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Megraw v. School District of Cheltenham Township

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

May 1, 2018

Patrick Megraw, Appellant
v.
School District of Cheltenham Township

          ARGUED: March 6, 2018

          BEFORE: HONORABLE PATRICIA A. McCULLOUGH, Judge, HONORABLE ELLEN CEISLER, Judge, HONORABLE JAMES GARDNER COLINS, Senior Judge

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ELLEN CEISLER, JUDGE

         Appellant Patrick Megraw (Mr. Megraw) appeals from two orders issued on April 13, 2017 by the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County (Trial Court) in his action against his former employer, Appellee School District of Cheltenham Township (School District). In this suit, he requested injunctive relief and sought a declaratory judicial determination that Section 111(f.1)(1) of the Public School Code of 1949 (Code), 24 P.S. § 1-111(f.1)(1), [1] which became effective in September 2011, and which mandates a 10-year employment ban for individuals convicted of certain classes of felonies, was unconstitutional as applied to him. One order denied Mr. Megraw's Motion for Summary Judgment, as well as his Supplemental Motion for Summary Judgment, while the second granted the School District's "Supplemental Motion for Summary Judgment."[2] We conclude that, as applied, this statute violates Mr. Megraw's substantive due process rights and therefore reverse the Trial Court.

         In March 1995, the School District hired Mr. Megraw as a groundskeeper and eventually promoted him to the level of foreman. Megraw Dep., 5/2/16 at 5. Mr. Megraw voluntarily resigned from the foreman position in 2010 and returned to his former groundskeeper position, in connection with repeatedly being admonished by his superiors for excessive absences from and lateness to work. Megraw Dep., 2/10/17 at 10. Mr. Megraw claimed these issues stemmed from his responsibilities as sole caretaker for his mother, who had been terminally ill with lung cancer and died in September 2012, as well as his own health issues. Megraw Dep., 5/2/16 at 5; Megraw Dep., 2/10/17 at 9-10. However, Mr. Megraw's overall problematic disciplinary history with the School District dated back to at least March 2006 and extended through August 2015. See David Dep., 2/10/17 at 7-21 (deposition testimony from Lynn David, the School District's Director of Human Resources). During this time, Mr. Megraw was suspended twice and reprimanded on multiple occasions, both verbally and in writing, due to overuse of leave time, tardiness, poor performance, and sleeping at his work station. See Synopsis of Patrick Megraw Documented Discipline and Unsatisfactory Work Documentation at 1-2. Yet, despite these ongoing disciplinary problems, the School District did not fire Mr. Megraw and never considered this pattern of behavior serious enough to warrant termination of his employment. See David Dep., 5/2/16 at 12.

         The School District's handling of Mr. Megraw took a marked turn when, on January 12, 2016, it fired Mr. Megraw after learning that he had been convicted of a felony in June 2009, for violating former Section 6111(g)(4) of the Uniform Firearms Act (UFA), 18 Pa. C.S. § 6111(g)(4), [3] by knowingly and intentionally providing false information while attempting to purchase a firearm. The genesis of this conviction occurred in 2007, when Mr. Megraw's then-wife filed for divorce. Megraw Dep., 2/10/17 at 18. Mr. Megraw refused to leave their home and, as a result, his soon-to-be-former spouse obtained a Protection from Abuse Order (PFAO), which forced Mr. Megraw to leave the marital residence. Id. at 18-19. Afterwards, the relationship between Mr. Megraw and his ex-wife improved, to the point where they would occasionally have meals together, and he would visit her home to see their children, attend occasional parties, and help with maintenance issues. Id. at 15-16. At some point during this time period, Mr. Megraw's former spouse allegedly advised him that the PFAO had been dissolved. Megraw Dep., 5/2/16 at 15.

         In May 2008, Mr. Megraw went to a Dick's Sporting Goods store in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, to purchase a .22-caliber rifle. Id. at 14. Mr. Megraw filled out the required rifle purchase application form as part of the instant background check process. On this form he stated that he was not subject to any currently outstanding PFAOs. Id. The store clerk submitted the form and then told Mr. Megraw he was not eligible to purchase the weapon. The clerk advised Mr. Megraw that the explanation as to why his application was denied would be mailed to him at a later date. Id. Thereafter, in December 2008, Mr. Megraw was arrested and charged with one count of violating 18 Pa. C.S. § 4904[4] and one count of violating 18 Pa. C.S. § 6111(g)(4). Id. at 17-18. On June 25, 2009, Mr. Megraw pled guilty to the latter, which is a third-degree felony offense. Id. at 17-18; Complaint at 2.[5]Mr. Megraw was sentenced to four years' probation, which he completed without incident. Tr. Ct. Op. at 2.

