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Herman v. County of Carbon

June 11, 2008

MARY ALICE HERMAN, PLAINTIFF
v.
COUNTY OF CARBON, ROBERTA BREWSTER, COURT ADMINISTRATOR, WILLIAM O. GUREK, COUNTY COMMISSIONER, WAYNE NOTHSTEIN, COUNTY COMMISSIONER, AND CHARLES E. GETZ, COUNTY COMMISSIONER, DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Munley

MEMORANDUM

Before the court is defendant Roberta Brewster's motion for judgment on the pleadings. (Doc. 40). Having been fully briefed, the matter is ripe for disposition.

Background

Plaintiff Mary Herman ("Plaintiff") was the Jury Clerk for Defendant Carbon County Pennsylvania, and has been employed by the County for eighteen years. The Jury Clerk position was a full-time position. Plaintiff was employed by the Carbon County Jury Selection Commission. This Commission is comprised of three Jury Commissioners; Brenda Ellis ("Ellis"), William Poluka ("Poluka"), and President Judge Richard Webb ("Judge Webb"). During an October 27, 2003 Jury Selection Commission meeting, Judge Webb proposed that the Commission abolish the Jury Clerk position. Plaintiff would serve in a newly created position, as a Jury Selection Commission Clerk. This position is limited to ten and one half hours per week and receives ten dollars per hour. During this meeting, Poluka and Ellis voted against the proposed change. Despite the majority vote of the Jury Selection Commission, Judge Webb advanced a recommendation to the Carbon County Salary Board that Plaintiff's position be terminated and that she be placed in the newly created parttime position. On December 12, 2003, Plaintiff sent a letter to Defendant County Commissioners, requesting that they decline to implement Judge Webb's proposed changes. Plaintiff also openly supported Poluka and Ellis when they spoke with the media regarding issues before the Jury Selection Commission. She filed a complaint against Judge Webb with the Judicial Conduct Board. On January 5, 2004, acting in accord with the members of the Carbon County Salary Board, Defendants Court Administrator Roberta Brewster ("Brewster"), County Commissioner William O'Gurek, County Commissioner Wayne Nothstein, and County Commissioner Charles Getz voted in favor of implementing Judge Webb's proposed changes. Plaintiff was specifically informed by a Carbon County official that her job was changed in retaliation for Ellis' and Poluka's actions. A significant portion of Plaintiff's former job duties were transferred to a woman who is substantially younger than the Plaintiff.

Plaintiff filed an amended complaint on May 28, 2004, asserting four causes of action.*fn1 First, Plaintiff asserts a claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("section 1983") arguing that Defendants retaliated against her for her speech in violation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Second, Plaintiff asserts a claim under section 1983 for a violation of her Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Rights, arguing that her job was terminated for an improper purpose and with improper procedures. Third, Plaintiff avers that the defendants violated the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law, 43 PA. CONS. STAT. §§ 1421-1428, by terminating her in retaliation for her support of Poluka and Ellis, and in retaliation for her letter to the Commissioners. Fourth and finally, Plaintiff argues that the defendants violated the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 621-634 because they reduced her hours because of her age.

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss. After the parties briefed the issue, this court issued a memorandum and order granting the motion to dismiss in part and denying it in part. (See Doc. 614). Defendant Brewster's motion raised six grounds. She argued that plaintiff could not state a First Amendment retaliation claim because her speech did not address a matter of public concern, and any speech she made did not precede the decision to limit her hours. Second, Defendant Brewster contended that plaintiff could not state a due process claim because she lacked a protected interest in her job. Brewster raised two grounds for dismissing plaintiff's whistleblower claims: immunity for state officials under the Eleventh Amendment and the inapplicability of the Pennsylvania Whistleblower law to state courts. As a fifth ground for dismissal, Brewster argued that the court should abstain from the case and allow state courts to address unsettled questions of state law. Finally, defendant contended that she was entitled to qualified immunity from suit because plaintiff had not alleged that defendant violated any clearly established right. This court agreed with the defendant on most of her grounds for dismissing the case. While the court found that Brewster was not entitled to qualified immunity and that plaintiff had stated a claim for First-Amendment retaliation, it found that plaintiff's due process and Whistleblower Act claims against Defendant Brewster should be dismissed.

Defendant Brewster appealed the court's decision to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that plaintiff had failed to state a claim for First Amendment retaliation and that she was entitled to qualified immunity. On September 25, 2007, the Third Circuit issued its opinion on this appeal (Doc. 34-2). In a non-precedential opinion, the Court of Appeals found that this court had properly determined that Defendant Brewster was not entitled to qualified immunity on plaintiff's First Amendment retaliation claim, but that plaintiff had not properly stated the basis for the alleged retaliation. Plaintiff, the court pointed out, had alleged that "she openly and publicly supported the Jury Commissioners' statements to the media." (Id. at 5). She did not, however, "allege when these open and public expressions took place" or their "content." (Id.). Though plaintiff's complaint was insufficient, the court concluded that "[i]t may be possible that Herman can state a valid claim and she should be granted leave to amend." (Id.). Accordingly, the Third Circuit Court remanded the case to this court with instructions to allow plaintiff to replead her claim to describe the statements she made to the media. (Id. at 6).

Plaintiff filed this second amended complaint on November 8, 2007. (See Second Amended Complaint (Doc. 36) (hereinafter "Second Amend. Complt.")). The complaint repeats the allegations of plaintiff's amended complaint, but includes more detail about the content and context of plaintiff's public statements. Plaintiff alleges that she exercised her First Amendment right to free speech by "openly supporting Commissioners Poluka and Ellis who spoke with the media regarding some of the issues before the Jury Selection Commission." (Second Amend. Complt. at ¶ 28). According to the complaint, plaintiff's expression including being pictured in a newspaper photograph "with the Jury Commissioners in the cramped office space which was given to them after they complained about the inaccessibility of their previous office for handicapped individuals." (Id. at ¶ 29). Captions to several newspaper articles that included such pictures stated that "'they are complaining.'" (Id. at ¶ 30).

After plaintiff filed this second amended complaint, Defendant Brewster filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings. (Doc. 40). The parties then briefed the motion, bringing the case to its present posture.

Jurisdiction

As this case is brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, we have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 ("The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States."). We have supplemental jurisdiction over the plaintiff's state law claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367.

Legal Standard

Defendant's motion is brought pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) for judgment on the pleadings.*fn2 "Under Rule 12(c), judgment will not be granted 'unless the movant clearly establishes that no material issue of fact remains to be resolved and that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'" Jablonski v. Pan American World Airways, Inc., 863 F.2d 289, 290 (3d Cir. 1988) (quoting Society Hill Civic Association v. Harris, 632 F.2d 1045, 1054 (3d Cir. 1980)). A court deciding a motion under Rule 12(c) "must 'view the facts presented in the pleadings and the inferences to be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.'" Green v. Fund Asset ...


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