The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Judge Kane
Before the Court is Defendants' motion for summary judgment. (Doc. No. 40.) The motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition.
From July 6, 2004, Plaintiff Constance Bower was employed as a Lieutenant at the Dauphin County Prison. (Doc. No. 42, ¶ 2.) Among her duties at the prison was the administration of an internal hearing mechanism, known as "Courtline," that reviewed allegations of alleged misconduct. (Doc. No. 42, ¶¶ 64-69.) In the course of her investigation, Plaintiff uncovered evidence of an October 19, 2002, unlawful beating of an inmate. (Id.) At the Courtline hearing, Plaintiff stated that the inmate was wrongfully beaten by the guards. (Doc. No. 53, ¶¶ 68.) She was then instructed by Defendant Stewart not to investigate further. (Id.) Plaintiff avers that "after that incident, the relationship between the plaintiff and the defendants deteriorated." (Doc. No. 52, at 2; Doc. No. 53, ¶ 70.)
While Plaintiff was taking approved vacation time to travel to Florida, she missed a mandatory staff meeting on March 5, 2003, without written permission to be excused. (Doc. No. 53, ¶ 73.) As a result, Plaintiff incurred five points on the prison's attendance discipline program. (Doc. No. 42, ¶¶ 72-73.) She was also docked another two points and given a "major violation" on March 11, 2003, for arriving one minute late for work and without alerting her supervisor, Defendant Corkle.*fn2 (Doc. No. 53, ¶ 75.) Plaintiff contends that these disciplinary acts were "shallow, frivolous and designed intentionally to terminate her" in retaliation for her stance in the Courtline investigation. (Id.) On March 24, 2003, Major Stewart conducted a fact-finding hearing, with information presented by Captain Corkle, regarding the disciplinary incidents and recommended a seven-day suspension. Warden DeRose approved the suspension, but Plaintiff never served it. (Doc. No. 42, ¶¶ 75-77.)
On May 12, 2003, Plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court alleging First Amendment retaliation. (Doc. No. 1.) After she filed the complaint, Defendant Dauphin County instituted a new procedure for dealing with disciplinary matters among its higher ranking officers. Pursuant to this new procedure, Dauphin County established an independent panel to review allegations and make recommendations of the proper course of discipline to the Prison Board. Defendants argue that the independent panel was established to prevent the possibility or perception of retaliatory or discriminatory discipline.
Plaintiff was subject to further discipline under the new procedure, based upon the following alleged acts: a June 10, 2003, allegation of inappropriate sexual touching of another officer; failure to attend a mandatory Oleoresin Capsicum Aerosol Training session; taking excessive smoking breaks based on a three-day review of her activities; and providing a letter of reference through the prison system without the Warden's permission. Plaintiff claims that Defendants' proffered reasons for discipline are merely pretext for retaliation. She claims that she did not engage in any sexual touching, that she rescheduled the training session and did eventually take it, that she was being singled out in her use of smoke breaks, and that she merely provided background information -- not a letter of reference -- at the prospective employer's request. On October 16, 2003, the independent panel reviewed the disciplinary charges and recommended the Prison Board impose a two-week suspension. (Doc. No. 42, ¶¶ 30-32.)
On May 26, 2004, the Prison Board reviewed an additional six incidents involving Plaintiff's behavior: (1) a February 19, 2004, incident of clocking in and out on another employee's time card; (2) an April 4, 2004, failure to respond to a medical emergency, which occurred while Plaintiff was outside smoking; (3) an April 19, 2004, failure to protect official paperwork from its removal and copying by a subordinate; (4) a May 12, 2004, failure to respond to another medical emergency; (5) a May 13, 2004, failure to take proper action upon learning about an illegal substance being mailed to the prison; and (6) a May 17, 2004, failure to obey her prohibition from taking smoking breaks. (Doc. No. 42, ¶ 41.) Plaintiff contends that these charges are without merit and were made in retaliation of her filing the instant civil action. (Doc. No. 53, ¶ 153.) Although Plaintiff now disputes each of the above charges,*fn3 Plaintiff did not participate in the pre-discipline hearing, wherein the Prison board voted unanimously to terminate Plaintiff. (Doc. No. 42, ¶¶ 47-48.)
Plaintiff alleges that Defendant DeRose influenced the panel's decisions by presenting false information at Plaintiff's hearings, some of which was allegedly provided to him by Defendant Stewart, and that Defendant Corkle submitted "inaccurate and distorted information" to the panel in an effort to secure Plaintiff's wrongful discipline.*fn4 (Doc. No. 53, ¶¶ 29, 79, 104.)
On May 12, 2003, Plaintiff filed a complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the subsequent disciplinary acts, up to and including her termination, were retaliation for investigating and reporting the alleged prison beating. (Doc. No. 1.) On October 4, 2004, Plaintiff filed an amended complaint adding Dominick, DeRose, and Dauphin County as new defendants and asserting a new First Amendment claim. (Doc. No. 23.) In this second claim, Plaintiff alleges that all of the disciplinary actions taken against her after May 2003 were in retaliation for filing the instant civil action in violation of her First Amendment rights. On June 29, 2005, Defendants moved for summary judgment. (Doc. No. 40)
Summary judgment is proper where "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56; White v. Westinghouse Elec. Co., 862 F.2d 56, 59 (3d Cir. 1988). A factual dispute is material if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A factual dispute is genuine only if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis that would allow a reasonable fact-finder to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Id. at 249. The evidence presented must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Id. "The inquiry is whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to the jury or whether it is so one sided that one party must, as a matter of law, prevail over the other." Id.
The moving party has the initial burden of identifying evidence that it believes shows an absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Childers v. Joseph, 842 F.2d 689, 694 (3d Cir. 1988). Once the moving party has shown that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's claims, the nonmoving party may not simply sit back and rest on the allegations in the complaint. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986). Instead, the nonmoving party must "go beyond the pleadings and by [its] own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. Summary judgment should be granted where a party ...