United States District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania
April 30, 2001
SHARON R. WILLIAMS, PLAINTIFF,
PENNSYLVANIA STATE POLICE BUREAU OF LIQUOR CONTROL ENFORCEMENT, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lowell A. Reed, Jr., S.J.
Defendant Alfred Campbell now moves for summary judgment (Document No.
52) in this civil rights case, seeking a ruling that the evidence could
not support a jury finding that he violated the equal protection rights
of plaintiff Sharon Williams, and that regardless, he is entitled to
qualified immunity. Upon consideration of the arguments and the evidence
of record, pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure,
the motion will be granted in part and denied in part.
On a prior motion for summary judgment in this case, the Court ruled
that there remained a genuine issue of material fact as to whether
defendant Alfred Campbell violated the right of plaintiff to equal
protection through his personal involvement in the decision to place
plaintiff on restricted duty in the course of her employment with the
Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Liquor Control and Enforcement
("Bureau"). See Williams v. Pennsylvania State Police, 108 F. Supp.2d 460,
472-73 (E.D.Pa. 2000). In the months that have passed since this Court
rendered that decision, the Bureau terminated plaintiff's employment.
Plaintiff then amended her complaint to include Title VII and equal
protection claims arising out of that termination, which allegedly flowed
directly from the decision to place plaintiff on restricted duty.
Campbell now moves for summary judgment as to the equal protection
claim against him, not only as to her termination-related claim, but also
as to her claim arising out of her placement on restricted duty. This
Court cannot and will not revisit its prior decision to deny summary
judgment as to the restricted duty claim. Thus, the sole question this
Court will address today is whether summary judgment is appropriate as to
plaintiff's claim that Campbell violated her equal protection rights by
causing her to be terminated.
Campbell's central argument is that there is insufficient evidence
linking him to the decision to terminate plaintiff, largely because he
was not employed by the Bureau at the time the decision to terminate
plaintiff was made. This motion presents an issue that is not often
discussed in the civil rights setting; the issue of proximate causation.
Although it is not frequently addressed, the element of proximate cause
is implicit in 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and thus must be established in
order to prove liability.
Section 1983 places liability on a person who "subjects, or causes to
be subjected" another to a constitutional deprivation. See
42 U.S.C. § 1983. This language suggests that there are two ways a
defendant may be liable for a constitutional deprivation under §
1983: (2) direct, personal involvement in the alleged constitutional
violation on the part of the defendant, or (2) actions or omissions that
are not constitutional violations in themselves, but foreseeably lead to
a constitutional violation. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
offered a most cogent discussion of this issue in Arnold v. International
Bus. Machines Corp., 637 F.2d 1350 (9th Cir. 1981):
A person `subjects' another to the deprivation of a
constitutional right, within the meaning of section
1983, if he does an affirmative act, participates in
another's affirmative acts, or omits to perform an act
which he is legally required to do that causes the
deprivation of which complaint is made. . . .
Moreover, personal participation is not the only
predicate for section 1983 liability. Anyone who
"causes" any citizen to be subjected to a
constitutional deprivation is also liable. The
requisite causal connection can be established not
only by some kind of direct personal participation in
the deprivation, but also by setting in motion a
series of acts by others which the actor knows or
reasonably should know would cause others to inflict
the constitutional injury.
Id. at 1355 (emphasis added) (quoting Johnson v. Duffy, 588 F.2d 740
743-44 (9th Cir. 1978)).
The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has not directly addressed
this issue of proximate causation in § 1983 cases. Defendant cites
Rode v. Dellarciprete, 845 F.2d 1195, 1207 (3d Cir. 1988) for the
proposition that a plaintiff may only prevail on a § 1983 claim
against an individual defendant if the plaintiff shows that the defendant
was personally involved in the actual constitutional violation. The
passage from Rode upon which defendant relies reads, "A defendant in a
civil rights action must have personal involvement in the alleged
wrongs; liability cannot be predicated solely on the operation of
respondeat superior." Id. at 1207. As is clear from the quotation, the
observations of the court of appeals in Rode concerning personal
involvement were made in the context of a discussion of plaintiff's
theory of liability, not proximate causation. The cases the Rode court
cited for in support of its "personal involvement" proposition also dealt
only with respondeat superior liability, and not with causation.
Respondeat superior liability and proximate causation are distinct
concepts*fn2 and therefore have distinct analyses. Therefore, I do not
believe that the observations of the court of appeals in Rode are
controlling in this context, where the question is not whether a
supervisor could be responsible for the actions of her subordinates, but
whether there is a sufficient nexus between the actions of an individual
and an alleged constitutional wrong.
