Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Oliver v. Rhynhart

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

August 21, 2019

FRANK OLIVER, JR. et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
REBECCA RHYNHART, Defendant.

          OPINION

          Slomsky, J.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         In May of 2017, Defendant Rebecca Rhynhart won the Democratic Primary for City Controller of the City of Philadelphia, defeating incumbent Alan Butkovitz. During her campaign, she pledged to reduce unnecessary spending in the City Controller's Office (“the Office”) and claimed that she would not cater to the Democratic “Political Machine.” After winning the General Election in November of 2017, Ms. Rhynhart assembled a Transition Team, which was tasked with assessing the needs of the Office and reorganizing it to cut costs. She also created a Personnel Committee, which was responsible for downsizing the Office and evaluating applicants and existing employees for positions in the Office.

         In December 2017, the Personnel Committee decided to terminate the employment of a number of employees, including Plaintiffs Frank Oliver, Jr., Lopez Jones, and Lisa Plaza (“Plaintiffs”). All three Plaintiffs are related to individuals that have long held positions of power in the Philadelphia Democratic Party and are considered to be part of the “Political Machine.” After being fired, each Plaintiff filed a separate Complaint in federal court. (See Doc. Nos. 13-2, 13-3, 13-4.) Mr. Oliver's Complaint, which was filed on January 23, 2018 pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, [1] alleges that Ms. Rhynhart fired Mr. Oliver “because of his political affiliation” in violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, as applied to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment.[2] (Doc. No. 13-2 ¶¶ 22-23.) Mr. Jones' Complaint, which was filed on February 15, 2018 pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, similarly alleges that Ms. Rhynhart fired him because of his political affiliation in violation of the First Amendment.[3] (Doc. No. 13-3 ¶¶ 22-24.) Ms. Plaza also filed her Complaint on February 15, 2018. Like Mr. Oliver and Mr. Jones, Ms. Plaza claims that Ms. Rhynhart violated her First Amendment rights by firing her as a result of her political affiliation.[4] Her lawsuit is also brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In essence, Plaintiffs contend that they were terminated because they are related to members of the “Political Machine.” On April 13, 2018, Ms. Rhynhart filed an unopposed Motion to Consolidate the three lawsuits (Doc. No. 4), which the Court granted on April 13, 2018 (Doc. No. 5). On May 23, 2019, Ms. Rhynhart filed the present Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. No. 13.) On June 20, 2019, Plaintiffs collectively filed a Response in Opposition to the Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. No. 14.) Finally, on July 3, 2019, Ms. Rhynhart filed a Reply in Further Support of the Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. No. 18.)

         Ms. Rhynhart's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 13) is now ripe for disposition. For the reasons discussed infra, the Motion for Summary Judgment will be granted, and the Court will grant judgment in Ms. Rhynhart's favor.

         II. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background

         In the Spring of 2017, Defendant Rebecca Rhynhart, [5] a Democrat, challenged incumbent Alan Butkovitz, another Democrat, for the position of City Controller of the City of Philadelphia. As part of her campaign platform, Ms. Rhynhart “pledged to audit every City department, save the City money by focusing on best practices and modernization, commission an outside audit of the Controller's Officer to ensure the office is operating efficiently, improve the pension fund's return on investment, increase the diversity of the city's workforce, audit the Philadelphia Parking Authority, and increase transparency in city government.” (Doc. No. 13-1 ¶ 9.)

         Ms. Rhynhart's campaign platform was tied to her pledge to rebuke the “status quo” and not be beholden to the “Political Machine.” (Id. ¶ 93.) According to Ms. Rhynhart, the Political Machine is not about individual people or individual ward leaders, although they may be a part of it; rather, the term refers to the “entrenched powers of the City, ” entrenched interests, and the way things have always been done in City government. (Id. ¶¶ 90-91, 96.) As part of her effort to increase government transparency, Ms. Rhynhart promised that, if elected, she would not cater to the Political Machine like her opponent, Mr. Butkovitz, who according to Ms. Rhynhart, neglected to audit the Philadelphia Parking Authority due to his “entrenched” interests. (Id. ¶¶ 92-93.)

         In connection with her statements about the Political Machine, Ms. Rhynhart emphasized that too many City of Philadelphia government jobs are given to unqualified applicants solely because they know people in power. That practice, according to Ms. Rhynhart, hurts the City's operations and costs the City money. (Id. ¶¶ 98-99.) As a result, Ms. Rhynhart pledged that, if elected, she would only hire the best, most qualified applicants for the job. (Id. ¶ 101.) Notwithstanding that pledge, Ms. Rhynhart testified that she has “nothing against [hiring] someone who happens to have a friend or be related to someone, as long as they're the most qualified person for that job.” (Doc. No. 13-8 at 19:6-10.)

