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O'Leath v. Bacha

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 26, 2014

F. CHRISTOPHER O'LEATH, Plaintiff,
v.
KENNETH BACHA, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM ORDER

CATHY BISSOON, District Judge.

I. MEMORANDUM

Plaintiff Christopher O'Leath ("Plaintiff") brings this instant cause of action against Defendants Kenneth Bacha, Paul Cycak, and Westmoreland County (collectively, "Defendants"), pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Currently pending before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 39), which, for the reasons stated below, will be granted.

BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff's allegations stem from his employment as a deputy coroner at the Westmoreland County Coroner's Office, where Plaintiff worked full-time from April 2002, until his termination in March 2010. (Doc. 40 at ¶ 8). Plaintiff alleges that in April 2005, Defendant Kenneth Bacha ("Bacha"), the Coroner of Westmoreland County, asked Plaintiff to illegally perform campaign work during County working hours. (Doc. 22 at ¶15). Plaintiff allegedly viewed this request as a "demand" and performed this work in fear of losing his job. Id . Shortly thereafter, Defendant Paul Cycak, ("Cycak"), the Chief Deputy Coroner of Westmoreland County, also directed Plaintiff to perform campaign work on behalf of Bacha. Id. at ¶ 16. Between 2005 and 2009, Plaintiff completed various tasks with regard to Bacha's campaign, including helping to prepare of a golf outing brochure, putting up political signs and circulating petitions. (Doc. 40 at ¶ 63). However, in late 2008 or early 2009, Plaintiff informed Bacha, on two separate occasions, that he believed that his work on campaign activities was illegal and improper, and that he would no longer do the work. (Doc. 42, Ex. N. at 162). Plaintiff also informed Cycak of his opposition to doing campaign work in late 2008. Id. at 168.

In late 2009, Plaintiff went on medical leave. Prior to going on leave, Plaintiff placed drug evidence from a scene investigation into his desk drawer. Id. at 81. In January 2010, while Plaintiff was still on medical leave, the office adopted a new policy on how drug evidence was to be stored. (Doc. 42, Ex. F). Specifically, under the new policy, evidence was to be kept in a new evidence room. Plaintiff was informed of this new policy via email on January 11, 2010. Id.

Further, while on medical leave, Plaintiff attended an autopsy at Carlow University with a female colleague. (Doc. 42, Ex. N. at 71). Plaintiff did not inform Bacha or Cycak about his intent to attend the autopsy, nor did he seek their permission. Id. at 73. During that autopsy, Plaintiff took possession of x-rays from the Doreanna Clarke case. Id. at 64. Plaintiff retained the x-rays for four days, and then brought them to Bacha at the Coroner's Office the following Monday, at which point, Bacha, who had been looking for the x-rays for a significant period of time, became angry at Plaintiff. Id. at 77.

On February 19, 2010, right before he was set to return to work, Plaintiff had a telephone conversation with a co-worker, Josh Zappone, wherein Zappone told Plaintiff that Bacha or Cycak were upset about something Plaintiff did with the regard to the implementation of the new evidence room. (Doc. 42, Ex. N at 51). During that conversation, Plaintiff made a statement to Zappone about being "dangerous." Id . While the exact statement is unclear from the record, [1] Plaintiff testified that he did not intend his comment to be any sort of physical threat. Id. at 53. Instead, Plaintiff meant that he possessed dangerous information about Defendants, because he could report them to law enforcement for forcing him to do campaign work during county time. Id. at 52-53.

Regardless, Zappone reported this comment to another co-worker, Gerry Fritz, who relayed them to Bacha on February 22, 2010. (Doc. 42, Ex. G). Fritz perceived the statements as a "serious potential physical threat" on Bacha and others in the office. (Id.; Doc. 42, Ex. O at 16-17). Accordingly, upon confirming these statements with Zappone, Bacha and Cycak met with others about the threat, and then shut off Plaintiff's county login and cell phone. (Doc. 42, Ex. G). When Plaintiff arrived at the office later that day, Plaintiff was immediately required to attend a meeting with Bacha and Cycak. (Doc. 42, Ex. N at 57).

During this meeting, Bacha informed Plaintiff that he was being suspended, and gave him several reasons for the suspension. First, Bacha brought up the statements that Plaintiff had made to Zappone about being dangerous. Then, Bacha referenced several disciplinary matters, including attending the autopsy at Carlow without permission, retaining the Doreanna Clarke x-rays, and failing to comply with the new evidence policy. Id. at 57-58. According to Plaintiff, there was also a "discussion" about how Plaintiff was opposed to doing campaign work. Id. at 84. Plaintiff was then escorted to his desk, where Bacha and Cycak questioned him about the drug evidence in his desk. Id. at 79, 82-83.

On February 26, 2010, Bacha notified Plaintiff that his suspension would continue indefinitely, without pay, as a result of the performance issues that were discussed at the meeting. (Doc. 40 at ¶ 44). Plaintiff then attended a meeting with Bacha and Cycak on March 5, 2010, where he was informed of his termination. Id. at 45.

As a result of these events, Plaintiff has brought the instant lawsuit, arguing that his suspension and ultimate termination were the result of his opposition to doing campaign work for Bacha. Defendants deny that Plaintiff ever expressed opposition to doing campaign work or that it played any role in their decision to terminate him, and assert that his termination was for legitimate, politically neutral reasons.

ANALYSIS

Plaintiff originally alleged a deprivation of his Constitutional rights under the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments. However, Plaintiff has agreed that Defendants are entitled to summary judgment on the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment claims. (Doc. 46 at 30). Therefore, the only remaining constitutional violation for the Court's consideration is Plaintiff's First Amendment claim. Specifically, Plaintiff has alleged that Defendants, acting under the color of state law, have violated his right, under the First Amendment, "to engage in constitutionally protected activity and be free from retaliatory actions." (Doc. 22 at ¶¶ 52, 61). While Plaintiff's Amended Complaint does not ...


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