Piazza v. County of Luzerne et al
MEMORANDUM (Order to follow as separate docket entry)For the reasons discussed above, Defendants Luzerne County and Robert Lawtons Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 58) is DENIED. An appropriate Order is filed simultaneously with this Memorandum. Signed by Honorable Richard P. Conaboy on 1/23/17. (cc)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
LEONARD PIAZZA, III,
:CIVIL ACTION NO. 3:13-CV-1755
COUNTY OF LUZERNE and
Pending before the Court is Defendants Luzerne County and
Robert Lawton’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 58).
incident underlying Plaintiff’s 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action is his
termination from his position as Luzerne County Director of
Elections, Chief Registrar and Clerk on April 10, 2013.
¶¶ 10, 58-59.)
For the reasons discussed below, we conclude
Defendants’ motion is properly denied.
In April 2004, Plaintiff was appointed to the position of
Director of the Bureau of Elections by the then Luzerne County
(Doc. 59 ¶ 1; Doc. 65 ¶ 1.)
The parties dispute
what Plaintiff’s duties were in this position: Defendants assert
that none of Plaintiff’s identified duties included the performance
of field investigations or audits of campaign finance reports (Doc.
59 ¶ 2); Plaintiff maintains that from 2004 forward his
responsibilities included making inquiries and field investigations
regarding filed statements and reports and his predecessor
conducted these kinds of inquiries and field investigations without
having sought or received prior authorization from the Board of
Elections (Doc. 65 ¶ 2).
In January 2012, Luzerne County changed to a Home Rule form of
government and Plaintiff continued in his role and duties as
Director of the Department of Voter Services.
65 ¶ 3.)
(Doc. 59 ¶ 3; Doc.
In February 2012, Walter Griffith was Luzerne County’s
elected controller who, pursuant to the Home Rule Charter, was
required to serve as the watchdog over the County’s fiscal and
management activities, and monitor and examine the County
government and its expenditures.
(Doc. 59 ¶¶ 4-5; Doc. 65 ¶¶ 4-5.)
In his capacity as County Controller, Mr. Griffith “had the
authority to conduct fiscal, performance, management, contract,
grant, compliance and related audits of any County division,
department bureau, office, agency, authority, board, commission,
elected office, Judiciary, Office of Court Administration or other
(Doc. 59 ¶ 7.)
In February 2012, Mr. Griffith publicly announced his
intention to audit the County’s Bureau of Elections: Defendants
assert that the Bureau of Elections was just one of many intended
audits (Doc. 59 ¶ 7); Plaintiff contends that Mr. Griffith
testified “‘I looked at the Bureau of Elections.
I looked at that
as a testing’” (Doc. 65 ¶ 7 (quoting Griffith Dep., 89:6-7)).
On March 29, 2012, the Times Leader newspaper reported that
Mr. Griffith intended to audit seventeen district magistrates’
offices, the assessor’s office, the prison commissary fund, the
special legal fees of the Court of Common Pleas, the Home Rule
transition committee, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the
Election Bureau, the Human Resources Department, and the Sheriff’s
(Doc. 65 ¶ 15.)
By letter of March 30, 2012, Plaintiff notified Mr. Griffith
of his intention to examine Mr. Griffith’s committee and finance
(Doc. 59 ¶ 23 (citing Lawton Dep. Ex. PRL-3).)
adds that at the same time he sent the letter by e-mail to the
Luzerne County Board of Elections and Registration and Michael
Butera, Esq., solicitor to the Luzerne County Board of Elections
(Doc. 65 ¶ 23 (citing Lawton Dep. Ex. PRL-2).)
Mr. Griffith objected to this inquiry.
(Doc. 65 CSMF ¶ 28.)
At a meeting on April 5, 2012, with Defendant Lawton, Attorney
DeLuca, and Attorney Butera, Defendants assert that Plaintiff was
given an opportunity to respond to the allegations that Plaintiff
had exceeded his authority and exposed the County to possible civil
litigation by notifying Mr. Griffith of his intention.
24; Doc. 65 ¶ 24.)
(Doc. 59 ¶
Plaintiff maintained that he had the authority
to conduct the requested audit or field investigation of Mr.
Griffith’s campaign finance reports despite Attorney DeLuca’s legal
opinion that he lacked such authority.
(Doc. 59 ¶ 25; Doc. 65 ¶
Plaintiff’s employment with the County was terminated on April
(Doc. 59 ¶ 27; Doc. 65 ¶ 27.)
