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HUFF v. COUNTY OF BUTLER

October 26, 1981

George F. HUFF, Plaintiff,
v.
COUNTY OF BUTLER and Merl T. Roth, Leon Gant, Jr. and James A. Green, County Commissioners, and Robert W. Cyphert, Clerk of County of Butler, Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: ZIEGLER

I. History of Case

Plaintiff, George Huff, alleges that on or about March 29, 1977, he was hired by Butler County as Purchasing Director. The job involved supervision of the Purchasing Department, as well as procurement of materials and supplies, and inventory control. Plaintiff contends that he was periodically evaluated in accordance with the policy of Butler County, was found to be satisfactory, and remained in position until October 3, 1980.

 On that date, the events which spawned this lawsuit began to unfold. Robert W. Cyphert allegedly appeared at plaintiff's office and, purporting to act on behalf of the County Commissioners and Butler County, presented Huff with an ultimatum: either to resign immediately or be fired. The reason given, according to plaintiff, was that a female employee under plaintiff's supervision had made several complaints of harassment by Huff, and a second female employee had lodged a complaint of "sexual harassment" against him. *fn1" Cyphert also allegedly told Huff that the County desired to avoid problems with "Federal Auditors," and thereupon gave plaintiff the option of resigning voluntarily, or being fired without unemployment compensation benefits. No hearing was held on the charges.

 Huff asserts that, although the charges were false, he signed a letter of resignation, particularly because he feared the loss of unemployment compensation. A letter of resignation, marked here as plaintiff's exhibit 1, was drafted and signed, specifically stating that, "I do not agree to the charges that have caused this resignation."

 Plaintiff claims that soon after his forced resignation, sordid rumors and innuendos circulated throughout the community, to the effect that Huff had been dismissed for "sexual harassment." Stories also circulated that he had propositioned or made lewd advances to female employees under his supervision. Huff avers that publication of these charges, as well as their distortion, was caused by defendants.

 Plaintiff instituted this civil action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 *fn2" asserting that, because the accusations which led to his forced resignation were damaging to his character and reputation, he was entitled to notice and a hearing before being compelled to resign. Huff contends that defendants deprived him of his constitutional right to liberty without procedural due process, and now seeks reinstatement, damages, and an opportunity for a full hearing.

 Currently before the court is the motion of defendants to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Defendants argue that plaintiff has failed to demonstrate a property interest in his employment, and thus is without the guaranty of procedural due process as embodied in the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. For the reasons elucidated below, we will deny the motion of defendants because plaintiff has stated a cognizable claim under § 1983 and the Fourteenth Amendment.

 II. Discussion

 A property interest has been found to exist where by statute, rule, or contract, an employee may be discharged only for cause. Arnett v. Kennedy, 416 U.S. 134, 94 S. Ct. 1633, 40 L. Ed. 2d 15 (1974). A constitutionally protected property interest has not been recognized where an employee serves at the will and pleasure of a public employer. Bishop v. Wood, 426 U.S. 341, 343-347, 96 S. Ct. 2074, 2076-2078, 48 L. Ed. 2d 684 (1976).

 In the instant matter, it is clear that Huff has no property interest in the employment position from which he was allegedly forced to resign. Under Pennsylvania law, a public employee, such as plaintiff, "takes his job subject to the possibility of summary removal by the employing authority. He is essentially an employee-at-will." Scott v. Philadelphia Parking Authority, 402 Pa. 151, 154, 166 A.2d 278, 280 (1960); Marino v. Bowers, 483 F. Supp. 765, 770 (E.D.Pa.1980). *fn3"

 Because plaintiff was a non-contractual, at-will employee of the County of Butler, we find no right to continued employment which could constitute a property interest. Thus, we agree with defendants that Huff may not contend that his "property" was denied without due process of law.

 However this has never been plaintiff's contention. Plaintiff specifically alleges in his complaint that his forced resignation, amidst accusations of "sexual harassment," operates to deprive him of his "liberty" without due process "in that the accusations were stigmatizing and damaging to his character and reputation in the community." *fn4" We conclude that plaintiff has stated a valid cause of action under the Civil Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment, in alleging that he has been denied liberty without due process of law.

 The Supreme Court has decreed two ways in which an employee's Fourteenth Amendment liberty interest may be implicated, thus triggering the guarantees of procedural due process. First, entitlement to a hearing accrues if, in making a decision to terminate employment, charges are made which might seriously damage the employee's standing and association in the community. Board of Regents of State Colleges v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 573, 92 S. Ct. 2701, 2707, 33 L. Ed. 2d 548 (1972). Second, the safeguards of the due process clause attach if the state, in dismissing the employee, "imposed upon him a stigma or other disability that foreclosed his freedom to take advantage of other employment opportunities." Id. As the Court stated in Roth:

 
The State, in declining to rehire the respondent, did not make any charge against him that might seriously damage his standing and associations in his community. It did not base the non-renewal of his contract on a charge, for example, that he had been guilty of dishonesty, or immorality. Had it done so, this would be a different case. For "(w)here a person's good name, reputation, honor, or integrity is at ...

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