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Saranchuk v. Lello

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

October 13, 2017

JOHN SARANCHUK, et al., Plaintiffs
v.
DAN LELLO, et al., Defendants

          MEMORANDUM

          MALACHY E. MANNION UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Pending before the court is the defendants' motion for summary judgment with respect to all of the plaintiffs' claims against them. (Doc. 30). Based on the court's review of the motion and related materials, the defendants' motion will be GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The following are the undisputed facts material to resolving the defendants' motion for summary judgment.[1] Named plaintiff John Saranchuk began working for the Dupont Borough Police Department (“the Police Department”) in 2006. (Doc. 32; Doc. 34). When he was hired as a police officer, Saranchuk worked on an hourly basis, and he did not initially sign any contract dictating his work conditions or the number of hours he would be assigned to work each week. (Doc. 32; Doc. 34). Saranchuk was eventually promoted to the rank of sergeant and began working up to forty hours per week, but he received no benefits and was still considered an hourly employee of the Dupont Borough. (Doc. 32). In March 2011, Saranchuk was named the Police Department's “Officer in Charge, ” which is the functional equivalent of a Police Chief within the Dupont Borough. (Id.).

         During Saranchuk's term as Officer in Charge, a group of police officers working at the Police Department was organized for the purpose of strengthening their ability to bargain collectively with the Dupont Borough. (Doc. 1; Doc. 14). This group was known as the Dupont Borough Police Officers Association (“the Police Association”), and Saranchuk became the group's first leader. (Doc. 1; Doc. 14). Several other named plaintiffs, including John Maciolek, Jason Kwiatkowski, and Charles Yarick, were also affiliated with the Police Association. (Doc. 1). Acting through the Police Association, Saranchuk filed for arbitration with the Dupont Borough and ultimately was able to extend and renew a prior collective bargaining agreement for a new term, lasting from January 1, 2013 through December 31, 2016.[2] (Doc. 1; Doc. 14). The Police Association's protracted arbitration proceedings with the Dupont Borough cost both parties a great deal of time and expense. (Doc. 1).

         Following the Police Association's formation, many of the factual circumstances regarding its subsequent impacts on Dupont Borough personnel are murky and disputed by the parties. What remains clear is that bad blood and mistrust began to develop between members of the Police Association and leadership figures at the Dupont Borough, including Mayor Dan Lello and Dupont Borough Council Members Stanley Knick, Mark Kowalczyk, Josephine Hansen, and Bernard Zielinski, all of whom are named defendants in this action. (Doc. 1; Doc. 14; Doc. 32; Doc. 34).

         On August 7, 2014, another named defendant, Sean Murray, was appointed as the new Officer in Charge of the Police Department. (Doc. 32; Doc. 34). All of the named defendants who are members of the Dupont Borough Council (Knick, Kowalczyk, Hansen, and Zielinski) voted in favor of Murray's appointment as Officer in Charge. (Doc. 33-6). A Luzerne County Detective then contacted Saranchuk and told him to refrain from coming into work until further notice. (Doc. 1; Doc. 14; Doc. 32, Exh. A). On that same evening, the locks on Saranchuk's office were changed, barring his access to the premises. (Doc. 33-4). The following morning, a conversation transpired between defendant Murray and plaintiff Kwiatkowski during which Murray insinuated that Saranchuk was under investigation for misconduct during his term as Officer in Charge. (Doc. 1; Doc. 32, Exh. E).

         On September 5, 2014, Saranchuk appeared for a Loudermill pre-termination hearing, but he was informed that the hearing would need to be rescheduled for a future date and that the written accusations against him would be provided at some future time. (Doc. 1; Doc. 14). Thereafter, Saranchuk was officially terminated from his employment with the Police Department, and he never again returned to work there. (Doc. 1; Doc. 14; Doc. 32; Doc. 34). While the plaintiffs allege that Saranchuk was fired in retaliation for engaging in protected union activities through the Police Association, the defendants counter this assertion, arguing that Saranchuk had in fact lost the confidence of the District Attorney and the Dupont Borough leadership over the course of several incidents involving a lack of professionalism, frequent miscommunications, and poor police practices.[3](Doc. 1; Doc. 32, Exh. B).

