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Laverdure v. County of Montgomery

April 02, 2003

KELLY LAVERDURE, APPELLANT
v.
COUNTY OF MONTGOMERY; MICHAEL D. MARINO



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civil Action No. 01-cv-02542) District Judge: Honorable Harvey Bartle, III

Before: Nygaard, Ambro and LOURIE, *fn1 Circuit Judges

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ambro, Circuit Judge

PRECEDENTIAL

Argued: January 23, 2003

OPINION OF THE COURT

We decide whether, under the circumstances of this case, a county is liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for the statements of a member of its board of commissioners and whether, under Pennsylvania law, a commissioner is entitled to absolute immunity for his statements. The District Court answered no to the first question and yes to the second. We do as well.

I. Factual Background And Procedural History

This dispute arose because of an E. coli outbreak in November 2000 traced to Merrymead Farms in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania (the "County"). Several parents of afflicted children called the Appellant, Kelly LaVerdure, who at the time was working as a Disease Intervention Specialist with the Montgomery County Health Department. LaVerdure purportedly failed to follow up on these phone calls and investigate the E. coli cases. Appellees allege that, had LaVerdure properly performed her duties, the outbreak could have been contained earlier and fewer children would have fallen ill.

The three-member Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, Montgomery County's executive body, unanimously decided to fire LaVerdure at a November 30, 2000 Board meeting. Following that meeting, the chairman of the Board, Michael Marino, spoke at a press conference in which he rebuked LaVerdure. LaVerdure argues that, because she was terminated with accompanying stigmatizing comments, the Fourteenth Amendment entitles her to a "name-clearing" due process hearing. See Bd. of Regents of State Colls. v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 573-74 (1972) (stating that a name-clearing hearing is required for public employees terminated with public stigma).

LaVerdure's complaint alleges (1) that the County violated her Fourteenth Amendment due process right by not affording her a name-clearing hearing, for which 42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides a cause of action, and (2) a supplemental state-law claim against Marino for slander and libel. The District Court dismissed her slander and libel claims on the ground that 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 8546 affords Marino absolute immunity. After LaVerdure had finished presenting her case to the jury, and with one remaining witness for the defense yet to be called, the District Court granted the County's Rule 50 motion with respect to her § 1983 claim, thereby dismissing that claim as a matter of law. The Court denied LaVerdure's motion for a new trial. She appeals the District Court's dismissal of her § 1983 and state-law claims.

II. Jurisdiction And Standard Of Review

The District Court had subject matter jurisdiction over the § 1983 claim under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and over the supplemental state-law claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1367. We have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291.

We exercise plenary review of the District Court's grant of judgment as a matter of law. Northview Motors, Inc. v. Chrysler Motors Corp., 227 F.3d 78, 88 (3d Cir. 2000). "A court should grant such a motion only if, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant and giving it the advantage of every fair and reasonable inference, there is insufficient evidence from which a jury reasonably could find liability." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Lightning Lube, Inc. v. Witco Corp., 4 F.3d 1153, 1166 (3d Cir. 1993)).

Whether Marino and the County are entitled to absolute immunity, under 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. ยง 8546, from the supplemental state-law claims is a question of statutory interpretation over which we also exercise plenary review. Moody v. ...


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