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Swineford v. Snyder County Pa.

filed: February 4, 1994.


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. D.C. Civil Action No. 90-00595.

Before: Scirica, Cowen and Rosenn, Circuit Judges.

Author: Scirica


SCIRICA, Circuit Judge.



In this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 the plaintiff Delight F. Swineford, a former county voter registrar, claimed the defendants, Snyder County as well as members of the County's Board of Commissioners and its Chief Clerk, violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments and various state laws when they fired her in retaliation for publicly disclosing alleged electoral improprieties. After trial on the merits, the court entered judgment for defendants on all claims in accordance with the jury's special verdict findings and the court's extensive findings of fact. Swineford now appeals.

There are two issues on appeal. First, whether, on these facts, a Pennsylvania court would accord preclusive effect to a prior finding made by the Unemployment Compensation Review Board. Second, whether plaintiff's interest in free speech outweighed her employer's interest in providing efficient services. Under these circumstances, we do not believe the Pennsylvania courts would give preclusive effect to the Unemployment Compensation Review Board findings. Nor do we believe in this case that plaintiff's interest in free speech outweighed the defendants' interests in efficiency. We will affirm.



A. Early Conflicts at Work.

From January 1987 until November 1989, plaintiff Delight F. Swineford worked as a clerk in the Snyder County Commissioner's Office. Defendant Lee Knepp, the Chief Clerk, was her immediate superior. Swineford worked closely with Administrative Assistant Veda Heintzelman, Knepp, and the three-member Board of Commissioners in a small office.

Early in their relationship personality conflicts developed between Swineford and Heintzelman resulting in Swineford's making numerous complaints to the commissioners and Knepp over trivial office matters. In June 1988, Swineford requested and was denied a job reclassification and salary equal to Heintzelman, who had more experience and greater responsibilities. After the commissioners refused to promote her, Swineford began a detailed diary chronicling workplace events, including rumors about Heintzelman and the individual defendants.

In September 1988, Swineford attended a conference for county voter registrars sponsored by the Pennsylvania Department of State. After hearing the lectures and Discussions Swineford became convinced the Snyder County Election Bureau's procedures violated state law. For the next several months Swineford questioned Knepp about the propriety of various procedures and directions.

In October 1988, Swineford again asked the Snyder County Salary Board for a reclassification from the clerical to the administrative level. The Salary Board agreed to study Swineford's request but decided to delay a decision until the end of 1988. Swineford attributed this delay to Knepp's failure to support her. In December 1988, the Salary Board reclassified Swineford's clerical position to the technical category -- one level below administrative level, one above clerical. Swineford complained to the Board of Commissioners, and after a lengthy meeting, the commissioners denied her requests.

B. Allegations of Misconduct.

Swineford created a 27-item list of Snyder County voter registration procedures which she contended violated Pennsylvania laws. Swineford first took the list to Commissioner Michael Aumiller -- a Democrat and political adversary of defendant commissioners, Graybill and Woodling.*fn1 Aumiller edited the list and together with Swineford met with County Solicitor Jeffrey Wood to discuss what Swineford characterized as criminal activity within the courthouse. When Wood explained he would have to share anything they told him with the entire Board of Commissioners, Swineford refused to reveal her allegations. Wood advised Swineford that if her allegations were criminal in nature, there was a procedure she could follow to file a criminal complaint. Swineford did not follow this advice.

While the Board was still unaware of her allegations, Swineford contacted a Common Pleas Court Judge at his home and requested a private meeting. At that meeting, Swineford presented the Judge with her list of allegations. He advised her to seek legal counsel to determine the validity of her charges. Swineford ignored the Judge's advice.

On April 25, 1989, Swineford presented her charges to the Commissioners. The Commissioners directed Wood to undertake a legal analysis of Swineford's charges and report back promptly. As part of his investigation, Wood repeatedly requested information from Swineford, but she failed to substantiate her claims. Swineford's refusal or inability to substantiate her charges hampered the investigation. At the completion of his extensive investigation Wood concluded that Swineford's allegations were technical and minimal, and that the County had complied with state law. He reported that for many of Swineford's allegations, the Pennsylvania Election Code gave no specific instructions.*fn2

On May 1, 1989, while the Commission's investigation was ongoing, Swineford contacted a reporter for a local paper and urged him to attend the Commissioners' meeting scheduled the next day. At that meeting, Swineford discussed her allegations in great detail. Her reported allegations became an instant local cause celebre.

