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JEFFES v. BARNES

September 15, 1998

CHRISTOPHER JEFFES, JOHN E. KEENAN, JR. and JERRY CARLOS, Plaintiffs, -vs- WILLIAM BARNES, Individually and as SHERIFF OF THE COUNTY OF SCHENECTADY; HARRY BUFFARDI, Individually and as UNDERSHERIFF OF THE COUNTY OF SCHENECTADY; ROBERT ELWELL, SR., Individually and as an Employee of THE COUNTY OF SCHENECTADY; "JOHN DOES" being unnamed Employees of THE COUNTY OF SCHENECTADY; and THE COUNTY OF SCHENECTADY, Defendants.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: MCAVOY

MEMORANDUM-DECISION & ORDER

 McAVOY, CHIEF JUDGE:

 This action arises out of events surrounding the movement of inmates at the Schenectady County Jail ("County Jail") in April 1994 in which a number of inmates alleged that they were severely beaten by corrections officers while being transported between jails. Subsequently, the inmates brought suit against the defendants named in this action and other employees of Schenectady County. A federal criminal investigation also commenced, and a multi-count federal indictment was brought against four corrections officers.

 Plaintiffs Christopher Jeffes ("Jeffes"), John E. Keenan ("Keenan"), and Jerry Carlos ("Carlos"), present and former employees of the Schenectady County Sheriff's Department (the "Department"), bring this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the defendants, the County of Schenectady ("Schenectady County"), William Barnes ("Barnes"), Harry Buffardi ("Buffardi"), Robert Elwell, Sr. ("Elwell"), and unnamed employees of Schenectady County, violated the plaintiffs' First Amendment rights by fostering, encouraging, and permitting a campaign of retaliation and harassment against them for reporting the misconduct of their co-workers in connection with the alleged beating incident.

 Defendants Schenectady County, Barnes, Buffardi, and Elwell now move for summary judgement.

 I. Background

 Plaintiff Jeffes was hired by the Department as a Correction Officer in 1979. Jeffes was employed continually by the Department from 1979, until December 8, 1994, the time he left. Pl. Rule 7.1(f) Stat. at PP 1, 16. During that time, Jeffes was promoted to Lieutenant and appointed provisional major by defendant Barnes. Jeffes Dep. at 27, 45-53. During his employment at the Department, Jeffes was not the subject of any disciplinary action, Jeffes Aff. P 2, and no complaints were filed against him in the recent years prior to his departure. Barnes Dep. at 91, 101, 104-05, 112. Jeffes alleges that he was unable to continue to work at the jail and feared for his life due to acts of retaliation and harassment following his reporting of alleged officer misconduct at the jail. In August 1997, after failing to return to work pursuant to written notice, Jeffes was served with a Notice of Disciplinary Action stating that he was terminated effective August 31, 1997. Def. Schenectady County Rule 7.1(f) Stat. at P 9.

 Plaintiff Keenan was hired by the Department as a Correction Officer in 1982. After a provisional lay-off, he was rehired and subsequently appointed as a Booking Officer, the position he retained until he left the Department on July 23, 1996. Keenan Dep. at 11-13. Keenan was not the subject of any complaints in the recent years preceding his leaving the Department, and had in fact received numerous commendations during this time. Barnes Dep. at 172-74, 175-77. Keenan alleges that he was unable to continue to work at the jail and feared for his life due to acts of retaliation and harassment following his cooperation with federal authorities investigating alleged officer misconduct at the jail. In July 1997, after failing to return to work pursuant to written notice, Keenan was served with a Notice of Disciplinary Action stating that he was terminated effective July 7, 1997. Def. Schenectady County Rule 7.1(f) Stat. at P 23.

 Plaintiff Carlos was hired by the Department as a Correction Officer in 1981. He is currently employed in that same position. Carlos Dep. at 7, 59.

