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Piazza v. County of Luzerne

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

February 3, 2014

LEONARD PIAZZA, III, Plaintiff,
v.
COUNTY OF LUZERNE and ROBERT LAWTON, Defendants.

MEMORANADUM

RICHARD P. CONABOY, District Judge.

Here we consider Defendants Luzerne County and Robert Lawton's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 15) with which Defendants seek to dismiss Plaintiff's First Amended Complaint (Doc. 11). The incident underlying Plaintiff's 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action is his termination from his position as Luzerne County Director of Elections, Chief Registrar and Clerk on April 10, 2013. (Doc. 11 ¶¶ 10, 58-59.) For the reasons discussed below, we conclude Defendants' motion is properly granted in part and denied in part.

I. Background[1]

Beginning in April 2004, Plaintiff held the position of the Director of Elections, Chief Registrar and Clerk in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. (Doc. 11 ¶ 10.) He had previously served as the Deputy Director of Elections beginning in August 2002. (Doc. 11 ¶ 11.)

On April 5, 2012, Plaintiff was called to the office of Robert Lawton, the County Manager for Luzerne County. (Doc. 11 ¶¶ 7, 50.) Plaintiff was accused of violating the civil rights of Walter L. Griffith, Jr., who was the Luzerne County Controller at the time, having been elected in November 2009. (Doc. 11 ¶¶ 40, 42, 51.)

Approximately one week before the meeting, on March 30, 2012, Plaintiff had requested certain campaign finance information from Griffith and the Committee to Elect Walter L. Griffith (Controller) for purposes of examination. (Doc. 11 ¶ 46.) The written request specifically identified that it was being made consistent with Section 1639 of the Pennsylvania Election Code, 25 P.S. § 3259. ( Id. ) At the same time, Plaintiff sent the Griffith request by e-mail to the Luzerne County Board of Elections and Registration and Michael I. Butera, Esq., solicitor to the Luzerne County Board of Elections and Registration. (Doc. 11 ¶ 47.)

Griffith had run for other elective offices prior to his election as a Luzerne County Controller in 2009. (Doc. 11 ¶ 43.) In the course of various campaigns, Griffith "had been non-compliant with Pennsylvania Campaign Finance Laws pursuant to the Pennsylvania Election Code by late filings, missing information from reports, and failure to follow reporting instructions." (Doc. 11 ¶ 43.)

On March 31, 2012, Plaintiff requested certain campaign finance information from the First District Democratic Committee, Political Party Committee, addressed to Joseph A. Zoba for purposes of an examination. (Doc. 11 ¶ 48.) The written request specifically identified that it was being made consistent with Section 1639 of the Pennsylvania Election Code, 25 P.S. § 3259. ( Id. )

On March 31, 2012, Griffith notified Plaintiff that he would not comply with Plaintiff's request for information. (Doc. 11 ¶ 49.) Griffith contemporaneously informed Defendant Lawton, Luzerne County Solicitor Vito DeLuca, Assistant Luzerne County Solicitor "(and putative solicitor to the Luzerne County Board of Elections), " Michael Butera, Esq. (Doc. 11 ¶ 49.)

Attorneys Butera and DeLuca were present at the April 5, 2012, meeting in Defendant Lawton's office, as was Luzerne County Human Resources Manager Andrew Check. (Doc. 11 at 50.) Aside from the accusation that Plaintiff had violated Controller Griffith's civil rights, no other matters pertaining to Plaintiff were raised at the meeting. (Doc. 11 ¶ 54.) At the direction of Defendant Lawton on behalf of Defendant Luzerne County, Check informed Plaintiff that he was being placed on administrative leave. (Doc. 11 ¶ 55.)

Plaintiff was terminated from his employment on April 10, 2012, for the reasons communicated to him at the April 5th meeting. (Doc. 11 ¶ 58.) The Luzerne County Board of Elections was not consulted about Plaintiff's status or performance, nor was it consulted regarding his placement on administrative leave and termination. (Doc. 11 ¶¶ 57, 60, 61.) Before the April 5th meeting, Defendants had not criticized Plaintiff's performance of his duties. (Doc. 11 ¶ 66.)

The Luzerne County Board of Elections "was, and is, empowered to Make from time to time inquiries and field investigations with respect to reports and statements filed under [the Election Code] and with respect to alleged failures to file any report or statement required under the provisions of [the Election Code].'" (Doc. 11 ¶ 36 (quoting 25 P.S. § 3259).) Before January 1, 2012, Plaintiff did make such inquiries in the course of his duties as Director of Elections. (Doc. 11 ¶ 38.) The inquiries and field investigations Plaintiff performed before January 1, 2012, were done with the knowledge and consent of the Luzerne County Board of Elections in furtherance of the statutory duties to assure that candidates and campaign committees complied with the Pennsylvania Election Code. (Doc. 11 ¶ 39.)

Plaintiff had no political affiliation with any candidate or office holder. (Doc. 11 ¶ 53.) Defendant Lawton was politically affiliated with Controller Griffith. (Doc. 11 ¶ 51.)

Plaintiff's successor, Maria Crispell, has failed to perform the duties of the Director of Elections in numerous ways. (Doc. 11 § 67 (identifying eight (8) examples).) Defendants have taken no disciplinary or employment action against her. (Doc. 11 ¶ 68.) On June 13, 2013, David Pedri, Esq., Luzerne County Solicitor (who replaced Attorney DeLuca), stated at a news conference regarding errors made by Crispell during the 2013 primary elections that any disciplinary action to be taken against her "was more for the board of elections at this time.'" (Doc. 11 ¶ 70.)

Plaintiff filed a Complaint in this Court on June 25, 2013. (Doc. 1.) Defendants filed Defendants Luzerne County and Robert Lawton's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 5) on August 29, 2013. Plaintiff filed the First Amended Complaint (Doc. 11) on September 23, 2013. The First Amended Complaint contains six counts: Count I 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Association claim pursuant to the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution against both Defendants; Count II 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Equal Protection claim pursuant to the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution against both Defendants; Count III Association claim pursuant to the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania against Defendant Luzerne County; Count IV Equal Protection claim pursuant to the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania against Defendant Luzerne County; Count V Wrongful Termination claim pursuant to the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania against Defendant Luzerne County; Count VI Wrongful Termination claim pursuant to Pennsylvania statutes and common law. (Doc. 11; Doc. 19 at 10.)

Defendants filed the motion at issue here, Defendants Luzerne County and Robert Lawton's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 15), on October 15, 2013. Defendants filed their supporting brief (Doc. 18) on October 28, 2013, and Plaintiff filed his opposition brief (Doc. 19) on November 14, 2013. Defendants filed their reply brief (Doc. 21) on December 2, 2013. Plaintiff filed a sur-reply brief (Doc. 24) on December 20, 2013, after ...


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