Because I can find no controlling law from the Court of Appeals for the
Third Circuit on this issue, and because I consider the analysis of the
Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Arnold to be persuasive and
most consistent with the language of § 1983, I adopt the Arnold
analysis today and hold that causation by an individual defendant in a
§ 1983 action may be established in two ways: (1) with evidence of
direct personal involvement in the alleged constitutional violation by
the defendant, or (2) with evidence that the defendant set in motion a
series of acts by others that the defendant knew or reasonably should
have known would cause others to inflict the constitutional injury.*fn3
It is not disputed that Campbell had no direct, personal involvement in
the decision to terminate plaintiff. Plaintiff urges liability on the
second ground; that Campbell set in motion a series of events that he
knew or reasonably should have known would cause others to terminate
her. The crux of the motion for summary judgment, then, is whether there
is evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that Campbell knew or
reasonably should have known that his acts ultimately would cause
Plaintiff presents no new evidence on this point. Rather, she relies on
the evidence presented on the prior motion for summary judgment, upon
which this Court based its conclusion that there was a genuine issue of
material fact as to whether Campbell violated her equal protection rights
by placing her on restricted duty. That evidence consisted primarily of a
memorandum from Campbell memorializing the decision to place plaintiff on
restricted duty. (Exh. 4 to Plaintiff's Response to the Motion for
Summary Judgment, Memorandum from Alfred Campbell, Dec. 31, 1998.)
Is this evidence enough to convince a reasonable jury that Campbell
knew or reasonably should have known that his acts would set the wheels
of plaintiff's termination in motion? I cannot so conclude. First, there
is no evidence that a decision to place a person on restricted duty in
the Bureau is inherently indicative of an intent to terminate that
individual's employment. To the contrary, according to a Special Order of
the Bureau submitted by plaintiff on the prior motion for summary
judgment, restricted duty or "limited duty" is only intended to be used
when an employee exhibits a "temporary condition whereby [the employee
is] unable to perform all of the mandated tasks for their position
classification." (Tab 7 in Vol. II of Exhibits to Plaintiff's Response
for the Motion for Summary Judgment, Special Order on Bureau
Policy/Procedures Regarding "Limited Duty" Status, May 6, 1988.) There is
no suggestion in that Special Order that restricted duty is an interim
step typically taken prior to termination; instead it provides an
employee an opportunity to retain employment status while recovering from
whatever temporary condition prevents her from doing her job. Quite
simply, the evidence illustrates that restricted duty is a way to keep a
person on the job, not a means to kick them off the job.
Moreover, Campbell's December 31, 1998, memorandum contains no
indication that he knew or should have known that a decision to place
plaintiff on restricted duty would lead to her termination. Rather, the
memorandum reflects that she would remain on restricted duty until her
psychotherapist and the State Police Medical Officer released her.
Plaintiff suggests that a jury infer that her placement on restricted
duty and her termination were all part of a seamless plot on the part of
Campbell's to "get her," and that if a reasonable jury could find he was
involved in the restricted duty decision, a reasonable jury also could
find him responsible for the termination decision. This is simply to
large a leap for a reasonable jury to make. Campbell was not employed by
the Bureau at the time plaintiff was terminated. Without some evidence
suggesting that Campbell contemplated plaintiff's termination at the time
he placed her on restricted duty, or that restricted duty was a step
typically taken prior to terminating an employee at the Bureau, a
reasonable jury could not find that Campbell knew or should have known
that placing plaintiff on restricted duty would lead to her termination.
Therefore, I conclude that Campbell is entitled to summary judgment on
the issue of whether he denied plaintiff equal protection by setting in
motion a series of event that resulted in her termination.
While the evidence against Campbell is sufficient for plaintiff to
survive summary judgment as to whether the decision to place her on
restricted duty violated her rights, it is not enough evidence to carry
her case to the jury against Campbell for the employer's decision to
terminate her. Accordingly, plaintiff may proceed against Campbell on her
claim that he violated her constitutional rights by placing her on
restricted duty, but she may not proceed on her claim that he violated
her rights by causing her termination.
An appropriate Order follows.
AND NOW, this 30th day of April, 2001, upon consideration of the motion
for summary judgment of defendant Alfred Campbell, former director of the
Division of Operations of the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Liquor
Control Enforcement (Document No. 52), and the memoranda and exhibits
appended thereto pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil
Procedure, and having concluded, for the reasons set forth by the
foregoing memorandum, that a reasonable jury could not find from the
evidence advanced by plaintiff that defendant caused plaintiff to be
terminated in violation of her constitutional rights, IT IS HEREBY
ORDERED that the motion for summary judgment is GRANTED in part, only on
her claim that Campbell violated her equal protection rights by causing
her to be terminated, and DENIED in part, on plaintiff's claim that
Campbell violated her equal protection rights through his involvement in
the decision to place plaintiff on restricted duty.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that plaintiff may, at trial, pursue her claim
that Campbell violated her equal protection rights by his participation
in the decision to place her on restricted duty, but plaintiff is
prohibited from claiming or arguing at trial that Campbell is liable in
whole or in part for the employer's decision to terminate her.