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Hoffman v. City of Bethlehem

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

July 20, 2017

RICHARD HOFFMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF BETHLEHEM, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Edward G. Smith Judge

         While the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794, prohibits employers from discriminating against alcoholics merely because they are addicts, the Act does not prohibit employers from firing alcoholics for engaging in misconduct. This is especially true where the employee at hand is a police officer entrusted with the safety and well-being of citizens. The defendant fired the plaintiff, a former police officer, after he was arrested for driving under the influence while off-duty and other instances of off-duty and on-duty misconduct. After proceeding through grievance arbitration that resulted in a favorable decision for the defendant, the plaintiff filed this action, alleging that the defendant terminated him and refused to reinstate him because the defendant regarded him as an alcoholic in violation of the Rehabilitation Act. Ripe before the court is the defendant's motion for summary judgment, which the plaintiff opposes. Because the defendant has proffered legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for terminating and refusing to reinstate the plaintiff, and the plaintiff has failed to meet his burden of demonstrating that those reasons were pretextual, the court must grant the defendant's motion and enter judgment in its favor.

         I. FACTUAL RECORD AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         The defendant, the City of Bethlehem (“the City”), submitted a statement of undisputed material facts on June 16, 2017. Statement of Undisputed Material Facts in Support of Summ. J. Mot. of Def. City of Bethlehem (“Undisputed Facts”), Doc. No. 25-1. The plaintiff, Richard Hoffman (“Hoffman”) did not submit a statement of undisputed material facts (or a response to the City's statement), and instead incorporated by reference the City's statement of undisputed material fact into his opposition to the motion for summary judgment. Pl.'s Mem. of Law in Opp. to Def. City of Bethlehem's Mot. for Summ. J. (“Pl.'s Opp.”) at 3, 5, Doc. No. 28. Thus, the material facts in this case as stated below are undisputed, and the court may resolve the defendant's motion as a matter of law.

         Hoffman is a former patrol officer for the City. Undisputed Facts at ¶ 1. The Bethlehem City Council (“City Council”) terminated Hoffman on March 18, 2014. Chief Craig S. Finnerty became Chief of the BPD in late August 2013, and ultimately made the decision that the Bethlehem Police Department (“BPD”) would request termination of Hoffman. Def. City of Bethlehem's Exs. for Mot. for Summ. J. (“Record”) at 00505-00506, Doc. No. 26.[1] Prior to his termination, former City Solicitor John F. Spirk, Jr., Esq., prepared a memorandum addressed to the City Council explaining that the BPD requested Hoffman's discharge, and providing the BPD's reasons for that request. Undisputed Facts at ¶ 2; see also Record at 0020. Solicitor Spirk's memorandum, dated December 30, 2013, states that Hoffman had been involved in four off-duty alcohol-related incidents, had been subject to two disciplinary actions, and had been internally investigated for various other incidents. Id. Those prior incidents include: (1) a physical altercation in a bar with an on-duty Philadelphia police officer in 2005, (2) failing to detect a nine millimeter handgun on an individual he arrested and searched in 2010, (3) grabbing another man by the throat in a Bethlehem pub, and subsequently threatening to use his authority to cause the pub owner “problems” in 2013, (4) transmitting obscene communications over his mobile data terminal while on duty in violation of BPD regulations, and (5) getting asked to leave a casino for his behavior in 2013. Id. at 0020-0022.

         The final incident the memorandum describes is a car accident that occurred on August 8, 2013, for which BPD charged Hoffman with driving under the influence and careless driving. Id. at 0020. After consuming alcohol at a concert, and then subsequently at the Fraternal Order of Police (“FOP”) Hall, Hoffman attempted to drive home with a blood-alcohol level of .16, twice the legal driving limit. Id. at 0022. At approximately 3:00 a.m., he drove his vehicle into a parked car, forcing three other vehicles to collide and flipping his own vehicle on its side. Id. at 0023. He was due to report to work at 6:45 a.m. that morning, and would have still been intoxicated based on his blood-alcohol level at the time of the accident. Id. Hoffman originally told the investigating officers that he crashed after attempting to swerve to avoid a pedestrian, but after a witness refuted that explanation, he admitted that he was distracted by an incoming text message when the collision occurred. Id. Hoffman's conduct related to the August 8, 2013, incident violated various police directives and provisions of the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics. Id. Again, Hoffman does not dispute the facts in the memorandum related to the August 8, 2013 car accident or any of his prior misconduct.

         The memorandum concludes that after considering Hoffman's “disciplinary history, past job performance, the potential impact of the violation on citizens, and [Hoffman's] truthfulness during the investigation, ” the BPD believed “that the conduct of Officer Hoffman [was] so egregious that termination [was] warranted.” Id. at 0024. The memorandum also says that “[t]hrough his repeated conduct Officer Hoffman has diminished the reputation of and confidence in the BPD and lowered the respect for police officers as a whole.” Id.

