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BATES v. BIGGER

March 12, 2002

MELISSA BATES AND JOHN MAHONEY, PLAINTIFFS,
V.
FRANK BIGGER, JOHN THOMPSON, RAY MCDONALD, DENNIS BARRY, RICHARD ONORATI AND RICHARD DENEHY, ALL SUED IN THEIR INDIVIDUAL CAPACITIES, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: William C. Conner, Senior District Judge.

  OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiffs Melissa Bates and John Mahoney bring the instant action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against officers of the Orange County Sheriffs Department alleging that defendants retaliated against them for exercising their First Amendment rights of intimate association and access to the courts. The Complaint names as defendants Sheriff Frank Bigger, Undersheriff John Thompson, Chief Ray McDonald, Captain Dennis Barry, Lieutenant Richard Onorati (collectively the "department defendants") and Sergeant Richard Denehy, each in his individual capacity. Defendants now move for summary judgment pursuant to FED. R. CIV. P. 56.*fn1 For the reasons that follow, defendants' motion is granted in its entirety.

BACKGROUND

The following facts are undisputed except where otherwise indicated. Plaintiffs are deputy sheriffs in the Orange County Sheriffs Office in Goshen, New York (the "Sheriffs Office"). In late 1999, while both were married and living with their respective spouses, plaintiffs began a romantic, extra-marital relationship. (Complt. ¶ 9; Bates Dep. at 15-16.) The Sheriffs Office does not have any rules prohibiting officers from dating one another. (Pls. Mem. Opp. Summ. J. at 2.) Both plaintiffs commenced divorce proceedings against their spouses sometime in the year 2000.*fn2 Before March of 2000, plaintiff Mahoney and his supervisor, defendant Denehy, were personal friends and enjoyed a good professional relationship. (Defs. Rule 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 4.) However, beginning around the time that he learned of plaintiffs' relationship, Denehy began to publicly berate plaintiffs. (Id. ¶ 5; Complt. ¶ 12; Bates Dep. at 17.) For example, plaintiffs recount one occasion at a local bar in March of 2000 when Denehy told other officers that he disapproved of plaintiffs' relationship and made insulting and vulgar comments about Bates. (Pls. Mem. Opp. Summ. J. at 3.) In the summer of 2000, as Denehy continued to make negative comments about Bates to third parties, Mahoney voiced his concerns about Denehy's behavior to Barry, who told him to document and report any future incidents. (Id. at 4.)

The tension between Denehy and plaintiffs erupted at the wedding of a colleague on August 19, 2000 (the "Ring wedding"). According to plaintiffs, Denehy began the confrontation by grumbling something under his breath after Mahoney flicked ice across the table at another deputy. (Mahoney Dep. at 49.) When Mahoney responded with "fuck you Rich," Denehy allegedly became enraged, threatened to "kick [Mahoney's] ass all over the park," and made negative comments about Mahoney's parenting. (Id. at 5; Mahoney Dep. at 49-50.) After this angry exchange, plaintiffs left the Ring wedding in order to avoid a physical confrontation. (Mahoney Dep. at 50.) As they left, Denehy allegedly yelled after them: "Go ahead and leave with your whore." (Id. at 51.)

Mahoney called Barry at his home the next day to report the confrontation at the Ring wedding. (Pls. Mem. Opp. Summ. J. at 5.) Denehy contacted Thompson the same day to give his account of the incident. (Id.) Upon returning to work on Monday, August 20th, Mahoney was called to the Sheriffs Office for a meeting to discuss the Ring wedding incident. At the meeting, Denehy, Bates and Mahoney were each interviewed by Thompson, McDonald and Barry while Bigger sat in. (Defs. Rule 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 10; Pls. Reply Defs. Rule 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 10.) In addition to discussing the events at the Ring wedding, plaintiffs reported the denigrating comments that Denehy had been making, and discussed their impact on Bates in particular. (Defs. Rule 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 11.) Mahoney discussed the recent tension that existed between Denehy and himself (Mahoney Dep. at 69-70), and Bates explained that she was humiliated by Denehy's treatment and wanted it to stop. (Bates Dep. at 36.) Denehy admitted to making disparaging comments about Bates. (Thompson Dep. at 16.) For his actions, Denehy was written up and received a counseling letter. (Id. at 18.)

At the time of the meeting, Denehy was Mahoney's immediate superior officer and Bates, although working under a different supervisor, was at a post contiguous to Denehy's. All three worked the day shift. (Defs. Rule 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 9.) According to plaintiffs, they never requested a shift transfer. (Pls. Mem. Opp. Summ. J. at 6; Thompson Dep. at 19; Bigger Dep. at 21.) On August 24, 2000, plaintiffs both received twenty-one-day notices of transfer from the day shift to the three-to-eleven evening shift. (Pls. Mem. Opp. Summ. J. at 8.) After the transfer, Mahoney would no longer work under Denehy's immediate supervision*fn3 and Bates would no longer work the same hours as Denehy at her contiguous post. (Defs. Rule 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 12; Mahoney Dep. at 77-78.) Defendants claim that they initiated these shift transfers in order to separate plaintiffs from Denehy, and because transferring Denehy would create administrative difficulty as a result of Denehy's superior position. (Burke Aff. ¶¶ 13, 15.)*fn4 Plaintiffs, however, maintain that they were given no explanation for the transfer.*fn5 (Pls. Mem. Opp. Summ. J. at 8.) Plaintiffs immediately complained about their transfer to the evening shift. According to Mahoney, the shift interfered with his hours of visitation rights with his children. (Mahoney Dep. at 25.) Bates complained that the shift transfer was a form of punishment. (Bates Dep. at 37.) On the evening of August 24th, after receiving their shift transfer notices, Mahoney filed a criminal complaint with the New York State Police (the "criminal complaint") concerning Denehy's conduct at the Ring wedding.*fn6 The case was never prosecuted. (Mahoney Dep. at 82.)