At the Conclusion of its investigation, the Commissioners found Swineford's allegations to be either (1) factually correct but not violations of state law; (2) simple restatements of the law; or (3) factually erroneous or unaccompanied by any proof. Based on the evidence presented and Solicitor Wood's advice, the Board concluded no illegal conduct had occurred. Commissioner Graybill wrote to Swineford telling her that compiling the list was proper, but her personal attacks against Knepp were not. The letter also warned Swineford to change her work attitude and improve relations with her co-workers. The Commission was split regarding what actions, if any, it should take regarding Knepp. Commissioner Woodling believed no action should be taken since no wrongdoing had been proved. Commissioner Aumiller wanted Knepp to receive a strong letter of reprimand unless he agreed to resign from the Republican State Committee. As a compromise, Commissioner Graybill drafted a letter commending Knepp for his service to the County, but instructing him to adhere more closely to state election regulations. All three commissioners approved the letter.

C. Swineford Takes Legal Action.

Dissatisfied with the results of the Commissioners' investigation, Swineford took her list to Snyder County District Attorney John Robinson. Without any further substantiation of her claims, Swineford requested that Robinson institute criminal proceedings against the defendants. Robinson told Swineford her allegations were de minimis, and that he would not assist her because her problems were personal in nature.

Robinson, however, forwarded Swineford's allegations to the Pennsylvania Attorney General, citing a lack of resources and a possible conflict of interest. In June 1989, after a full investigation, the Attorney General's Office concluded no criminal prosecution was warranted. Undaunted by the Attorney General's decision, Swineford again met with District Attorney Robinson. She also made another complaint to the Attorney General's Office which responded that Swineford's problems were a "personal matter between you and the two commissioners."

Swineford next contacted County Solicitor Wood and asked how, as a private citizen, she could file criminal charges. Upon learning Swineford intended to file a criminal complaint against them, Commissioners Graybill and Woodling decided to institute pre-termination proceedings believing her behavior was unsatisfactory and prejudicial to the efficient operation of the office. At a pre-termination hearing on July 11, 1989 the commissioners offered Swineford arbitration as an alternative to termination. Within days Swineford rejected the offer and threatened litigation. Citing the time and cost of litigation and the desire to return to normal productive office operations the commissioners voted on July 17, 1989 to terminate all pending personnel proceedings against Swineford.

Swineford refused to relent. After the County ceased all personnel actions against her, Swineford had a close friend contact the FBI in an effort to institute criminal proceedings against the defendants. The FBI took no action.

D. Problems Continue at Work.

Back at the office, Swineford repeatedly asked Knepp basic questions, writing down his answers as if to check them later for accuracy or consistency. As each criminal agency found her charges meritless, Swineford grew increasingly moody and uncooperative. Her work performance slipped. Office conditions became intolerable.

Even though Swineford had attempted to prosecute them, defendants and Swineford's co-workers went out of their way to accommodate her. They accorded her wide latitude and tolerated unnecessarily frequent work breaks and other liberties. Office efficiency fell.

In July, Swineford complained to the local ACLU office that the County had mistreated her. In response to the ACLU's inquiry, the commissioners met with Swineford and inquired as to specific instances of harassment. Swineford refused to respond until she consulted with counsel.

Swineford's behavior became increasingly unpredictable. In August, 1989, contrary to office policy and Knepp's direct instructions, Swineford opened materials sent by the County Solicitor's Office, examined them, and date-stamped each page. Swineford told Knepp she did it to prevent him from destroying any material before it went to the commissioners. By early September Swineford believed defendants and their agents were following her. She believed defendants had installed wiretaps and hidden cameras in a toilet, and in a paper towel dispenser. Although she often searched for cameras and wiretaps, she never discovered any.

On October 10, 1989, Commissioners Graybill and Woodling advised Swineford that her work was substandard. They told her she had neglected assignments by pursuing unassigned work ...

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