The opinion of the court was delivered by: Yvette Kane, Chief Judge United States District Court Middle District of Pennsylvania
Pending before the Court is Defendants' collective motion for summary judgment on all of Plaintiff's claims. The motion is fully briefed and ripe for disposition. For the reasons set forth below, the motion will be granted and judgment entered in favor of Defendants.
The factual allegations and the basis for this action are largely undisputed. During 2004, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, was experiencing financial difficulty and its commissioners took action to address the situation by eliminating a number of employment positions. One such position eliminated during this process was the Deputy Warden for Support at the Dauphin County Prison. Plaintiff James DeWees held this position for approximately fifteen years, between January 1990 through January 15, 2005, when the Dauphin County Prison Board voted to eliminate this and several other positions at the prison.*fn1
Plaintiff contends that Defendants, individually and collectively, caused his job to be eliminated and otherwise retaliated against him during and after his employment because of his exercise of speech and petitioning activity protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. More specifically, Plaintiff claims that the county's given reasons for eliminating the Deputy Warden for Support position are pretextual and that the elimination in fact was retaliation for certain statements that Plaintiff made regarding prison operations, as well as for Plaintiff's prior litigation against Warden Dominick DeRose and the county. Additionally, Plaintiff has alleged that prison and county officials violated his right to substantive due process, and to equal protection under the law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Plaintiff has also alleged that the named defendants conspired among themselves to violate Plaintiff's constitutional rights. Lastly, Plaintiff contends that his termination constitutes wrongful discharge actionable under Pennsylvania law.Defendants have moved for summary judgment on all of Plaintiff's claims and Plaintiff has opposed the motion.
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 non-moving party. Id. at 249. The evidence presented must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving 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 prevail as a matter of law. Id. at 251-52.
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 non-moving party's claims, the nonmoving party may not simply sit back and rest on the allegations in the complaint. 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." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986) (internal quotations omitted). The evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-movant. See Groman v. Township of Manalapan, 47 F.3d 628, 633 (3d Cir. 1995). Summary judgment should be granted where a party "fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden at trial." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322.
With respect to the sufficiency of the evidence that the nonmoving party must provide, a court should grant summary judgment where the non-movant's evidence is merely colorable, conclusory or speculative. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50. There must be more than a scintilla of evidence supporting the nonmoving party and more than some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. Id. at 252; Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986).
A. Merger of Official Capacity Claims
Though it is not clear from the complaint that Plaintiff has sued the individual Defendants in both their individual and official capacities, Defendants have nevertheless argued that the Court should grant summary judgment as to any claims made against the individual Defendants in their official capacities on the basis that such claims are duplicative of those already asserted against Dauphin County. In support of this argument, Defendants cite to Kentucky v. Graham, in which the Supreme Court held that official capacity suits are, in effect, suits against the governmental body employing such defendants. 473 U.S. 159, 165-66 (1985). Asserting that a jury would likely be confused if the Court were to permit Plaintiff to maintain official capacity claims as well as identical claims against their municipal employer, Defendants assert that they are entitled to summary judgment with respect to Plaintiff's claims against them in their official capacities. For his part, Plaintiff declined to respond to this aspect of Defendants' motion. Because the law is clear that official-capacity claims against individual government officials are redundant of those against the municipality itself, the Court will grant Defendants' motion for summary judgment with respect to Plaintiffs' official-capacity claims.
B. First Amendment Retaliation
In his complaint, Plaintiff claims that Defendants unlawfully retaliated against him for engaging in activities that are protected under the First Amendment. Specifically, Plaintiff asserts that his efforts to advise the Dauphin County District Attorney regarding certain allegedly unlawful practices that he had either observed or been made aware of at the prison was protected as speech on a matter of public concern. Plaintiff contends that the county's decision to eliminate his employment, and his treatment by county and prison officials following his employment, constitutes unlawful retaliation for his speech on these topics. Secondly, Plaintiff avers that his employment was unlawfully terminated as retaliation for his having brought one or more civil actions against the county and certain of its employees, including Warden DeRose. Defendants move for summary judgment on Plaintiff's retaliation claim with respect to either his speech or petitioning activities, although for somewhat different reasons, which will be discussed separately below.
1. Claims arising out of Plaintiff's reporting of alleged improprieties at Dauphin County Prison
Plaintiff claims that during the summer or early fall of 2003, he provided Dauphin County District Attorney Edward Marsico information regarding a food service contract between Dauphin County Prison and Aramark Food Services. Plaintiff believed that the information he provided revealed illegality on the part of either Aramark or the prison in the way in which the food service contract was being performed and whether the prison was being billed appropriately for the amount and quality of food received. According to Plaintiff, the District Attorney took some steps to put the information before a sitting grand jury, although no criminal charges were ever filed against any party. Plaintiff represents that he initially took the information to the District Attorney rather than to ...