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Javitz v. Luzerne County

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

March 29, 2018

LUZERNE COUNTY, et al., Defendants.


          Robert D. Mariani United States District Judge

         I. Introduction and Procedural History

         Presently before the Court is a wrongful termination action brought by Plaintiff, Donna Davis Javitz, against Defendants Luzerne County, Robert Lawton, and David Parsnik. Plaintiff originally filed her Complaint in this matter on December 21, 2015. (Doc. 1). After this Court resolved Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, (Doc. 23), and Plaintiff amended her complaint, the following counts remain outstanding: a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim against all Defendants for violation of Plaintiffs Fourteenth Amendment due process rights (Count I), a section 1983 claim against all Defendants for retaliation in violation of Plaintiffs First Amendment rights (Count II), a state law claim against Defendant Luzerne County for breach of legislative enactments (Count III), and a state law claim against all Defendants for violation of the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law, 43 P.S. § 1423(a), (Count IV). (Doc. 58).

         Presently before the Court is Plaintiffs Motion for Partial Summary Judgement, (Doc. 62), and Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. 66). For the reasons that follow, the Court will deny Plaintiffs Motion, grant Defendants' Motion with respect to Plaintiffs federal claims, and decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state law claims.

         II. Statement of Undisputed Facts

         The following facts are undisputed unless specifically noted otherwise:

On August 4, 2014, Plaintiff began her employment for the County of Luzerne as the Director of Human Resources. (Doc. 67 at ¶¶ 22-23; Doc. 92 at ¶¶ 22-23; Doc. 69-4). Her supervisor was Defendant David Parsnik, Director of Administrative Services. (Dep. of Donna Davis Javitz, Doc. 69-6 at 84; Doc. 69-4). The County Manager at the time was Defendant Robert Lawton. (Dep. of Donna Davis Javitz, Doc. 69-6 at 33; Doc. 67 at ¶ 34; Doc. 92 at ¶ 34).

         As Director of Human Resources, Plaintiffs job duties included negotiating contracts, dealing with employee complaints, responding to grievances, conducting investigations, and attending meetings. (Doc. 67 at ¶ 27; Doc. 92 at ¶ 27). Plaintiff was also involved with union related matters and participated in two investigatory meetings with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees ("AFSCME"). (Dep. of Donna Davis Javitz, Doc. 69-6 at 39, 65-66). In March of 2015, after the investigatory meetings with AFSCME took place, the union filed an unfair labor practice charge against the County. (Doc. 67 at ¶ 30; Doc. 92 at ¶ 30). As part of the unfair labor practice charge, AFSCME had included a document that appeared to be a transcript of the meetings. (Dep. of Donna Davis Javitz, Doc. 69-6 at 65-66). Upon reading the unfair labor practice charge, Plaintiff was concerned that Paula Schnelly, a County employee who was at the meetings as an AFSCME union representative, created the transcript by recording the meeting without the consent of those present. (Dep. of Donna Davis Javitz, Doc. 69-6 at 55, 59, 66, 75; Doc. 69-8 at 14).

         Plaintiff brought her concern to the attention of Defendant Parsnik, and Defendant Parsnik agreed that the transcript may have been the product of an illegal recording. (Doc. 67 at ¶ 31; Doc. 92 at ¶ 31). Plaintiff and Defendant Parsnik then met with the District Attorney, Stefanie Salavantis, to discuss the matter. (Doc. 67 at ¶ 32; Doc. 92 at ¶ 32). The District Attorney indicated that she would refer the matter to the Office of Attorney General due to a conflict of interests. (Doc. 67 at ¶ 33; Doc. 92 at ¶ 33). According to Plaintiff, Defendant Lawton went to the District Attorney after this point and instructed her not to investigate the matter. (Dep. of Donna Davis Javitz, Doc. 69-6 at 78). Defendants deny that this occurred. (Aff. of Stefanie Salavantis, Doc. 69-29).

         Over the next few months, Plaintiff asked Defendant Parsnik and the County Solicitor, David Pedri, about the status of the investigation on several occasions. (Doc. 67 at ¶ 35; Doc. 92 at ¶ 35). She also asked District Attorney Salavantis about the investigation at least once. (Dep. of Donna Davis Javitz, Doc. 69-6 at 78).

         After making the report to the District Attorney, things began happening at work that Plaintiff believed were done in retaliation for her making the report to the District Attorney. (Doc. 67 at ¶ 67; Doc. 92 at ¶ 67). For instance, in May of 2015, the Human Resources office was relocated from the County courthouse to another building. (Doc. 67 at ¶ 44; Doc. 92 at ¶ 44). Defendant Parsnik began going directly to Plaintiffs subordinates with work instead of going through Plaintiff. (Dep. of Donna Davis Javitz, Doc. 69-6 at 83-84). Plaintiff was kept from handling any matters with AFSCME and no longer allowed access to the Human Resources budget. (Id. at 85-87). Defendant Parsnik refused to allow her to have a key to the room that housed the filing cabinets and began to direct her do things that had not been part of her job before, such as filing. (Id. at 125-26). Plaintiff also believed that Defendant Parsnik began to act in a rude manner to her. (Doc. 67 at ¶ 60; Doc. 92 at ¶ 60). Defendants' deny that some of these occurred and also deny that any of these actions were taken in retaliation for Plaintiffs report to the District Attorney. (Doc. 67 at ¶ 44-46, 48-52, 54-55, 64-65).

