On February 18, 1992, the Board adopted another resolution which eliminated the BZA members' medical, dental and optical benefits. Because BZA membership is a part-time position requiring approximately seven hours of work per week, this resolution brought BZA benefits into alignment with the Town's overall coverage policy, which extends only to full-time and part-time employees who work at least twenty hours per week.
Despite the cuts in compensation and benefits, the plaintiffs herein remained on the BZA and accepted their reduced salaries. On March 27, 1992, however, they brought this federal action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985(1) and (3), as well as Town Law § 267. In the action, the plaintiffs allege that the defendants conspired to reduce their salaries and benefits so drastically that it would constitute a constructive termination and would force the plaintiffs to resign from the BZA. The plaintiffs contend that the defendants did this solely because the plaintiffs are Republicans and the defendants wished to fill the vacant BZA seats with fellow Democrats. The plaintiffs charge that such conduct violated their rights to free speech, free association and equal protection, privileges and immunities as guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments of United States Constitution.
A. The Defendants' Motion To Dismiss
On July 3, 1992, the defendants moved this Court to: (1) join necessary parties to the action pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(7); (2) dismiss the Complaint for failure to state a claim; and (3) sanction the plaintiffs pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 11. In this Court's Memorandum and Order of September 3, 1992, the Court granted in part and denied in part the defendants' motion. Specifically, the Court declined to join those Board members who abstained from the January 7, 1992 vote because it found that they were not necessary parties. The Court also declined to impose Rule 11 sanctions upon the plaintiffs because it determined that their suit was not frivolous. Finally, the Court denied the defendants' motion to dismiss the first, third and fourth claims in the Complaint, yet it granted the motion to dismiss the second and fifth claims.
With respect to the first claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Court found that the plaintiffs sufficiently pleaded that the defendants reduced their salaries and benefits solely for political reasons, thereby violating the doctrine of Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 49 L. Ed. 2d 547, 96 S. Ct. 2673 (1976) (dismissal of a public employee for political patronage reasons violates that individual's First Amendment rights).
With regard to the third claim, the Court found that the plaintiffs sufficiently pleaded the following under 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3): (1) a conspiracy to deprive them of "a proper, reasonable fair and adequate living wage," (Complaint P 82), (2) an act in furtherance of the conspiracy, (3) injury as a result of the conspiracy, and (4) membership in a protected class, namely the Republican Party.
Finally, the Court declined to dismiss the plaintiffs' fourth claim wherein the plaintiffs alleged that the reductions in salary and benefits constituted a constructive termination under Town Law § 267(1), which provides that a BZA member may not be removed except "for cause and after a public hearing." The Court held that, taking the allegations of the Complaint as true as it must, the plaintiffs sufficiently pleaded a violation of Section 267(1).
The Court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss the plaintiffs' second and fifth claims, on the other hand, because it found that the plaintiffs failed to sufficiently plead a conspiracy under 42 U.S.C. § 1985(1)
or a breach of contract.
See Memorandum and Order 92-CV-1512 (Chief J. Platt, September 3, 1992) at 17.
B. The Defendants' First Motion for Summary Judgment
On April 15, 1994, the defendants moved this Court for summary judgment; and on April 22, 1994, the Court heard oral argument on that motion. The Court denied the motion from the Bench without prejudice to renew it after the plaintiffs amended their Complaint. The Court based its decision upon the fact that it was concerned that the plaintiffs might have a claim under the Equal Protection or Due Process Clauses of the Constitution. See Transcript of Oral Argument on Motion for Summary Judgment (April 22, 1994) at 16. Thus, the Court allowed the plaintiffs thirty (30) days to amend their Complaint with respect to these allegations. The Court said on the record that it was not passing upon the plaintiffs' freedom of association claim under the First Amendment. In fact, when asked by defense counsel if the Town has an absolute right to decide whether a libertarian or Republican sits on the BZA, the Court replied:
I don't know whether you do anymore. That's what I'm suggesting to you. You have no right to prevent me if I'm black from holding the job or if I'm a Chinese or what have you. What I'm saying is political affiliation may also be out on the same score. . . . [The question of whether political affiliation is out on the same score] may be an issue of fact here. The Board of Zoning based on my experience with the local government is not what we normally think of as a policy-making body. They decide individual cases.