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Kenneth Monz v. Rocky Point Fire District

February 15, 2012

KENNETH MONZ, PLAINTIFF,
v.
ROCKY POINT FIRE DISTRICT, ROCKY POINT FIRE DEPARTMENT, ENGINE CO. #1 OF THE ROCKY POINT FIRE DEPARTMENT, ANTHONY GALLINO, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS CAPACITY AS CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD OF THE ROCKY POINT FIRE DISTRICT BOARD OF FIRE COMMISSIONERS, WILLIAM LATTMAN, ALFONSE TIZANO, ANN LOGAN, DAVID BREWER, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN THEIR OFFICIAL CAPACITIES AS MEMBERS OF THE ROCKY POINT FIRE DISTRICT BOARD OF FIRE COMMISSIONERS, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Seybert, District Judge:

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

Plaintiff Kenneth Monz ("Plaintiff" or "Monz") commenced this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 on October 23, 2006, against the Rocky Point Fire District (the "District"), the Rocky Point Fire Department (the "Department"), Engine Company #1 of the Rocky Point Fire Department, and the following individuals in their individual and official capacities: Anthony Gallino, William Lattman, Alfonse Tizano, Ann Logan, and David Brewer (collectively, "Defendants"), alleging that they violated his federal and state constitutional rights when they denied him reinstatement as a volunteer fireman.

On December 14, 2009, the Court granted partial summary judgment in favor of Defendants, dismissing all claims against the Department, Engine Company #1, Alfonse Tizano, and Ann Logan. The remaining Defendants--the District, Gallino, Lattman, and Brewer (collectively the "Moving Defendants")--proceeded to trial on Plaintiff's First Amendment retaliation claim.

A jury trial took place on June 1-2, 2011. The jury found in favor of Plaintiff against each of the Moving Defendants and awarded Plaintiff $350,000 in compensatory damages. Presently before the Court are the Moving Defendants' post-trial motions for (i) judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b), or (ii) in the alternative, for a new trial, remittitur, or a new trial as to damages under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59. For the following reasons, the Moving Defendants' Rule 50(b) motion is GRANTED and their Rule 59 motions are DENIED AS MOOT.

BACKGROUND

The Court assumes familiarity with the procedural background of this case and, thus, will focus solely on the testimony and other evidence introduced at trial.

I. Structure of the Department and its Policies

The Department is separated into four companies--each with its own members and elected officers. (Tr. 82-83, 104, 190.)*fn1 Each company elects who among its members will serve as lieutenants and the captain, and the members of the Department as a whole elect who will serve as the chief and deputy chiefs. (Tr. 83-85.) The officers' duties include overseeing the fire and rescue scenes, managing personnel and membership, and disciplining members. (Tr. 83.)

The District, on the other hand, has a more administrative role. (Tr. 83.) It is run by a Board of Fire Commissioners (the "Board") which is elected by the public at large. (Tr. 83.) The Commissioners are in charge of all buildings and grounds in the District and all equipment owned by the District. (Tr. 83.) They are also in charge of the District's finances, including approving purchases, formulating a budget and overseeing the District's paid employees. (Tr. 83.)

All firefighters in the Department serve on a volunteer basis in one of the four companies. They are evaluated annually by the chief based on their level of participation in the Department's activities, including, for example, responding to fires and attending trainings and meetings. (Tr. 50-51, 85.) The Department's more junior members are required to achieve a higher percentage of participation than the Department's more senior members. (Tr. 86.) Firefighters who fail to achieve their required percentage points are considered in "bad standing." (Tr. 46, 50, 86-88.)*fn2

Given the volunteer nature of the Department, members often take leaves of absence or temporarily resign for family or other personal issues. (Tr. 33, 176, 223.) The testimony adduced at trial suggests that whether a person is in good or bad standing will impact the resignation process and a volunteer's ability to return to the Department. Monz testified that he has only heard of one person who was ever required to leave in bad standing, and that was because, in addition to being low in percentage points, the individual had a drinking problem and damaged some District property. (Tr. 46-47.)*fn3

