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Toth v. Bethel Township

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

May 24, 2017

HEATHER TOTH, Plaintiff,
v.
BETHEL TOWNSHIP, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM

          GERALD AUSTIN MCHUGH, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This case involves a suburban township police officer who returned from maternity leave only to discover that she no longer had a job. Two years after becoming a Bethel Township police officer, Heather Toth became pregnant. After initially being denied her request for light duty, she took leave from work. Toth alleges that she did so based entirely on the assurance of her boss, Chief Tom Worrilow, that she would be allowed to come back once she gave birth and was ready. But in fact, when Toth asked to come back, her job was gone. Toth has sued Bethel, as well as Worrilow and several other Bethel officials in their individual capacities, stylizing her core claim as one of procedural due process: Toth asserts she had a protected interest in her job and was deprived of that interest without constitutionally required procedures. She also brings a breach of contract claim against Bethel. Defendants collectively now move to dismiss all claims except the due process claim against Bethel. For the following reasons, I will grant Defendants' motion, except as to the due process claim against Worrilow.

         I. Background

         Toth had been a full-time Bethel police officer for two years when she became pregnant. Soon after, in October 2014, she told her boss, Worrilow, and submitted to Bethel's township supervisors a request for light duty accompanied by a doctor's note. Her request was denied; instead, Toth was told (whether by a supervisor or Worrilow is unclear) that she should take leave because, as a pregnant woman, she was a “liability.” Taking leave would have the effect of making Toth eligible for unemployment benefits. Much more important as to Toth's decision whether to take leave, however, was that Worrilow promised her that if she did, once she was ready to return her job would still be waiting for her. Toth asked whether the board of supervisors, which oversees the police department and is ultimately charged with making police personnel decisions, would put that promise in writing. While Worrilow said no, he purportedly assured her that “they would not do anything illegal.” Relying on his initial promise, Toth worked her last day that November, and shortly after filed for unemployment and started receiving benefits.

         Every January, Bethel's board of supervisors meets to, among other things, appoint its police officers to one-year terms.[1] Just prior to the 2015 meeting, Worrilow informed Toth (who was still on leave) that while the supervisors would not reappoint her this time around, it was merely a formality, and his promise-that she would still have her job once she was done with maternity leave-still stood. When Toth offered to turn in her badge for the time being, Worrilow said that was unnecessary. And so, as expected, when the board-Chairman Michael Davey, Vice Chairman Ed Miles, and Supervisors Jean Stoyer, John Camero, and Todd Apple- voted to appoint the upcoming year's police officers, Toth was not among those chosen. She was not given any statement of reasons why.

         That May, Toth gave birth. In July, she spoke by phone with Detective Sergeant Ben Ash, who asked Toth if she would be able to return to work and parent at the same time. Toth replied that she intended to fully resume her job duties; she also told Ash that his question was “inappropriate.” A few weeks later, Toth contacted Worrilow and said she was ready to return to work. Worrilow is alleged to have told her that, given changes to the police department's job-application process, Toth would need to undergo a psychiatric evaluation and a reference check. Toth did both. A few weeks later, however, after (for reasons seemingly not relevant here) Worrilow resigned as chief and Ash took his place as acting chief, Ash informed Toth that she would not be allowed to return. He did not give a reason.

         Toth then reached out to Vice Chairman Miles about not being rehired, but to her surprise, Miles told her that he thought she had already quit. Toth explained to Miles her leave arrangement with Worrilow, pointing out that she still had her badge. In response, Miles only suggested she talk to the township lawyer. A week later, Toth cleaned out her locker at work and returned her township belongings, including her badge. She also asked for her employment file-but alleges that when she received it, her initial doctor's note and light-duty request, as well as the results of her psychiatric evaluation and reference checks, were missing. Indeed, her file contained no information about her pregnancy or her recent job application at all.

         That October, Toth, now jobless, was told by Ash that he would resubmit her job application.[2] A month later, however, Toth again was informed that she would not get her job back. And then, in December, came the death knell: Ash resubmitted Toth's application one last time, and one last time, she was told, it was denied. Toth began looking for a new job soon after, applying for several months before finally taking a lower-paying, non-law-enforcement position.

         Toth has sued Bethel, as well as Worrilow and each of the other above-named individuals (the Officials), under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violating her procedural due process rights by removing her from her job without any sort of notice or a hearing. She also brings a claim against Bethel for breach of contract. Defendants now move to dismiss the claims against the Officials on the basis of qualified immunity, and the contract claim for failure to state a claim.

         II. Standard of Review

         On a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, my task is to determine whether, taking the plaintiff's factual allegations as true and disregarding her legal conclusions, she has stated a “plausible” claim for relief. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009). Additionally, where a defendant-official moves to dismiss on the basis of qualified immunity, I must determine whether the plaintiff has “plead[ed] facts showing (1) that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that the right was ‘clearly established' at the time of the challenged conduct.” Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 735 (2011). In doing this, I must draw all factual inferences in favor of the plaintiff. George v. Rehiel, 738 F.3d 562, 571 (3d Cir. 2013). And because qualified immunity is an affirmative defense, the ultimate burden of proving it remains on the party claiming it. Halsey v. Pfeiffer, 750 F.3d 273, 288 (3d Cir. 2014).

         III. Discussion

         I conclude that all of Toth's procedural due process claims will be dismissed except for the claim against Worrilow. I will also dismiss her breach of contract claim.

         A. Procedural Due Process Claims Against the Officials

         The Officials[3] claim they are shielded from Toth's procedural due process claims by qualified immunity. “Qualified immunity attaches when an official's conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” White v. Pauly, 137 S.Ct. 548, 551 (2017) (per curiam) (citation omitted).

         A claim of qualified immunity thus raises two principal questions: first, whether the plaintiff has sufficiently alleged the violation of a constitutional right; and second, whether that right was clearly established at the time of the defendant's alleged misconduct. Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001). While these questions can be taken up in any order, Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009), it may often be “difficult to decide whether a right is clearly established without deciding precisely what the existing constitutional right happens to be, ” id. (citation omitted). Because that is true in this case, I first address whether Toth has plausibly established a violation of her procedural due process rights, and then take up whether those rights were clearly established. Finally, because under § 1983 an individual is only liable for damages based on his or her own personal conduct, I address whether any of the specific conduct by the Officials here violated Toth's rights.

         1. Has Toth Sufficiently Alleged a Violation of Her Procedural Due Process Rights?

         The Fourteenth Amendment provides that no state shall “deprive any person of . . . property[] without due process of law.” “This principle requires ‘some kind of hearing' prior to the discharge of an employee who has a constitutionally protected property interest in h[er] employment.” Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532, 542 (1985) (quoting Bd. of Regents of State Colls. v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 569-70 (1972)). While this pre-termination hearing need not be a full-dress evidentiary proceeding, it must include oral or written notice of the reasons for the employee's discharge, an explanation of the employer's evidence, and an opportunity for the employee to tell her side of the story. Id. at 545-46.

         A procedural due process claim by a public employee requires proof of two elements: first, the employee must show a constitutionally protected property interest in her employment; and second, she must show that the procedures she was accorded by the government before it deprived her of that interest were constitutionally insufficient. In this case, since Toth alleges she was never given any notice or hearing whatsoever, she has clearly met her latter burden. As to the threshold ...


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