Defendants maintain that
Plaintiff’s lack of support of Mr. Griffith’s candidacy for County
Controller played no role in the decision to terminate his
employment–-it was the allegedly retaliatory nature of his intended
examination of Mr. Griffith’s campaign finance reports which
exceeded his authority and exposed the County to potential civil
rights litigation by Mr. Griffith.
(Doc. 59 ¶¶ 24, 29.)
contends the reasons stated by Defendants were pretextual for the
actual reason for his termination which was his right to forbear
from political association and activity on behalf of Mr. Griffith.
(Doc. 65 ¶ 29.)
The parties agree that Plaintiff has no personal knowledge
that Mr. Lawton ever politically supported Mr. Griffith’s candidacy
for any office or contributed financially to his campaigns.
59 ¶¶ 30-31; Doc. 65 ¶ 30-31.)
However, it is disputed whether Mr.
Lawton had a political affiliation with Mr. Griffith: Defendants
contend there was no political affiliation between the two (Doc. 59
¶ 33); Plaintiff asserts that Mr. Griffith stated that he “struck
an alliance” with Defendant Lawton when Defendant Lawton became
county manager on February 29, 2012 (Doc. 65 ¶ 33 (quoting Griffith
Defendants argue that Plaintiff’s First Amendment claim based
on his right of association fails because he has not shown that his
lack of support for Mr. Griffith played any role in the decision to
terminate his employment and the same employment action would have
been taken even in the absence of Plaintiff’s alleged political
(Doc. 60 at 11-16.)
Defendants also assert that
Plaintiff’s Equal Protection claim fails because Plaintiff does not
allege that he is a member of a suspect classification, a
fundamental right was not violated because his First Amendment
rights were not violated, and a “class of one” claim cannot be
brought in the context of this case (Doc. 60 at 17-18).
Summary judgment is appropriate when the movant demonstrates
there is no “genuine issue as to any material fact.”
Fed. R. Civ.
“[T]his standard provides that 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."
Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986).
“An issue is genuine only if there is a sufficient evidentiary
basis on which a reasonable jury could find for the non-moving
party, and a factual dispute is material only if it might affect
the outcome of the suit under governing law.”
Kaucher v. County of
Bucks, 455 F.3d 418, 423 (3d Cir. 2006) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S.
In determining whether a genuine issue of fact exists, a
court must resolve all factual doubts and draw all reasonable
inferences in favor of the nonmoving party.
Scott v. Harris, 550
U.S. 372, 378 (2007); Halsey v. Pfeiffer, 750 F.3d 273, 287 (3d
Such inferences “must flow directly from admissible
Halsey, 750 F.3d at 287.
The initial burden is on the moving party to show an absence
of a genuine issue of material fact.
Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477
U.S. 317, 330 (1986) (citations omitted).
The moving party may
meet this burden by “pointing out to the district court  that
there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party’s
case when the nonmoving party bears the ultimate burden of proof.”
Id. at 325.
The non-moving party may not rest on the bare
allegations contained in his or her pleadings, but is required by
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 to go beyond the pleadings by
way of affidavits, depositions, answers to interrogatories or the
like in order to demonstrate specific material facts which give
rise to a genuine issue.
Id. at 324.
“The non-moving party must
show where in the record there exists a genuine dispute over a
Hankins v. Wetzel, 640 F. App’x 130, 132 (3d Cir.
Jan. 6, 2016) (not precedential) (quoting Doe v. Abington Friends
Sch., 480 F.3d 252, 256 (3d Cir. 2007)).
“A mere ‘scintilla of
evidence in support of the [non-moving party]’s position will be
insufficient’ to create a genuine issue of fact.”
Hankins, 640 F.
App’x at 132 (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252)).
“In considering a motion for summary judgment, a district
court may not make credibility determinations or engage in any
weighing of evidence.”
Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255.
evidentiary facts are in dispute, when the credibility of witnesses
may be in issue, or when conflicting evidence must be weighed, a
full trial is usually necessary.
The framework used to analyze a First Amendment political
affiliation claim was set out in Galli v. New Jersey Meadowlands
Commission, 490 F.3d 265 (3d Cir. 20007).
To make out a prima
facie case, a plaintiff must show the following: 1) he was employed
at a public agency in a position that does not require political
affiliation; 2) he was engaged in constitutionally protected
conduct; and 3) this conduct was a substantial or motivating factor
in the government’s employment decision.