Plaintiffs claim that Denehy continued to harass them on a daily basis over the twenty-one days before their transfers became effective. (Pls. Mem. Opp. Summ. J. at 9.) Denehy hassled Mahoney whenever he entered the Communications area where Bates worked and also yelled things at Bates. (Id.; Cardinale Dep. at 13.) On August 25, 2000, the day after Mahoney filed the criminal complaint, Denehy made an entry in a log book falsely stating that he had informed Bates of a shift in mandatory overtime. (Pls. Mem. Opp. Summ. J. at 8.) Denehy claims that he made the entry intending to inform Bates of the shift in the future, and admits that he understood that Bates was subject to discipline if she failed to comply with mandatory overtime. (Denehy Dep. at 32-33.) Bates, however, never received any discipline with respect to mandatory overtime. (Onorati Dep. at 10.) Although Bates told Onorati about the false entry, Denehy was never disciplined for this conduct. (Id. at 7.)

In another incident of alleged harassment by Denehy in early September 2000, Denehy issued a notice requiring all deputies to request permission prior to returning from the road to the Sheriffs Office, although permission was not previously required. (Watkins Aff., Ex. 6.) According to the testimony of another officer, Denehy instituted this procedure to prevent Mahoney from bringing lunch to Bates during the course of the day. (Cardinale Dep. at 10.) Denehy stopped enforcing the procedure after plaintiffs' transfers. (Id.)

At some time prior to the time that plaintiffs' transfer orders went into effect, Denehy transferred Mahoney to a post at the Department of Social Services ("DSS") in Newburgh for one week.*fn7 (Pls. Mem. Opp. Summ. J. at 9.) Apparently, this position was considered a less desirable post to which deputies were assigned if they were new, disliked, or being punished for an infraction. (Id.; Dunn Dep. at 22.)

On September 25, 2000, after their transfers had taken effect, plaintiffs filed union grievances complaining that they considered the shift transfers unjust, requesting that they be returned to a work schedule that did not conflict with their personal or professional lives, and seeking the elimination of any possibility of future harassment. (Watkins Aff., Ex. 5.)

After plaintiffs filed their grievances, on October 4, 2000,*fn8 Mahoney received a letter of ten-day suspension for insulting comments made about Bigger to Investigator Baxter on September 24, 2000.*fn9 (Id. Ex. 7.) The suspension was based on a written report that Baxter made to McDonald detailing the denigrating remarks that Mahoney made about Bigger. According to Baxter, after he had repeated Mahoney's comment to other officers, Denehy informed him that Bigger was upset and that McDonald wanted him to report the conversation in writing. (Baxter Dep. at 30.) Although Baxter repeated this comment in public, he was never disciplined. (Pls. Mem. Opp. Summ. J. at 10-11.) After Mahoney filed a grievance for the suspension, claiming that it was in retaliation for his complaints against Denehy, (id. at 10), Thompson conducted a hearing on the suspension. During the hearing, Mahoney explained that he made the comment while in a closed police car, and that he was merely repeating someone else's comment that he found amusing. (Id.) Thompson allegedly asked Mahoney how long his divorce would take and stated that he wished Denehy and Mahoney would just go outside and "kick the shit out of each other and get it over with already." (Id; Mahoney Dep. at 110.) At the conclusion of the hearing, Mahoney was told that he wouldn't be suspended, but that a letter would be placed in his file. (Mahoney Dep. at 110-11.)

On October 10, 2000, Mahoney was notified by McDonald that he had been removed from his position on the elite Narcotics Entry team, a special unit within the Sheriffs Department. (Pls. Mem. Opp. Summ. J. at 11.) Before his removal, Mahoney had been moved back from the point position to a lower position, allegedly in order to separate him from Denehy and make for a safer working environment. (Burke Aff. ¶ 19.) Denehy's position on the team was also moved at that time. (Baxter Dep. at 22.) According to defendants, Mahoney was ultimately removed from the team because he was discovered copying the rosters of all the search teams in order to support a claim that his removal from the point position was a form of harassment. (Burke Aff. ¶¶ 21-22.) After copying the files, Mahoney removed them from the office and placed them in Bates's car, which was apparently a breach of security. (Id.) After this event, Mahoney received notice from McDonald that he would be removed from the team. (Mahoney Dep. II at 37.) Mahoney maintains that he was never told the reason for his removal. (Id. at 36.)

On October 25, 2000, plaintiffs filed "marital status" and "retaliation" complaints (the "discrimination complaints") with the Orange County Department of Personnel ("OCDP") (Watkins Aff., Exs. 10, 11.) In response, the OCDP questioned a number of officers with respect to plaintiffs' complaints. ...


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