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Piazza v. County of Luzerne

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

January 23, 2017



          RICHARD P. CONABOY, United States District Judge


         Pending before the Court is Defendants Luzerne County and Robert Lawton's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 58). 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 denied.

         I. Background

         In April 2004, Plaintiff was appointed to the position of Director of the Bureau of Elections by the then Luzerne County Commissioners. (Doc. 59 ¶ 1; Doc. 65 ¶ 1.) The parties dispute what Plaintiff's duties were in this position: Defendants assert that none of Plaintiff's identified duties included the performance of field investigations or audits of campaign finance reports (Doc. 59 ¶ 2); Plaintiff maintains that from 2004 forward his responsibilities included making inquiries and field investigations regarding filed statements and reports and his predecessor conducted these kinds of inquiries and field investigations without having sought or received prior authorization from the Board of Elections (Doc. 65 ¶ 2).

         In January 2012, Luzerne County changed to a Home Rule form of government and Plaintiff continued in his role and duties as Director of the Department of Voter Services. (Doc. 59 ¶ 3; Doc. 65 ¶ 3.) In February 2012, Walter Griffith was Luzerne County's elected controller who, pursuant to the Home Rule Charter, was required to serve as the watchdog over the County's fiscal and management activities, and monitor and examine the County government and its expenditures. (Doc. 59 ¶¶ 4-5; Doc. 65 ¶¶ 4-5.) In his capacity as County Controller, Mr. Griffith “had the authority to conduct fiscal, performance, management, contract, grant, compliance and related audits of any County division, department bureau, office, agency, authority, board, commission, elected office, Judiciary, Office of Court Administration or other administrative unit.” (Doc. 59 ¶ 7.)

         In February 2012, Mr. Griffith publicly announced his intention to audit the County's Bureau of Elections: Defendants assert that the Bureau of Elections was just one of many intended audits (Doc. 59 ¶ 7); Plaintiff contends that Mr. Griffith testified “‘I looked at the Bureau of Elections. I looked at that as a testing'” (Doc. 65 ¶ 7 (quoting Griffith Dep., 89:6-7)).

         On March 29, 2012, the Times Leader newspaper reported that Mr. Griffith intended to audit seventeen district magistrates' offices, the assessor's office, the prison commissary fund, the special legal fees of the Court of Common Pleas, the Home Rule transition committee, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Election Bureau, the Human Resources Department, and the Sheriff's office weapons. (Doc. 65 ¶ 15.)

         By letter of March 30, 2012, Plaintiff notified Mr. Griffith of his intention to examine Mr. Griffith's committee and finance reports. (Doc. 59 ¶ 23 (citing Lawton Dep. Ex. PRL-3).) Plaintiff adds that at the same time he sent the letter by e-mail to the Luzerne County Board of Elections and Registration and Michael Butera, Esq., solicitor to the Luzerne County Board of Elections and Registration. (Doc. 65 ¶ 23 (citing Lawton Dep. Ex. PRL-2).) Mr. Griffith objected to this inquiry. (Doc. 65 CSMF ¶ 28.)

         At a meeting on April 5, 2012, with Defendant Lawton, Attorney DeLuca, and Attorney Butera, Defendants assert that Plaintiff was given an opportunity to respond to the allegations that Plaintiff had exceeded his authority and exposed the County to possible civil litigation by notifying Mr. Griffith of his intention. (Doc. 59 ¶ 24; Doc. 65 ¶ 24.) Plaintiff maintained that he had the authority to conduct the requested audit or field investigation of Mr. Griffith's campaign finance reports despite Attorney DeLuca's legal opinion that he lacked such authority. (Doc. 59 ¶ 25; Doc. 65 ¶ 25.)

         Plaintiff's employment with the County was terminated on April 10, 2012. (Doc. 59 ¶ 27; Doc. 65 ¶ 27.) Defendants maintain that Plaintiff's lack of support of Mr. Griffith's candidacy for County Controller played no role in the decision to terminate his employment--it was the allegedly retaliatory nature of his intended examination of Mr. Griffith's campaign finance reports which exceeded his authority and exposed the County to potential civil rights litigation by Mr. Griffith. (Doc. 59 ¶¶ 24, 29.) Plaintiff contends the reasons stated by Defendants were pretextual for the actual reason for his termination which was his right to forbear from political association and activity on behalf of Mr. Griffith. (Doc. 65 ¶ 29.)

         The parties agree that Plaintiff has no personal knowledge that Mr. Lawton ever politically supported Mr. Griffith's candidacy for any office or contributed financially to his campaigns. (Doc. 59 ¶¶ 30-31; Doc. 65 ¶ 30-31.) However, it is disputed whether Mr. Lawton had a political affiliation with Mr. Griffith: Defendants contend there was no political affiliation between the two (Doc. 59 ¶ 33); Plaintiff asserts that Mr. Griffith stated that he “struck an alliance” with Defendant Lawton when Defendant Lawton became county manager on February 29, 2012 (Doc. 65 ¶ 33 (quoting Griffith Dep., 104:25-105:23)).

         II. Discussion

         Defendants argue that Plaintiff's First Amendment claim based on his right of association fails because he has not shown that his lack of support for Mr. Griffith played any role in the decision to terminate his employment and the same employment action would have been taken even in the absence of Plaintiff's alleged political activity. (Doc. 60 at 11-16.) Defendants also assert that Plaintiff's Equal Protection claim fails because Plaintiff does not allege that he is a member of a suspect classification, a fundamental right was not violated because ...

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