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Danchuk v. The Mayor and Council of Borough of Mount Arlington

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

August 31, 2017

PAULA DANCHUK, Plaintiff,
v.
THE MAYOR AND COUNCIL OF THE BOROUGH OF MOUNT ARLINGTON, Defendants.

          OPINION

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on the parties' competing motions for summary judgment. The Court declined to hear oral argument pursuant to Rule 78 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and, for the reasons set forth below, denies Plaintiff's motion and grants Defendants' motion.

         I. Background

         This case arises out of what may charitably be described as a fraught relationship between Plaintiff, a former Councilwoman for the Borough of Mount Arlington, and her counterparts in governance, the Council and Mayor, during Plaintiff's tenure on the Council. Plaintiff is a resident of the Borough of Mount Arlington who developed an interest in local politics-an interest that led her first to join the Concerned Active Residents of Mount Arlington (CARMA) and then to run successfully for a seat on the Council. (Def. Statement of Facts, ECF No. 35-2, Pl. Resp. to Def. Statement of Facts, ECF No. 40, ¶¶ 1-3, 8, 11-25.) Plaintiff assumed her seat in 2011 and, soon thereafter, certain points of contention developed among the parties, including whether Plaintiff improperly discussed confidential law enforcement contract negotiations with her husband, id. ¶¶ 28-41, and whether Plaintiff improperly applied to positions within the Borough while holding her position on the Council. (Pl. Statement of Facts, ECF No. 36-4, Def. Resp. to Pl. Statement of Facts, ECF No. 39-2, ¶¶ 11-12.) In addition, from late 2013 through 2014, Plaintiff took issue with Defendants' conduct and made the following allegations of wrongdoing to the Morris County Prosecutor's Office (MCPO): Defendants discussed public session issues during closed executive sessions; the Mayor violated the Mount Arlington sign ordinance with respect to posting campaign signs; Defendants attended a public hearing in a neighboring town. (Def. Statement of Facts, ECF No. 35-2, Pl. Resp. to Def. Statement of Facts, ECF No. 40, ¶¶ 42-43, 46-48, 54, 57.) While the parties dispute the finer details of the complaints, bases therefor, and investigations undertaken by authorities, no charges or penalties resulted from the allegations. (Id., ¶¶ 44, 48-51, 55, 58, 64-66.)

         Consistent with meetings held in August and November of 2014, id., ¶¶ 60, 68, Defendants on December 16 issued Resolution No. 2014-151, “A Resolution of Censure of Council Member Paula Danchuk by the Mayor and Council of the Borough of Mount Arlington, in the County of Morris, State of New Jersey” (the Censure). (Def. Motion, Ex. B., Censure, ECF No. 35-5; Pl. Motion, Ex. A, Censure, ECF No. 36-5.) The Censure provided that Defendants chose to censure Plaintiff “in lieu of filing a Complaint with the Local Finance Board for allegations of violations of the Local Government Ethics Law in order to avoid the expense of expending additional Borough funds; to cease the perpetuation of the discussion of these issues; and to memorialize the issues taken with Council Member Paula Danchuk.” (Id., at 1.) The Censure offered a litany of Plaintiff's alleged misdeeds including, inter alia: applying for positions with the Borough while holding office and approaching the Borough Attorney for personal legal advice regarding the same; disclosing confidential information in connection with law enforcement contract negotiations; filing unsubstantiated complaints with the MCPO without notice to Defendants and thereby causing the Borough to incur expenses in defense and investigation; “[r]etaliating against the Borough by contacting the press to accuse the Borough Mayor and Council of ‘bullying'” in their filing of an ethics complaint (which was later withdrawn); discussing private Borough matters publicly and corresponding with the public on such matters so as to make communications discoverable; and “perpetuat[ing] [CARMA's] allegations that the Borough does not act in a transparent nature.” (Id., at 1-3.) The Censure concluded:

