disorderly conduct for stalking his wife at her workplace and assaulting her male co-worker who he suspected was having an affair with her. One month later, in the face of marital troubles and a severe gambling problem, George Burella attempted suicide. He survived and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital where he was diagnosed with depression.
After her husband was released from the hospital, Jill Burella contacted the Philadelphia Police Department's Employee Assistance Program ("EAP"), which is designed to assist officers in obtaining help with personal problems. The EAP notified the City Medical Department, which placed George Burella on restricted duty and referred him to City doctors for psychological treatment. The doctors eventually cleared him to return to full active duty in August 1996, provided he be evaluated every four months for a period of one year. Jill Burella alleges that the City did not follow up.
George Burella's violence towards his wife continued over the next several years and, in early June 1998, she contacted the Philadelphia Police Department's Internal Affairs Division to report the abuse. Internal Affairs referred the matter to the EAP, which assigned George Burella a peer counselor.
Later that month, on June 26, 1998, George Burella assaulted his wife and another man at a local bar. Witnesses called 911, but George Burella left the bar before police officers arrived. When he got home, he phoned his wife and threatened to shoot their son Nicholas if she did not immediately return to the house. After calling 911, Jill Burella rushed home, where her husband, who was armed with a gun, threatened to shoot her. Before the matter worsened, police officers arrived. George Burella initially refused the officers' order to surrender, but did so after the officer in charge agreed to report the incident as a domestic disturbance, rather than a more serious offense. Officer Robert Reamer, who is named as a defendant in this lawsuit, was one of the officers who arrived at the scene.
After the police officers left, George Burella began beating his wife on their front lawn. Her parents arrived and took her to their house, but George Burella followed them there. Once at her parents' house, she tried to call 911, but her husband wrestled the phone from her and told the operator that he was a police officer and that everything was under control. As a result, the operator did not instruct police to respond to the situation. Three days later, Jill Burella contacted the EAP to report the incident, but because the EAP failed to notify Internal Affairs, the incident was never investigated.
In July 1998, George Burella called his wife at work in Upper Southampton Township and threatened to kill her. After Upper Southampton police officers arrived at her workplace, she received several more threatening phone calls from her husband. The officers called Captain Charles Bloom, George Burella's commanding officer, and a defendant in this lawsuit, to inform him about the incident.
Captain Bloom became directly involved in the situation on August 13, 1998, when Northampton police officers arrested George Burella for assaulting Jill Burella in Bucks County. The officers released George Burella into the custody of Captain Bloom, who escorted him home. Three days later, on August 16, George Burella called his wife while she was visiting his parents with the children and again threatened to kill her. When he went to his parents' house, Northampton police officers responding to an emergency call escorted him to his car, unloaded his firearm, and placed it in the trunk of the car. Shortly thereafter, officers found him driving in the vicinity of the house with his gun re-loaded and placed on the backseat of his car. Officers took him to a local hospital, but he was released shortly thereafter. After being notified of the incident, Captain Bloom ordered George Burella to submit to a psychiatric evaluation.
Later that month, George Burella admitted himself to a psychiatric hospital, but left after four days of treatment. Several days later, City psychologists examined him and concluded that he should be monitored for the next two years. After one follow-up appointment with City doctors in September 1998, he did not return for treatment.
On December 24, 1998, George Burella again assaulted his wife, this time while she was visiting a friend. When Philadelphia police officers arrived, they allowed him to leave with the couple's youngest daughter, and then took Jill Burella and her two other children home, where her husband resumed beating her.
Over the course of the next few weeks, Jill Burella obtained the three protection from abuse orders relevant to this lawsuit. On January 2, 1999, she obtained an emergency ex parte protection from abuse order from the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas that prohibited her husband from "abusing, harassing, stalking and/or threatening" her, and from "living at, entering, attempting to enter or visiting" the couple's home. The order further provided that officers "shall... arrest the defendant if he/she fails to comply with this Order." The next day, Officer Reamer served the order on George Burella, who, according to Jill Burella, immediately violated it by shouting at and threatening her. Despite witnessing the alleged violation, Officer Reamer permitted George Burella to enter the house.
The next day, Jill Burella obtained another temporary protection from abuse order, which essentially repeated the terms set forth in the January 2 order. In addition, the court awarded her temporary custody of the couple's three children, prohibited George Burella from having "any contact" with her, and ordered him to relinquish all guns other than his service weapon, which he was required to turn over to his commanding officer at the end of every shift. The order also stated that "this Order shall be enforced by any law enforcement agency in a county where a violation of this Order occurs."
Later that day, Jill Burella called 911 after she received threatening phone calls from her husband. After officers arrived, and while in their presence, she received several more calls from her husband. The officers told her they could not do anything unless her husband was physically present. When Jill Burella called the police the next day, again they told her that nothing could be done unless her husband was physically present at her house.
On January 8, 1999, Jill Burella obtained a final order of protection. Four days later, following an appointment with a psychiatrist at the City Medical Department, George Burella went to the house he formerly shared with his wife and shot her in the chest. He then immediately shot and killed himself. Although she suffered serious injuries, Jill Burella survived the shooting.
In February 2000, Jill Burella filed a complaint in Pennsylvania state court against Officer Reamer, Captain Bloom, and Captain Bloom's successor, Francis Gramlich, along with the City of Philadelphia and Dr. Warren Zalut, the City psychiatrist who saw George Burella on the day of the shooting. After the case was removed to federal district court, she filed an eight-count amended complaint asserting various federal constitutional and state law claims. The officers and the City moved for summary judgment on all counts asserted against them. This appeal concerns solely the District Court's summary judgment ruling that the officers are not entitled to qualified immunity with respect to Jill Burella's due process (Count I) and equal protection (Count IV) claims...
(Above artwork, Rubber Man, is from the artist Kreg Yingst)