         Ms. Rhynhart did not receive much support from the City's Democratic Ward Leaders; according to her deposition, of the sixty-nine (69) Democratic Ward Leaders in Philadelphia, all but one endorsed Mr. Butkovitz in the Primary Election. (Doc. No. 13-1 ¶ 11.) Nevertheless, on May 16, 2017, Ms. Rhynhart defeated Mr. Butkovitz by winning the Democratic Primary. (Id. ¶ 10.) On November 6, 2017, Ms. Rhynhart prevailed in the General Election and was elected City Controller. (Id. ¶ 12.) During that election, Ms. Rhynhart was endorsed by all sixty-nine Democratic Ward Leaders. (Id. ¶ 13.)

         After winning the General Election, Ms. Rhynhart assembled a Transition Team to study the structure and staff of the Controller's Office (the “Office”) and to evaluate what changes needed to be made to the Office before she was sworn-in as City Controller in January 2018. (Id. ¶ 16.) She also created a Transition Report to document her plan for the Office. (Id. ¶ 15.)

         The Transition Team included a Personnel Committee, which was tasked with determining the staffing needs of the Office under Ms. Rhynhart's control. The Personnel Committee was headed by Kellan White, [6] who was also the Director of the Transition Team, and Heather Steinmiller. Before working in the City Controller's Office, Mr. White worked on numerous political campaigns and served as the campaign manager for the committee to elect Ms. Rhynhart and the political director of Ms. Rhynhart's campaign. (Id. ¶ 104.) He is the son of John White, Jr., who is the former Ward Leader of the Democratic Party's 50th Ward and the former Pennsylvania Secretary of Welfare. (Id. ¶ 106.) According to Mr. White, he was the final decisionmaker ultimately responsible for the hiring and firing of the Office's employees. (Id. ¶¶ 19-22.) Although Ms. Rhynhart was the City Controller-elect, both she and Mr. White testified that she did not play a role in hiring or firing low-ranking members of the Office. (Id. ¶¶ 17-18.)

         The Personnel Committee was charged with reorganizing the Office to promote efficiency and to reduce wasteful spending. According to Mr. White, this meant downsizing the number of exempt employees working in the Office. (Doc. No. 13-5 at 12:5-16, 50:3-11.) An exempt employee is a government employee that is exempt from civil service status. The majority of City of Philadelphia government jobs are governed by the City Civil Service System. As part of this system, applicants take the City's Civil Service Examination and are placed on an eligibility list according to their examination scores, credentials, and other factors. When a vacancy arises for a civil service position, the government must fill that position through the civil service eligibility list. A limited number of City of Philadelphia government jobs are exempt from the civil service system, meaning that the government does not need to hire from the civil service eligibility list to fill that position.[7] According to Mr. White, exempt employees are also at-will employees-that is, their employment can be terminated at any time at the discretion of their supervisor. (Id. at 12:5-16.)

         Prior to the General Election, there were forty-one (41) exempt employees working in the City Controller's Office. Consistent with Ms. Rhynhart's stated goal of reducing the number of exempt employees in the Office, only sixteen (16) of those exempt employees were retained by the Rhynhart administration. (Doc. No. 13-1 ¶¶ 34-35.) Plaintiffs Frank Oliver, Lopez Jones, and Lisa Plaza were among the number of exempt employees that were not retained.

         To restructure and downsize the Office, the Personnel Committee considered the resumes and cover letters of new applicants and existing employees. (Doc. No. 13-5 at 12:8-16.) The Personnel Committee also conferred with Office supervisors to discuss employees' performances. These supervisors included Christy Brady, John Thomas, and Jeff Hornstein. (Doc. No. 13-1 ¶ 27.) Additionally, the Personnel Committee worked with Harvey Rice, who had once served as First Deputy City Controller under Mr. Butkovitz.[8] (Id. ¶ 26.)

         Based on conversations with Mr. Rice and the current Office supervisors, the Personnel Committee developed a spreadsheet that reflected the supervisors' views on existing employees. (Id. ¶ 29; Doc. No. 13-13.) This spreadsheet listed the employee's, position, current salary, and comments from supervisors. Some of the comments noted whether the employee was politically connected. (See Doc. No. 13.)

