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Crane v. Yurick

October 30, 2003

KENNETH E. CRANE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
ANDREW N. YURICK, II, GLOUCESTER COUNTY PROSECUTOR'S OFFICE, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Irenas, Senior District Judge

OPINION

Presently before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). For the reasons set forth below, we will grant Defendants' Motion as to Plaintiff's 42 U.S.C. § 1983 due process, New Jersey State Constitution free speech, tortious interference and slander and defamation claims, but deny Defendants' motion as to Plaintiff's 42 U.S.C. § 1983 First Amendment and New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act claims.

I.

The present case comes to us as a dispute between the Plaintiff, Kenneth E. Crane ("Plaintiff", "Crane"), formerly a detective in the Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office, and the Defendant, Andrew N. Yurick, II ("Defendant", "Yurick"), the Gloucester County Prosecutor. Crane argues that he was wrongfully terminated from his position in the Prosecutor's Office on August 13, 1999. While the Complaint is not a model of clarity, Plaintiff effectively brings six claims against Defendants - the first two under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and the latter four under New Jersey State Law.

On or about August 13, 1999, Plaintiff Crane was terminated from his position as a detective in the Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office by Defendant Yurick. Crane had been working in the Prosecutor's Office for 11 years prior to that date. Throughout his career with the Prosecutor's Office, Plaintiff had been an active member in the Policemen's Benevolent Association ("PBA") Local Union #122, where he maintained a position as a union representative and was directly involved in contract negotiations.

During contract negotiations in May, 1999, Yurick obtained and read a sealed union letter that contained contract negotiations from Crane's unit. The union subsequently called a meeting to discuss the possibility of filing charges against Yurick. Though the vote to file charges failed, Crane voted for the filing of charges at the meeting and was outspoken in support of his position.

In June, 1999, Crane was transferred from his Major Crimes unit to the Grand Jury unit, a transfer that he viewed as a demotion. Crane's attempts to discuss this transfer with Yurick were unsuccessful. Subsequent to the transfer, Crane was again involved in contract negotiations in which he was critical of Yurick, and Crane then made inquiries to the Attorney General's Office regarding possible employment violations by Yurick.

On August 13, 1999, Crane's employment with the Prosecutor's Office was terminated. In response, Crane instituted the present action, in which he brings six claims: (1) denial of procedural due process pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (2) violation of First Amendment rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (3) violation of the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act; (4) violation of the free speech and expression provisions of the New Jersey State Constitution; (5) tortious interference with economic advantage; and (6) slander and defamation. *fn1 We grant Defendants' summary judgment motion on all but the second and third claim.

II.

Under Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c) a court may grant summary judgment "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." The non-moving party may not simply rest on its pleadings to oppose a summary judgment motion but must affirmatively come forward with admissible evidence establishing a genuine issue of fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986).

In deciding a motion for summary judgment, the court must construe the facts and inferences in a light most favorable to the non-moving party. Pollock v. American Tel. & Tel. Long Lines, 794 F.2d 860, 864 (3d Cir. 1986). The role of the court is not to "weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter, but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986).

The substantive law governing the dispute will determine which facts are material, and only disputes over those facts "that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment." Id. at 248. Where the moving party has carried its initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, "its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Idus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). A genuine issue for trial does not exist "unless the party opposing the motion can adduce evidence which, when considered in light of that party's burden of proof at trial, could be the basis for a jury finding in that party's favor." J.E. Mamiye & Sons, Inc. v.Fidelity Bank, 813 F.2d 610, 618 (3d Cir. 1987)(Becker, J., concurring).

III.

Plaintiff's first claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleges that his termination constituted a deprivation of procedural due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. *fn2 It is well-settled that, "the requirements of... due process apply only to the deprivation of interests encompassed by the Fourteenth Amendment's protection of liberty and property." Roth v. Board of Regents of State Colleges, 408 U.S. 564, 569 (1972). We find that Plaintiff could not have suffered the deprivation of a cognizable property or liberty interest necessary to sustain his procedural due process claim, and consequently grant Defendants' summary judgment motion on this issue.

A.

Because his employment was at-will, Plaintiff has not sustained the deprivation of a property interest necessary to advance a Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process claim. It is well established that "there is generally not a property interest in continued public employment unless a claimant can demonstrate a legitimate claim of entitlement to it." Dungan v. Slater, 252 F.3d 670, 676 (3d Cir. 2001); see also Latessa v. New Jersey Racing Commission, 113 F.3d 1313, 1318 (3d Cir. 1997)("To have a property interest in a job or a job benefit, an employee must have a legitimate claim of entitlement, not just a unilateral expectation."). In fact, "the Supreme Court has held that a public employee who has no statutory or contractual entitlement to his job has no property interest. Thus, an employee hired at-will... may not prevail on a claim that the loss of employment constituted a deprivation of property." Battaglia v. Union City Welfare Board, 88 N.J. 48, 56 (1981).

N.J.S.A. 2A:157-10 establishes Plaintiff as an at-will employee. It reads, in relevant part: "The prosecutor may appoint... county investigators to serve at his pleasure and subject to removal by him. *fn3 " Plaintiff, however, contends that the terms of the collective bargaining agreement between the Prosecutor's Office and PBA Local #122, in addition to the Prosecutor's Office Standard Operating Procedures, grant him a contractual entitlement in his position. *fn4 The issue, therefore, is whether Plaintiff's contractual entitlements survive in the wake of the statutory authority granted to the Prosecutor by N.J.S.A. 2A:157-10. We find that they do not.

In Roth, the Supreme Court wrote that, "property interests, of course, are not created by the Constitution. Rather they are created and their dimensions are defined by existing rules or understandings that stem from an independent source such as state law." Roth, 408 U.S. at 577. Therefore, any contractual entitlement that the collective bargaining agreement or standard operating procedures purport to create would be invalid under N.J.S.A. 2A:157-10, and no property interest would exist. Additionally, the objective language of the contract and the subjective understanding of an employee are irrelevant as each employee in the public service is presumed to have accepted his or her position with, "full knowledge of the law." Walsh v. State of New Jersey, 674 A.2d 988, 996 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1996)(Skillman, J., ...


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