WHEREAS, the Mayor and Council of the Borough of Mount Arlington have on numerous occasions requested that Council Member Paula Danchuk refrain from secretive behavior; filing unnecessary complaints without discussing her personal beliefs with the entire council; causing the Borough to defend and prosecute issues that should have been discussed at the council meeting; cease from behavior unbecoming of a Council Member; and to work with the Mayor and Council in a professional manner; and
WHEREAS, Council Member Paula Danchuk has refused these repeated requests; continues to behave in a manner detrimental to the Borough; and frustrates the process of the council meetings; and
NOW, THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that Council Member Paula Danchuk is hereby censured for her behavior[.]

(Id., at 4.)

         On January 28, 2015, Plaintiff filed suit alleging that the Censure was passed over her objections without legally sufficient notice, “publicly malign[s] her character[, ]” and is “rife with false allegations[.]” (Compl., ECF No. 1-1, ¶¶ 6-17.) Plaintiff alleges that the Censure violates her federal and state due process rights, is void as overbroad and vague, is unenforceable as preempted, violates her federal and state rights to free speech, is arbitrary and capricious, and is null for want of adequate notice. (Id., Counts I-VII, ¶¶ 18-49; Def. Statement of Facts, ECF No. 35-2, Pl. Resp. to Def. Statement of Facts, ECF No. 40, ¶ 4.) As to each claim, Plaintiff asks this Court to vacate the Censure with prejudice and award attorneys' fees and costs. (Id.) Defendants generally argue that these claims are not cognizable in the context of a censure, the parties respectively maintain that summary judgment should be entered in their favor, and the Court addresses these claims and arguments in turn.[1]

         II. Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c) when the moving party demonstrates that there is no genuine issue of material fact and the evidence establishes the moving party's entitlement to judgment as a matter of law. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). 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). “In considering a motion for summary judgment, a district court may not make credibility determinations or engage in any weighing of the evidence; instead, the non-moving party's evidence ‘is to be believed and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor.'” Marino v. Indus. Crating Co., 358 F.3d 241, 247 (3d Cir. 2004) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255).

         “When the moving party has the burden of proof at trial, that party must show affirmatively the absence of a genuine issue of material fact: it must show that, on all the essential elements of its case on which it bears the burden of proof at trial, no reasonable jury could find for the non-moving party.” In re Bressman, 327 F.3d 229, 238 (3d Cir. 2003) (quoting United States v. Four Parcels of Real Prop., 941 F.2d 1428, 1438 (11th Cir. 1991)). “[W]ith respect to an issue on which the nonmoving party bears the burden of proof [. . .] the burden on the moving party may be discharged by ‘showing'-that is, pointing out to the district court-that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325.

         The party opposing the motion for summary judgment cannot rest on mere allegations and instead must present actual evidence that creates a genuine issue as to a material fact for trial. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; Siegel Transfer, Inc. v. Carrier Express, Inc., 54 F.3d 1125, 1130-31 (3d Cir. 1995). “[U]nsupported allegations [. . .] and pleadings are insufficient to repel summary judgment.” Schoch v. First Fid. Bancorporation, 912 F.2d 654, 657 (3d Cir. 1990); see also Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e) (requiring the nonmoving party to “set out specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial”). “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).

         III. Discussion

         The parties agree that summary judgment is appropriate, and likewise agree that the Court should focus its inquiry on the text of the Censure. (Pl. Motion, ECF No. 36-1, at 22-24; Def. Motion, ECF No. 35-1, at 8-14.) In addition to the Censure itself, the parties obtained discovery from the principal actors in this matter, including Plaintiff, her husband, a member of CARMA, a law enforcement officer, and a Councilmember. See ECF Nos. 35-36. While the parties disagree as to whether their grievances with each other were justified, such facts are immaterial because the parties agree as to the terms of the Censure and, as discussed below, the Censure does not give rise to cognizable claims.

         A. Federal and State Due ...


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