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Laskaris v. Thornburgh

April 24, 1984

PETER J. LASKARIS APPELLANT
v.
RICHARD THORNBURGH, GOVERNOR OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, THOMAS LARSON, SECRETARY OF THE PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION, DENNIS HILTON AND REPRESENTATIVE JOHN PETERSON, RICHARD THORNBURGH, THOMAS LARSON AND JOHN PETERSON, APPELLEES; MICHAEL SKAPURA APPELLANT V. RICHARD THORNBURGH, GOVERNOR OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, THOMAS LARSON, SECRETARY OF THE PENNSYLVANIA DEPT. OF TRANSPORTATION, JOHN HARHIGH, DIRECTOR OF BUREAU OF PERSONNEL, JAMES I. SCHEINER, DEPUTY SECRETARY FOR ADMINISTRATION OF THE PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION, ALL IN BOTH THEIR OFFICIAL AND INDIVIDUAL CAPACITIES, RICHARD THORNBURGH, THOMAS LARSON AND JAMES I. SCHEINER, APPELLEES



On Appeal From The United States District Court For The Western District Of Pennsylvania.

Adams and Garth, Circuit Judges and Cohen, District Judge.*fn* Adams, Circuit Judge, dissenting.

Author: Garth

Opinion OF THE COURT

GARTH, Circuit Judge:

In this case appellants Peter J. Laskaris and Michael Skapura contend that they were improperly denied a jury trial on their claims that they were unlawfully discharged because of their political affiliation. We hold that Laskaris and Skapura's claims for compensatory and punitive damages entitled them to a jury trial. The district court's failure to award a jury trial, however, was harmless, because the evidence produced at trial was insufficient to avoid a directed verdict in favor of the defendants. Thus we affirm.

I.

Laskaris and Skapura were employees of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT). Laskaris began his job as a Personnel Analyst 2, Labor Relations Coordinator in 1974. Skapura became Director of Municipal Services, Administrative Officer 3 in 1971. Each was discharged on August 15, 1979, about eight months after defendant Richard Thornburgh took office as Governor of Pennsylvania.

Laskaris (on Nov. 6, 1980) and Skapura (on July 24, 1981) brought suit in federal district court under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985 (1976),*fn1 alleging that they were discharged because of their political affiliation. They contended that defendants Thornburgh, Thomas Larson (Secretary of PennDOT), James Scheiner (Deputy Secretary), and John Peterson*fn2 (a Pennsylvania State Representative), who were Republicans, were responsible for the discharge of Laskaris and Skapura, and acted because Laskaris and Skapura were Democrats. (John Harhigh, Personnel Director at PennDOT, was also named a defendant in the initial complaints, but he was dismissed by consent of all parties at the beginning of the trial). They sought, inter alia, reinstatement, back pay, and compensatory and punitive damages.

The defendants moved to dismiss on the ground that the eleventh amendment to the U.S. Constitution immunized them from suit. The district court granted the motion to dismiss, but this court reversed and remanded for trial. Laskaris v. Thornburgh, 661 F.2d 23 (3d Cir. 1981).

On August 31, 1982, the district court granted defendants' motion to strike Laskaris and Skapura's demand for a jury trial. The case proceeded to trial without a jury. After Laskaris and Skapura had presented their evidence, the court granted Governor Thornburgh's motion to dismiss under Fed. R. Civ. P. 41(b) on the ground that upon the facts and the law the plaintiffs had shown no right to relief against him. The other defendants also filed Rule 41(b) motions, which the court held in abeyance until the close of trial.

After trial, the court granted Representative Peterson's 41(b) motion, and held Larson and Scheiner not liable under sections 1983 and 1985. The court adopted Larson and Scheiner's findings of fact and conclusions of law. It held that Laskaris and Skapura had failed to demonstrate that their political affiliation was a motivating factor in the decision by Larson and Scheiner to dismiss them. Rather, the court found, Laskaris and Skapura were discharged as part of an overall reorganization of PennDOT. The court found that their dismissal was motivated by a desire to improve PennDOT's operations and not for any political reasons. Moreover, the court found, there was no evidence that either Governor Thornburgh or Representative Peterson participated in the dismisal decision. Thus the court entered judgment for all defendants.*fn3 Laskaris v. Thornburgh, No. 80-178 (W.D. Pa. Jan. 27, 19983); Skapura v. Thornburgh, No. 81-168 (W.D. Pa. Jan. 27, 1983).

II.

Laskaris and Skapura sought compensatory or punitive damages in addition to their requests for back pay, reinstatement and declaratory and injunctive relief. A party seeking compensatory and punitive damages or other legal relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 has a right to a jury trial. Edwards v. Boeing Vertol Co., 717 F.2d 761, 763 (3d Cir. 1983); see Curtis v. Loether, 415 U.S. 189, 194, 39 L. Ed. 2d 260, 94 S. Ct. 1005 (1974) (42 U.S.C. § 3612). This is true even though the claim is based upon the same facts that support equitable claims. Edwards, 717 F.2d at 763. Thus, although the request for back pay under section 1983 seeks only equitable relief, Gurmankin v. Costanzo, 626 F.2d 1115, 1122-23 (3d Cir. 1980), a claim for compensatory and punitive damages is a legal claim entitling the plaintiff to a jury trial. E.g., Dolence v. Flynn, 628 F.2d 1280, 1282 (10th Cir. 1980) (per curiam) (citing cases). See Moore v. Sun Oil Co., 636 F.2d 154 (6th Cir. 1980).

Thornburgh et al. argue that even if this is true, Laskaris and Skapura's claims for compensatory and punitive relief must be supported in order to entitle them to a jury trial. They cite Hildebrand v. Board of Trustees, 607 F.2d 705 (6th Cir. 1979), and Lynch v. Pan American World Airways, 475 F.2d 764, 765 (5th Cir. 1983), as support for this proposition. Hildebrand held that when it appears prior to trial that no genuine issue of material fact exists with respect to damages, there is no right to a jury trial on those ...


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