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Larrick v. Sheriff of Beaver County

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 26, 2018

CURTIS LARRICK, Plaintiff,
v.
THE SHERIFF OF BEAVER COUNTY PENNSYLVANIA, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

          CYNTHIA REED EDDY, United States Magistrate Judge

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Curtis Larrick (“Plaintiff”), a former deputy sheriff for Beaver County, Pennsylvania, filed this civil rights action after being terminated from his position by Sheriff Anthony Guy (“Guy”). In his complaint, Plaintiff alleges that Guy and Beaver County (collectively, “Defendants”) violated his First Amendment rights by firing him on the basis of his political affiliation. This Court has subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§1331 and 1343(a)(3) and (a)(4).

         Presently pending before the Court is the Defendants' motions for summary judgment [ECF No. 28]. For the reasons that follow, Defendants' motion will be denied as it relates to the claims against Beaver County and Guy in his individual capacity. Plaintiff's claim against “the Sheriff of Beaver County, Pennsylvania” will be dismissed because it is redundant in light of the claim against Beaver County.

         II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         A. The 2015 Election for Beaver County Sheriff

         Guy is a Republican who currently serves as the Sheriff of Beaver County. (DSMF ¶2.)[2]He was elected as Sheriff in November 2015, and began his tenure on January 4, 2016. (Id. ¶64.) As Sheriff, Guy is vested, under provisions of the County Code, with the authority to hire, discharge, maintain, and supervise any and all employees of the Beaver County Sheriffs Office. (Id. ¶1.)

         Guy was preceded in office by George David (“David”), who served as Beaver County Sheriff from 2007 to 2016.[3] (DSMF ¶4.) During the course of David's tenure, the Chief Deputy Sheriff was Jay Alstadt (“Alstadt”). As Chief Deputy, Alstadt was second in command and had responsibility for handling the day-to-day affairs of the office. (Id. ¶5.)

         During the course of his tenure, David became embroiled in a scandal that resulted in a criminal indictment and prosecution. (PSMF ¶20.)[4] The criminal proceedings obtained a great deal of press coverage, which created a stigma in the Sheriffs Department. (Id.) Guy decided to run for Beaver County Sheriff in 2015 because of what he perceived as “a lot of problems in the [ 1 Office . . ., a lack of professionalism, [a] lack of organization, ” and “turmoil” arising out of Sheriff David's arrest. (DSMF ¶30.) Guy ran as a Republican candidate in the primary election and won the Republican nomination. (Id. ¶32.)

         Although Sheriff David ran for reelection, he lost the primary election to fellow Democrat Wayne Kress. (DSMF ¶33.) Guy then ran against Kress in the general election. (Id. ¶35.) Guy eventually prevailed, defeating Kress in November 2015. (Id.)

         B. Plaintiff's Political Involvement and Employment History

         Plaintiff has a history of active involvement in Democratic politics. (PSMF ¶¶31-32.) In addition to having served as a Baden Borough councilman and a Harmony Township Commissioner, Plaintiff served as a committee member of the Beaver County Democratic Party from 1996 to 2012. (Id. ¶¶33-34, 36.) During the 2015 campaign, Plaintiff supported Kress's candidacy for sheriff in both the primary and general elections. (Id. ¶34.)

         Plaintiff began working as a deputy sheriff for Beaver County in 1991. (DSMF ¶3.) In 2008, he was promoted to the position of sergeant by then-Sheriff David. (Id. ¶6.)

         During the time that he worked under David, Plaintiff experienced a number of personal and work-related problems. Alstadt was often aware of Plaintiff's problems and, in fact, Plaintiff readily confided in Alstadt because he considered Alstadt to be a caring administrator and friend. (DSMF ¶7; Pl.'s Dep. at 66:21-67:8, ECF No. 31-2.) One such incident involved Plaintiff's discovery that a fellow deputy, Michael Hurst (“Hurst”), had made numerous calls to Plaintiff's wife. (DSMF ¶14.) Plaintiff made Alstadt aware of the situation and Alstadt approached Hurst in an attempt to help resolve the matter. (DSMF ¶¶12-13.)[5] Another incident involved a fellow deputy, David Hunter, who had complained about Plaintiff conversing with his girlfriend while she was working at the courthouse. (DSMF ¶23.) Plaintiff claims that the misunderstanding was cleared up after he explained to Hunter that the conversations concerned a medical issue that Hunter's girlfriend and Plaintiff's wife had in common. (Pl.'s Dep. at 114:1-7, 115:2-4.) Plaintiff states that he discussed the situation with Alstadt, who agreed that it was completely different from the type of conduct Hurst had in engaged in. (Id. at 115:21-25.)

