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Tauriello v. Township of Edison

June 3, 2010

RE: TAURIELLO
v.
TOWNSHIP OF EDISON



The opinion of the court was delivered by: William J. Martini Judge

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. FEDERAL BLDG. & U.S. COURT HOUSE 50 WALNUT STREET, P.O. BO X 419 NEWARK, NJ 07101-0419 (973) 645-6340

LETTER OPINION

Dear Counsel:

This action is before the Court on remand from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, following Plaintiff Joseph Tauriello's appeal from this Court's October 31, 2006 order granting summary judgment sua sponte, prior to the parties taking any depositions or interrogatories. The parties have since engaged in discovery and have had the opportunity to more fully develop the record in this case. Presently before the Court are two motions.

Defendants Township of Edison, Jonathan A. Capp, Edward Costello, George Mieczkowski, Ronald Gerba, and Angelo Bekiarian*fn1 move for summary judgment. Plaintiff Joseph Tauriello also moves for partial summary judgment. This Court has carefully reviewed the parties' submissions for both motions. For the reasons stated below, Defendants' motion will be GRANTED and Plaintiff's motion will be DENIED.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was a police officer for the Township of Edison. He worked in law enforcement for over 20 years*fn2 and served as President of Edison's Police Benevolent Association ("PBA") several times. Compl., p. 3. On October 19, 2003, he got into a physical altercation (the "October 19 Incident") with his wife's ex-husband and as a result, faced assault charges in municipal court. Defs. Jan 5, 2010 Br., p. 15. On April 6, 2004, with the threat of serious disciplinary action looming, Plaintiff entered into a Memorandum of Agreement ("MOA") with Defendant Township of Edison (the "Township"). Under the terms of the MOA, Tauriello acknowledged that probable cause existed for all disciplinary charges brought by the Edison Division of Police, and the Township agreed to close "all pending investigations or disciplinary matters" and file for involuntary disability retirement on Tauriello's behalf. Id. at Ex. G. Because there was no guarantee that Plaintiff's involuntary disability retirement application would be granted, the MOA further stated that if that application was denied, Plaintiff would file for ordinary retirement. Id. The Township filed the disability retirement application on behalf of Plaintiff shortly thereafter, but it was not denied until November 8, 2004. Id.

On April 29, 2004, the assault charges in municipal court were dismissed. Id. at Ex. I. Thereafter, on June 11, 2004,*fn3 the Edison Police Department served Plaintiff with notice that he now faced departmental disciplinary charges stemming from the October 19 Incident and set a preliminary date for Plaintiff's departmental hearing. Id. at Ex. J. Plaintiff's attorney at that time, Lawrence Bitterman, sent a letter in response to this notice, indicating that Plaintiff planned to appear at the hearing, requesting relevant documents and proposing an alternative date for the hearing.*fn4 Id. at Ex. K. As far as the record indicates, there was no further correspondence between Plaintiff and the Edison Police Department regarding this hearing until after Plaintiff was removed from the Township payroll on December 2, 2004. No hearing was ever held and the charges were dismissed.*fn5

After learning that Plaintiff's involuntary pension application was denied, the Township sent Plaintiff a letter on November 12, 2004 requesting that he file for ordinary retirement pursuant to the MOA. Plaintiff did not comply with this request and ultimately, the Township removed him from its payroll on December 2, 2004. Id. at Ex. M. Plaintiff's present attorney, Sidney H. Lehmann, sent a letter to Township of Edison's personnel department on December 3, 2004 regarding the status of Plaintiff's employment, and followed up with another letter on December 30, 2004, after receiving no response to the first letter. Eventually, Plaintiff filed for ordinary retirement and that application was approved. Id. at Ex. B. It is undisputed that Plaintiff had a property interest in his position as a police officer and in the absence of an agreement to the contrary, Plaintiff could not be removed from the Township payroll without first having a pre-termination hearing.

Plaintiff filed a six-count complaint in Superior Court that was removed to District Court on August 11, 2005. This Court granted summary judgment sua sponte in favor Defendants, finding the MOA to be an enforceable contract that was not breached when departmental disciplinary charges were filed against Plaintiff in June, 2004.*fn6 Plaintiff appealed this decision to the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which found the MOA's language ambiguous, and that it was reasonable for Plaintiff to interpret Edison Police Department's filing of disciplinary charges as a breach of the MOA. The Third Circuit further held that on the limited record before this Court, granting summary judgment was inappropriate, but also noted that summary judgment would still be appropriate if this Court found that the breach was not a material one, and remanded the case for further proceedings. Since remand, the parties have engaged in discovery and have had sufficient opportunity to more fully develop the record.

II. DISCUSSION

Before the Court now are Plaintiff's and Defendants' motions for summary judgment.

A. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate if review of "the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact" and that judgment is appropriate as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). The mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment. Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the lawsuit under governing law will preclude the entry of summary judgment. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-248 (1986). When evaluating a summary judgment motion, a court must view all evidence in the light most ...


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