Nonetheless, he stated that if an individual did leave in bad standing and wished to return to the Department, "[he] would have to file like [he] never belonged." (Tr. 47.) This requires the approval of the individual company for which he wants to be a member, the Department as a whole, and the Board. (Tr. 47.) If an individual resigned in good standing, "the requirement was only just to hang around the firehouse for a couple of months and show an interest." (Tr. 32.) Monz testified that he has "never really seen a problem with anybody coming back." (Tr. 33.)

Monz's testimony is contradicted somewhat by the testimony of the Defendants. Brewer testified initially that a member who resigned in bad standing could never rejoin the Department, and a member who resigned in good standing would have to be voted in by his company, the Department, and the Board. (Tr. 95-97.) In February 2004, the Board changed its policy regarding reinstatement of members in bad standing, allowing them to apply for reinstatement after one year. (Tr. 96; Pl. Ex. 6.)*fn4 This period has since been extended to three years. (Tr. 113-14.)

Members may also obtain "honorary status." This requires a minimum of fifteen years with the Department and good standing. (Tr. 145.) Whether an individual is entitled to honorary status is determined by the chief. (Tr. 88.)

II. Monz's Tenure as a Volunteer Firefighter

Monz joined the Department in 1971 and served on-and- off*fn5 as a member of Company #1 until November 12, 2003. (Tr. 31; Ex. 4.) He was an accomplished firefighter, winning a "Heroism and Community Service Award" and a "Medal of Valor" in 2000 for involvement in a water rescue (Pl. Ex. 1), and served Company #1 as an officer--first as a lieutenant and then as captain (Tr. 33-35).

A. Alcohol Policy

In 2001, during his tenure as captain of Company #1, Monz lobbied for changes to the Department's alcohol policy. He testified: "I didn't like the way things were being done there, drinking at any time, 11:00, 10 o'clock in the morning, guys half crocked, and some of these members were drivers." (Tr. 39.) So he "sort of pushed on the drinking rules. And leaned on it pretty hard." (Tr. 39.) He testified that he attended meetings with the Department's officers and "actually got loud about it." (Tr. 39.) Shortly thereafter, as a result of his efforts, the Board approved a change in the alcohol policy: the hours during which members could drink were restricted and all alcohol was locked up during non-drinking hours. (Tr. 39.) Monz testified that "[m]ost of the drinkers," including "[b]est friends" Hank Strong and Defendant Lattman, then chief of the Department, were opposed to these changes.*fn6 (Tr. 39-40, 143.) In fact, Lattman later unsuccessfully lobbied to have the drinking hours extended. (Tr. 140.)

B. Campaign Poster Incident

Monz testified that "after all that drinking thing calmed down and everything," he decided to run for the position of third assistant chief of the Department in the 2002 election. (Tr. 40.) Ann Logan*fn7 and Lattman were also running in that election: Logan was a Commissioner seeking re-election and Lattman was running against her. (Tr. 40-41, 140.) Both Logan and Lattman hung posters in Company #1. One night during the campaign, Monz caught members of Company #2 on video surveillance entering into Company #1's firehouse and drawing a mustache and beard on Logan's campaign poster. (Tr. 41.) Monz testified that, at the time, he felt that "these guys ha[d] to be suspended, this can't happen. You don't come into another company." (Tr. 42.) So Monz called a meeting, "which officers are supposed to do," to discuss disciplining the members of Company #2 who defaced Logan's poster. (Tr. 42.) Lattman, the chief at the time, was unavailable, so the issue was handled by Strong, a then-assistant chief. (Tr. 42-43.) Monz testified that he "demanded" a social suspension--meaning that they could continue to fight fires, train, and attend meeting, but they could not socialize in the firehouse.*fn8 (Tr. 42.) Strong disagreed, and they "argued back and forth." ...


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