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Pence v. Mayor and Township Committee of Bernards Township

July 21, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wolfson, United States District Judge


Presently before the Court is a motion for summary judgment filed by the Mayor and Township Committee of Bernards Township (collectively the "Township") on § 1983 claims brought by Barbara Pence ("Plaintiff"). Plaintiff alleges that the Township violated her constitutional rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment when it denied her payment for sick leave accrued during her employment with the Township. The Township moves for summary judgment on the basis that plaintiff does not have a protectable property interest under the Fourteenth Amendment to payment for her accumulated sick leave and therefore has no cause of action under § 1983. On this motion, the Court considers the question of whether Plaintiff's accrued sick leave constitutes a protectable property interest under the Fourteenth Amendment. For the reasons set forth below, the Township's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED.

I. Statement of Facts and Procedural History

Because the issue before the Court is one of legal interpretation, and not fact sensitive, the Court will only consider facts relevant to the constitutional question presented. Plaintiff is a former Township Administrator for Bernards Township. Defendant's Statement of Material Facts, ¶ 1. As required by law, N.J.S.A. 40A:15A-7, Plaintiff was enrolled in the New Jersey Public Employee Retirement System (PERS). In November 2003, the Township repealed its personnel policies' ordinance and replaced it with an Employee Handbook. Id. at ¶¶ 6, 10. Plaintiff received a copy of the Handbook, which contains a Retirement Plan provision which specifies all state employees must be enrolled in PERS under state law. Exhibit C to the Certification of Arthur Thibault. The Handbook also contains a provision regarding the payment of accumulated but unused sick time at retirement, referred to as the Incentive Payment upon Retirement policy. Id., Defendant's Statement of Facts at ¶¶ 11-12. The policy provides that when an employee retires the "Township will make a cash payment of 50% of all sick leave earned.less the amount taken.that the employee may have received at time of hire." Id. at ¶ 13. The policy provides that these cash payments are available upon retirement, which is defined as Retirement from PERS. Id. at ¶ 27. An employee must have a minimum of 10 years of public employment to vest in the state pension system, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 43:15A-38, and may retire based on age once the employee has reached the age of 60, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 43:15A-47.*fn1

Plaintiff resigned from her position as Township Administrator in December 2004, at age 53, after ten years of employment with the Township. At the time of her resignation, Plaintiff was informed by Township Human Resources that she would be receiving payment for her unused sick time when she turned 60 and retired from PERS. Exhibit G to Thibault Certification. However, in July 2006, the Township notified Plaintiff that she would not be receiving any payment for unused sick time when she turns 60 in the year 2011 because she was ineligible for retirement when she left the Township in 2004. Id. at ¶ 29. The Township also stated that it never agreed to or authorized a deviation from its policy and Plaintiff was informed in error, without the authority from the Township Committee, that she would be entitled to payment. Exhibit H to Thibault Certification. Plaintiff subsequently retained an attorney and submitted a letter to the Township Committee stating that she was entitled to incentive payment. Id. at ¶¶ 32-33. The Township reviewed Plaintiff's submission and notified Plaintiff on May 9, 2007, that it had considered her position, but determined that she was ineligible pursuant to Township policy. Id. at ¶33.

On May 14, 2008, Plaintiff filed a one-count Complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the Township deprived her of her constitutional rights and due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment when it denied her the payment of her accumulated sick leave.*fn2 Id. at ¶ 36. Plaintiff argues that she has a vested property right in such payment, as created by the Township's Incentive Payment Plan, which cannot be taken away without due process of law. Id. at ¶ 37. In its motion for summary judgment, the Township argues that Plaintiff's § 1983 claim fails as a matter of law because payment for her accrued sick leave does not constitute a protectable property interest under the Fourteenth Amendment. In the alternative, the Township argues that even if Plaintiff had a protectable interest, she was afforded due process when the Township Committee reviewed her letter submission and further contends that Plaintiff was never entitled to payment because she was not eligible for retirement when she left the Township.

Because the Court finds, for the reasons stated infra, Plaintiff is not constitutionally entitled to the payment of accrued sick leave, the Court does not consider any other issues raised by the Township. Furthermore, the Court does not consider or comment on the viability of any potential state law contracts claims that Plaintiff has not elected not to assert in this action.

II. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is appropriate where there is no genuine issue of material fact.

Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, the facts, and all inferences drawn from them, should be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and the burden for establishing that no genuine issue exists is on the party moving for summary judgment. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 330 (1986). To overcome a motion for summary judgment, the non-moving party cannot rely on "mere allegations or denials" but must provide "specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986). A factual dispute is genuine only if there is "a sufficient evidentiary basis on which a reasonable jury could find for the non-moving party," and it is material only if it has the ability to "affect the outcome of the suit under governing law." Kaucher v. County of Bucks, 455 F.3d 418, 423 (3d Cir.2006); See alsoAnderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). "A nonmoving party has created a genuine issue of material fact if it has provided sufficient evidence to allow a jury to find in its favor at trial." Gleason v. Norwest Mortg., Inc., 243 F.3d 130, 138 (3d Cir. 2001). Where the non-moving party fails to make a sufficient showing of an element essential to the case on which she bears the burden of proof, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Celotex,477 U.S. at 323.

III. Discussion

The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment provides that no state shall "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." The Clause has both a procedural and substantive component; it governs the procedures by which a State may deprive persons of liberty and property and bars "certain government actions regardless of the fairness of the procedures used to implement them." Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 846 (1992); Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 331 (1986); Nicholas v. Pa. State Univ., 227 F.3d 133, 138-139 (3d. Cir. 2000).

Procedural Due Process

In order to state a claim under § 1983 for deprivation of procedural due process rights, a plaintiff must allege that "(1) he was deprived of an individual interest that is encompassed within the Fourteenth Amendment's protection of 'life, liberty, or property,' and (2) the procedures available to him did not provide 'due process of law'." Hill v. Borough of Kutztown, 455 F.3d 225, 233-34 (3d Cir. 2006). ...

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