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Symonies v. McAndrew

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

September 16, 2019



          A. Richard Caputo, United States District Judge.

         Presently before me is the Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (Doc. 12) filed by Defendants Mark McAndrew (“McAndrew”), John Tigue (“Tigue”), and Lackawanna County (the “County”) (collectively, where appropriate, “Defendants”). In his one-Count Complaint, Plaintiff John Symonies (“Symonies”) claims that Defendants deprived him of his protected property interest in his employment as a County deputy sheriff without due process of law. Specifically, Symonies contends that he was constructively discharged from his employment following a “sham” pretermination due process hearing where the outcome was predetermined. Because Symonies was not deprived of a protected property interest without due process of law, Defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings will be granted.

         I. Background

         Symonies served as a County deputy sheriff for over thirty-three (33) years, i.e., from 1984 until his employment ended in 2018. (See Compl., ¶ 7). Symonies was a union member. (See id. at ¶ 8).

         On or about December 19, 2017, Symonies received a letter from Justin MacGregor (“MacGregor”), the County's human resource director, advising of a due process hearing concerning his alleged misconduct. (See id. at ¶ 10). That letter stated in part:

Sheriff McAndrew recently received a letter from Chief Guy Salerno of the Blakely Police Department, outlining several concerns his officers have raised about your conduct as a Deputy Sheriff. In the letter, Chief Salerno alleges that you often exhibit unprofessional behavior when his officers transport a prisoner to the processing center, including “snide comments” and tearing up officers' business cards. The practice of handing business cards to prisoners is a tool used by law enforcement officers to encourage cooperation in criminal investigations.
After receiving the letter from Chief Salerno, the Sheriff began an internal investigation and interviewed two Deputy Sheriffs with knowledge of these incidents occurring.
Deputy A stated that they have witnessed you urge prisoners not to cooperate with law enforcement, refer to charges for DUI and paraphernalia as “stupid charges, ” and throw away police officers' business cards.
Deputy B stated that they have witnessed you throw away police officers' business cards and tell prisoners not to cooperate with law enforcement. Deputy B also stated that they have witnessed you tell prisoners, “your arrest is not lawful and you should sue the officer.”

(Defs.' Answer, Ex. “B”).[1] The letter further advised that at the due process hearing, scheduled for December 22, 2017, Symonies would be “provided any and all evidence” supporting the County's contention that he committed misconduct and violated Sheriff's Office policy. (Id.). Symonies was informed that if the County's information was accurate, he could be subject to “discipline, up to and including termination.” (Id.). He was further told that he would “be given a full opportunity to give your side of the story and to clarify any inaccuracy. You are entitled to union representation at this hearing.” (Id.).

         On or about the same day he received the due process notice, Symonies contacted his union representative, deputy sheriff Joseph George (“George”), requesting his attendance at the due process hearing. (See Compl., ¶ 15).

         Prior to the hearing, George met with Tigue. (See id. at ¶ 16). At that time, Tigue advised George that McAndrew would not be in attendance at the hearing, but that McAndrew instructed him how to handle the hearing. (See id. at ¶¶ 17-18). George inquired what this meant, and Tigue explained that he was told by McAndrew to give Symonies the option to retire or be terminated. (See id. at ¶ 19).[2]

         Prior to the hearing, Symonies prepared a letter directed to McAndrew stating that he “would like to respond to the allegation and the Loudermill Hearing. I did Not commit those acts that's alleged.” (Defs.' Answer, Ex. “C”). Symonies also requested that George be kept informed of the outcome of the investigation, and also that George conduct his own investigation into the allegations. (See id.).

         At the due process hearing, George objected on the basis that the hearing was a sham because its outcome was predetermined. (See id. at ¶¶ 20-21). The County proceeded with the hearing over George's objection. (See id. at ¶ 22). Symonies denied the allegations at the hearing. (See id. at ¶ 23). George also argued at the hearing that the allegations against Symonies were vague as they did not include the dates, times, or names of the complaining Blakely police officers. (See id. at ¶ 25). When asked for that information, MacGregor indicated that he could not provide those details and only stated that the alleged misconduct occurred within the past year. (See id. at ¶¶ 26-27). MacGregor explained at the hearing that the internal investigation involved interviewing two unidentified deputy sheriffs who observed Symonies throwing a business card in the trash. (See id. at ¶ 28). George also requested the date of that incident so he could review surveillance video to check if Symonies was working that day, but MacGregor could not provide specific information regarding the date and time of that alleged misconduct. (See id. at ¶¶ 29-30). At the conclusion of the hearing, George requested that no disciplinary action be taken against Symonies. (See id. at ¶ 31).

