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Curtis Lee et al v. the County of Passaic and Anthony Denova

July 26, 2011

CURTIS LEE ET AL.,
PLAINTIFFS,
v.
THE COUNTY OF PASSAIC AND ANTHONY DENOVA,
DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wigenton, District Judge.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

Before the Court is Defendants‟, the County of Passaic (the "County") and County Administrator Anthony J. DeNova ("DeNova"), Motion for Summary Judgment (the "Motion") pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1343(a)(3), and 1367. Venue is proper pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b). This Court, having considered the parties‟ submissions, decides this matter without oral argument pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 78. For the reasons stated below, this Court GRANTS Defendant‟s Motion.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiffs, forty-nine former employees of the Passaic County Juvenile Detention Center (the "Center"), were overpaid an average of $35,000 each due to payroll miscalculations in the salary schedule of their 2003-2006 collective bargaining agreement (the "CBA"). (See Ex. 49 at 1-3; see also Independent Accounting Report at SOMF, Appendix I.) In total, Plaintiffs were overpaid approximately $1.7 million by the County. (Ex. 49 at 1-3; Independent Accounting Report at SOMF, Appendix I.)

When the CBA expired on December 31, 2006, the County and Plaintiffs negotiated with Plaintiffs‟ Union (the "Union") to negotiate a new agreement. (See Ex. 5 at 28:13-18, 42:16-17.) After nearly two years of negotiations, two potential plans were devised that would account for the overpayment situation.*fn1 (See Ex. 5 at 57:10-59:2.) "Plan A" would give Plaintiffs the same wage increases and compensation that other County employees received, but the County would implement payroll deductions to recover overpayments made to Plaintiffs under the CBA. (Ex. 5 at 58:12-23.) Under "Plan B," Plaintiffs would not receive any wage increases over an eighteen-month period, but the County would not make payroll deductions to reduce the overpayment made under the CBA. (Ex. 5 at 58:17-59:1.)

Mario Rivera, the Union representative, scheduled a meeting for October 28, 2008 for the Union members to consider the two proposed plans. (Ex. 5 at 57:10-58:4.) Due to time constraints-and because of the importance of the overpayment issue as it related to future salaries-only the economic terms of the plans were considered and non-economic terms were scheduled for discussion at a subsequent meeting. (Ex. 5 at 53:1-7, 58:2-11, 61:17-24.) A majority of the Union membership voted to adopt Plan B, but because the non-economic terms had not been discussed, neither plan was officially ratified at the meeting. (Ex. 5 at 59:5-61:24, 72:7-73:8, 78:5-13.)

On October 29, 2008, the day after the vote was taken, a few employees-only one of whom is a Plaintiff, Sergeant William Crawley ("Crawley")-made statements to the media opposing Plan B. (Ex. 10 at 14:7-15:7, 15:24-16:8; see also Ex. 37.) These statements informed DeNova of lingering discontent with Plan B. (See Ex. 7 at 71:15-72:8.) The situation was exacerbated when twenty-seven employees petitioned DeNova to oppose Plan B. (Ex. 39.) In addition, DeNova received phone calls from numerous taxpayers encouraging him to recover the overpayments. (Ex. 6 at 52:12-16.) In light of these events, DeNova called Rivera to inform him that ratification for Plan B would no longer be possible and that it was "off the table." (Ex. 5 at 80:7-81:13.)

Plaintiffs commenced the instant action by filing a Complaint against Defendants on November 11, 2009. On February 2, 2010, Plaintiffs filed a Third Amended Complaint, alleging violations of Plaintiffs‟ First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association under the United States Constitution, enforceable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("Section 1983"), and violations of Plaintiffs‟ First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association under the New Jersey Civil Rights Act, N.J. Stat. Ann. 10:6-1 et seq. (the "Act") and the New Jersey Constitution. (Ex. 1 at ¶¶ 32-38, 43-46.) On February 25, 2011, Defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment.

LEGAL STANDARD

Summary judgment shall be granted "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). A factual dispute is genuine if a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-movant, and it is material if, under the substantive law, it would affect the outcome of the suit. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The moving party must show that if the evidentiary material of record were reduced to admissible evidence in court, it would be insufficient to permit the nonmoving party to carry its burden of proof. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986).

Once the moving party meets the initial burden, the burden then shifts to the non-movant who must set forth specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial and may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of its pleadings. Shields v. Zuccarini, 254 F.3d 476, 481 (3d Cir. 2001). The court may not weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but rather determine whether there is a genuine issue as to a material fact. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249. In doing so, the court must construe the facts and inferences in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc., 501 U.S. 496, 520 (1991). The nonmoving party "must present more than just "bare assertions, conclusory allegations or suspicions‟ to show the existence of a genuine issue." Podobnik v. United States Postal Serv.,409 F.3d 584, 594(3d Cir. 2005) (quoting Celotex Corp., 477 U.s. at 325). If the nonmoving party "fail[s] to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of [its] case with respect to which [it] has the burden of proof," then the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. at 323.

DISCUSSION

Freedom of ...


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