         On October 26, 2015, Plaintiff was called into a meeting with Defendant Parsnik and Solicitor Pedri and informed that it would be Plaintiffs last day of work. (Dep. of Donna Davis Javitz, Doc. 69-6 at 91-93). Defendant Parsnik offered to let Plaintiff resign, but Plaintiff refused. (Id.). Plaintiff asked for a Loudermill hearing but was told she could not have one. [Id.) Defendant Parsnik then informed Plaintiff that she had to go. (Id.). Plaintiff was not given a reason for her termination. (Id.).

         III. Standard of Review

         Through summary adjudication, the court may dispose of those claims that do not present a "genuine dispute as to any material fact." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). "As to materiality, .... [o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986).

         The party moving for summary judgment bears the burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue as to any material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). Once such a showing has been made, the non-moving party must offer specific facts contradicting those averred by the movant to establish a genuine issue of material fact. Lujan v. Nat'l Wildlife Fed'n, 497 U.S. 871, 888, 110 S.Ct. 3177, 111 L.Ed.2d 695 (1990). Therefore, the non-moving party may not oppose summary judgment simply on the basis of the pleadings, or on conclusory statements that a factual issue exists. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. "A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion by citing to particular parts of materials in the record ... or showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A)-(B). In evaluating whether summary judgment should be granted, "[t]he court need consider only the cited materials, but it may consider other materials in the record." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(3). "Inferences should be drawn in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and where the non-moving party's evidence contradicts the movant's, then the non-movant's must be taken as true." Big Apple BMW, Inc. v. BMW of N. Am., Inc., 974 F.2d 1358, 1363 (3d Cir. 1992), cert, denied 507 U.S. 912, 113 S.Ct. 1262, 122 L.Ed.2d 659 (1993).

         However, "facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party only if there is a 'genuine' dispute as to those facts." Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380, 127 S.Ct. 1769, 167 L.Ed.2d 686 (2007). If a party has carried its burden under the summary judgment rule,

its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue for trial. 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. When opposing parties tell two different stories, one of which is blatantly contradicted by the record, so that no reasonable jury could believe it, a court should not adopt that version of the facts for purposes of ruling on a motion for summary judgment.

Id. (internal quotations, citations, and alterations omitted).

         IV. Analysis

         Both Plaintiff and Defendants have filed Motions for Summary Judgment with respect to Plaintiffs Fourteenth Amendment due process claim. Additionally, Defendant has moved for summary judgment on all Plaintiff's other claims and her claim for punitive damages.

         The Court will address Defendants' Motion first.

         A Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment

         Defendants' have put forth a variety of arguments as to why they are entitled to summary judgment on each of Plaintiff's claims as well as on Plaintiffs claim for punitive damages. The Court will address each claim separately.

         1. Fourteenth Amendment Claim

         Defendants first seek summary judgment on Plaintiffs claim that the manner of her termination violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because she was not afforded a pre-termination hearing. The Fourteenth Amendment provides, in pertinent part, that no state shall "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." U.S. Const, amend. XIV § 1. "The first step in analyzing a due process claim is to determine whether the 'asserted individual interest... [is] encompassed within the [Fourteenth [A]mendment's protection of life, liberty, or property.'" Elmore v. Cleary, 399 F.3d 279, 282 (3d Cir. 2005) (alterations original) (quoting Alvin v. Suzuki, 227 F.3d 107, 116 (3d Cir. 2000)). "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." Id. "Whether a person has a legitimate entitlement to-and hence a property interest in-his government job is a question answered by state law." Hill v. Borough of Kutztown, 455 F.3d 225, 234 (3d Cir. 2006).

         In Pennsylvania, in the absence of a contract or legislation to the contrary, an employee is employed at-will and can be terminated without cause. See Stumpp v. Stroudsburg Mun. Auth., 658 A.2d 333, 335 (Pa. 1995); Elmore, 399 F.3d at 283. "In order to rebut the presumption of at-will employment, a party must establish one of the following: (1) an agreement for a definite duration; (2) an agreement specifying that the employee will be discharged for just cause only; (3) sufficient additional consideration; or (4) an applicable recognized public policy exception." Luteran v. Loral Fairchild Corp., 688 A.2d 211, 214 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1997). Plaintiff argues that she was not an at-will employee because, under the terms of the Luzerne County Home Rule Charter and Personnel Code, she could only be terminated for "just cause."

         In Luzerne County, Article VII of the Home Rule Charter states, in pertinent part:

Section 7.01-Personnel Code. There shall be a Personnel Code that shall establish and maintain the means to recruit, select, develop, and maintain a qualified, ethical, efficient, effective, productive, and responsive work force in order to best meet the needs of Luzerne County.
Section 7.03-Scope of Personnel CodeConsistent with all applicable contracts and laws, the Personnel Code shall provide, but not be limited to, policies, procedures, rules, and regulations governing employee . . . discipline, force reduction, and discharge
Section 7.04-Career Service, Exempt Service, and State Civil Service. Each elective County official and employee of Luzerne County shall be a member of the career service, exempt service, or part of the state civil service system.
A. The Personnel Code shall define the County positions to be included in the career service. The career service shall be designed to attract, appoint, and promote the best qualified individuals on the basis of a fair and open competitive process. The Personnel Code shall set forth the process by which employees in the career service shall be appointed and promoted on the basis of merit and fitness as demonstrated by valid and reliable examinations, other objective evidence of competence, and/or other relevant factors.
B. The exempt service shall consist of all elective County officials and certain policy-making and other positions filled outside the career service provisions as defined in the Personnel Code. Except for elective officials and any others serving fixed terms, those appointed to these positions ...

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