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Monita Hara v. the Pennsylvania Department of Education

October 31, 2011

MONITA HARA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
THE PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, JOHN TOMMASINI, AND CHRISTINE BRENNAN, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Caputo

MEMORANDUM

Presently before the Court is Defendants John Tommasini and Christine Brennan's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. 43). Plaintiff Monita Hara brought this action against the Defendants seeking damages for a First Amendment retaliation claim. In their Motion, Defendants counter that Plaintiff's speech was not protected, that qualified immunity is warranted, and that the damages Plaintiff is seeking are excessive. The Court agrees, and for the reasons below will grant Defendants' Motion.

I. Background

Plaintiff, Monita Hara, was employed by the Pennsylvania Department of Education ("PDE") as the Superintendent of the Scranton State School for the Deaf ("SSSD"). (Am. Compl. ¶ 10, Doc. 9). Defendant John Tommasini was, at all relevant times, employed as the Director of the Bureau of Special Education while Defendant Christine Brennan was employed by the PDE as Director of Human Resources.

On April 20, 2009, Plaintiff, acting as a private citizen, submitted an op-ed to the Scranton Times newspaper expressing her concern with the proposed closing of the SSSD. (Id. at ¶¶ 11, 23). On or about May 11, 2009, Defendant Tommasini contacted Plaintiff and informed her that she was to meet with him in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania the following day. (Id. at ¶ 15). At this meeting, for which Defendant Brennan was present, the parties discussed the Scranton Times article. Tommasini and Brennan then left the room. When they returned, they questioned Plaintiff about her denying access to a group of individuals attempting to conduct inventory at the SSSD. (Id. at ¶ 24). Plaintiff explained that those individuals had been denied for lacking the proper clearances, to which Brennan responded that Plaintiff was being transferred to Harrisburg. (Id. at ¶¶ 26-27). Plaintiff was then informed that they had not yet decided on her new position in Harrisburg, and Plaintiff communicated to Brennan and Tommasini she did not understand why the PDE kept changing its explanation of why SSSD would be closed. (Id. at ¶¶ 27-28). Tommasini and Brennan again left the room and returned. Upon their return, Brennan informed Plaintiff that she was being suspended for ten (10) days without pay or benefits. (Id. at ¶ 30). Plaintiff was then forced to resign to avoid tarnishing her impeccable employment history and reputation with a baseless suspension. (Id. at ¶ 31).

Plaintiff brought a claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Pennsylvania Department of Education, John Tommasini, and Christine Brennan, alleging that she was constructively discharged in retaliation for exercising her First Amendment free speech rights. She also brought a state law claim for Constructive Discharge. In my January 22, 2010 Order, I granted the Defendants' Motion to Dismiss the state law claim and the claim against the Pennsylvania Department of Education. (Doc. 20). The First Amendment retaliation claim was allowed to proceed against the individual Defendants in their individual capacities.

Defendants now move for Summary Judgment, alleging (a) that Plaintiff's First Amendment retaliation claim fails as a matter of law; (b) that the Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity; and (c) that the Plaintiff is not entitled to all the damages she seeks for lost wages. (Doc. 43). The issue is ripe and has been fully briefed before the Court.

II. Discussion

A. Legal Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate "if the pleadings, the discovery and 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)(2). A fact is material if proof of its existence or nonexistence might affect the outcome of the suit under the applicable substantive law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

Where there is no material fact in dispute, the moving party need only establish that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(2). Where, however, there is a disputed issue of material fact, summary judgment is appropriate only if the factual dispute is not a genuine one. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. An issue of material fact is genuine if "a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id. Where there is a material fact in dispute, the moving party has the initial burden of proving that: (1) there is no genuine issue of material fact; and (2) the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See 2D Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 2727 (2d ed. 1983). The moving party may present its own evidence or, where the nonmoving party has the burden of proof, simply point out to the court that "the nonmoving party has failed to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of her case." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986).

All doubts as to the existence of a genuine issue of material fact must be resolved against the moving party, and the entire record must be examined in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. White v. Westinghouse Elec. Co., 862 F.2d 56, 59 (3d Cir. 1988). Once the moving party has satisfied its initial burden, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to either present affirmative evidence supporting its version of the material facts or to refute the moving party's contention that the facts entitle it to judgment as a matter of law. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256--57. The Court need not accept mere conclusory allegations, whether they are made in the complaint or a sworn statement. Lujan v. Nat'l Wildlife Fed'n, 497 U.S. 871, 888 (1990).

"To prevail on a motion for summary judgment, the non-moving party must show specific facts such that a reasonable jury could find in that party's favor, thereby establishing a genuine issue of fact for trial." Galli v. New Jersey Meadowlands Comm'n, 490 F.3d 265, 270 (3d Cir. 2007) (citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)). "While the evidence that the non-moving party presents may be either direct or circumstantial, and need not be as great as a preponderance, the evidence must be more than a scintilla." Id. (quoting Hugh v. Butler County Family YMCA, 418 F.3d 265, 267 (3d Cir. 2005)). In deciding a motion for summary judgment, "the judge's function ...


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