         On February 24, 2014, the City Council held a public hearing, which Hoffman chose not to attend. Undisputed Facts at ¶¶ 17, 18. Chief Finnerty testified that after reviewing the results of the investigation into the August 8, 2013 car accident and Hoffman's personnel file, he recommended to the City Council that the City terminate Hoffman. Id. at ¶¶ 19, 21. According to BPD guidelines, the standard discipline range for off-duty drunk driving with collision is a suspension lasting for five to twenty days, but Chief Finnerty believed that more serious discipline was warranted based on Hoffman's repeated violations, aggravating factors surrounding the accident, and Hoffman's prior disciplinary record. Record at 0040-0044. Such aggravating factors included, according to Chief Finnerty, the destruction of property, the risk to which Hoffman subjected himself and others, the likelihood that Hoffman would have reported for duty the next morning while still intoxicated, Hoffman's dishonesty about the cause of the accident during the investigation, the resulting negative publicity for the BPD, and the potential lack of confidence in the BPD that the incident could cause. Id. at 00503, 00505.

         Chief Mark DiLuzio, who became Police Chief of the BPD in January 2014, also testified and agreed with Finnerty's recommendation that the City terminate Hoffman because he had no confidence that Hoffman could any longer reliably and consistently follow BPD directives or maintain the high standard of conduct expected of the City's police officers. Undisputed Facts at ¶¶ 22, 25, 26. He stated that incidents such as the August 2013 accident defeat the public trust in the BPD, affect the BPD's integrity and credibility, affect the BPD's morale, and affect the BPD's ability to discipline its officers. Record at 00173, 00175. Chief DiLuzio also opined at the Council hearing that the biggest problem with keeping Hoffman on the force was “credibility and also a possible recurrence” of the incident, and that Hoffman's termination was consistent with BPD directives and protocol. Id. at 00179, 00182. On March 18, 2014, the City Council terminated Hoffman's employment by resolution, effective December 20, 2013. Undisputed Facts at ¶ 28.

         The FOP challenged the City Council's decision to terminate Hoffman through grievance arbitration. Id. at ¶ 29. A hearing commenced on October 8, 2014, during which Chief Finnerty testified that the circumstances surrounding the August 8, 2013, car accident alone warranted termination because of “the aggressive behavior while intoxicated, the careless driving and texting, ” and “the destruction of four other cars on top of the fact that [Hoffman] was scheduled to report to duty the next morning.” Id. at ¶ 30; Record at 00503. He also testified that “there seemed to be an ongoing trend of alcohol, disorderly behavior, aggressive behavior and poor temper.” Record at 00502. Chief DiLuzio also testified that after reviewing the police reports about every incident in which Hoffman was involved, and after reviewing BPD guidelines, protocols, and directives, he could come to no other conclusion than agreeing with Chief Finnerty's recommendation of termination. Undisputed Facts at ¶ 37. He said that Hoffman's behavior seemed to follow a pattern demonstrating “a lack of understanding of the directives” and an “inability to conform his behavior to his directives on and off duty.” Record at 00525. He also described the importance of a police department maintaining citizens' trust and respect. Id. at 00524.

         On February 9, 2015, the labor arbitrator rendered a decision disagreeing with Chief Finnerty's recommendation of termination, and ordered that Hoffman be reinstated conditioned on the City's right to require a fitness for duty evaluation. Undisputed Facts at ¶ 41. The City appealed, and also had Frank M. Dattilio, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, perform a fitness for duty evaluation. Id. at ¶ 42. Dr. Dattilio stated in his report that it was his opinion that Hoffman was “unfit for work as a patrolman due [to] the strong potential for relapse.” Record at 00726. Because Dr. Dattilio's evaluation concluded that Hoffman was not fit for duty, the BPD did not reinstate him and the City Solicitor advised Hoffman's attorney that the City owed no duty of reinstatement. Undisputed Facts at ¶ 43; Record at 00684. After receiving the written positions of both the FOP and the City, the arbitrator rendered a second opinion agreeing with the City and holding that it had no obligation to reinstate Hoffman because of his failure to pass a fitness for duty evaluation. Id. at ¶¶ 44-46. The FOP did not appeal that decision. According to Mayor Robert Donchez, the City did not reinstate Hoffman because of Hoffman's ethics violations, and the fact that the position of a police officer involves the public safety of the community. Id. at ¶ 77.

         II. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

         A district court “shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Additionally, “[s]ummary judgment is appropriate when ‘the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.'” Wright v. Corning, 679 F.3d 101, 103 (3d Cir. 2012) (quoting Orsatti v. New Jersey State Police, 71 F.3d 480, 482 (3d Cir. 1995)). An issue of fact is “genuine” if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a ...


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