         The other named plaintiffs affiliated with the Police Association were also affected by this rapid personnel change within the Police Department. Charles Yarick began working at the Police Department in 2007. (Doc. 32, Exh. G; Doc. 34). Jason Kwiatkowski and John Maciolek joined in 2013. (Doc. 32, Exh. F; Doc. 34). All three plaintiffs, at least initially, worked there on an hourly basis.[4] (Doc. 32, Exh. E). Beginning in September 2014, during the aftermath of Saranchuk's ouster and Murray's appointment as Officer in Charge, all three plaintiffs saw their work hours gradually reduced from the Police Department's work schedule. (Doc. 1; Doc. 14). At the same time, the Dupont Borough began hiring new police officers to fill the resulting vacancies in the work schedule. (Doc. 1; Doc. 14). These trends continued until the plaintiffs either were left with a minimal number of work hours or were effectively terminated from their employment at the Police Department. (Doc. 1; Doc. 32; Doc. 34). The defendants remained in contact with one another throughout the time leading up to these events, just as local officials working on behalf of the same municipality might be expected to do, but the extent of each defendant's knowledge of, or acquiescence to, this reduction in the plaintiffs' work hours remains in dispute. (Doc. 33; Doc. 34).

         The plaintiffs, who are now former officers of the Police Department, perceived these work reductions as arbitrary disciplinary actions without any sound basis, but the defendants, who are current and former municipal government officials within the Dupont Borough, claim that the work reductions were in fact due to specified instances of misconduct from the plaintiffs. (Doc. 1; Doc. 14). While the Dupont Borough leadership did receive several citizen complaints from local residents about the plaintiffs' handling of police matters within the town, numerous factual disputes and unresolved allegations remain regarding the factual accuracy of these complaints.[5]

         The plaintiffs further allege that they were threatened, harassed, and defamed throughout the course of their dealings with the defendants. (Doc. 1; Doc. 34). The defendants deny this, asserting that any purported hostile interactions or harsh exchanges with the plaintiffs stemmed from genuine concerns over their fitness as police officers. (Doc. 14; Doc. 32). The parties dispute the specifics of these confrontations, including who they were directed toward and what motivated them, but said incidents unquestionably escalated tensions between the parties. (Doc. 1; Doc. 32; Doc. 33-11; Doc. 33-13).

         On May 5, 2015, the plaintiffs filed the instant action, (Doc. 1), against the abovementioned Dupont Borough officials, in both their individual and official capacities, and against the Dupont Borough itself, bringing a broad range of federal and state claims for relief: Count I for violations of the Due Process Clause “under 42 U.S.C. §1983 and the Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments;” Count II for “civil rights conspiracy to deprive the plaintiffs' federally-protected rights under 42 U.S.C. §§1985-1986 and the Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments;” Count III for “Equal Protection” Clause violations under 42 U.S.C. §1983 and the Fourteenth Amendment; Count IV for “Monell liability” under 42 U.S.C. §1983; Count V for “civil conspiracy;” Count VI for “intentional infliction of emotional distress;” Count VII for breach of the “implied covenants of good faith and fair dealing;” Counts VIII and IX for “intentional interference with advantageous relations;” Count X for “abuse of process;” Count XI for “defamation;” and Count XII for “loss of consortium.”

         On July 20, 2015, the defendants filed their answer, (Doc. 14), to the alleged claims for relief. The parties then engaged in fact discovery, and on February 13, 2017, the defendants moved for summary judgment on all counts in the plaintiffs' complaint and on the affirmative defense of qualified immunity. (Doc. 30; Doc. 31). Thereafter, the plaintiffs filed their brief in opposition to the defendants' summary judgment motion. (Doc. 33). This matter has been fully briefed and is now ripe for summary judgment.

         II. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

         “The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A factual dispute is “genuine” if a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party, and it is “material” if proof of its existence or nonexistence would affect the outcome of the trial under the governing substantive law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248-57 (1986); Gray v. York Newspapers, Inc., 957 F.2d 1070, 1078 (3d Cir. 1992). “[T]his standard provides that the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 247-48.

