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Edward Smith v. Borough of Dunmore

April 22, 2001


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Caputo


The present case is scheduled for trial on the Court's July calendar. In the interest of narrowing the issues presented for trial, the Court will invite the parties to present evidence and briefing so that it may determine, as a question of law, whether the plaintiff received due process.

I. Background

On May 20, 2005, the borough manager for the Borough of Dunmore asked the fire chief for a list of required qualifications for full-time firefighters and verification that each firefighter had met these requirements. After receiving and reviewing this information, the borough manager concluded that two full-time firefighters, Edward Smith and Robert Dee, had not completed a required training course. This conclusion was presented to the borough council, which voted to suspend the firefighters with pay until a hearing could be scheduled. The firefighters received neither notice nor a hearing before they were suspended.

The suspensions began on June 28, 2005. The hearing was scheduled for July 6, 2005. As a result of the hearing, it was determined that the firefighters were not required to complete the course pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement. The firefighters were reinstated.

One day before the hearing, on July 5, 2005, Smith and Dee each separately brought suit against the borough and its council members, bringing, inter alia, claims for violations of procedural due process. The Court granted summary judgment in part in both cases on the ground that the defendants had no property interest in not being suspended. Smith and Dee each appealed, and the Third Circuit reversed on the due process claims, holding that as a matter of law, 53 Pa. Stat. Ann. § 46190 and the collective bargaining agreement give rise to a property interest in not being suspended without cause. Dee v. Borough of Dunmore, 549 F.3d 225, 231--32 (3d Cir. 2008); Smith v. Borough of Dunmore, 633 F.3d 176, 180 (3d Cir. 2011).

The court of appeals further held that Dee and Smith have constitutionally cognizable liberty interests in their reputations because they suffered the deprivation of their property interests in not being suspended without cause. Dee, 549 F.3d at 234--35; Smith, 633 F.3d at 180.

Because fact issues remained regarding the borough's justification for suspending Smith, whether he had suffered "stigma," and whether the July 6th hearing was a constitutionally adequate name-clearing hearing, the court of appeals remanded Smith's due process claims to this court for consideration of the Mathews v. Eldridge factors once the issues of fact were decided.

II. Discussion

A. Due Process Standard

"Procedural due process imposes constraints on governmental decisions which deprive individuals of 'liberty' or 'property' interests within the meaning of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth or Fourteenth Amendment." Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 332 (1975). Here, because Smith has a property interest in not being suspended without just cause, due process applies.

"Once it is determined that due process applies, the question remains what process is due." Morrissey v. Brewer, 408 U.S. 471, 481 (1972). In Mathews v. Eldridge, the Supreme Court explained that "[d]ue process if flexible and calls for such procedural protections as the particular situation demands," which requires "analysis of the governmental and private interests that are affected." Mathews, 424 U.S. at 334 (internal citations omitted). Identifying what process is due "generally requires consideration of three distinct factors":

First, the private interest that will be affected by the official action; second, the risk of an erroneous deprivation of such interest through the procedures used, and the probable value, if any, of additional or substitute procedural safeguards; and finally, the Government's interest, including the function involved and the fiscal and administrative burdens that the additional or substitute procedural requirement would entail. 335. The Mathews balancing test is to be applied by the court, as a question of law, and not by a jury. See Graham v. City of Philadelphia, 402 F.3d 139, 146 (3d Cir. 2005) ("A court must balance these factors to determine what type of procedures would assure fairness in a particular case."); Midnight Sessions, Ltd. v. City of Philadelphia, 945 F.2d 667, 682 (3d Cir. 1991), overruled on other grounds by United Artists Circuit, Inc. v. Twp. of Warrington, 316 F.3d 392 (3d Cir. 2003) ("But a court, not a jury, should decide whether the licensing scheme satisfied procedural due process"); Stauch v. City of Columbia Heights, 212 F.3d 425, 431 (8th Cir. 2000) ("[T]he question of whether the procedural safeguards provided for . . . are adequate to satisfy due process is a question of law for the court to determine.") (citing Midnight Sessions); League of United Latin Am. Citizens, 986 F.2d 728, 772 n.30 (5th Cir. 1993) (noting that in constitutional areas such as substantive due process and equal protection "the weight of an asserted state interest has always been resolved by the court as a legal question."); Downing v. Williams, 624 F.2d 612, 617 (5th Cir. 1980) (noting that on a procedural due process claim, a jury cannot ...

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