         At the time of his conviction in 2009, there was no law that required Mr. Megraw to report his conviction to the School District and, thus, he did not do so. This changed in June 2011, when the General Assembly enacted Section 111(f.1)(1) of the Code, to bar any individual who had been convicted of a first, second, or third-degree felony, of a type not otherwise subjecting him to any other type of ban under the Code, from continued employment by a school in this Commonwealth, unless at least 10 years had elapsed from the end of the individual's sentence.[6]

         Subsequently, the General Assembly again amended the Code, mandating that all current school employees submit their state and federal criminal history records to their employers no later than December 31, 2015, so that the relevant school administrator could review each submission and determine whether additional action should be taken. See 24 P.S. § 1-111(c.3), added by Act of February 16, 2016, P.L. 6. Mr. Megraw provided the School District with the required information by this deadline. Shortly thereafter, on January 12, 2016, the School District terminated Mr. Megraw due to his June 2009 felony conviction. David Dep., 5/2/16 at 7-12.

         In February 2016, Mr. Megraw filed suit against the School District, requesting a declaratory finding that 24 P.S. § 1-111(f.1)(1) violated his substantive due process rights under Article I, Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, as applied to him.[7] Thereafter, Mr. Megraw filed his Motion for Summary Judgment, which the Trial Court denied on November 7, 2016. The next day, November 8, 2016, the Trial Court vacated this ruling and issued a new order, which required the parties to take discovery and/or enter into a stipulation of facts regarding the following outstanding relevant factual issues discussed in Johnson v. Allegheny Intermediate Unit, 59 A.3d 10, 24-25 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2012):

1. Whether [Mr. Megraw's] underlying criminal offense affected his ability to perform his job duties as a groundskeeper;
2. How the 2009 conviction reflects upon [Mr. Megraw's] present abilities to perform his duties with the [S]chool [D]istrict;
3. [Mr. Megraw's] job performance from 1995 to the present;
4. The reason why [Mr. Megraw's] criminal conviction in 2009 is predictive of future behavior and continues to warrant the harsh result of the ten[-]year ban of employment with the [S]chool [D]istrict;
5. The rational reason that applying a ten[-]year ban of employment serves a legitimate governmental purpose to be protected.

Tr. Ct. Order, 11/8/16 at 1.

         On March 10, 2017, both parties filed Supplemental Motions for Summary Judgment. On March 27, 2017, the Trial Court held oral argument regarding these motions. On April 13, 2017, the Trial Court issued two orders, one granting the School District's Supplemental Motion, and the other denying both Mr. Megraw's initial Motion for Summary Judgment, as well as his Supplemental Motion, prompting this appeal to our Court.

         Standard of Review

         When ruling upon a motion for summary judgment, the trial court must resolve all doubts against the movant, examining the case record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and "may grant summary judgment only where the right to such a judgment is clear and free from doubt." Fine v. Checcio, 870 A.2d 850, 857 (Pa. 2005). Our standard of review on appeal regarding a trial court's granting of such a motion is limited to determining whether that decision constituted an abuse of discretion or an error of law. Salerno v. LaBarr, 632 A.2d 1002, 1003 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1993).

         Issues

         On appeal, Mr. Megraw makes the following claims, which we have paraphrased and condensed for clarity. First, 24 P.S § 1-111(f.1)(1)'s employment ban and its irrebuttable presumption regarding felony convictions violate Mr. Megraw's substantive due process rights, and are thus facially unconstitutional. Megraw's Br. at 14-30. Second, the ban and irrebuttable presumption are also unconstitutional as-applied, on substantive due process grounds, because his criminal behavior occurred nearly eight years before his termination and the School District did not establish that Mr. Megraw's decision to provide false information in 2008 has, or will have, any effect upon his ability to carry out his groundskeeping duties or rendered him a threat to school safety. Id. at 30-38. Third, the Trial Court abused its discretion by factoring Mr. Megraw's employment history and evidence regarding the employment-ban-related guidance documents issued by the Commonwealth's Department of Education into its rulings upon the parties' various motions, when his 2009 felony conviction was the exclusive reason for the School District's decision to terminate him. Id. at 38-45. Finally, the Trial Court abused its discretion by determining that Mr. Megraw's repeated assertions that he had believed his ex-wife had dropped the PFAO constituted dishonesty, and that his termination was warranted as a result of this dishonesty.[8] Id. at 45-46.