         The Personnel Committee also created a separate spreadsheet that listed all candidates for positions in the Office, including all existing employees and all new applicants. (Doc. No. 13-1 ¶ 31; Doc. No. 13-14.) This spreadsheet listed each applicant's name, whether they were currently employed at the Office, and whether the Personnel Committee recommended that the applicant be interviewed. The spreadsheet also contained notes about certain applicants, including information about job history and whether the applicant was politically connected. (See Doc. No. 13-14.) According to this spreadsheet, the Personnel Committee did not recommend interviewing Plaintiffs for positions in the new administration. (Id.) During his deposition, Mr. White testified that Ms. Rhynhart was given these spreadsheets as they were updated in order to keep her apprised of the Personnel Committee's progress. (Doc. No. 13-5 at 48:18-22.)

         As noted above, during the Transition Period, the Personnel Committee decided not to retain a number of exempt employees, including Plaintiffs Frank Oliver, Lopez Jones, and Lisa Plaza. According to Ms. Rhynhart and Mr. White, the decision to terminate Plaintiffs' employment was based on numerous factors, including Plaintiffs' credentials, supervisors' recommendations, and the need to restructure the Office. (Doc. No. 13-1 ¶ 102; Doc. No. 13-5 at 12:8-16.)

         Although she was the City Controller-elect, Ms. Rhynhart testified that she did not play a role in firing low-ranking members of the Office like Mr. Oliver, Mr. Jones, or Ms. Plaza; rather, she only had a hand in hiring or firing “four or five high-ranking positions in the [O]ffice.” (Doc. No. 13-1 ¶¶ 17-18.) Instead, Mr. White, the Chair of the Personnel Committee, had the final say as to whether the Office would retain the three Plaintiffs. Still, there is evidence that Ms. Rhynhart knew that the Personnel Committee had decided not to retain Plaintiffs. As noted above, Ms. Rhynhart was sent the Personnel Committee spreadsheets, which listed whether the Committee recommended that an applicant be interviewed. In addition, Ms. Rhynhart was copied on a December 20, 2017 email from Mr. White to another member of the Transition Team, which contained a list of exempt employees, including Plaintiffs, that the Personnel Committee decided not to retain. (See Doc. No. 15 at 31.)

         The background and termination of each Plaintiff follows.

         1. Plaintiff Frank Oliver

         Plaintiff Frank Oliver began working in the City Controller's Office in January 2008. (Doc. No. 13-1 ¶ 1.) Although he was initially hired as an investigator, he soon transitioned into working in the Office's Records Room. (Id. ¶ 39.) At the time of the General Election, Mr. Oliver considered himself to be the supervisor of the Records Room. In that capacity, he was responsible for assigning work to his three subordinates. (Id. ¶ 40.) Mr. Oliver was an exempt, at-will employee, meaning that he was exempt from civil service status and could be terminated at any time at the discretion of his supervisor. (Id. ¶¶ 4-5.)

         Relevant here, Mr. Oliver is the son of Frank Oliver, Sr., who at the time of the 2017 Democratic Primary and the General Election, was the Treasurer of the Philadelphia County Democratic City Committee and the elected leader of the Philadelphia Democratic Party's 29thWard.[9] (Id. ¶ 58.) Frank Oliver, Sr. also served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives for thirty-seven (37) years. (Doc. No. 13-16 at 29:13-16.) Mr. Oliver's father did not support Ms. Rhynhart in the 2017 Democratic Primary for City Controller; instead, he endorsed Mr. Butkovitz, the incumbent. (Doc. No. 13-1 ¶ 59.) In her deposition, Ms. Rhynhart admitted that she considered Frank Oliver, Sr. to be a member of the Philadelphia Political Machine. (Doc. No. 13-8 at 12:5-14.)

         On December 14, 2017, Mr. Oliver was informed via phone call that he would not be offered a position with the new administration and that his employment with the Office would end on January 2, 2018. (Doc. No. 13-1 ¶¶ 41-42.) On December 20, 2017, Mr. White sent Mr.

         Oliver a formal termination letter, which stated the following:

Thank you for your interest in serving in the Controller's Officer under Controller-Elect Rhynhart. We wanted to provide in writing what was stated during our December 14, 2017 phone call. We have reviewed your resume and qualifications in the context of our plan for reorganization of the office, and unfortunately, we will be unable to offer you a position in the new administration. Accordingly, we have determined that you will be separated from City employment effective January 2, 2018.

(Doc. No. 13-18.) According to Mr. White, Mr. Oliver was not replaced; rather, his responsibilities have been consolidated and assigned to other employees in the Records Room. (Id. ¶ 43.)