         To determine whether a genuine dispute of material fact exists, the court should consider the “pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317 (1986); Turner v. Schering-Plough Corp., 901 F.2d 335, 340 (3d Cir. 1990). In doing so, the court must view all the evidence and any inferences drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Andreoli v. Gates, 482 F.3d 641, 647 (3d Cir. 2007) (citing Farrell v. Planters Lifesavers Co., 206 F.3d 271, 278 (3d Cir. 2000)). However, the court's function at the summary judgment stage “is not . . . to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. See also Marino v. Indus. Crating Co., 358 F.3d 241, 247 (3d Cir. 2004) (noting that the court may neither weigh the evidence nor make credibility determinations).

         Parties seeking to establish that a fact is or is not genuinely disputed may not rely on unsubstantiated allegations; rather, they must support such assertions by “citing to particular parts of materials in the record” to demonstrate that the adverse party's factual assertion either lacks support from cited materials or is unsupported by admissible evidence. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1). See also Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 324 (requiring evidentiary support for factual assertions made during summary judgment). A party's failure to properly support or contest an assertion of fact may result in that fact being considered undisputed for purposes of the summary judgment motion, although the court may also grant parties an opportunity to properly provide support for an asserted fact. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e).

         To prevail on a motion for summary judgment, the moving party must affirmatively identify those portions of the record that demonstrate the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 323-24. The moving party can satisfy this burden by showing that “on all the essential elements of its case on which it bears the burden of proof at trial, no reasonable jury could find for the non-moving party.” In re Bressman, 327 F.3d 229, 238 (3d Cir. 2003). See also Id. at 325.

         If the moving party meets this initial burden, the non-moving party “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to material facts” to avoid summary judgment. Boyle v. County of Allegheny, 139 F.3d 386, 393 (3d Cir. 1998) (quoting Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio, 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986)). Rather, the non-moving party must provide “sufficient evidence” for a jury to return a verdict in its favor; “if the [non-movant's] evidence is merely colorable or not significantly probative, summary judgment should be granted.” Id. (quoting Armbruster v. Unisys Corp., 32 F.3d 768, 777 (3d Cir. 1994)).

         III. DISCUSSION

         As a preliminary matter, several of the plaintiffs' claims under Count I of the complaint fail as a matter of law. Specifically, the complaint alleges “violations of [the] plaintiffs' substantive and procedural due process rights under 42 U.S.C. §1983 and the Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.” (Doc. 1, at 30).

         “To establish a claim under §1983, a plaintiff must allege (1) a deprivation of a federally protected right, and (2) commission of the deprivation by one acting under color of state law.” Lake v. Arnold, 112 F.3d 682, 689 (3d Cir. 1997). Notably, §1983 “is not itself a source of substantive rights” but merely provides “a method for vindicating federal rights elsewhere conferred.” Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 393-94 (1989) (citing Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 144 n.3 (1979)). The first step in any suit brought under §1983 is to “isolate the precise” constitutional right allegedly infringed. Id. at 394. “The validity of the claim must then be judged by reference to the specific constitutional standard which governs that right, rather than to some generalized . . . standard.” Id.

         The plaintiffs' claims under the Fifth Amendment cannot be sustained as applied to the facts at hand, as the Fifth Amendment restricts only the actions of the federal government, not those of state or local government officials. See, e.g., Nguyen v. U.S. Catholic Conference, 719 F.2d 52, 54 (3d Cir. 1983). The court will therefore grant summary judgment in favor of the defendants as to the Fifth Amendment claims against them.

         In a similar vein, the Sixth Amendment relates solely to the rights of criminal defendants, but the plaintiffs' claims here are civil in nature. SeeU.S. Const. amend. VI (“In all criminal prosecutions”). The court will therefore grant summary judgment in favor of the defendants as to the Sixth Amendment claims against them.

         Additionally, while the plaintiffs do mention in passing that these facts give rise to potential “First Amendment retaliation” implications, they do not allege any First Amendment claims as official counts in the complaint. (Doc. 1, at 28). The court will therefore refrain from undertaking a First Amendment analysis herein. With respect to Count I of the complaint, this leaves for consideration the plaintiffs' §1983 claims for violations of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court will now undertake an analysis of the remaining counts in the complaint. (Doc. 1; Doc. 30; Doc. 31).

