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MATTHEWS v. TOWN OF BLOOMING GROVE

April 24, 1995

DEBORAH MATTHEWS, Plaintiff, against TOWN OF BLOOMING GROVE, KATHERINE BONELLI, Defendants.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: CHARLES L. BRIEANT

 Brieant, J.

 On February 24, 1994, Plaintiff, Deborah Matthews, former Supervisor's Bookkeeper/Clerk to the Supervisor, filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging she was terminated in violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution when Defendants Town of Blooming Grove ("the Town") and Katherine Bonelli, Town Supervisor, failed to reappoint her. Plaintiff seeks reinstatement, back pay, front pay, compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorneys fees and costs.

 Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56, Defendants here move for summary judgment. The facts set forth below are admitted or assumed true for purposes of this motion.

 The powers and duties of Town Supervisor, the elective position held by Defendant Katherine Bonelli, are presently set forth in Town Law § 29(1)-29(16). In general, the Supervisor serves as chief fiscal officer of the town and presides as a voting member at meetings of the town board. *fn1" The Supervisor prepares a tentative budget for each calendar year, which is adopted, as changed or modified, after a public hearing, by a majority vote of the town board. Subject to the Civil Service Law where applicable, the salaries and job titles of town employees are designated by board resolution.

 According to the latest census, conducted in 1990, the population of the Town of Blooming Grove was 16,673. The number of Town employees ranges from 80 to 100, depending on the season, with more employees in the summer. Accordingly, the Town of Blooming Grove is within the first class. See N.Y. Town Law § 10 (with exceptions not material, towns of the first class contain a population of ten thousand or more).

 Pursuant to Section 29(15) of the Town Law, a Supervisor "in towns of the first class, may designate a bookkeeper or confidential secretary, or both." Town Law § 29(15). The bookkeeper and confidential secretary are within the "exempt" class under the New York Civil Service Law § 41, meaning that such employees are exempt from the requirement of a civil service examination, because their work is regarded as policy making and confidential. All other appointed officials in town government are hired by vote of the entire Town Board, and are generally classified as within the "competitive class," in that the appointment must be made from a current certified list of the civil service commission of those who passed a competitive examination, or in the "non-competitive class," in that the appointee must satisfy certain objective criteria as to education and experience but need not pass a civil service examination. All elected officials are within the "exempt" class.

 Beginning January 1, 1986, Plaintiff Deborah Matthews worked full-time for the Town of Blooming Grove as "Supervisor's Bookkeeper," also referred to by the civil service title of "Clerk to the Supervisor," pursuant to appointment by Defendant Bonelli's predecessor. In November 1991, *fn2" Katherine Bonelli, a Republican, was elected Town Supervisor and asked Plaintiff to continue as Clerk to the Supervisor. Plaintiff understood that the position was annually appointed; actually, the appointee serves at the pleasure of the Town Supervisor. See Town Law § 19(15); Dusanenko v. Maloney, 560 F. Supp. 822, 823 (S.D.N.Y. 1983) ("The appointment is made solely by the Supervisor, to serve at his pleasure, although the salary is fixed by Town Board resolution."), aff'd, 726 F.2d 82 (1984). *fn3"

 As Supervisor's Bookkeeper/Clerk to the Supervisor, Plaintiff's responsibilities included preparing quarterly tax reports which the Town was required to file with the State and Federal government. This task involved reconciling earnings of Town employees and the amount of taxes received by the Internal Revenue Service and the State. Plaintiff also determined the amount of surplus funds to invest, performed bookkeeping for the Town's bank accounts, presented financial reports to the Town Supervisor, and provided information in budget preparation.

 Plaintiff alleges she also typed Defendant Bonelli's correspondence on occasion, but in March 1993 another Town employee assumed performance of nearly all of the Supervisor's typing needs. Plaintiff was told not to open Defendant Bonelli's mail or to make appointments for her. From mid-March 1993 through December 31, 1993, Defendant Bonelli assigned a part-time typist to answer her telephone calls and open her mail.

 Plaintiff alleges that in early December 1993, she saw a local newspaper advertisement for her position. In a telephone conversation, Defendant Bonelli allegedly stated that she was replacing Matthews "because she was 'disloyal' and had not properly performed her job duties." Affidavit of Deborah Matthews P 25. Defendant Bonelli contends that one of the reasons for deciding not to reappoint Plaintiff was that in November 1993, a state auditor had examined the Town's finances and determined that two of the Town's bank statements were not properly reconciled. Plaintiff responds that she was overworked, and the real motivation for the discharge was that she maintained a close friendship with Linda Jurain, whose husband, Ronald Jurain, was Defendant Bonelli's electoral opponent in the 1993 election for Town Supervisor.

 On February 24, 1994, Plaintiff filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging she was terminated for political reasons and for exercising her right to association in violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. A supplemental state law claim for violation of Article 1 of the New York State Constitution is also asserted.

 The United States Supreme Court has held that political affiliation is a permissible employment criterion for some positions. Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 360, 49 L. Ed. 2d 547, 96 S. Ct. 2673 (1976); Branti v. Finkel, 445 U.S. 507, 517-18, 63 L. Ed. 2d 574, 100 S. Ct. 1287 (1980). In Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois, 497 U.S. 62, 111 L. Ed. 2d 52, 110 S. Ct. 2729 (1990), the Court summarized the so-called "Elrod-Branti political dismissal exception":

 
In Elrod, we suggested that policy-making and confidential employees probably could be dismissed on the basis of their political views. In Branti, we said that a State demonstrates a compelling interest in infringing First Amendment rights only where it can show that "party affiliation is an ...

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