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Laura Watson v. Borough of Susquehanna; Mike Matis; and William Perry

March 30, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Munley


Before the court is defendants' motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 19). Having been fully briefed, the matter is ripe for disposition.


This case arises out of conflicts between Plaintiff Laura Watson and her former employer, Defendant Borough of Susquehanna.*fn1 The Borough hired plaintiff as a part-time police officer in September 2006. (Defendants' Concise Statement of Material Facts (Doc. 28) (hereinafter "Defendants' Statement") at ¶ 5).*fn2 Defendant promoted plaintiff to Sergeant in 2007. (Id. at ¶ 6).

In May, 2008, plaintiff filed false report charges against William Perry, Sr., father of Defendant William Perry, Jr. (Id. at ¶ 7). She gave sworn testimony against William Perry, Sr., in July 2008. (Id. at ¶ 8). Perry, Sr., pled no contest to those charges on August 28, 2008. (Id. at ¶ 9). Perry, Jr. testified at the hearing where plaintiff brought the charges against his father. (See Perry, Jr. Deposition, Exh. F to Defendants' Statement at 6-7).

On September 4, 2008, plaintiff signed a Request for Verification of Employment form issued by Susquehanna County as part of a housing assistance program. (Id. at ¶ 10). The defendants contend that this document represents a "standard" form, though plaintiff insists that no evidence contained on the form itself reveals how long the form has been in use, or how frequently the Borough uses it. (Id. at ¶ 11; Plaintiff's Statement of Facts in Dispute (Doc. 38) (hereinafter "Plaintiff's Statement") at ¶ 11). The form, addressed to the Defendant Susquehanna Borough and sent by the Susquehanna County Housing/Redevelopment Authority, states that "[y]our employee has applied for rental assistance from the Susquehanna County Housing Authority. Your employee's signature at the bottom of this form authorizes you to furnish the following information." (See Exh. A to Defendants' Statement).

The form asks the Borough to supply information on plaintiff's "length of employment," "position or job title," pay rate, and "probability of future employment." (Id.). The form also states that "[t]he above information is to be held in strict confidence." (Id.). The form contains handwritten information in response to the above queries. (Id.). It also has plaintiff's name, address and social security number printed at the top of the form. (Id.). The form contains no other information about the plaintiff. (Id.). Plaintiff signed the form on September 4, 2008. (Id.).

The Housing and Redevelopment Authority allegedly sent this information request to the Borough as a means of assisting plaintiff in obtaining rental assistance. (Defendants' Statement at ¶ 16). Plaintiff alleges that on September 4, 2008, defendant "obtained confidential information about Sergeant Watson's financial status as a single mother." (Defendants' Statement at ¶ 15). Defendant contends that, as an employee of the Borough, plaintiff's name, address and Social Security number would already have been in the Borough Depot's possession. (Id. at ¶ 19). Plaintiff insists that there is no evidence of record that Borough Council members would have been aware of this information. (Plaintiff's Statement at ¶ 19). Plaintiff contends that defendants "disclosed, copied and disseminated" information on plaintiff's financial status on September 8, 2008. (Defendants' Statement at ¶ 20). The parties disagree about whether the form here in question contains any such confidential information. Defendants assert that the form does not contain such information; plaintiff disputes this, pointing to Housing and Urban Development Department regulations that proscribe dissemination of confidential information printed and referenced on the form. (Defendants' Statement at ¶ 21; Plaintiff's Statement at ¶ 21).

The parties also dispute whether defendants disclosed information contained on the form to anyone in the public or anyone not associated with plaintiff's employer, the Borough. (Defendants' Statement at ¶ 22). In responding to defendants' claim, plaintiff does not allege that defendants disseminated the information to the general public, but insists that the Borough Secretary improperly showed the form to Borough Council members. (Plaintiff's Statement at ¶ 22). Moreover, she contends, this private information was discussed, copied and disseminated at a public Council Board meeting on September 8, 2008. (Id. at ¶ 23). The parties disagree about whether this meeting was actually "public." (Id. at ¶ 24; Plaintiff's Statement at ¶ 24).

On September 10, 2008, plaintiff allegedly complained to Borough Secretary Ann Stewart that confidential information concerning plaintiff in Stewart's possession had been illegally disclosed, copied and disseminated in violation of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development regulations. (Defendants' Statement at ¶ 25). Plaintiff asserts that she was speaking on a matter of public concern, serving as a whistleblower about violations of citizens' privacy rights by the Borough. (Id. at ¶ 26). The interaction between these two women became "heated," and they began shouting at each other. (Id. at ¶¶ 43-44). Plaintiff threatened to sue the Borough and threatened to have Stewart fired. (Id. at ¶ 45). Plaintiff also allegedly told Stewart that she would also have Stewart's husband arrested for a parole violation. (Id. at ¶ 46). Stewart responded by yelling at plaintiff. (Id. at ¶ 48). She used a profanity in telling plaintiff to leave her office. (Id.). Stewart testified that plaintiff's behavior frightened her. (Id. at ¶ 47). Stewart contacted Defendant Matis about the situation, both texting and e-mailing him. (Id. at ¶ 48).

The dispute between plaintiff and Stewart centered around Stewart's alleged disclosure of plaintiff's private information. The parties dispute whether Ann Stewart, Secretary/Treasurer of the Borough disclosed any such information. (Id. at ¶ 32; Plaintiff's Statement at ¶ 32). Plaintiff insists that Stewart provided the confidential form, which contained plaintiff's social security number and request for financial assistance, to Borough Council members Matis and Stewart, who distributed the form to other council members, the mayor and Chief of Police. (Plaintiff's Statement at ¶ 32). Stewart contends that she supplied this information to the council members because she suspected that plaintiff had misused her paid time in obtaining the form when she was supposed to be working. (Defendants' Statement at ¶ 33). Plaintiff insists that this explanation masks the real reasons for her termination; she points to deposition testimony from the Mayor and Police Chief that plaintiff's actions in obtaining the form were not a violation of workplace rules. (Plaintiff's Statement at ¶ 33).

On September 10, 2008, Defendant Borough Council President Mike Matis informed plaintiff that she could not appear at work for the next two days, and required her to report for a meeting on the following Saturday. (Id. at ¶ 27). The Susquehanna Borough Council terminated plaintiff's employment on September 17, 2008. (Id. at ¶ 28). Plaintiff contends that this termination was retaliation for her testimony against William Perry, Sr. and for her free speech in complaining about the Borough's supposed disclosure of confidential information. (Id. at ¶¶ 29-30). Defendants contend, by contrast, that plaintiff's termination resulted from her shouts and threats at Stewart on September 10, 2008. (Id. at ¶¶ 55, 65).

Plaintiff filed her complaint on February 16, 2009. (See Doc. 1). The complaint contains two counts. Court I alleges that defendants violated plaintiff's rights pursuant to the First Amendment of the United States Constitution by retaliating against her for speaking on a matter of public concern. Count II raises a claim for violation of the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Act, alleging that the defendants retaliated against her after she reported wrong-doing to the Borough.

The parties then engaged in discovery. At the close of discovery, defendants filed the instant motion. The parties briefed the issues, bringing the case to its present posture.


Plaintiff brings her claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. As such, the court has jurisdiction pursuant to 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."). The court has supplemental jurisdiction over plaintiff's state-law claim pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a) ("In any civil action of which the district courts have original jurisdiction, the district courts shall have supplemental jurisdiction over all other claims that are so related to claims in ...

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