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Miller v. City of Bradford

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

August 9, 2019

SHAYNE L. MILLER, Plaintiff,
CITY OF BRADFORD, et al., Defendants.


          SUSAN PARADISE BAXTER United States District Judge.

         This civil action was filed by Plaintiff Shayne L. Miller (“Plaintiff”) against the City of Bradford (at times, the “City”), its chief of police, Christopher Lucco (“Lucco”), and its mayor, Thomas Riel (“Riel”), after Plaintiff was terminated from his position as a Bradford city police officer for alleged shoplifting. The incident giving rise to the shoplifting charge involved Plaintiff's alleged failure, on two occasions, to scan a single meat item at a self-checkout station in a local Walmart. ECF No. 8, ¶¶17-44. Plaintiff has consistently maintained that his failure to pay for the items was unintentional and resulted from his inadvertent failure to scan them correctly. Id. ¶¶29, 38.

         On May 26, 2017, following a Loudermill[1] hearing, Plaintiff was terminated by the City. In September 2017, Plaintiff was tried on summary theft charges related to the alleged shoplifting and was acquitted by the Magisterial District Judge. Plaintiff commenced this civil action shortly thereafter.

         In his amended complaint, which is the operative pleading, Plaintiff asserts four claims against the Defendants. Counts I and II assert violations of Plaintiff's federal procedural due process rights in connection with the loss of his employment and reputational damage. Count III asserts state law theories of false light and invasion of privacy. Count IV asserts a claim against Lucco and Riehl for alleged conspiracy.

         Presently pending before the Court is Plaintiff's motion to file a Second Amended Complaint, which would add an additional count alleging a violation of the Pennsylvania Constitution's Due Process Clause. ECF Nos. 31 and 31-1. Plaintiff's theory is that the Defendants violated his state due process rights by allowing Lucco to act both as the investigator and the adjudicator relative to his adverse employment decision.[2] See Lyness v. Commonwealth, 605 A.2d 1204, 1204, 1207 (Pa. 1992) (holding that a physician's due process rights were violated when state board of medicine both determined that a professional licensing prosecution should be initiated and then acted as the ultimate fact-finder in determining that a violation had occurred); Dussia v. Barger, 351 A.2d 667, 674-75 (Pa. 1975) (superseded by statute) (holding that an Administrative Code provision, as implemented by a state police field regulation, created an impermissible commingling of functions on the part of the state police commissioner in violation of due process principles where, under the regulatory scheme, the commissioner was responsible both for determining whether to convene a court-martial board and also for determining the accused employee's guilt or innocence along with any appropriate sanctions).

         The amendment of pleadings is governed by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15, which generally conditions amendment on the court's leave or the opposing party's written consent. Mullin v. Balicki, 875 F.3d 140, 149 (3d Cir. 2017); see Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(a)(2). Under Rule 15, courts are directed to “freely give leave [to amend] when justice so requires.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(2). This liberal standard helps to effectuate the “general policy embodied in the Federal Rules favoring resolution of cases on their merits.” Mullin, 875 F.3d at 149 (citation omitted). Denial of leave to amend can be based on factors such as undue delay, bad faith or dilatory motive on the part of the movant; repeated failure to cure deficiencies by amendments previously allowed; prejudice to the opposing party; and futility. Mullin, 875 F.3d at 149 (citing Foman v. Davis, 371 U.S. 178, 182 (1962)).

         In this case, Defendants oppose Plaintiff's proposed amendment on the ground that, as a matter of law, no due process violation occurred and, therefore, the proposed amendment would be futile.[3] Defendants contend that Plaintiff's theory of liability is flawed because it “fails to distinguish initial employment decisions, which are routinely investigated and made by . . . municipal department heads, from the actual ‘adjudication' of the correctness of such decisions by a separate body.” ECF No. 37 at 2-3. According to Defendants, Plaintiff had the right to appeal the adverse employment decision to the civil service board. See 11 Pa. C.S.A. §14408(a)(2). Citing Katruska v. Bethlehem Ctr. Sch. Dist., 767 A.2d 1051 (Pa. 2001), Defendants posit that where, as here, the aggrieved public employee has a statutory or contractual right to de novo review of a department head's decision by a city council or a civil service review board, there is no violation of the employee's due process rights.

