A Black attorney and former NFL player was forcibly arrested and hauled into court wearing shackles where he was eventually forced to settle a civil lawsuit or remain behind bars, a federal lawsuit claims.
Walter Bernard is a Pittsburgh-area attorney who alleged that on May 3, he was wrongly arrested, forcibly removed from his residence in front of his neighbors, and then imprisoned for a day at the behest of Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge Philip A. Ignelzi, according to the 30-page lawsuit filed in Pennsylvania federal court.
The complaint alleges numerous and ongoing violations of the attorney’s – and his family’s – civil and constitutional rights.
“Attorney Bernard was startled when multiple officers converged onto [his and his brother’s] residence and began continuously banging on [their] front door,” the lawsuit reads. “Attorney Bernard was threatened that if he didn’t open his front door, in a timely fashion that ‘the situation was going to get worse.’ During the unexpected visit to [Bernard’s] residence, a law enforcement officer even left a voicemail on Attorney Bernard’s personal cellphone that if Attorney Bernard didn’t come to the door, Attorney Bernard was going to jail.”
Eventually, because he feared for his family’s and his own safety due to the armed law enforcement agents, the Black lawyer opened the door in order to deescalate the situation, the lawsuit says.
“Attorney Bernard was subsequently arrested in front of neighbors, humiliated and placed in the back of a marked law enforcement vehicle,” the filing goes on. “Attorney Bernard was arrested without law enforcement providing a copy of a warrant and the only explanation that was given to him by law enforcement as to his arrest was: ‘the Judge just wanted to see you.’ Attorney Bernard, without having breakfast nor taking his necessary medication pursuant to his medical needs was immediately transported, jailed, and placed in a cell with approximately five (5) other individuals for a substantial part of the morning.”
Hours later, the lawsuit says, the attorney was “shackled and paraded through the courthouse hallways” and then taken before the judge.
“While still in shackles, Attorney Bernard was brought before Judge Ignelzi and was ridiculed for not opening his residential door quickly enough for the numerous deputies as they knocked outside,” the lawsuit reads. “Additionally, Judge Ignelzi scorned and blamed Attorney Bernard for almost getting himself hurt. He also scorned and reprimanded Attorney Bernard for potentially causing harm to the sheriff deputies. Judge Ignelzi confirmed that there were discussions with the Sheriff’s Department that an approval of a break in order into [the Bernard] residence almost occurred.”
While before the judge, the attorney was then given an ultimatum with two choices, according to the lawsuit. He could either agree to settle a case that was then on appeal before a Keystone State appellate court “in an amount that the opposing counsel had pre-determined with no ability to negotiate [and] without his client being present” or he could disclose sensitive financial information to opposing counsel in the case, the lawsuit says. Ignelzi allegedly gave Bernard 15 minutes to make his decision – or he would be locked up again.
The underlying matter, Bernard’s lawsuit explains, was a landlord-tenant dispute in which his and his brother’s escape room business was unable to host customers or pay rent during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Bernard, that yearslong legal battle had reached a tentative conclusion – with judgment in favor of the landlord – but extant financial considerations, due to a financial credit awarded to the tenant, were on appeal before a higher court.
The upshot of that pending landlord-tenant matter was that Ignelzi had no jurisdiction in the matter, the lawsuit says. What’s more, Bernard claims, Ignelzi knew “or should have known” that he did not have any jurisdiction in the matter because it was on appeal.
The lawsuit explains that the matter came before Ignelzi when the landlord’s counsel filed a separate motion for sanctions – which the judge then set for a hearing. Bernard claims he tried, in vain, to stay that sanctions hearing pending the results of the appellate court’s ultimate decision on the final financial dispute.
The federal lawsuit also alleges that efforts by Bernard, who is Black, to ascertain clarity from the lower court were ignored for weeks while the landlord’s “White male” attorney was able to have one of his motions dispensed with in less than 24 hours – adding a distinct racial dimension to the claims against the white judge.
“You may not like it, but it is very just,” the judge allegedly told the still-shackled Bernard at one point during the hearing in the Allegheny County courtroom – in response to complaints from the attorney that what was happening was unjust and unconstitutional, the lawsuit says.
Eventually, after several such interactions, Bernard says he agreed to provide the demanded financial information.
“Requiring an Attorney to settle a case on behalf of his client within 15 minutes while under the stress and duress of wearing handcuffs is not a judicial act normally performed by a judicial officer in civil court,” the lawsuit says.
Bernard, however, did not provide Ignelzi with those financial documents, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.
In turn, Ignelzi issued a bench warrant for the lawyer’s arrest in late May. Bernard was taken into custody again on Aug. 9 – during a hearing to determine the final judgment amount in his and his brother’s underlying landlord-tenant controversy.
Chained up again, Bernard told the paper, he finally agreed to settle the lawsuit under the terms the opposing counsel set.
“I wrote a personal check for $80,000 while wearing the red jumpsuit and both my hands and feet shackled,” Bernard told the Post-Gazette. “I felt it was going to keep getting worse. My family has been living in fear since May and my concern is safety.”
The filing alleges ten separate causes of action – including violations of the First, Fourth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as several Section 1983 civil rights claims, defamation, and intention infliction of emotional distress. The lawsuit seeks damages, attorney’s fees, and three separate court orders that would prohibit the judge from repeating any of the alleged behavior taken against the lawyer.
Bernard and Ignelzi have also filed dueling ethical complaints against one another with Pennsylvania’s state judicial conduct board and attorney licensing and disciplining board, respectively.
Law&Crime reached out to the Fifth Judicial District of Pennsylvania in the County of Allegheny for comment on this story but no response was immediately forthcoming at the time of publication.
Initially filed in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the case was transferred to the Western District of Pennsylvania on Aug. 15.
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