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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,
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.
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 V, Ardini has alleged she was terminated and
replaced with a man, and she was constantly subjected to
sexually discriminatory remarks from defendants and
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).
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
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.
Defendants, Sheriff Roberts and Commissioner Joseph Roberts,
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
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
. . 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.
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 ...