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Mancini v. Northampton County

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

June 26, 2015

JILL E. MANCINI
v.
NORTHAMPTON COUNTY, et al.

MEMORANDUM

Juan R. Sánchez, J.

Plaintiff Jill E. Mancini brought suit against Northampton County, County Executive John Brown, and County Solicitor Victor Scomillio, alleging violations of the First Amendment, Due Process Clause, and Equal Protection Clause in connection with her termination from her position as a full-time Assistant County Solicitor for Northampton County. After a five-day trial, the jury returned a verdict finding Mancini was a career service employee, her position did not require political affiliation, and Northampton County violated Mancini’s due process rights. The jury awarded her $94, 232.00 in actual damages.[1]

In its post-verdict motion, Defendant Northampton County contends it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law or a new trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50. The County first argues Mancini is not entitled to due process as a matter of law because the Solicitor’s Office was reorganized based on legitimate, nondiscriminatory factors, and second, the plain language of the County’s policies do not require due process during reorganizations. The County also argues Mancini was a policymaker as a matter of law; thus, she was not career service and could be terminated at-will. Alternatively, Northampton County argues insufficient evidence supports the jury verdict in favor of Mancini on her Due Process claim. Because there were genuine issues of material fact regarding Mancini’s status as a career service employee, whether her position required political affiliation, as well as the legitimacy of Northampton County’s reorganization, and because the jury’s findings were not against the weight of the evidence, Northampton County’s motion will be denied.

Mancini also moves for a new trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a). Mancini asserts the Court erred in permitting Defendants to introduce evidence about the 2015 budget of the Solicitor’s Office in support of their defenses to her First Amendment claim. Mancini also alleges the Court erred in finding Defendants Brown and Scomillio were entitled to qualified immunity on her First Amendment claims as asserted against them in their individual capacities. For the reasons set forth below, Mancini’s motion for a new trial will also be denied.

LEGAL STANDARDS

A court may grant judgment as a matter of law if “the court finds that a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party on that issue.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(1). Such a motion should be granted only if, “viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, there is no question of material fact for the jury and any verdict other than the one directed would be erroneous under the governing law.” Macleary v. Hines, 817 F.2d 1081, 1083 (3d Cir. 1987). Material facts are those “that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). In conducting this review, a court may not make credibility determinations, weigh the evidence, or draw its own inferences as those actions “are jury functions, not those of a judge.” Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., 530 U.S. 133, 150-51 (2000) (citation omitted). “Thus, although the court should review the record as a whole, it must disregard all evidence favorable to the moving party that the jury is not required to believe.” Id.

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a) allows the court to grant a new trial “for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a)(1)(A). The authority to grant a new trial “resides in the exercise of sound discretion by the trial court.” Wagner by Wagner v. Fair Acres Geriatric Ctr., 49 F.3d 1002, 1017 (3d Cir. 1995). Generally, a district court should grant a new trial “only where a miscarriage of justice would result if the verdict were to stand.” Levy v. Schmidt, 573 F. App’x 98, 105 (3d Cir. 2014) (quoting Williamson v. Consol. Rail Corp., 926 F.2d 1344, 1352 (3d Cir. 1991)). In determining whether a new trial is necessary the court must “not substitute its judgment of the facts and the credibility of the witnesses for that of the jury.” Id.

DISCUSSION

The jury found Mancini had a property interest in her position as a career service employee and that Northampton County violated her due process rights by not providing her with a meaningful pre-termination opportunity to respond to the elimination of her position. See Official Verdict Slip 1, ECF No. 59. Nonetheless, Northampton County contends it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because as Mancini was eliminated due to a legitimate reorganization, she lacked a property interest in her position, and further, County policies do not call for due process during reorganizations. Northampton County also contends it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because an Assistant Solicitor is a policymaker and cannot be a career service employee due process prior to termination. In the alternative, Northampton County contends insufficient evidence supports the jury’s findings that Mancini had a property interest and did not receive meaningful process prior to termination.

When a plaintiff has a cognizable property interest, she is entitled to notice and the opportunity to be heard before deprivation of that interest. See Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532, 542 (1985). Whether a plaintiff has a cognizable property interest is decided “by reference to state law.” Bishop v. Wood, 426 U.S. 341, 344 (1976). If a state law creates a property interest, a person cannot be deprived of that interest other than in accordance with the federal standards of due process. See Loudermill, 470 U.S. at 541.