Galli, 490 F.3d at 271
Once a plaintiff makes this showing, a
defendant “may avoid a finding of liability by proving by a
preponderance of the evidence that the same employment action would
have been taken even in the absence of the protected activity.”
Id. (citing Stephens v. Kerrigan, 122 F.3d 171, 176 (3d Cir. 1997);
Mt. Healthy City Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274,
As with Title VII cases, a Plaintiff may “still
prevail by discrediting that proffered reason, either
circumstantially or directly, or by proving that an invidious
discriminatory reason was more likely than not a motivating or
determinative cause of the employer’s action.”
Wheeler v. Twp. of
Edison, 326 F. App’x 118, 121 (3d Cir. 2009) (not precedential)
(citing Fuentes v. Perskie, 32 F.3d 759, 762 (3d Cir. 1994)); see
also Stephens v. Kerrigan, 122 F.3d 171, 181 (3d Cir. 1997) (citing
Fuentes, 32 F.3d at 764).
Although the parties presented their positions in great
detail, extensive analysis is not warranted because the filings
readily demonstrate that operative facts are at issue.
among them are the extent of Plaintiff’s job duties and the
relationship between Mr. Griffith and Defendant Lawton.
e.g., Doc. 59 ¶¶ 2, 33, Doc. 65 ¶¶ 2, 33.)
Asserted facts indicate
Plaintiff was a non-partisan, who engaged in no
political activity and had no political affiliations (Doc. 65 ¶
18), and, as such, he had not supported Mr. Griffith’s political
campaigns and was not politically aligned with him; Mr. Griffith
and Defendant Lawton had an “alliance” (Doc. 65 ¶ 33, CSMF ¶ 28;
Doc. 69 at 2), the parameters and potential influence of which are
disputed; Mr. Griffith objected to Plaintiff’s planned inquiry into
his committee and finance reports (Doc. 65 CSMF ¶ 28); and
Plaintiff’s authority to undertake such activity is disputed as is
the practice of doing so by himself and his predecessor (see, e.g.,
Doc. 59 ¶ 2; Doc. 65 ¶ 2).
Contrary to Defendants’ assertions that the only evidence
Plaintiff offers in opposition to summary judgment is his own selfserving deposition testimony (Doc. 69 at 3 (citing Gonzalez v.
Secretary of Dep’t of Homeland Sec., 678 F.3d 254, 263 (3d Cir.
2012)), the facts cited above are either not disputed or supported
by more than Plaintiff’s testimony.
Further, Gonzalez did not set
out a categorical rule but stated “[a]s a general proposition,
‘conclusory self-serving statments are insufficient to withstand a
motion for summary judgment.’”
Gonzalez, 678 F.3d at 263 (emphasis
added) (quoting Kirleis v. Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote, P.C., 560
F.3d 156, 161 (3d Cir. 2009)).
In response to the argument made
here by Defendants, other courts have noted that “‘the issue is not
whether Plaintiff has relied solely on his own testimony to
challenge [a summary judgment motion], but whether Plaintiff’s
testimony, when juxtaposed with the other evidence, is sufficient
for a rational factfinder to credit Plaintiff’s testimony, depite
its self-serving nature.’”
Jordan v. Cicchi, Civ. No. 10-4398,
2014 WL 2009089, at *2 (D.N.J. May 16, 2014) (quoting Johnson v.
MetLife Bank, N.A., 883 F. Supp. 2d 542, 549 (E.D. Pa. 2012));
(citing Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007)).
As stated above, the record before the Court shows that there
are numerous disputed facts, and many of these facts are material
to the motivation for Defendants’ decision to terminate Plaintiff’s
employment, including the consideration of whether the proffered
reason was pretextual.
Therefore, Defendants have not shown that
summary judgment of Plaintiff’s First Amendment claim is
Because this claim goes forward, Defendant has not
shown that Plaintiff’s equal protection claim based on the exercise
of a fundamental right must be dismissed.
(See Doc. 60 at 17-18.)
However, in Plaintiff’s Brief in Opposition to Defendants’ Motion
for Summary Judgment, Plaintiff notes that he withdraws his 42
U.S.C. § 1983 Equal Protection claim as being redundant to Count I,
his First Amendment claim.
(Doc. 66 at 12 n.2.)
For the reasons discussed above, Defendants Luzerne County and
Robert Lawton’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 58) is DENIED.
An appropriate Order is filed simultaneously with this Memorandum.
S/Richard P. Conaboy
RICHARD P. CONABOY
United States District Judge
DATED: January 23, 2017
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