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Knight v. Drye

March 13, 2009

JONATHAN KNIGHT, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DAVID DRYE ET AL. DEFENDANTS.



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

MEMORANDUM

Plaintiff Jonathan Knight ("Knight"), a former police officer in Chalfont Borough, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, initiated this lawsuit after he was terminated for allegedly leaking confidential information about an undercover narcotics investigation to a local drug dealer. Knight sued Chalfont Borough and certain individual defendants,*fn1 ("Chalfont Borough Defendants"), the Chalfont Borough Council, the Chalfont Borough Police Department, the Police Benevolent Association ("PBA"), and the Fraternal Order of Police ("FOP"), asserting thirteen causes of action in his amended complaint, for various constitutional, statutory, and state common law violations.

During the course of this litigation, Knight's claims have been narrowed considerably, as have the pool of Defendants.*fn2

Knight's remaining claims are limited to a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("Section 1983") for First Amendment retaliation against the Chalfont Borough Defendants and a claim for breach of contract against the PBA. Before the Court are the PBA's and the Chalfont Borough Defendants' respective motions for summary judgment. For the reasons that follow, these motions will be granted.

I. BACKGROUND*fn3

Knight was employed by Chalfont Borough as a police officer from February 12, 1999 to October 11, 2005. During this time, he developed a casual friendship with the manager of a local car wash, Whitney Watson, IV.*fn4 In January 2005, Watson approached Knight and informed him that he had "screwed up" by selling four ounces of marijuana to an undercover agent. Following this conversation with Watson, it is undisputed that Knight was informed by the Chief of Police and by a fellow officer, Robert Milligan, that Watson was the subject of an ongoing narcotics investigation by the Bensalem Township Police Department. It is also undisputed that, armed with this knowledge, Knight warned Watson that he was "in trouble."*fn5 After receiving Knight's warning, Watson avoided contact with the undercover agent and the investigation into his drug activity stalled. Shortly thereafter, based on tips from an undercover informant, the police began an inquiry into Knight's role in the Watson investigation.

On September 23, 2005, the Chalfont Borough Council placed Knight on a temporary paid leave of absence, pending the criminal investigation into his behavior. On September 27, 2005, Knight was arrested and charged with obstructing the administration of law or governmental function and hindering prosecution. That same day, the Chalfont Borough Council suspended Knight without pay. On October 11, 2005, the Chalfont Borough Council unanimously voted to terminate Knight's employment. The Chalfont Borough Council based this decision on its belief that Knight's conduct violated specific provisions of Chalfont Borough's police duty manual and civil service regulations.*fn6 Knight was acquitted of the criminal charges against him, but his termination was upheld in an arbitration decision dated November 19, 2007. (Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J. Ex. 2, doc. no. 53).*fn7

For the purposes of these motions, the Court will accept Knight's additional contentions, that prior to his termination, he made what he now refers to as the "Horn complaint" to the Chief of Police. Specifically, based on a conversation he had with Watson in mid-February 2005, Knight reported to the Chief of Police that Officer Clifford Horn was "harassing" Watson and his employees.*fn8 Knight was told that the Chief would "handle" the matter. (Pl.'s Aff. ¶¶ 42, 46, 48, doc. no. 63; Pl.'s Dep. 86, 93-94.)

Additionally, before Knight was terminated, he was involved in what he now refers to as the "Drye incident." Specifically, in June 2005, Knight was off duty and patronizing a local bar and restaurant - Soncini's Pub. Knight witnessed the former manager of Chalfont Borough, David Drye, steal beer from behind the bar and distribute it to other patrons. After a heated exchange between Matthew Soncini, the pub's owner, and David Drye, Officer Robert Milligan was called to the scene. According to Knight, he was not involved in the official investigation that followed, but he did attempt to break up the fight between Soncini and Drye before the police arrived.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

A. Motion for Summary Judgment under Rule 56

A court may grant summary judgment when "the pleadings, the discovery and the disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(C). A fact is "material" if its existence or non-existence would affect the outcome of the suit under governing law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). An issue of fact is "genuine" when there is sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could find in favor of the non-moving party regarding the existence of that fact. Id. at 248-49. "In considering the evidence, the court should draw all reasonable inferences against the moving party." El v. Se. Pa. Transp. Auth., 479 F.3d 232, 238 (3d Cir. 2007). However, while the moving party bears the initial burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, the non-moving party "may not rely merely on allegations or denials in its own pleading; rather its response must - by affidavits or as otherwise provided in [Rule 56] - set out specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)(2).

B. Section 1983

Section 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code provides a cause of action for an individual whose constitutional or federal rights are violated by those acting under color of state law.*fn9 See generally Gonzaga Univ. v. Doe, 536 U.S. 273, 284-85 (2002) (recognizing that Section 1983 provides a remedy for violations of individual rights "secured by the Constitution and laws" of the United States).

III. DISCUSSION

A. The PBA'S Motion for Summary Judgment

Count XIII of Knight's amended complaint contains a breach of contract claim against the PBA, which the parties have construed as alleging a breach of the duty of fair representation under Pennsylvania common law. (See PBA's Mot. for Summ. J. at 15, doc. no. 51.) Specifically, Knight alleges that the PBA (1) improperly terminated his union membership; and (2) breached its duty of fair representation to him. Also, Knight seeks the return of certain firearms that were seized from him.

The only remaining issue is whether the PBA breached its duty of fair representation to Knight.*fn10 "When a labor organization has been selected as the exclusive representative of the employees in a bargaining unit, it has a duty... to represent all members fairly." Marquez v. Screen Actors Guild, Inc., 525 U.S. 33, 44 (1998). To constitute a breach of its duty of fair representation, the PBA's conduct must be "arbitrary, discriminatory, or in bad faith." Id. at 44. These standards are not easily met. Rather, "[a] union's actions are arbitrary only if 'in light of the factual and legal landscape' they are 'so far outside the range of reasonableness as to be irrational.'" Albright v. Virtue, 320 F. Supp. 2d 276, 283 (M.D. Pa. 2003) (quoting Air Line Pilots v. O'Neill, 499 U.S. 65, 67 (1991)); see also Gearhart v. Am. Fed'n of State, County & Mun. Employees, No. 72 M.D.1998, 2004 WL 1293261, *3 (Pa. Cmwlth. Apr. 7, 2004) ("A breach of duty of fair representation is established where bad faith on the part of the union is shown.") Moreover, ...


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