 On April 29, 1994, an incident allegedly occurred at the County Jail during the movement of a group of inmates from one section of the jail to another. These events later became the subject of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice concerning allegations that inmates were beaten by corrections officers during the transfer. Although Keenan and Carlos were on duty at the County Jail when the transfer occurred, Jeffes was not. Keenan Dep. at 20-22; Carlos Dep. at 18-20; Jeffes Dep. at 79. Keenan and Carlos later testified to activity surrounding the transfer of the inmates that they witnessed while present in the booking area. Keenan Dep. at 21-23, 28-30; Carlos Dep. at 35-37. Keenan and Carlos both testified at Grand Jury proceedings and a federal criminal trial in connection with activities surrounding the transfer. Def. Schenectady County Rule 7.1(f) Stat. PP 25, 26, 29, 30. Jeffes only testified at the Grand Jury proceedings. Def. Schenectady County Rule 7.1(f) Stat. P 5,6. Around early November, 1994, Jeffes appeared on television, with his voice and physical appearance disguised, making public statements concerning the alleged use of excessive force by correction officers upon inmates at the County Jail on April 29, 1994. Def. Schenectady County Rule 7.1(f) Stat. at P 3; Pl. Rule 7.1(f) Stat. at PP 2-4. Following this broadcast, Jeffes alleges that he was subjected to continued retaliation and harassment by his co-workers. Pl. Rule 7.1(f) Stat. at PP 9, 10. Keenan and Carlos similarly allege retaliation and harassment resulting from their cooperation with the Department of Justice investigation. *fn1" Pl. Rule 7.1(f) Stat. at PP 19-24; Keenan Dep. at 40-44; Carlos Dep. at 45-54; 57-61. Plaintiffs do not identify Barnes, Buffardi, or Elwell as directly engaging in any acts of retaliation themselves. Jeffes Dep. at 128-30; Keenan Dep. at 41, 61; Carlos Dep. at 12-16. Rather, plaintiffs seek to hold Barnes, Buffardi, and Elwell liable for their personal involvement under the doctrine of supervisory liability, claiming that they encouraged, authorized, approved, and acquiesced in the unconstitutional conduct of their subordinate employees. Pl. Compl. at PP 37-39, 40-45. Plaintiffs also seek to hold defendant Schenectady County liable for the alleged retaliation and harassment by its employees under Monell and its progeny.

 II. DISCUSSION

 A. Summary Judgment

 The Court will now address defendants' motions for summary judgment.

 1. The Standard for Summary Judgment

 The standard for summary judgment is well-settled. Under Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c), if there is "no genuine issue as to any material fact . . . the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law . . . where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the non-moving party." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 89 L. Ed. 2d 538, 106 S. Ct. 1348 (1986); see also Chertkova v. Connecticut Gen. Life Ins. Co., 92 F.3d 81, 86 (1996). The moving party bears the initial burden of "informing the . . . court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of 'the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with affidavits, if any,' which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265, 106 S. Ct. 2548 (1986) (quoting FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c)). The initial burden is to demonstrate "that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case." Id. at 325.

 Once the moving party has met its burden, the non-moving party must come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. See Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322; Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 585-86. A dispute regarding a material fact is genuine if a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party; that is, whether the non-movant's case, if proved at trial, would be sufficient to survive a motion for judgment as a matter of law. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250-51, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202, 106 S. Ct. 2505 (1986). When reasonable minds, however, could not differ as to the import of the evidence, then summary judgment is proper. Bryant v. Maffucci, 923 F.2d 979, 982 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 502 U.S. 849, 116 L. Ed. 2d 117, 112 S. Ct. 152 (1991).

 Although the trial court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all inferences in favor of that party against whom summary judgment is sought, Ramseur v. Chase Manhattan Bank, 865 F.2d 460, 465 (2d Cir. 1989); Eastway Constr. Corp. v. City of New York, 762 F.2d 243, 249 (2d Cir. 1985) cert. denied, 484 U.S. 918, 98 L. Ed. 2d 226, 108 S. Ct. 269 (1987), the motion will not be defeated by a non-movant who raises merely a "metaphysical doubt" concerning the facts or who only offers conjecture or surmise. Delaware & H.R. Co. v. Conrail, 902 F.2d 174, 178 (2d Cir.1990), cert. denied, 500 U.S. 928 (1991) (quoting Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586); see also Western World Ins. Co. v. Stack Oil, Inc., 922 F.2d 118, 121 (2d Cir. 1990). Indeed, the nonmoving party's opposition may not rest on mere allegations or denials of the moving party's pleading, but "must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." FED. R. CIV. P. 56(e).

 The Court is mindful that in cases where the employer's state of mind or motives are at issue, records of the employer will rarely document such factors, and as such, the materials before the district court in a summary judgment motion "must be carefully scrutinized" for circumstantial evidence about the employer's state of mind and those factors that motivated the challenged course of action. See Chertkova, 92 F.3d at 87; Chambers v. TRM Copy Cntrs. Corp., 43 F.3d 29, 37 (2d. Cir. 1994). Where such subjective issues are "squarely implicated," a multitude of factual inferences may arise where "reasonable persons may differ in their resolution." Patrick v. LeFevre, 745 F.2d 153, 159 (1984).