         Discussion

         A. Mr. Megraw Has Waived His Challenge to the Facial Constitutionality of Section 111(f.1)(1) of the Code

         Preliminarily, we must note that Mr. Megraw has waived his argument that Section 111(f.1)(1) is facially unconstitutional for a number of reasons. First, Mr. Megraw failed to raise or preserve this issue at the trial level, and explicitly stated that he was making an as-applied challenge. See Complaint at 2, 5-7; Megraw Motion for Summary Judgment at 1-2, 8; Megraw Supplemental Motion for Summary Judgment at 6; Concise Statement of Errors Complained of in The Appeal Of The Orders Of Court Dated April 13, 2017 at 1-3; Pa. R.A.P. 302(a); Pa. R.A.P. 1925(b)(4)(vii). Additionally, Mr. Megraw failed to notify the Commonwealth's Attorney General of his intent to mount a facial attack upon Section 111(f.1)(1), and in fact expressly disclaimed such a desire via a February 25, 2016 letter to then-Attorney General Kathleen Kane. School District's Br., App.; see Kepple v. Fairman Drilling Co., 615 A.2d 1298, 1303 (Pa. 1992) (citing Pa. R.C.P. No. 235 and Pa. R.A.P. 521) (party waives ability to mount facial challenge to constitutionality of statute if it fails to notify Attorney General of its intent to do so). Finally, Mr. Megraw's attorney informed our Court during the course of oral argument that the facial challenge had been waived.

         Given that Mr. Megraw's remaining issues pertain to his as-applied constitutional challenge, his arguments about the irrebuttable presumption contained in Section 111(f.1)(1) are no longer relevant. Pennsylvania law is clear that we need only analyze the constitutionality of such irrebuttable presumptions in cases where the facial constitutionality of a law has been properly challenged. Compare Johnson, 59 A.3d at 15-16, 20-25 (as-applied constitutional challenge, with no discussion of irrebuttable presumption test), with Peake v. Commonwealth, 132 A.3d 506, 516-22 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2015) (facial constitutionality challenge, with discussion and application of irrebuttable presumption test). Therefore, we need not address whether this irrebuttable presumption comports with the due process requirements of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

         B. Section 111(f.1)(1) of the Code, As Applied to Mr. Megraw, Violated His Substantive Due Process Rights

         Mr. Megraw bases his claim that Section 111(f.1)(1)'s 10-year employment ban, as applied to him, violated his substantive due process rights upon Article I, Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.[9]

         Pennsylvania jurisprudence has consistently interpreted the language of this section as "guarantee[ing] an individual's right to engage in any of the common occupations of life." Johnson, 59 A.3d at 21 (citations omitted). However, this right is not "fundamental" in nature, and any law that allegedly impinges upon it is thus subject to a rational basis test.[10] Nixon v. Commonwealth, 839 A.2d 277, 287-88 & n.15 (Pa. 2003).[11]

         For a law to be deemed constitutional under the rational basis test, it "must not be unreasonable, unduly oppressive or patently beyond the necessities of the case, and the means which it employs must have a real and substantial relation to the objects sought to be attained." Gambone v. Commonwealth, 101 A.2d 634, 637 (Pa. 1954). While a state may regulate a business which affects the public health, safety and welfare, it may not, through regulation, deprive an individual of his right to conduct a lawful business unless it can be shown that such deprivation is reasonably related to the state interest sought to be protected." Sec'y of Revenue v. John's Vending Corp., 309 A.2d 358, 361 (Pa. 1973).

         Here, the challenged statute, Section 111(f.1)(1), applies to all school employees who have any form of direct contact with children, and establishes a 10-year ban for those who have been convicted of a first, second, or third-degree felony.[12] This statute is unambiguous and does not permit any discretion on the part of the employer to consider additional information, such as the affected employee's employment history, professional reputation, or the details of his personal life. This law does not require that any nexus exist between the nature of criminal behavior and the job responsibilities. If an employee's conviction fits within the statute's parameters, a school is required to terminate that employee.

         Although Johnson dealt with a separate section of the Code, interestingly, both parties primarily rely on our Court's holding in Johnson to support their respective positions. See Megraw's Br. at 31-33; School District's Br. at 17-24. In Johnson, Johnson's employer, Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU), terminated him due to a nearly 30-year-old conviction for felony voluntary manslaughter, which subjected him to a lifetime employment ban under Section 111(e)(1) of the Code. Johnson, 59 A.3d at 13-15. Johnson filed suit against AIU, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. Id. at 15. The trial court issued a permanent injunction, reasoning that the amended law was ex post facto in nature and, thus, unconstitutional as applied to Johnson. Id. at 16. On appeal by the Commonwealth's Department of Education, we affirmed on different grounds, finding that, while this was not an ex post facto law, it did violate Johnson's substantive due process rights as applied, since:

AIU . . . [had] failed to present any rational reason that applying the lifetime ban to Johnson served a legitimate governmental purpose . . . [and because the statute] create[d] a lifetime ban for a homicide offense that ha[d] no temporal proximity to Johnson's present ability to perform the duties of his position, and it [did] not bear a real and substantial relationship to the Commonwealth's interest in protecting children[.]

Id. at 17-25.

         Johnson is part of a larger corpus of case law, dating back to 1973, in which our appellate courts have validated both facial and as-applied substantive due process challenges to statutory employment ...


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