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Eastman v. Lackawanna County

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

March 6, 2015

JOHN M. EASTMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
LACKAWANNA COUNTY, COREY O'BRIEN, and JIM WANSACZ, Defendants

For John M. Eastman, Plaintiff: Barry H. Dyller, LEAD ATTORNEY, Law Office of Barry H. Dyller, Wilkes-Barre, PA; Theron J Solomon, Dyller Law Firm, Wilkes-Barre, PA.

For Lackawanna County, Defendant: James A. Doherty, Jr., Scanlon, Howley & Doherty, P.C., Scranton, PA; John G. Dean, Matthew G. Boyd, Elliott, Greenleaf & Dean, Scranton, PA; Joseph J. Joyce, III, Elliott Greenleaf & Siedzikowski, PC, Scranton, PA.

For Corey O'Brien, Jim Wansacz, Defendants: John G. Dean, Matthew G. Boyd, Elliott, Greenleaf & Dean, Scranton, PA; Joseph J. Joyce, III, Elliott Greenleaf & Siedzikowski, PC, Scranton, PA.

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MEMORANDUM OPINION

EDWARD G. SMITH, J.

The First Amendment generally prohibits public employers from taking adverse employment actions against an employee based on their political affiliation if the employee is not in a policy-making or advisory position. In this action, a former director of public works for Lackawanna County has sued the county and two of the three county commissioners because they allegedly violated his First Amendment right of freedom of association when they terminated his employment with the county and replaced him with an individual that associated politically with one of the commissioners. The defendants have moved for summary judgment claiming that, inter alia, (1) the plaintiff has failed to produce sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case of political patronage discrimination, (2) the defendants would have reached the same decision regarding the plaintiffs employment regardless of his engaging in protected activity, and (3) the plaintiffs claims against the commissioners are barred by the doctrines of qualified immunity and legislative immunity. After reviewing the applicable record, the uncontroverted

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evidence demonstrates that the plaintiff associated himself politically with the two commissioners and, as such, the plaintiff cannot establish a prima facie case of political patronage discrimination. Accordingly, the court will grant the motion for summary judgment.

I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

The plaintiff, John Eastman, commenced this action by filing a complaint on March 25, 2013, against the defendants, Lackawanna County, Corey O'Brien (" O'Brien" ), and Jim Wansacz (" Wansacz" ). Doc. No. 1. The case was originally assigned to the Honorable Christopher C. Conner. The defendants filed an answer to the complaint on May 28, 2013. Doc. No. 12. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, statement of undisputed material facts, appendix, and supporting brief on March 7, 2014. Doc. Nos. 23-26. After Chief Judge Conner granted the plaintiff's motion to exceed certain page restrictions on March 24, 2014, the plaintiff filed a counter statement of facts, appendix, and brief in opposition to the motion for summary judgment. Doc. Nos. 29-34. The defendants then filed a response to the plaintiff's statement of facts and a reply brief on April 10, 2014. Doc. Nos. 35, 36.

On August 13, 2014, Chief Judge Conner recused himself from the case and stayed the matter pending redesignation to a district judge outside of the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Doc. No. 39. The Honorable Theodore A. McKee of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reassigned the case to the undersigned on September 4, 2014. Doc. No. 40.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Factual Record[1]

Three elected commissioners run the Lackawanna County government. Pl.'s App. of Exs. in Connection with Pl. 's Opp. to Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J. (" Pl. 's App." ) at Ex. 4, Oral Dep. of Patrick M. O'Malley (" O'Malley Dep. Tr." ) at 5. The commissioners always include two members from one political party and one commissioner from the other party. Id. After the election in November 2007, O'Brien and Michael Washo (" Washo" ), were two of three individuals sworn-into office in January 2008 as county commissioners in Lackawanna County. Pl.'s App. at Ex. 1, Rule 30(b)(6) Deposition of Lackawanna Cnty. by and Through its Designee, Maria Elkins (" Elkins 2013 Rule 30(b)(6) Dep. Tr." ) at 28.

In early 2008, and shortly after the county commissioners were sworn into office, Lackawanna County opened up the hiring process and allowed members of the public to apply for a variety of positions in the county. Pl.'s App. at Ex. 3, Rule 30(b)(6) Dep. of Lackawanna Cnty. by and Through its Designee, Elizabeth Randol (" Randol 2009 Rule 30(b)(6) Dep. Tr." ) at 96-97. Thus, a large number of Lackawanna County employees, including almost all of the cabinet-level or director-level employees, had to reapply for their positions if they wanted to keep their jobs. Elkins 2013 Rule 30(b)(6) Dep. Tr. at 28. As part of this process, the county terminated the employment of numerous existing employees and hired numerous new employees. Id. The county's termination

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of then-existing county employees resulted in various lawsuits against the county. Id. at 70.

