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Rieger v. Township of Fairfield

December 1, 2003


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


Plaintiff has brought this case in federal court under the jurisdiction granted by 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Jurisdiction for her state law claims is asserted under 28 U.S.C. § 1367. Plaintiff was hired as the municipal clerk of the Township of Fairfield on July 1, 1997, and terminated by a vote of the Township Council on June 20, 2000, before her statutory three year term expired. She alleges that her termination violated her rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, certain state law rights pertaining to the position of municipal clerk, a state law implied contractual right under Wooley v. Hoffman-La Roche, 99 N.J. 284, modified on other grounds, 101 N.J. 10 (1985), and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, N.J.S.A.10:5-1 et seq ("N.J.L.A.D.").

Presently before the Court are plaintiff and defendants' Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). For the reasons set forth below, we will grant defendants' motion on plaintiff's 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims. We will also grant defendants' motion to dismiss state law claims relating to the position of municipal clerk, since resolution of those claims was necessary to resolve whether plaintiff had a property interest in her position as municipal clerk which was protected by the United States Constitution. The court will dismiss without prejudice her remaining claims under the N.J.L.A.D. and based on an implied employment contract, all of which arise under state law. Tully v. Mott Supermarkets, Inc., 540 F.2d 187, 196 (3d Cir. 1976); see also United Mine Workers v. Gibbs, 383 U.S. 715 (1966)("if the federal claims are dismissed before trial... the state claims should be dismissed as well.").


The present case comes to this court as a wrongful termination dispute between the plaintiff, Pearl Rieger ("plaintiff"), and the defendants, Fairfield Township, A. Craig Thomas ("Mayor Thomas"), Viola Thomas, Marvin R. Pierce, and Jose Velez. During the period covered in this action, A. Craig Thomas served as Mayor of Fairfield, Viola Thomas and Marvin R. Pierce served as representatives with Mayor Thomas on Fairfield's 5-member governing committee, and Jose Velez served as township solicitor. These defendants hired plaintiff as a municipal clerk on July 1, 1997, and terminated her employment on June 20, 2000.

Plaintiff was originally hired as a municipal clerk effective July 1, 1997, to fill the vacancy left by the prior clerk's retirement. On June 17, 1997, by a 4-1 margin, the Fairfield Township Committee approved plaintiff's hiring, and she was appointed to a "6 Month 3 Year" term pursuant to Fairfield Township Resolution #108-1997 (Pl.'s Br., Ex. B). The parties disagree as to the intended meaning and duration of the "6 Month 3 Year" appointment; we will discuss their interpretations shortly.

Later, on January 1, 1998, plaintiff was nominated, and unanimously approved, for the position of municipal clerk for a three year term (Pl.'s Br., Ex. C). The appointment was officially made by Township of Fairfield Resolution #01-98 (Pl.'s Br., Ex. D), and was to run from January 1, 1998 to December 31, 2000. Plaintiff has been certified as a municipal clerk since 1991.

On June 13, 2000, Mayor Thomas announced that the issue of municipal clerk would be on the agenda for a meeting to be held on June 20, 2000. At that meeting, Mayor Thomas nominated Beth Taylor, a 36 year old woman, for the position of municipal clerk, and a vote to replace plaintiff with Beth Taylor succeeded by a 3-2 margin (Pl.'s Br., Ex. F). Defendants Viola Thomas and Marvin Pierce joined Mayor Thomas to create the three vote majority. At the time she was terminated, plaintiff was 59 years old.

Plaintiff was ordered to her collect her office belongings shortly after the vote on June 20, 2000, and was escorted from the building by a New Jersey state trooper. Two days later, plaintiff received a letter from Mayor Thomas informing her that her employment had been terminated, and on June 28, 2000, plaintiff received a letter from Beth Taylor including her last paycheck (Pl.'s Br., Ex. H, Ex. I).

In response to her termination, plaintiff instituted this action. Plaintiff seeks summary judgment on her claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983; and her claim for age discrimination under N.J.S.A. 10:5-12, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. *fn1


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 ...

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