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Burne v. Siderowicz

November 10, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge James M. Munley United States District Court

(Judge Munley)


Before the court are defendants' motions for summary judgment (Docs. 60, 66) pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Having been fully briefed and argued, the matter is ripe for disposition.


This is a § 1983 civil rights action concerning the termination of Plaintiff Steven W. Burne ("Burne") from his employment with Pennsylvania Department of Transportation ("PennDOT") in March 2005. Burne was a PennDOT seasonal laborer, initially hired for the 2001-2002 winter program in Luzerne County. (Burne Dep. at 9 to 10 (Doc. 22-9)). Burne was re-hired to work each winter until his termination during the 2004-2005 season. (Id. at 10 to 11). In 2003-2004, Burne had obtained a transfer to the Scranton city depot in Lackawanna County, closer to his home. (Id. at 11).

According to Burne, some of the foremen and management at PennDOT did not like him. (Burne Dep. at 65 to 66). Burne states that Defendant Dennis Giordano, Lackawanna County Manager ("Giordano"), made his employment very uncomfortable by moving him from the Scranton city depot to the Route 6 depot in Clarks Summit, farther from his home, though less senior employees were not similarly moved, and by placing him under Defendant Frank Siderowicz ("Siderowicz"), a foreman who allegedly ostracized him. (Burne Dep. at 11 to 12, 65 to 67; Giordano Dep. at 6 to 7 (Doc. 22-7); Siderowicz Dep. at 12 to 13 (Doc. 22-6)).*fn1

In January or February 2005, Burne allegedly witnessed Siderowicz physically attack another employee, John Fife. (Am. Compl. at ¶ 9 (Doc. 46); Burne Dep. at 21 to 25, 30). Burne alleges he indicated to Defendant Robert Cox, the Lackawanna County Assistant Manger for PennDOT ("Cox"), that he would give a statement regarding the alleged assault. (Burne Dep. at 27; Siderowicz Dep. at 13 to 16). Siderowicz denies having an altercation with Fife and denies being aware that Burne had reported the alleged altercation to anyone. (Siderowicz Dep. at 29 to 30). Cox vaguely recalls an incident between Siderowicz and Fife, which Fife did not want to pursue, but cannot recall whether it was a fight or whether he spoke to Burne about it. (Cox Dep. at 10 to 11, 15). Burne states that Fife was later pressured by his PennDOT superiors not to file a formal complaint. (Burne Dep. at 69 to 70).

On February 10, 2005, Defendant Brian Bognatz, a Carbondale police officer ("Officer Bognatz"), observed Burne run a red light in his PennDOT snowplow and pulled him over. (Bognatz Dep. at 7, 52 to 53). Burne maintains that the light was yellow. (Burne Dep. at 33, 92 to 93). Officer Bognatz did not issue a citation at that time, but took down Burne's license and registration. (Burne Dep. at 33 to 34). Burne was left with the impression that he was let off with a warning, but concedes that Officer Bognatz did not definitively state whether he would issue a citation or not. (Burne Dep. at 93). However, on February 11, 2005, Officer Bognatz telephoned PennDOT and informed Giordano of Burne's traffic violation.

(Giordano Dep. at 23; Bognatz Dep. at 48 to 49, 55-56). Giordano apologized to Officer Bognatz and indicated that his drivers are trained to obey traffic lights. (Giordano Dep. at 23). Officer Bognatz denies any influence was exerted by PennDOT, during this call or at any other time, over his discretion to issue a citation. (Bognatz Dep. at 63 to 64). Officer Bognatz and Giordano consistently state that they did not know each other before the February 11 call, never agreed during the call to issue a citation as a pretext to firing Burne, and never similarly agreed after the call. (Bognatz Dep. at 73 to 74; Giordano Dep. at 65). Defendant Bognatz states that officers have up to thirty days to issue citations for summary offenses, and that traffic tickets are post-cited "very very often." (Bognatz Dep. at 15, 70). Officer Bognatz recalls an inquiry by the mayor of Carbondale regarding Burne's traffic stop but denies any influence being asserted to issue a citation or not. (Bognatz Dep. at 20 to 23, 50). Ultimately, a citation was issued and a copy was faxed to PennDOT. (Giordano Dep. at 32 to 33).

On March 7, 2005, Burne rolled his ankle at work, resulting in a slight fracture. (Burne Dep. at 46 to 49). Burne contends that Siderowicz refused to take him to the hospital. (Id.)

The PennDOT Defendants characterize Burne's traffic incident as the culmination of a series of performance-related incidents including: attendance problems; Carbondale resident complaints for speeding and blowing snow onto porches; and inadequate snow removal. (Giordano Dep. at 9, 35; Siderowicz Work Diary (Doc. 67-9)). Upon receiving the call from Officer Bognatz on February 11, 2005, Giordano contacted Defendant Erin Sodin-Mazikewich, the human resources coordinator at the PennDOT district office ("Sodin-Mazikewich"), and asked how he should proceed. (Giordano Dep. at 32 to 33; Sodin-Mazikewich Dep. at 11 (Doc. 60-6)).

Sodin-Mazikewich recommended a pre-disciplinary conference with Burne and his supervisors. (Sodin-Mazikewich Dep. at 26, 30 (Doc. 60-6)). Based on Sodin-Mazikewich's guidance, Giordano attempted to contact Officer Bognatz to obtain a witness statement regarding the traffic light incident. (Giordano Dep. at 26 to 27). When he was unsuccessful, he asked the mayor of Carbondale to assist in these efforts. (Id.)

At the March 11, 2005 pre-disciplinary conference Burne was given an opportunity to answer questions regarding the traffic citation. (Burne Dep. at 53 to 56). In attendance were Sodin-Mazikewich, Giordano, Siderowicz, Burne, and Burne's union representative. (Siderowicz Dep. at 48). At the conclusion of the meeting, Sodin-Mazikewich recommended that Burne be suspended and terminated due to continued safety violations and, specifically, the traffic citation. (Sodin-Mazikewich Dep. at 33 to 35; Burne Dep. at 54 to 56).

Subsequently, Burne received a letter dated March 14, 2005 that suspended him, pending further review, for "Major Work Rule Violation #3, Willful, deliberate, or repeated violation of Department safety rules . . . ." (Shimko Letter, March 14, 2005 (Doc. 22-9 at 34 to 35)). Burne received a March 28, 2005 termination letter, specifying Burne's traffic citation as the basis for his termination. (Shimko Letter, March 28, 2005 (Doc. 22-9 at 36 to 37)).

On April 4, 2005, a hearing on Burne's traffic citation was held before a local magistrate and the citation was dismissed for Officer Bognatz' failure to appear. (Bognatz Dep. at 37 to 40). Officer Bognatz states that he opted not to re-file the charge after Burne's attorney told him that Burne risked losing his job at PennDOT. (Id.)

Plaintiff Burne filed suit in this court on March 28, 2007. (Doc. 1). Officer Bognatz moved for summary judgment on March 3, 2008. (Doc. 22). Plaintiff Burne amended his complaint on May 20, 2008 leading this court to dismiss Officer Bognatz' March 3 motion as moot. (Docs. 46, 50). Burne's amended complaint claims a First Amendment violation and civil conspiracy against both the PennDOT Defendants and Officer Bognatz. The amended complaint additionally claims Fourth Amendment violations against Officer Bognatz. Officer Bognatz' answer to the amended complaint asserts cross claims against the PennDOT Defendants for contribution or indemnification. ...

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