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Czurlanis v. Albanese

decided: November 9, 1983.

JOHN CZURLANIS, APPELLANT
v.
GEORGE J. ALBANESE, UNION COUNTY MANAGER, JAMES F. DELANEY, DIRECTOR OF DEPT. OF CENTRAL SERVICES OF UNION COUNTY, TONY BONJAVONNI, DIRECTOR OF MOTOR VEHICLES OF UNION COUNTY, LOUIS DEVICO, DIRECTOR OF MOTOR VEHICLES OF UNION COUNTY, JAMES H. CARLIN, PERSONNEL DIRECTOR OF UNION COUNTY, AND BOARD OF CHOSEN FREEHOLDERS OF UNION COUNTY



On Appeal from the United States District Court of the District of New Jersey.

Seitz, Chief Judge, Sloviter, Circuit Judge, and Lord, District Judge.*fn*

Author: Sloviter

Opinion OF THE COURT

SLOVITER, Circuit Judge.

I.

John Czurlanis, an employee of Union County, New Jersey, appeals from the denial of his motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. He contends that the defendants, the Board of Chosen Freeholders of Union County and certain present and former officials of Union County, violated his rights to freedom of speech. We conclude that Czurlanis' rights were violated as a matter of law, and therefore remand this case to the district court to determine damages proximately caused thereby.

II.

Czurlanis began to work for Union County in 1971 as an auto mechanic and was later promoted to the position of senior mechanic. He was both a citizen and taxpayer of Union County, and often attended public meetings of the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders ("Board"). Until May 1, 1976, the Board, which consists of nine elected officials, was the governing body of Union County and had both administrative and legislative responsibility. In November 1974 there was a change in the form of government, which was completed by May 1, 1976.

Under the new form of government the chief executive officer is a County Manager who is responsible for the day to day operation of the County government, while the Board has a general policymaking role. Defendant George J. Albanese was the County Manager during the relevant time period. As part of the County's reorganization, the County's Administrative Code was revised to establish what defendants have referred to as a "chain-of-command" policy. They rely on Article 10 of the Code, which provides:

1. Separation of Powers. The Board of Chosen Freeholders shall deal with County employees only through the County Manager, as the official responsible for the over-all executive management of the County's affairs. All contact with County administration of the County's government and provision of services, shall be through the County Manager, except as otherwise provided herein.

Nothing in this Code shall be construed to prohibit the Board's inquiry into any act or problem of the County's administration. Any Freeholder may require a report on any aspect of the government of the County at any time by making a written request to the County Manager. The Board may, by majority vote of the whole number of its members, require the County Manager to appear before the Board sitting as a Committee of the Whole, and to bring before the Board such records and reports, and such officials and employees of the County, as the Board shall deem necessary to insure clarification of the matter under study.

The Board further may, by majority vote of the whole number of its members, delegate any number of its members as an ad hoc committee to consult with the County Manager to study any matter and to report to the Board thereon.

It is the intent herein to vest in the Board such general legislative and such investigative powers as are germane to the exercise of its legislative powers, but to retain in the County Manager full control over the County administration and over the administration of County services.

Another aspect of the County's reorganization involved the creation of the Division of Motor Vehicles into which most motor vehicle operations were consolidated. On September 17, 1977, defendant Tony Bonjavonni was appointed its Director; defendant Louis DeVico was appointed Secretary to the Director.

On September 22, 1977, Czurlanis addressed a public meeting of the Board and made allegations concerning inefficiency, false reports, duplication, and unnecessary work on and parts for vehicles under the jurisdiction of the Division of Motor Vehicles in which he worked. He illustrated his remarks by reviewing in detail several work orders: one described the service as including inspection of a generator, its removal for testing, and its rebuilding on a vehicle that Czurlanis pointed out has no generator; it also referred to removal and testing of a Bendex spring on a vehicle part that Czurlanis explained had no Bendex spring. He also questioned the qualifications of the newly appointed Director of Motor Vehicles and the Secretary to the Director, whom he did not identify by name. He stated that the new Secretary had been the foreman in charge when the work orders in question were made.

Four days after Czurlanis' remarks at the meeting, he was transferred from the Westfield, New Jersey garage, which he had helped to orgnize and where he had worked since being hired in 1971, to what he considered a less desirable garage in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Defendant James F. Delaney, Director of the County's Central Services, initiated disciplinary action against Czurlanis seeking a 30-day suspension. After a departmental hearing, defendant James H. Carlin, County Personnel Director, found Czurlanis "guilty of a serious breach of discipline by his action on September 22, 1977 [at the Board meeting]" because "Czurlanis violated management procedures and good discipline by failing to present his complaints to his immediate supervisor and then proceeding through administrative levels to the County Manager if still dissatisfied with the handling of his complaint." Carlin recommended, and County Manager Albanese approved, a suspension without pay for 10 days instead of for 30 days as requested.

On March 22, 1979, Czurlanis again spoke at a public meeting of the Board. He suggested that a County practice of making facilities and personnel available to nonprofit organizations constituted involuntary charitable contributions by County taxpayers; he questioned the purpose of a resolution concerning a proposed cap on tax increases; he deplored a County practice of having its trucks wait in line for long periods to get stone or asphalt for repairs and made suggestions for correcting the problem; he criticized the design of the Road Department Garage in Scotch Plains and of a new garage extension; he proposed that the cause of water marks on the ceiling of the new County Administration Building should be corrected at the builder's rather than the taxpayers' expense; and he commented on the stabilization of tax rates in the County.

On April 16, 1979, Delaney wrote to Czurlanis that he would seek his dismissal because, inter alia, at the March 22, 1979 meeting Czurlanis "approached the Board . . . and presented administrative business directly to the Board rather than follow the chain of command." After a departmental hearing, Carlin again found that "by bringing department, management and operational procedure complaints and suggestions directly to the Public Meetings of the Board of Chosen Freeholders, Mr. Czurlanis violated management procedures and good discipline by his failure of proceeding through Administrative levels and then to the County ...


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