Northampton County contends that because it reorganized the Solicitor’s Office based on legitimate factors, Mancini does not have a protected property interest as a matter of law. Some courts have recognized this “reorganization exception”: the government’s right to reorganize without providing laid-off employees due process. See Baker v. Borough of Port Royal, PA, No. 06-0932, 2007 WL 1576439, at *6 (M.D. Pa. May 30, 2007). But see Alequine v. Baker, No. 11-00008, 2011 WL 1366344, at *2 (D. Del. Apr. 11, 2011) (“The Third Circuit has not adopted the reorganization exception.”). These same courts recognize the reorganization principle is not absolute and may be challenged as pretextual.[2] See Baker, 2007 WL 1576439, at *6; Alequine, 2011 WL 1366344, at *2 (denying the defendants’ motion to dismiss because the plaintiff’s allegations that the defendants implemented the reorganization for political reasons, arbitrarily demoted officers, and saved a minimal amount of money, were sufficient to raise a genuine dispute as to whether the reorganization was pretextual); Whalen v. Mass. Trial Ct., 397 F.3d 19, 25 (1st Cir. 2005) (holding the plaintiff had a right to due process even though his layoff was allegedly based on reorganization when the record indicated performance-based factors were considered in selecting him for layoff); Misek v. City of Chicago, 783 F.2d 98, 101 (7th Cir. 1986) (holding the district court erroneously assumed the plaintiffs were not entitled to due process when the plaintiffs consistently asserted the so-called reorganization was purely pretextual and an effort to replace them with others favored by the agency’s director); Kavakich v. Bentleyville Borough, No. 06-1114, 2008 WL 2563377, at *4 (W.D. Pa. June 24, 2008) (recognizing that in order to overcome the presumption that a defendant acted in good faith, a plaintiff could present evidence showing that the reorganization was designed to evade a court order or showing the job was substantially recreated, even under a different name or title); Twp. of Perkiomen v. Mest, 522 A.2d 516, 519-20 (Pa. 1987) (same); Carey v. City of Altoona, 16 A.2d 1, 2 (Pa. 1940) (refusing to “pry into the motives of legislators” absent suggestion of subterfuge when the abolished position was not recreated in name or substance); Ferguson v. City of Philadelphia, 86 Pa. D. & C. 87, 91 (C. P. Phila. Cnty. 1951) (holding the plaintiff was entitled to reinstatement when after abolishing his position, the defendants created a new position with an almost identical name and identical salary, even though there was otherwise no evidence of pretext). In other words, if a plaintiff can demonstrate that a reorganization is prextexual, she may only be terminated with full due process.

Mancini produced evidence creating a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the reorganization was legitimate. For instance, at the summary judgment stage, she produced evidence that Scomillio, then incoming-County Solicitor, made the decision to reorganize the Solicitor’s Office within several weeks of John Brown’s election as County Executive. See Pl.’s Opp. to Defs.’ Mot. for Summ. J. Ex. G, at 121, 123, 126 (May 13, 2014, testimony of Scomillio under oath to the Northampton County Personnel Appeals Board). Scomillio made his decision based on “know[ing] who was on the staff there, ” even though he was not yet familiar with the scope and extent of work in the Solicitor’s Office. See id. Ex. G. Yet he indicated he “had no interest in keeping [Mancini] on the staff[] based upon her reaction to [his] suggestion of reorganization.” See Id. Ex. G, at 135. Mancini also produced evidence indicating despite Brown’s announced intention to reduce costs across the County after his November 2013 election, he continued to spend money by entering into new contracts with outside vendors. For instance, Brown hired Sahl Communications in July 2014, despite not knowing if anyone at the County was responsible for doing the work for which Sahl was hired. See Id. Ex. K, at 61. He also hired Deana Zosky, a financial consultant, despite campaigning on the strength of his business background. See Id. Ex. K, at 65. Brown further created a new job, “Deputy Director of Public Works, ” for Steve DeSalva. See Id. Ex. K, at 67. DeSalva was previously the Director of Public Works in the prior County administration. Id. And while Brown believed the elimination of the full-time Assistant Solicitor positions saved the County money, he could not specify how much. See id. at 60. Finally, Mancini produced evidence indicating the eliminated positions were substantially recreated as part-time positions with largely similar responsibilities. See e.g., Trial Tr. 194, 204-06, Jan. 14, 2015 [hereinafter Trial Day 3 Tr.].

The evidence at trial similarly was sufficient to submit the question of whether Defendants’ reorganization was pretextual to the jury.[3] Patricia Siemiontkowski, the County’s Human Resources Director, testified that she was not asked to conduct a desk audit or provide any information about the efficiency of the Solicitor’s Office prior to meeting with Scomillio regarding its reorganization in December 2013. See Trial Day 5 Tr. 53-54. Brown testified that he was unfamiliar with the Office’s budget before he asking Scomillio to consider reorganization. See Trial Day 3 Tr. 234. He did not personally evaluate the efficiency of the fulltime Assistant County Solicitors after the election. See Id. at 254. He also did not ask for any independent calculation of the savings that would be realized in eliminating those positions, although he received some unidentified paperwork from HR, before deciding to reorganize the Office. See Trial Day 3 Tr. 268; see also Trial Day 5 Tr. 82. Again, Brown testified that under his leadership, the County entered into contracts with outside vendors to provide communications and financial consulting services at $76, 500 and $715, 000 over four years, respectively, despite his campaign pledge to cut spending. See Trial Day 4 Tr. 273-76, Trial Day 5 Tr. 102-04. Scomillio testified he did not look to other similar counties when determining whether Northampton County could run efficiently with part- versus full-time Assistant Solicitors, see Trial Day 4 Tr. 32-33, nor did he conduct a desk audit to determine the Solicitor’s Office’s volume of work, see Id. at 34. Markwith testified to the same effect. See Trial Day 3 Tr. 191. Finally, Mancini solicited testimony indicating the eliminated positions were substantially recreated as part-time positions with the similar job responsibilities. See e.g., Trial Day 3 Tr. 194, 204-06; Trial Day 5 Tr. 82, 84, 139-40; Trial Ex. 24; Trial Ex. 25.

Because Mancini showed there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Defendants’ reorganization “was a sham, ” Misek, 783 F.2d at 101, and then presented sufficient evidence for the question to be submitted to the jury, Defendants are not entitled to judgment as a matter of law ...


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