         In his deposition, Mr. Oliver testified that at first, he believed that he was not retained because Ms. Rhynhart “was going in a different direction.” (Doc. No. 13-16 at 26:2-5.) But a few weeks after the termination, he read several newspaper articles that said “Frank Oliver, ward leader's son was terminated” and came to believe that he was fired due to his father's political activity. (Id. at 26:12-21.) Notwithstanding this belief, Mr. Oliver admits that he is unsure whether Ms. Rhynhart had anything to do with the decision to fire him. (Id. at 26:12-21.) In fact, he concedes that he has never met or spoken with Ms. Rhynhart; he also concedes that he is unsure whether Ms. Rhynhart knew his father or ever connected him with his father. (Id. at 30:7-20.) In addition, Mr. Oliver testified that he is not political and is not involved in local politics.

         He voted for Mr. Butkovitz, but otherwise did not campaign for him due to his employment in the City Controller's Office.[10] (Id. at 30:2-23, 43:1-16.)

         Instead, Mr. Oliver thinks that the termination had something to do with Harvey Rice, the former First Deputy under Mr. Butkovitz, who consulted with the Personnel Committee during the Transition Committee and supported Ms. Rhynhart during her campaign for City Controller. (Id.) According to Mr. Oliver, his father did not support Mr. Rice in an unsuccessful bid for political office a number of years earlier. (Id. at 64:1-23.) Additionally, while Mr. Rice was still working in the Office, he investigated Mr. Oliver for derogatory statements written on the wall in the men's bathroom. Mr. Oliver testified that the investigation “felt like revenge . . . after [he] found out [his] father didn't support him . . . .” (Id. at 49:2-5.)

         According to Mr. White, Mr. Oliver was not retained because the Personnel Committee needed to downsize the Office by reducing the number of exempt employees and because Mr. Oliver's resume and credentials did not “make the cut.” (Doc. No. 13-5 at 10:1-8.) Mr. White consulted with Mr. Rice about Mr. Oliver, but is not aware whether Mr. Rice harbored any animosity towards Mr. Oliver. (Id. at 15:1-5.)

         2. Plaintiff Lopez Jones

         Plaintiff Lopez Jones began working in the City Controller's Office in October 2006. (Doc. No. 13-1 ¶ 3.) Mr. Jones' mother-in-law, Vivian Miller, is the former Ward Leader of the Democratic Party's 51st Ward and the former Clerk of Quarter Sessions in Philadelphia.[11] (Id. ¶ 62.) According to his deposition, Mr. Jones was hired by the City Controller's Office in part because Ms. Miller spoke to Mr. Butkovitz, who was the City Controller at the time, on his behalf. (Id. ¶¶ 63-64.) The Personnel Committee spreadsheet that was developed from conversations with Office supervisors and senior staff notes Mr. Jones' connection to Ms. Miller:

Mother in Law was formerly the Clerk of Quarter Sessions/Job Function was created by JT[12] at AB's[13] request would not be upset if he wasn't retained [sic]/ Job Function can be easily dispersed among Civil Service Workers.

(Doc. No. 13-13 at 1.) This notation refers to comments from John Thomas, one of the senior staff, who told the Personnel Committee that Mr. Jones' position was created for him at Mr. Butkovitz's direction. Mr. Thomas also told the Personnel Committee that Mr. Jones' position was unnecessary because his job responsibilities were repetitive of work already assigned to civil service employees. (Doc. No. 13-1 ¶ 37.) Both Mr. White and Ms. Rhynhart had access to this spreadsheet, which noted Mr. Jones' connection to Ms. Miller.

         At the time of the 2017 General Election, Mr. Jones' job title was Contract Compliance Officer. In that capacity, he was responsible for approving capital projects in Philadelphia. (Id. ¶ 65.) Like Mr. Oliver, Mr. Jones was an exempt, at-will employee, meaning that he was exempt from civil service status and that his position could be terminated at any time at the discretion of his supervisor. (Id. ¶¶ 4-5.)

         At some point during the Transition Period, Mr. Jones was informed that his job was being terminated, effective January 2, 2018. (Id. ¶ 66.) He believes that he was fired because Ms. Miller was about to retire from her position as Ward Leader. (Id. ¶ 67.) On that subject, he stated the following:

Question: Why do you believe you were not retained by Rebecca Rhynhart's Administration?
Answer: I personally believe I was not retained because I was a part of the old guard, the old war heroes and things of that nature that lost their post around the time that Rebecca was getting hired or before.
Question: So back to - you mentioned that you were part of ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.