 It is with these considerations in mind that the Court addresses defendants' motions for summary judgment.

 2. Liability Under § 1983

 Defendants Barnes, Buffardi, and Elwell move for summary judgment dismissing plaintiffs' § 1983 claim against each defendant in both their individual and official capacities. Defendant Schenectady County also moves for summary judgment. Because official-capacity claims involve issues of municipal liability, the distinction between personal-capacity and official-capacity suits is critical in analyzing the liability and defenses of the defendants.

 The Supreme Court, in Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 87 L. Ed. 2d 114, 105 S. Ct. 3099 (1985), explained the relevant differences between the two types of claims:

 
Personal capacity suits seek to impose personal liability upon a government official for actions he takes under color of state law. Official-capacity suits, in contrast, "generally represent only another way of pleading an action against an entity of which an officer is an agent." As long as the government entity receives notice and an opportunity to respond, an official-capacity suit is, in all respects other than name, to be treated as a suit against the entity. It is not a suit against the official personally, for the real party in interest is the entity.

 Id. at 165-66 (emphasis in original) (internal citations omitted) (quoting Monell v. New York City Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 690 n.55, 56 L. Ed. 2d 611, 98 S. Ct. 2018 (1978)). Because official-capacity claims are equivalent to claims against the entity, a plaintiff must establish that "the entity's policy or custom played a role in the violation of federal law." Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21, 24-25, 116 L. Ed. 2d 301, 112 S. Ct. 358 (1991) (quoting Graham, 473 U.S. at 166). This necessarily requires a Monell -type analysis sufficient to predicate liability for the governmental entity. For the same reasons, individuals sued in their official capacity are entitled only to those immunities and defenses that the governmental entity itself possesses. See id. at 25.

 In contrast, personal-capacity suits "seek to impose individual liability upon a government officer for actions taken under color of state law." Id. Thus, in establishing personal liability in a § 1983 claim, a plaintiff need only show that "the [government] official, acting under color of state law, caused the deprivation of a federal right." Id. (citing Graham, 473 U.S. at 166). Accordingly, a plaintiff need not show a connection to a governmental policy or custom that is required under Monell and its progeny. When such government officials are sued in their personal capacities, "they may assert personal immunity defenses such as objectively reasonable reliance on existing law." Id.

 Based upon this distinction, district courts have dismissed official-capacity claims against individuals as redundant or unnecessary where Monell claims were also asserted against the entity. See, e.g., Union R.R. v. Village of S. Barrington, 958 F. Supp. 1285 (N.D. Ill. 1997); Vance v. Santa Clara, 928 F. Supp. 993 (N.D. Cal. 1996); Doe v. Rains Indep. Sch. Dist., 865 F. Supp. 375, 378 (E.D. Tex. 1994), rev'd on other grounds, 66 F.3d 1402 (5th Cir. 1995); Doe v. Douglas County Sch. Dist., 775 F. Supp. 1414, 1416 (D.Colo. 1991). In this case, because plaintiffs bring both official-capacity claims against the individual defendants and a Monell -type claim against Schenectady County, the Court dismisses plaintiffs' official-capacity claims against Barnes, Buffardi, and Elwell.

 The Court now addresses defendants' motions insofar as they attack plaintiffs' personal-capacity § 1983 claims.

 B. First Amendment Claim

 To prevail on a First Amendment retaliation claim under section 1983, plaintiffs must establish that "(1) their 'conduct is deserving of First Amendment protection' and (2) the defendants' conduct 'was motivated by or substantially caused by plaintiffs' exercise of free speech.'" Hankard v. Town of Avon, 126 F.3d 418, 421-22 (2d Cir. 1997) (citations omitted); see also Mt. Healthy City Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274, 287, 50 L. Ed. 2d 471, 97 S. Ct. 568 (1977); Bernheim v. Litt, 79 F.3d 318, 324 (2d Cir. 1996). Recognizing that a public employee's right to freedom of speech is not absolute, courts have employed an additional balancing test when disputes arise involving First Amendment rights of public employees. See Bernheim, 79 F.3d at 324. Here, the court must determine whether the employee's interests in commenting on matters of public concern outweigh the government's interest in maintaining effective and efficient public services for its citizens. See id.; see also Connick v. ...


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