         Plaintiff later separated from his wife while continuing to care for his son. In late 2010, Plaintiff was called to his son's school after his wife showed up and attempted to take the child out of school without Plaintiff's permission. (DSMF ¶11; Def.'s Ex. D, ECF No. 31-4.) Alstadt was contacted by the school in an effort to notify Plaintiff and wound up attempting to explain to Plaintiff's ex-wife that she could not violate the existing custody arrangement. (DSMF ¶11.)

         Plaintiff divorced his wife in 2011, but his problems continued thereafter. (DSMF ¶17.) At a certain point Plaintiff came to believe that Deputy Kristen Chapes (“Chapes”) was sharing information about him with his ex-wife and that Sergeant James McGeehan (“McGeehan”) was attempting to contact his ex-wife over Facebook. (Id. ¶19.) Plaintiff shared his concerns with Alstadt, who approached Chapes and McGeehan about their interactions. (Id.) When Plaintiff's ex-wife got remarried, he discovered that someone had placed 20 copies of the wedding announcement in his mailbox at work. (Id. ¶20.) Upon learning about this, Alstadt told Plaintiff that he would address the matter and acknowledged that it needed to stop. (Id.)

         After Plaintiff's ex-wife remarried, her new husband sent Sheriff David a letter detailing numerous incidents of harassment that Plaintiff had allegedly engaged in over the course of several months. (Defs.' Ex. E, ECF No. 31-5.) Plaintiff denies the allegations of harassment and claims that these false allegations stopped only after Plaintiff's lawyer advised the couple to cease and desist in their false accusations. (DSMF ¶15.) Plaintiff's ex-wife also obtained a temporary protection-from-abuse order against Plaintiff on behalf of their son based on allegations of physical abuse, which required Plaintiff to relinquish his gun and pistol permit. (Id. ¶16.) Plaintiff asserts that his ex-wife dropped her claim after it was determined that the allegations of abuse were unsubstantiated and that his son had been coached. (Id.)

         In 2012, Plaintiff was demoted from sergeant to deputy sheriff based on Sheriff David's perception that the divorce was affecting Plaintiff's work performance. (DSMF ¶¶8, 17, 19). In or around September of that year, it was discovered that Plaintiff's ex-wife was still listed as a covered individual on his health insurance. (Defs.' Ex. F, ECF No. 31-6.) The incident resulted in an employee of the human resources department requesting Alstadt to inform Plaintiff about the need to complete certain paperwork in order to remove his ex-wife from his insurance plan. (Id.)

         In July 2014, Plaintiff was on vacation with his son in Ocean City, Maryland, when his ex-wife called the police and reported that Plaintiff was abusing their son. (DSMF ¶25; Defs.' Ex. K, ECF No. 31-11.) Plaintiff contends that the allegations were bogus and that the police investigation revealed no abuse; he does not deny, however, that, per department protocol, he notified Alstadt of the incident. (DSMF ¶25.)

         The following month, Alstadt was made aware of an investigation conducted by the human resources department into allegations that Plaintiff had made inappropriate comments to Deputy Kayla Stevenson. (DSMF ¶21; Defs.' Ex. H, ECF No. 31-8.) Rick Darbut (“Darbut”), then the Human Resources Director, spoke to Plaintiff about the incident but closed the file without a finding of any wrongdoing. (DSMF ¶21.) According to Plaintiff, Stevenson later apologized and admitted that she had been “coerced” into making the complaint by Sheriff David. (Id.)

