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O'CONNELL v. COUNTY OF NORTHAMPTON

December 20, 1999

TERRANCE O'CONNELL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
COUNTY OF NORTHAMPTON, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Eduardo C. Robreno, District Judge.

MEMORANDUM

Pro se*fn1 plaintiff Terrance O'Connell, former Warden of the Northampton County Prison, brought this action claiming that certain of the named defendants violated his civil rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and that all defendants defamed him in violation of Pennsylvania state law.*fn2 The named defendants include Northampton County, A.L. Brackbill Jr. — County Executive, Frank Billota — County Administrator, Correction Officer Jose Garcia, Correction Officer Donald Wenner (collectively the "County defendants"), and Michael Buffer, a reporter for The Express Times. Plaintiff's claims are based on the events surrounding his resignation from employment as Warden of the Northampton County Prison in March of 1997.

I. FACTS

The following material facts are uncontested and all reasonable inferences have been drawn in plaintiff's favor. Plaintiff was hired as Warden of the Northampton County Prison in February of 1996. See Ex. A to Def. Buffer's Mot. for Summ. J. at 43 (Transcript of Plaintiff's Deposition) [hereinafter "Pl.'s Dep."].*fn4 In March of 1997, plaintiff met with defendants Brackbill and Billota to discuss allegations that had been made by a female correction officer against plaintiff. See Pl.'s Dep. at 45-49. Specifically, Brackbill and Billota informed plaintiff that a correction officer had claimed that plaintiff had sexually harassed her by making unsolicited phone calls to her residence. Id. at 47-49. Plaintiff strenuously denied sexually harassing the correction officer and claimed that he had no recollection of ever phoning her residence. Id. at 49-52. Despite plaintiff's denials, Brackbill and Billota asked plaintiff to resign as Warden — an action plaintiff refused to take. Id. at 61. Plaintiff then left the meeting. Id. At no time during or after that meeting did defendants Brackbill or Billota ever threaten plaintiff with discharge if he failed to resign. Id. 70, 72, 88-90, 127.

A few days following the meeting, plaintiff submitted a letter of resignation, which set the effective date of his resignation as the last Friday in March. Id. at 43, 62, 72, 126. Almost nine months after plaintiff resigned, various articles written by defendant Buffer appeared in a local newspaper, The Express Times, chronicling the happenings at the prison, including references to plaintiff's resignation and several other allegedly improper acts committed during plaintiff's prison administration.*fn5 Id. at 71, 77-80, 94, 99-100.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is appropriate if the moving party can "show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). When ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986). In addition, the court must accept the non-movant's version of the facts as true and resolve conflicts in the non-movant's favor. See Big Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of N. America, Inc., 974 F.2d 1358, 1363 (3d Cir. 1992).

The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of genuine issues of material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). Once the movant has done so, however, the non-moving party cannot rest on its pleadings. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e). Rather, the non-movant must then "make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of every element essential to his case, based on the affidavits or by depositions and admissions on file." Harter v. GAF Corp., 967 F.2d 846, 852 (3d Cir. 1992); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). Speculation, conclusory allegations, and mere denials are insufficient to raise genuine issues of material fact. To defeat "a properly supported summary judgment motion, the party opposing it must present sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find in its favor." Groman v. Township of Manalapan, 47 F.3d 628, 633 (3d Cir. 1995).

III. DISCUSSION

A. Plaintiff's Federal Claims.

To establish a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must show that a person acting under color of state law deprived him of a right secured by the Constitution or the laws of the United States.*fn6 See Flagg Bros., Inc. v. Brooks, 436 U.S. 149, 155, 98 S.Ct. 1729, 56 L.Ed.2d 185 (1978); Groman v. Township of Manalapan, 47 F.3d 628, 633 (3d Cir. 1995). The essence of plaintiff's poorly articulated § 1983 claim appears to be that by confronting plaintiff with the allegations of the female correction officer and asking for his resignation without offering to hold a hearing, the County defendants constructively discharged him in violation of his Fourteenth Amendment due process property interest.*fn7 See Pl.'s Am. Compl. at ¶ 10; see also Pl.'s Resp. to County Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J. at 1-3. In addition, plaintiff appears to be arguing that his due process liberty interest was also violated by statements made to the press and others by the County defendants concerning his resignation and the accusations of the female correction officer that plaintiff had sexually harassed her. See Pl.'s Dep. at 132.

1. Plaintiff's due process property interest.

An employee's resignation from public employment is presumed to be voluntary. Leheny v. City of Pittsburgh, 183 F.3d 220, 227 (3d Cir. ...


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