         A. Procedural Due Process

         A procedural due process analysis involves a two-step inquiry: (1) whether the plaintiff was deprived of an interest that is encompassed by the Fourteenth Amendment's protection of “life, liberty, and property, ” and (2) whether the procedures given to the plaintiff comport with all constitutional requirements such that they amounted to “due process of law.” Hill v. Borough of Kutztown, 455 F.3d 225, 234 (3d Cir. 2006) (citing Alvin v. Suzuki, 227 F.3d 107, 116 (3d Cir. 2000)); Mariano v. Borough of Dickson City, 40 F.Supp.3d 411, 421 (M.D. Pa. 2014). To have a property interest in a job, “a person must have more than a unilateral expectation of continued employment; rather, she must have a legitimate entitlement to such continued employment.” Elmore v. Cleary, 399 F.3d 279, 282 (3d Cir. 2005) (citing Bd. of Regents v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 577 (1972)). Whether a legitimate entitlement, and therefore a property interest, exists is a question of state law. See, e.g., Kelly v. Borough of Sayreville, 107 F.3d 1073, 1077 (3d Cir. 1997) (noting that “[s]tate law creates the property rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment”).

         The court must first determine whether the plaintiffs had a protected property interest in their continued employment. The plaintiffs argue that their property interest is derived from a collective bargaining agreement that was renewed and extended for a new term by Saranchuk and the Police Association. (Doc. 1; Doc. 33; Doc. 34). The defendants respond by arguing that the plaintiffs were in fact hourly employees with no protected property interest to speak of. (Doc. 31; Doc. 32). The Third Circuit has previously relied on a Pennsylvania state statute in determining that members of a borough “police force” generally do have a protected property interest in their employment. See Dee v. Borough of Dunmore, 549 F.3d 225, 230-31 (3d Cir. 2008) (relying on 8 Pa. Cons. Stat. §1190). The definitions section of this same statute, however, specifically excludes “police serving . . . on an hourly or daily basis” from the general definition of “police force.” 8 Pa. Cons. Stat. §1170. As a result, borough police officers who work on a full-time or salaried basis have a protected property interest in their employment, while those working on a part-time, hourly, or daily basis do not. See Mariano v. Borough of Dickson City, 2014 WL 5795679, at *5 (M.D. Pa. Nov. 6, 2014); Stevens v. Telford Borough, 2014 WL 4056952, at *2 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 14, 2014); Rosati v. Borough of Hellertown, 1992 WL 396769, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 24, 1992). State statutory law, therefore, does not confer a property interest upon the plaintiffs here.

         The plaintiffs' only other potential source of a protected property interest would be the collective bargaining agreement that was supposedly extended to cover the plaintiffs here. (Doc. 1; Doc. 14). Importantly, however, it is the precise terms of a collective bargaining agreement that can confer a property interest, not the agreement's mere existence alone. See, e.g., Wilson v. MVM, Inc., 475 F.3d 166, 177 (3d Cir. 2007) (citing Kelly, 107 F.3d at 1077). The parties here do not dispute that some variety of collective bargaining agreement exists. (Doc. 1; Doc. 14). Far less clear, however, are the precise terms of said agreement. The defendants, who now move for summary judgment on this issue, claim that “pursuant to Article 3 of the contract . . . the police officers . . . are not guaranteed any specific number of days or hours of work per week.” (Doc. 14, at 6). The plaintiffs, opposing summary judgment, assert that “[t]hrough the past practice clause included in the collective bargaining agreement . . . [the plaintiffs were] guaranteed to work at least 32 hours per week.” (Doc. 34, at 16). Rather than offering the agreement's substantive terms in their entirety as evidentiary support, both parties instead rely on contradictory allegations regarding what the collective bargaining agreement purports to do.

         At the summary judgment phase, if a factual issue arises that cannot be resolved without a credibility determination, the court must credit the non-moving party's evidence over that presented by the moving party. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. This dispute of material fact about the collective bargaining agreement's precise contours and protections thus precludes summary judgment on the plaintiffs' procedural due process claims. The court will therefore deny the defendants' motion for summary judgment as to the plaintiffs' Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process claims against them. Without any resolution at this phase on ...


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