         In September 2014, Alstadt received word that a judge in the courthouse had been complaining about Plaintiff bothering his female law clerk. (DSMF ¶22.) According to Alstadt's incident report, the judge indicated that Plaintiff was following his law clerk around and trying to communicate with her, and both the law clerk and the judge wanted it to stop. (Defs.' Ex. I, ECF No. 31-9.) Alstadt spoke to Plaintiff about the incident and, although Plaintiff disagreed with the judge's description of the situation, he agreed to avoid the clerk while on duty. (DSMF ¶22.)

         Between July and December 2015, Plaintiff was on FMLA leave for ischemic colitis. Plaintiff also took FMLA leave to address his son's anxiety-related problems. (PSMF ¶15.) At one point, Sheriff David complained to the Human Resources Department about Plaintiff's personal problems interfering with his work. (DSMF ¶28.)

         As noted, David became embroiled in a criminal investigation and prosecution while serving as Beaver County Sheriff. (PSMF ¶20.) Following his initial arrest, David was prohibited from being around firearms as a condition of his bond. (Id.¶22.) At some point thereafter, Plaintiff witnessed David handling a shotgun in the gun locker room of the sheriff's office while in the presence of then-Lieutenant John Frantangeli (“Frantangeli”). (Id. ¶23.) Plaintiff reported the incident to another Lieutenant, Thomas Ochs (“Ochs”), and later testified about the incident on behalf of the Commonwealth. (Id. ¶¶22-23; DSMF ¶31.) As a result of these events, Alstadt advised Plaintiff that he should stay away from David pending resolution of the criminal proceedings. (Pl.'s Dep. at 133:1-13.)

         Thereafter, Plaintiff came to believe that certain employees within the Sheriff's Department -- including Frantangeli, Hurst, and Randy Tallon (“Tallon”) -- were lobbying to get him fired. (PSMF ¶70.) At some point shortly after the 2015 primary election, Plaintiff overheard Tallon say that he considered Plaintiff to be a “rat” who could not be trusted because of the fact that Plaintiff had testified against David. (Id. ¶¶63-64.)

         At a subsequent point during the summer of 2015, Plaintiff overheard Tallon say that Plaintiff would be fired if Guy were elected because of Plaintiff's support of Kress. (PSMF ¶¶60-62.) Plaintiff understood this comment to mean that, if Guy was elected, Tallon would be in a position to make suggestions that would affect Plaintiff negatively. (Id.¶68.) Plaintiff told Alstadt about Tallon's comments, and Alstadt indicated he would look into the matter. (Id. ¶¶65-66.) Plaintiff later learned that Alstadt had met with HR Director Rick Darbut but that nothing could be done because Sheriff David would not take any action against Tallon. (Id. ¶67.)

         At some later point while Plaintiff was home on medical leave, he had another encounter with Tallon. (PSMF ¶71.) According to Plaintiff, Tallon drove by in his vehicle, rolled down the window, and stated, “Hey asshole, your time is coming.” (Id. ¶72.) Plaintiff claims that he reported the incident to Alstadt but was told to keep quiet because Sheriff David would not do anything about the situation. (Id. ¶¶73-74.) Based on these incidents, Plaintiff perceived that he would be fired if Guy won the election. (Id.¶75.)

         C. Plaintiff's Election Day Encounter with Guy

         On the day of the general election, Plaintiff was working at a polling station when he was approached by an elderly man who mistook Plaintiff for Guy and began yelling at Plaintiff. (PSMF ¶¶77, 81, 82, 83.) Plaintiff was surprised that the elderly man had mistaken him for Guy, because Plaintiff did not resemble Guy and he also was wearing a tee-shirt that said “Wayne Kress for Sheriff.” (Id. ¶¶85-87.)

         As he was leaving the scene, Plaintiff encountered Guy. (PSMF ¶88.) Plaintiff introduced himself and shared the story about the man who had just mistaken him for Guy. (DSMF ¶37.) The details of this exchange are disputed.

         Guy claims that, after hearing Plaintiff's story and learning his identity, he (Guy) confronted Plaintiff about certain misinformation that Plaintiff had reportedly been spreading about Guy's intended staffing ...


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