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BURNS v. COUNTY OF CAMBRIA

June 4, 1991

EUGENE BURNS, JOHN MUTSKO, ROY PLUMMER, LOUIS BEAUJON, RON SNYDER AND EVELYN ARDINI, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
COUNTY OF CAMBRIA, PENNSYLVANIA; CAMBRIA COUNTY SALARY BOARD; JOSEPH P. ROBERTS, RON STEPHENSON AND T.T. METZGER, JR., INDIVIDUALLY AND AS CAMBRIA COUNTY BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS AND MEMBERS OF CAMBRIA COUNTY SALARY BOARD; ROBERT MCCORMICK, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS CAMBRIA COUNTY CONTROLLER AND MEMBER OF THE CAMBRIA COUNTY SALARY BOARD; THOMAS BURNS, INDIVIDUALLY, AND ACTING SHERIFF AND MEMBER OF THE SALARY BOARD OF CAMBRIA COUNTY; JAY ROBERTS, INDIVIDUALLY, AND AS SHERIFF OF CAMBRIA COUNTY; LAUREL CREST MANOR; WENDELL P. DAVIS, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS ADMINISTRATOR OF LAUREL CREST MANOR; AND JEFFREY SAINTZ, INDIVIDUALLY, AND AS PERSONNEL DIRECTOR OF CAMBRIA COUNTY; DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lee, District Judge.

    MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiffs have filed a Complaint alleging that the defendants conspired to discharge them from their respective employment positions for exercising their rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution of the United States. Plaintiffs, Eugene Burns (Burns), John Mutsko (Mutsko), Roy Plummer (Plummer), and Louis Beaujon*fn1 (Beaujon) were Deputy Sheriffs of Cambria County. Plaintiff, Ron Snyder (Snyder), was employed as a clerk/investigator*fn2 in the Cambria County Public Defender's Office, but his wages were paid by the Cambria County Sheriff Department. Plaintiff, Evelyn Ardini (Ardini), was employed as a paramedic, and coordinator of patient transportation for defendant, Laurel Crest Manor (Laurel Crest), an agency of Cambria County.

At Count I of the Complaint, the plaintiffs have alleged that their respective employments were terminated because they opposed, and/or failed to support the candidacy of defendant, Jay Roberts, for County Sheriff.

At Count IV*fn3 of the Complaint, Ardini has alleged defendants refused to grant her individual pre-termination hearings, on the issue of her discharge, in violation of her procedural due process rights under the Fourteenth amendment.

At Count V, Ardini has alleged she was terminated and replaced with a man, and she was constantly subjected to sexually discriminatory remarks from defendants and defendants' agents.

The defendants have moved for summary judgment pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. For the reasons below stated, defendants' motions shall be granted in part and denied in part.

In interpreting Rule 56(c), the United States Supreme Court in Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986) has ruled that:

  "The plain language . . . mandates entry of
  summary judgment, after adequate time for
  discovery and upon motion, against a party who
  fails to make a showing sufficient to establish
  the existence of an element essential to that
  party's case, and on which that party will bear
  the burden of proof at trial. In such a
  situation, there can be `no genuine issue as to
  any material fact,' since a complete failure of
  proof concerning an essential element of the
  non-moving party's case necessarily renders all
  other facts immaterial." Celotex, 477 U.S. at
  322-323, 106 S.Ct. at 2552.

An issue of material fact is "genuine" only if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Incorporated, 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). The moving party bears the initial burden of identifying for the Court those portions of the record which it believes demonstrate the absence of a material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323, 106 S.Ct. at 2552-53. To overcome the movant's assertion that there is no material issue of fact, the opposing party must point to specific evidence. Williams v. Borough of West Chester, 891 F.2d 458, 463-64 (3d Cir. 1989).

FACTS

Eugene Burns, among others, opposed defendant Jay Roberts in the 1985 Democratic Primary for Cambria County Sheriff. At that time, Burns was employed as a deputy sheriff of Cambria County. Burns placed second in the final ballot, and Jay Roberts (Sheriff Roberts) was elected as Sheriff of Cambria County in the general election in November of 1985.

Prior to his installation in office, Sheriff Roberts instructed the Cambria County Salary Board (Salary Board) to take administrative action and remove plaintiffs, Burns, Mutsko, Plummer and Snyder from the Sheriff's Office Payroll. At the Salary Board's meeting of January 2, 1986, upon motion of defendant, Stephenson, seconded by defendant McCormick, and approved unanimously, Burns, Mutsko, Plummer and Snyder were removed from the payroll of the Office of Sheriff. Sheriff Roberts was installed into office on January 6, 1986, and filed written revocation of Burns, Mutsko, Plummer and Snyder as sheriff deputies. Sheriff Roberts did not schedule a call for work for Beaujon, who was a part-time employee.