         Katruska dealt with a school district's decision, upon recommendation of the superintendent, to demote a high school principal to a teaching position. As permitted by statutory law, the plaintiff employee appealed his demotion to the Secretary of Education, who affirmed the school board's decision. Plaintiff then took a further appeal to the Commonwealth Court, arguing that a particular school board member should not have participated in the demotion hearing because of the fact that his wife was an employee at the high school and had testified as a witness during the hearing. The Commonwealth Court agreed that the board member's participation created an appearance of bias in the underlying proceedings that amounted to a violation of due process, notwithstanding the Secretary's subsequent de novo review of the decision. On further appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the Commonwealth Court's ruling and held that the requirements of due process had been satisfied by virtue of the de novo review procedures set forth in the Public School Code. In arriving at its decision, the Supreme Court recognized that the concept of procedural due process encompasses, among other things, “the chance to defend oneself before a fair and impartial tribunal having jurisdiction of the case.” 767 A.2d at 1056 (quoting Lyness, 605A.2d at 1207). The Court further acknowledged that “an inherent potential for bias on the part of school boards exists because of the dual functions they serve in acting as both prosecutor and as judge in proceedings involving professional employees.” Id. Nevertheless, the Court found that

the Secretary of Education's de novo review of the decision of a school board ensures that the requirements of due process are satisfied. The determination to be reviewed on appeal to the Commonwealth Court is that of the impartial factfinder, the Secretary of Education, rather than that of the school board. The professional employee is provided with notice, opportunity to be heard, and the chance to defend himself or herself before a fair and impartial tribunal through the procedure implemented under the Public School Code. This procedure is distinguishable from that analyzed in Lyness, in which the scope of appellate review from a decision of the State Board of Medicine was limited. See, Lincoln Philadelphia Realty Associates I v. The Board of Revision of Taxes of the City and County of Philadelphia, 563 Pa. 189, 758 A.2d 1178 (2000)(“ . . . this court has recognized that de novo review serves an ameliorative function where the initial decision maker is not an independent body.”); Covert v. Bensalem Township School District, 104 Pa. Cmwlth. 441, 552 A.2d 129 (1978).[]

Id. at 1056-57 (footnote omitted).

         Defendants in this case extrapolate two propositions from Katruska, to wit: “a court's evaluation of a due process issue requires that it review the entire process that is available to the plaintiff”; and ‘if that process provides the plaintiff with a right to de novo review of a decision by a disinterested decision-maker, then that process satisfies the requirements of the Pennsylvania Constitution, even if the initial decision was rendered by an individual or entity that was also involved in the investigation or prosecution of the matter.” ECF No. 37 at 5-6. The Court agrees that this is a reasonable interpretation of Katruska.

         That said, the Court makes the following observations regarding Plaintiff's termination proceedings. First, the Bradford City Policy Department, by local ordinance, falls under the direction of Defendant Lucco, as Chief of Police. See Code of the City of Bradford, §3-4(B).[4]Second, subject to the provisions of the Third Class City Code pertaining to civil service, [5] Lucco (as “director” of the police department) was empowered, “with the approval of the City Council or its authorized representative, ” to “remove subordinate officers” like Plaintiff. Id. §3-5(C). Third, under the provisions of the civil service statute, Plaintiff - as an “employee aggrieved by . . . discharge” -- had the right to request a hearing before the civil service board and have representation of counsel at said hearing. See 11 Pa. C.S.A. §14408(a)(2). Alternatively, Plaintiff, being a member of a bargaining unit, had the option of challenging his termination “by a proceeding in grievance arbitration.” Id. §14408(b). Thus, Plaintiff could choose to appeal his discharge to the civil service board, or grieve his discharge in arbitration, but he could not to both. Id. According to Plaintiff's own averments, he chose arbitration and successfully grieved his termination decision with the result that the arbitrator awarded reinstatement without backpay. See ECF No. 40-1, ¶¶94-95. Plaintiff implicitly concedes in his proposed amended pleading that the arbitrator acted as a neutral decision-maker. Id. ¶¶93-95.

         Applying the principles of Katruska to the case at bar, the Court concludes that the procedures available to Plaintiff provided due process of law. Like the aggrieved employee in Katruska, Plaintiff obtained a review of his adverse employment decision by a fair and impartial arbiter having jurisdiction over the matter. And even if Plaintiff had not successfully arbitrated his claim, the availability of de novo review of his termination by the civil service board ensured that the requirements of due process were met.

         Plaintiff, however, disputes the relevance of Katruska on two grounds. First, he contends that Katruska's holding applies only to cases wherein the employee actually received the benefit of de novo review by exercising his right to obtain it. According to Plaintiff, the mere existence of a ...

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