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Wren v. County of Luzerne

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

June 19, 2015

RICHARD WREN, Plaintiff,


RICHARD P. CONABOY, District Judge.

Here we consider the filing titled "Defendants Luzerne County, Maryanne Petrilla and Stephen A. Urban's Motions in Limine" which presents seven motions to preclude evidence and/or testimony from being presented at trial. (Doc. 60.) The motion was accompanied by a supporting brief (Doc. 61), and Plaintiff filed his opposition brief (Doc. 73) on May 22, 2015. With the filing of Defendants' reply brief on June 16, 2015 (Doc. 76), the motions are fully briefed and ripe for disposition.

I. Background

We briefly summarize the factual and procedural background of this case to provide context for the motions under consideration.[1]

On July 13, 2005, Plaintiff was appointed to the position of Director of Veterans' Affairs in Luzerne County by former Commissioners Gregory Skrepenak, Todd Vonderhied, and Stephen Urban. (Doc. 23 ¶ 5; Doc. 29 ¶ 5.) Plaintiff was a political affiliate of Gregory Skrepenak. (Doc. 73 at 1.) Defendants Petrilla and Urban were allegedly political adversaries of former Commissioner Skrepenak. ( Id. )

The County Commissioners had a duty of ensuring that flags are purchased and placed on gravesites each Memorial Day, and the activity was administered by the Veteran's Office under Plaintiff's leadership. (Doc. 23 ¶ 45; Doc. 29 ¶ 45.) Local veterans' organizations volunteer to place the flags and the County can reimburse them up to seventy-five dollars ($75.00) for refreshment and meals. (Doc. 23 ¶ 46.) Plaintiff was responsible for authorizing the reimbursement of payments. (Doc. 23 ¶ 47; Doc. 29 ¶ 47.) The veteran would submit a written receipt or written request with the amount of money spent to Plaintiff and a payment authorization form would be completed and the documentation attached, then Plaintiff would sign off on the payment. (Doc. 23 ¶ 48; Doc. 29 ¶ 48.) The executed payment authorization form and attached documents would then be sent to the County Controller's Office. (Doc. 23 ¶ 50; Doc. 29 ¶ 50.)

Luzerne County authorized Plaintiff to establish his own procedure for the utilization of receipts for the purpose of reimbursing the coffee and doughnut expenses of veterans who volunteer to place Memorial Day flags. (Doc. 29 CMF ¶ 45; Doc. 34 ¶ 45.) Defendants add that Plaintiff used the same procedure that had been used for "40-plus years" at the office, that is, attaching a receipt to the submission for payment authorization. (Doc. 34 ¶ 45.)

Plaintiff had set a deadline of July 15, 2009, for the Memorial Day flag related food reimbursements, but had the right to change the deadline. (Doc. 23 ¶ 50; Doc. 29 ¶ 50.) In September 2009, John A. Brogna ("Brogna") sought reimbursement for expenses allegedly incurred at Perkins Restaurant on behalf of the Disabled Veterans of America, a group which assisted with 2009 Memorial Day cemetery decorating in the City of Pittston. (Doc. 23 ¶¶ 51-52.) The Perkins receipt was reportedly misplaced and Brogna was unable to get a copy of the receipt from Perkins. (Doc. 23 ¶¶ 53-55; Doc. 29 ¶¶ 53-55.) Brogna returned to the office with a receipt from Perkins from another day which Plaintiff accepted and told the clerk to alter the receipt to reflect the date of May 31, 2009, and the amount $70.00 which Brogna said was the amount spent. (Doc. 23 ¶ 56; Doc. 29 ¶ 56.) The altered receipt was then attached to the payment authorization form for $70.00 and Plaintiff signed off on it and submitted it to the Controller's Office. (Doc. 23 ¶ 57; Doc. 29 ¶ 57.)

Sharon Roke, who worked at the Veterans' Affairs office in 2009 as a Clerk 2 (and had since the Fall of 2008) with duties which included functioning as a payroll clerk (Doc. 25-7 at 8 (Pape Dep. 7:10-18)), actually submitted the payment request at Plaintiff's direction. (Doc. 29 CMF ¶ 49.)

The altered receipt was noted by the County Controller's Office, and a meeting was held with Plaintiff, Chief County Solicitor Vito DeLuca, County Manager/Chief Clerk Doug Pape, and County Human Resources Director Doug Richards attending. (Doc. 23 ¶ 58; Doc. 29 ¶ 58.) Plaintiff admitted to the alteration. (Doc. 23 ¶ 59; Doc. 29 ¶ 59.) Chief County Solicitor Vito DeLuca and County Manager/Chief Clerk Doug Pape recommended that Plaintiff be terminated for submitting an altered receipt for reimbursement (Doc. 23 ¶ 60), an assertion disputed by Plaintiff as being implausible (Doc. 29 ¶ 60). On September 24, 2009, Defendants County Commissioners Petrilla and Urban voted to terminate Plaintiff at the public Commissioner's meeting. (Doc. 23 ¶ 61; Doc. 29 ¶ 61.)

Defendant Petrilla testified that in 2009 and before that some payment authorizations were paid for expenses directed to Luzerne County without having receipts. (Doc. 29 CMF ¶ 42; Doc. 25-2 at 30 (Petrilla Dep. 29:3-9).) Defendant Petrilla added that these employees did not submit false receipts; those expenses for which they could not produce receipts they had to personally pay back to the county. (Doc. 29 CMF ¶ 42; Doc. 25-2 at 30 (Petrilla Dep. 29:22-25).) These employees were not terminated. (Doc. 25-2 at 30 (Petrilla Dep. 29:17).) Defendant Urban made an unsuccessful attempt (lack of second to his motion) to terminate involved employees and also sought their resignation. (Doc. 34 ¶ 42; Doc. 25-3 at 10 (Urban Dep. 30:21-25).) At a County Prison Board meeting, Defendant Urban made a motion to terminate former Warden Sam Hyder and the motion was seconded by Defendant Petrilla but did not pass. (Doc. 34 ¶ 42; Doc. 25-3 at 10 (Urban Dep. 31:1-5).) Urban testified that he believed Hyder was subject to termination because of his misuse of the debit card (using the card at a Las Vegas strip club) and his initial and subsequent denials of doing so. (Doc. 29 CMF ¶ 86; Doc. 34 ¶ 86; Doc. 25-3 at 10 (Urban Dep. 31:7-13).)

Plaintiff filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S. § 1983 on September 23, 2011. (Doc. 1.) The Complaint contains four counts: Count I asserting First and Fourteenth Amendment violations pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against all Defendants; Count II asserting First and Fourteenth Amendment violations pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Defendants Petrilla and Urban in their individual capacities; Count III asserting Discrimination on Account of Age pursuant to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. § 623(a) and 29 U.S.C. § 215; and Count IV asserting Discrimination on Account of Age pursuant to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA"), 43 P.S. § 955(a). (Doc. 1.) As a result of the Court Orders of February 8, 2013, and February 28, 2013, the only claims going forward were Plaintiff's First Amendment association claims in Counts I and II. (Docs. 39, 42.)

II. Discussion

A. Relevant Law

As noted above, the only remaining claims in this case are those based on Plaintiff's assertions that his First Amendment freedom of association rights were violated. Plaintiff alleges in his Complaint that he was terminated in part because of his political affiliation with Gregory Skrepenak, a County Commissioner during the time at issue to whom Defendants Petrilla and Urban were politically opposed. (Doc. 1 ¶¶ 21-24, 30-31.) Because the relevance of evidence/testimony Defendants seek to preclude ...

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