The plaintiffs contend Burns was dismissed because he ran against Sheriff Roberts; Mutsko, Plummer and Beaujon were dismissed for their support of Burns' candidacy; and Snyder was dismissed for his failure to dissuade Burns from running for Sheriff.

Plaintiff Ardini alleges that prior to the election she was approached by both Sheriff Roberts and his father Joseph Roberts, who was also a Cambria County Commissioner, with regard to her supervisor at Laurel Crest Manor, William Tomallo (Tomallo). Tomallo was also a candidate for Sheriff. Joseph Roberts allegedly asked Ardini if she heard any phone calls that Tomallo received at Laurel Crest. Ardini answered in the affirmative, and Joseph Roberts stated he would like a list of the persons who called Tomallo. Ardini contends that Joseph Roberts made the same request a month or two later. Ardini never complied, and she was fired in December of 1985.

COUNT I

a) Qualified Immunity

Defendants, Sheriff Roberts and Commissioner Joseph Roberts, contend they are immune from civil liability for any action or alleged action undertaken in their individual and/or official capacities. Government officials are entitled to qualified immunity for liability for damages if their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person should have known. Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 517, 105 S.Ct. 2806, 2810-11, 86 L.Ed.2d 411 (1985); Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 2738, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1980). The judicially-created doctrine balances the interest in vindicating constitutional rights which have been violated by public officials against the interest in allowing public officials to perform their discretionary duties without fear of disruptive lawsuits and personal liability in money damages. Hynson v. City of Chester, 864 F.2d 1026, 1031 (3d Cir. 1988); see Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 3038, 97 L.Ed.2d 523 (1987).

A government official will be denied qualified immunity for having violated a clearly established right when "in light of preexisting law the unlawfulness [is] apparent." Anderson, 107 S.Ct. at 3039. The state of the law must be considered at the time of the challenged action. Mitchell, 472 U.S. at 528, 105 S.Ct. at 2816-17. The grant of qualified immunity to the defendants properly depends upon whether the plaintiffs' right to be free from politically based firings was clearly established.

  In People of Three Mile Island v. Nuclear Reg. Comm'rs,
747 F.2d 139 (3d Cir. 1984), the Court addressed the issue of
analogous precedent in the context of ascertaining "clearly
established" law for the purposes of the qualified immunity
defense, and rejected a requirement of strict factual identity.
Instead, the Third Circuit adopted a more balanced approach
which required:

   . . some but not precise factual correspondence
  and demanding that officials apply general, well
  developed legal principles . . . While we cannot
  expect executive officials to anticipate the
  evolution of constitutional law, neither can we
  be faithful to the purposes of immunity by
  permitting such officials one liability-free
  violation of a constitutional or statutory
  requirement . . . Moreover, requiring officials
  to consider the legal implications of their
  actions should have a salutary effect.

Id. at 144-45.

The Third Circuit in Bennis v. Gable, 823 F.2d 723 (3d Cir. 1987) specifically concluded that as of 1982 the law was "clearly established" that a public employee could not be discharged, transferred, demoted or reprimanded in retaliation for exercising his rights under the First Amendment. In this regard the defendants' position is untenable.

Sheriff Roberts contends that he could not reasonably have been expected to know that his actions could be violative of the law, since the clear statutory language of 16 Pa.S.A. §§ 1203 and 1205.*fn4 afforded him the power to revoke appointments at his "pleasure." Sheriff Roberts further points to his request for a legal opinion from the Cambria County Personnel Office*fn5 as evidence of his reasonable belief he was acting within the law. Defendant cites Lee v. Mihalich, 847 F.2d 66 (3d Cir. 1988) as authority for the reasonable reliance upon an opinion of counsel. In Lee, the law pertaining to the Pennsylvania statute of limitations was unclear, that is not the case here.

It is the objective reasonableness of a defendant's actions that governs; what the defendant actually believed or did not believe is irrelevant to the qualified immunity analysis. Anderson, 107 S.Ct. at 3034. Because the law was clearly established as of 1982, this Court is not inclined to believe that a reasonable jury would elevate state statutory language above the rights afforded by the United States ...


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