         One hour after the hearing concluded, MacGregor phoned George and advised that after speaking with McAndrew, the outcome of the hearing was the same as what George had been told earlier - Symonies could either retire that day or be fired. (See id. at ¶ 32). In response, George told MacGregor it was not his place to inform Symonies of the County's decision. (See id. at ¶ 33).

         On or about January 2, 2018, Tigue informed Symonies that he could either retire or he would be terminated. (See id. at ¶ 35). Symonies submitted a letter of resignation and retirement the next day. (See id. at ¶ 36; see also Defs.' Answer, Ex. “A”).

         Based on the foregoing, Symonies filed the instant action on April 26, 2019. (See Compl., generally). In his one-Count Complaint, Symomies contends that Defendants deprived him of his property interest in his employment as a County deputy sheriff without due process of law. (See id., generally). More particularly, Symonies alleges that he was “constructively discharged” and that the due process hearing he was provided was a “sham.” (See id., generally).

         Defendants filed their Answer and Affirmative Defenses to the Complaint on July 1, 2019. (See Defs.' Answer, generally). Two days later, Defendants filed the instant motion for judgment on the pleadings. (See Doc. 12, generally). That motion has now been fully briefed, so it is ripe for disposition.

         II. Legal Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) provides: “[a]fter the pleadings are closed -- but early enough not to delay trial -- a party may move for judgment on the pleadings.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Judgment on the pleadings is appropriate “if the movant clearly establishes that there are no material issues of fact, and he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Sikirica v. Nationwide Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 214, 220 (3d Cir. 2005). “‘A motion for judgment on the pleadings based on the defense that the plaintiff has failed to state a claim is analyzed under the same standards that apply to a Rule 12(b)(6) motion.'” Zimmerman v. Corbett, 873 F.3d 414, 417 (3d Cir. 2017) (quoting Revel v. Port Auth. of NY, NJ, 598 F.3d 128, 134 (3d Cir. 2010)). “In considering a motion for judgment on the pleadings, a court must accept all of the allegations in the pleadings of the party against whom the motion is addressed as true and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party.” Id. at 417-18 (citing Allah v. Al-Hafeez, 226 F.3d 247, 249 (3d Cir. 2000)). “In ruling on a motion for judgment on the pleadings, ‘the court reviews not only the complaint but also the answer and written instruments attached to the pleadings.'” Barnard v. Lackawanna Cnty., 194 F.Supp.3d 337, 340 (M.D. Pa. 2016) (quoting Brautigam v. Fraley, 684 F.Supp.2d 589, 591 (M.D. Pa. 2010)); see also L-7 Designs, Inc. v. Old Navy, LLC, 647 F.3d 419, 422 (2d Cir. 2011) (“On a 12(c) motion, the court considers the complaint, the answer, any written documents attached to them, and any matter of which the court can take judicial notice for the factual background of the case.”).

         III. Discussion

         Symonies' sole claim in this action is for an alleged deprivation of a protected property interest in his County employment as a deputy sheriff without due process of law, i.e., a procedural due process claim. The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment provides that “[n]o state shall . . . deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law[.]” U.S. Const. amend XIV, § 1. “To state a claim under § 1983 for deprivation of procedural due process rights, a plaintiff must allege that (1) he was deprived of an individual interest that is encompassed within the Fourteenth Amendment's protection of ‘life, liberty, or property,' and (2) the procedures available to him did not provide ‘due process of law.'” Hill v. Borough of Kutztown, 455 F.3d 225, 233-34 (3d Cir. 2006) (citing Alvin v. Suzuki, 227 F.3d 107, 116 (3d Cir. 2000)). Defendants challenge both elements of Symonies' procedural due process claim.

         A. ...

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