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William Simmons v. Ray Bernardi

January 11, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Caputo


Presently before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. 24). Plaintiff William Simmons claims retaliation by his employer, the Wyoming Area School District, in violation of his First Amendment rights to petition for redress of grievances and to association. In their Motion, the Defendants claim that Simmons has failed to produce evidence that could support such a claim. For the reasons below, the Court will deny Defendants' Motion as to Defendant Bernardi, but will grant it in respect to the School Board and the individual Board Member Defendants.


Simmons was originally hired by the Wyoming Area School District ("WASD") as a janitor in 1997, and became the Union President in 1999. In 2000, he was promoted to Maintenance Foreman of the School District where he reported directly to the WASD Superintendent, who was, at all relevant times, Defendant Ray Bernardi ("Bernardi"). In a letter dated November 20, 2007, Simmons tendered his resignation to the WASD, (Pls.' Ex. 1). In his letter, Plaintiff premised his resignation on a pattern of debilitating harassment by Defendant Ray Bernardi, which Plaintiff attributed to his political affiliations. (Id.). Simmons withdrew his letter in writing on December 6, 2007. (Pls.' Ex. 2). However, Simmons never returned to work, and the Board Members informed him in a December 21, 2007 letter that disciplinary action was being initiated against him for insubordination and dereliction of duty. (Pls.' Ex. 4). Also on December 21, 2007, Plaintiff's Union attorney wrote to Superintendent Bernardi, informing him that Plaintiff was ready and able to return to work. (Pls.' Ex. 5).

In a January 24, 2008 letter, the School District terminated Simmons for failing to show up at work and for statements regarding Defendant Bernardi contained within his original resignation letter. Simmons filed a grievance as to his termination, which was sustained at arbitration, and he was reinstated at full back pay.

Plaintiff filed this action in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania on January 25, 2010. (Compl., Doc. 1). He alleged retaliatory conduct on behalf of all Defendants in violation of his First Amendment rights to petition for redress of grievances and to association. Plaintiff also alleged a cause of action for violation of his rights under the Fourteenth Amendment Substantive Due Process Clause. On April 19, 2010, the Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss Simmons's claims in full. (Doc. 4). In a July 15 Order, the Court granted in part and denied in part the Defendants' Motion, dismissing Simmons's Fourth Amendment Substantive Due Process claim. (Doc. 8). The only issue remaining before the Court is Plaintiff's First Amendment retaliation claim. This motion has been briefed by both sides and is now ripe for disposition.


I. Summary Judgment

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).

"When considering whether there exist genuine issues of material fact, the court is required to examine the evidence of record in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment, and resolve all reasonable inferences in that party's favor." Wishkin v. Potter, 476 F.3d 180, 184 (3d Cir. 2007). 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 is not himself to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249.


I. First Amendment Retaliation Claim

A Section 1983 claim provides redress for individuals whose constitutional rights are violated by governmental actors.*fn1 Specifically, Simmons brings his § 1983 claim under the First Amendment, which "prohibits government officials from subjecting an individual to retaliatory actions . . . for speaking out." Hartman v. Moore, 547 U.S. 250, 256 (2006).

Where such retaliatory actions are alleged, a plaintiff must establish: (a) the existence of an activity protected by the First Amendment; (b) retaliatory action by a defendant that would be "sufficient to deter a person of ordinary firmness from exercising his or her rights"; and (c) a "causal connection between the protected activity and the retaliatory action." Lauren W. v. DeFlaminis, 480 F.3d 259, 267 (3d Cir. 2007). Once these elements are established, a defendant may still prevail if they can demonstrate that the supposed retaliatory action would have occurred even in the absence of the protected activity. Id. While the existence of a protected activity is a question of law, the remaining questions are questions of fact. Curinga v. City of Clairton, 357 F.3d 305, 310 (3d Cir. 2004).

Plaintiff alleges that he was retaliated against as a result of his speech (Compl. at ¶¶ 27, 34, Doc. 1), and as a result of his political association with Patrick J. Pribula, an adversary of Bernardi,*fn2 (Id. at ΒΆ 14). The Defendants do not contest that Simmons's speech and ...

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