During the 2008 hiring and firing period, the county created a director-level position for the director of public works. Randol 2009 Rule 30(b)(6) Dep. Tr. at 100-01.[2] This position was also a cabinet-level position in the county. Defs.' App. of Exs. in Supp. of Their Mot. for Summ. J. (" Defs.' App." ) at Ex. A, Oral Dep. of John Eastman (" Eastman Dep. Tr." ) at 32. On January 22, 2008, the county hired the plaintiff as the director of public works at an annual salary of $62,000. Elkins 2013 Rule 30(b)(6) Dep. Tr. at 47, 48; Eastman Dep. Tr. at 30; Defs.' App. at Ex. B, January 16, 2008 Lackawanna Cnty. Salary Bd. Meeting Minutes; Defs.' App. at Ex. C, Lackawanna Cnty. Personnel Report. The plaintiff has a bachelor's degree in business administration, operations management from Penn State University, and a master's degree in engineering, environmental pollution control, and facilities management also from Penn State. Eastman Dep. Tr. at 6-7. The plaintiff is also a licensed plumber and electrician. Id. at 7-8.

As Lackawanna County's director of public works, the plaintiff's activities, duties, and accomplishments were as follows:

o He participated on the selection and design team for office space for magisterial district justices. Eastman Dep. Tr. at 38. Although he did not fully negotiate the lease, he did discuss the range that the county typically pays for its leases with the landlord. Id. at 39.
o He participated in cabinet meetings on an at least monthly basis. Id. at 32.[3] As part of his duties, he would prepare cabinet meeting reports prior to the meetings. Id. at 34.
o He worked with the county architect and engineer in preparing bid specifications for county projects. Id. at 35. He would also review the bids with the architect and engineer to ensure that they complied with the specifications. Id. at 35, 36, 37.[4]
o Although FEMA initially determined that the county was ineligible for funding for certain bridge and road repairs, he worked with FEMA and eventually caused FEMA to change course and provide about a million dollars in funding to the county. Id. at 40, 41, 62-63. This also included the plaintiff working with various municipalities to try to get them the FEMA funds. Id. at 41.
o He oversaw, developed, and maintained over thirty county site locations including office buildings, facilities, grounds, roads, bridges, and the recycling department. Id. at 44-45; Elkins 2013 Rule 30(b)(6) Dep. Tr. at 34, 35.[5]

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o He directed one deputy director, Larry Lukasik, one manager, Mamie Palmer, and supervised 35 employees and subcontractors covering three departments. Eastman Dep. Tr. at 46-47. The three departments included the department of roads and bridges, the department of maintenance, and the office of environmental sustainability. Id. at 45-46, 132-33.

o He " was the project manager for the county. [He] represented the county." Id. at 47.
o He interfaced with various county operating authorities, including the county minor league baseball stadium, trolley museum, nursing home, amphitheater, parks, and the district attorney's office, and acted as the county expert about their various facility construction projects, repairs, and improvement projects. Id. at 47-48.
陵 For the minor league baseball stadium, he rectified issues with leaks and drainage problems. Id. at 48. In addition, through his suggestion, the project included placing boulders (instead of fences) around the stadium for security purposes. Id. at 48.
陵 For the trolley museum, he guided the rebuilding of the roof structure and he placed people there to ensure that the facility was clean and safe. Id. at 49.
陵 For the nursing home, he guided the construction of offices in the nursing home. Id. at 49.
陵 For the amphitheater, he visited that facility on numerous occasions because of issues with the stage, plumbing, and pavement. Id. at 49. The facility also had " vending" issues and a problem with snakes. Id.
陵 For the parks, he directed the placement of a bridge in the park for the walking trail. Id. at 49-50.
陵 He supervised the updating/modernizing of various county offices. Id. at 50 .
陵 He directed the construction of platforms to allow for the accessibility of various aspects of the courtroom to disabled judges and members of the public. Id.
o He worked with the accounting department to prepare budgets for his department, and he also prepared project budgets. Id. at 50-51.
o He acted as an " owner representative" for the county at contractor construction meetings. Id. at 51-52. He served as the liaison for the county for any issues with the contractors. Id. at 52.
o He engaged in regular contact with members of the community regarding issues involving, inter alia, flooding and road drainage. Id. at 53.
o He, along with the input of the commissioners and the chief of staff, set and monitored department objectives, achievements, and milestones. Id. at 53-54, 55.
陵 One of the major objectives was making the county buildings much more accessible for individuals with disabilities. Id. at 53-54. In this regard, he participated in and supervised the county making the second-floor courtrooms more accessible, installing elevators, and creating areas of refuge for disabled

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individuals in the event of an emergency. Id. at 54.

陵 He was able to initiate the creation of a fire alarm system, which was passed for approval as part of the county budget. Id.
o He cured a problem that had lasted for seven or eight years prior to his start as director of public works by fixing a leak in the roof of the administration building. Id. at 54. He also was able to persuade the county to replace the roof, and he worked with the commissioners to set aside money for this project. Id. at 54-55.
o He served on the county safety committee, which consisted of various department heads. Id. at 55. This committee had quarterly meetings to ensure that the county employees and members of the public were safe when they were at county facilities/properties. Id. at 55-56. The plaintiff also assisted with the county obtaining defibrillators and ...

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