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Smith v. City of Pittsburgh

June 12, 1985

LESTER SMITH
v.
CITY OF PITTSBURGH, APPELLANT



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civil No. 82-0453).

Author: Sloviter

Opinion OF THE COURT

SLOVITER, Circuit Judge.

The City of Pittsburgh appeals from the district court's order granting summary judgment and awarding damages to plaintiff Lester Smith on his claim that the City violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by discharging him from his employment without affording proper notice and an adequate opportunity to contest the charges. The merits of Smith's claim present difficult legal issues that we need not reach because we conclude, in light of the Supreme Court's recent decision in Wilson v. Garcia, 471 U.S. 261, 85 L. Ed. 2d 254, 105 S. Ct. 1938, 53 U.S.L.W. 4481 (1985), that Smith's claim was barred by the applicable Pennsylvania statute of limitations.

I.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Lester Smith was a refuse collector for the Department of Environmental Services for the City of Pittsburgh. He was employed under a collective-bargaining agreement that provided for termination only for just cause and subject to resolution of disputes under a grievance-arbitration mechanism. Although the date of Smith's discharge is in dispute, it is undisputed that the City discharged him prior to August 22, 1979 because it concluded that he had fought with a supervisor. Hearings on these allegations had been held on August 15 and 16. The City ultimately sent formal written notice of discharge to Smith on August 21, 1979. No appeal was taken to arbitration.

Smith filed charges of unlawful discrimination on the basis of race with both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. There is no indication in the record of any action by either agency. Smith then filed a sketchy complaint pro se on March 22, 1982 in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania that complained of the termination did not allege racial discrimination. The City responded with a Motion to Dismiss or for a More Definite Statement and the court then appointed counsel for Smith, who filed an amended complaint on November 24, 1982 seeking Smith's reinstatement and backpay. The amended complaint alleged that the process afforded Smith "did not comport with the requirements of the 14th Amendment," and that Smith's discharge was wrongful and the conduct of the City of Pittsburgh violated 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983."*fn1

The City filed a renewed motion to dismiss, contending that the complaint failed to state a claim and was barred by the applicable statute of limitations. The court held a hearing on the City's motion on March 2, 1983, at which it stated it would treat the motion to dismiss as a motion for summary judgment. The parties argued whether Smith had been afforded all process due. Pittsburgh contended that the statute of limitations should be two years for "a denial of due process without any allegations of a breach of contract," and that Smith's complaint, filed more than two years after his dismissal, was untimely.

The court rejected Pittsburgh's claim that the complaint was untimely, holding that Smith's claim was most analogous to a state law claim of unlawful termination of an employment contract and that the applicable Pennsylvania statute of limitations was six years.

In the same order dated May 4, 1983, the district court denied the City's motion to dismiss the due process claim, based on its "undisputed" finding that Smith had been terminated on August 10, prior to the termination hearings of August 15 and 16. The court held that Smith had been unconstitutionally denied a hearing prior to termination and invited a motion for summary judgment from plaintiff. It stated, "The Court, upon motion by Plaintiff's Attorney, will direct the Defendant City of Pittsburgh to conduct a full hearing stating the grounds for its future action concerning Smith's employment. Smith will be granted the opportunity to challenge the action of Defendant via the grievance machinery." App. at 414.

The City then filed an answer to the complaint, asserting that it had in fact given a pre-termination hearing and that, in any event, the grievance-arbitration procedure was available to Smith and provided him with due process. Pittsburgh sent the court a letter the same day, arguing that the court's factual conclusion was erroneous and that Smith had not been discharged prior to the hearings, but only as of receipt of the formal notice of termination after the August 15 and 16 hearings. The city requested that the court therefore reconsider its Opinion of May 4, 1983 after briefing and oral argument.

Smith did not immediately file the summary judgment motion suggested by the court. In an unorthodox procedure, the court then held a lengthy evidentiary hearing which appears to have been designed to resolve the crucial factual dispute, whether Smith was discharged before or or after he was given a hearing by Pittsburgh. Documents were introduced on this issue and both Smith and James Walker, Director of Environmental Services, testified. Smith testifies as to the sequence of events surrounding his discharge and Walker testified, inter alia, that communications addressed to him before Smith's hearing were internal memoranda, intended only as a recommendation that Smith be discharged.

At the hearing, the district court repeatedly interrupted the presentations, stating that Smith had clearly been terminated prior to the hearing. On September 23, 1983, the court released its findings, stating that it had "determined" that,

The evidence is clear beyond any doubt . . . that this man was terminated or discharged prior to his being given a hearing, and when he finally was given a hearing, notice that there was going to be a hearing, the notice didn't indicate any reason, as I could recollect, why he was to be discharged, or why he was to be given a hearing even. . . .

App. at 284. The court found the language of a letter from the Assistant Director to Walker dated August 13 to be so clearly notice of termination that reflected a decision already made, that "no person in his right mind . . . could find any other way," and that the "clear, undisputed evidence in this case was that Lester Smith was not accorded his due process rights."

At the close of this hearing the court again invited the filing of formal motions for summary judgment, together with proposed "findings of fact and conclusions of law," and stated that further hearings would be limited to damages questions. The parties complied with the court's invitation and filed cross motions for summary judgment together with the requested proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law.

In their proposed findings of fact, the parties presented conflicting factual positions regarding the reason for the discharge, the historical facts surrounding the discharge, the meaning of the written memoranda, and the scope of the hearing that Smith was given. Together with its proposed findings of fact, Pittsburgh filed affidavits of its employees supporting its factual position. Despite these conflicting accounts, the court entered summary judgment on liability for Smith. The court again rejected the City's contention that Smith had been given a pre-termination hearing as contrary to "the overwhelming weight of the evidence," and proceeded to decide whether or not his post-termination hearing "cured the defect" and whether the presence or use of the post-termination grievance-arbitration procedure provided adequate due process safeguards. Smith v. City of Pittsburgh, 585 F. Supp. 941 (W.D. Pa. 1984). The court concluded that Smith had a protected property interest in his job, that due process required the opportunity to defend this interest prior to termination, that Smith's collective bargaining agreement could not establish less stringent requisites, and that, in any event, Smith never received adequate notice of the reasons for his dismissal in time to prepare a response. The court concluded that Smith was entitled to judgment as a matter of law" on the undisputed facts." Id. at 948.

Several months later, after holding a hearing on damages, the district court entered an order amending the judgment to award Smith backpay of $66,701.43, subject to reductions relating to health benefits and tax withholding. The ...


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