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Vibert v. County of Rensselaer

United States District Court, N.D. New York

September 7, 2017

RUTH FREDERICKS VIBERT, Plaintiff,
v.
COUNTY OF RENSSELAER, et al., Defendants.

          FOR THE PLAINTIFF: LAW OFFICES OF ELMER ROBERT KEACH, III, P.C.

          FOR THE DEFENDANTS: BAILEY, JOHNSON PC

          MEMORANDUM-DECISION AND ORDER

          GARY L. SHARPE SENIOR DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Ruth Fredericks Vibert commenced this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging a First Amendment retaliation claim, an equal protection violation, [1] and a violation of New York Civil Service Law § 75-b against defendants County of Rensselaer, Jack Mahar, and Anthony Patricelli. (Compl. ¶¶ 24-42, Dkt. No. 1.)[2] Pending is defendants' motion for summary judgment. (Dkt. Nos. 61, 62, 63, 66.) For the reasons that follow, the motion is denied.

         II. Background[3]

         At the time relevant to this matter, Vibert was the Chief of Corrections - one of three divisions - in the Rensselaer County Sheriff's Office. (Defs.' Statement of Material Facts (SMF) ¶¶ 1, 5, Dkt. No. 62, Attach. 2.) She was appointed as Chief of Corrections on or about March 19, 2012 and served in that position until about March 18, 2013. (Id. ¶¶ 12-14.) By job description, the Chief of Corrections was required to have a four-year degree. (Id. ¶ 16.) Mahar, the Sheriff, oversaw all three divisions and was responsible for hiring and firing; he had “complete discretion relative to any employment decisions associated with [the] Chief of Corrections . . . position.” (Id. ¶¶ 2, 7, 8, 15.) Vibert did not have the requisite degree but agreed to earn a two-year degree within the first year of her employment. (Id. ¶¶ 18, 19.) Mahar apparently made an accommodation and effectively modified the job description to require only a two-year degree. (Id. ¶ 20.) The parties disagree as to whether Mahar ever had discussions with Vibert regarding her job performance and professionalism, but if any such meetings took place, the parties agree that they were not documented. (Id. ¶¶ 24, 25.)

         On February 15, 2013, Vibert contacted Mahar in the evening on his mobile telephone to seek guidance with regard to an incident between Sheriff's Office employees Master Sergeant Patricelli, alleged by Vibert to be Mahar's close personal friend, (Pl.'s SMF ¶ 14, Dkt. No. 75 at 31-43), and Corrections Officer John Gorman, (Defs.' SMF ¶¶ 4, 26). Mahar directed Vibert to “not get involved” in an incident, which, in his view - one with which Vibert disagrees - occurred outside the workplace. (Id. ¶ 27; Dkt. No. 63 ¶ 13.) Vibert approached Mahar four days later, this time in person at work and with documents in hand related to the incident, to again address the episode between Patricelli and Gorman. (Defs.' SMF ¶ 30; Dkt. No. 66, Attach. 1 at 65, 67.) Mahar reiterated that Vibert should not interfere. (Defs.' SMF ¶ 31.) At that point, the New York State Police were conducting an investigation into the incident of which Vibert was aware. (Id. ¶ 33.) Vibert contends, and defendants deny, that Mahar “instructed her to shred the documents” and to “retaliate against Officer Gorman by taking unjustified and adverse employment action against him.” (Pl.'s SMF ¶¶ 15, 16, 18.) “Vibert told Undersheriff Patrick Russo about . . . Mahar's instruction to shred the documents, ” and “he advised [her] not to shred any documents.” (Id. ¶ 20.)

         While the parties disagree on the timing, at some point, Mahar became aware that Gorman had “prepared a Workplace Violence Prevention Incident Report, ” which was among the documents that Vibert wanted Mahar to review. (Id. ¶ 38; Pl.'s SMF ¶ 6.) “Around th[e] same time period, . . . Mahar was reminded by his confidential secretary of . . . Vibert's obligation to complete her two-year degree within a period of one year.” (Defs.' SMF ¶ 40.) Vibert was subsequently unable to produce the requisite degree upon request by Mahar. (Id. ¶¶ 41-42; Dkt. No. 66, Attach. 25.) By letter dated March 1, 2013, Vibert was notified that her employment would be terminated as of March 18, 2013 for failure to meet the degree requirement. (Defs.' SMF ¶¶ 42, 45; Dkt. No. 66, Attach. 26.)

         Vibert commenced this action in 2014. (See generally Compl.) Following the completion of discovery, defendants moved for summary judgment. (Dkt. No. 61.)

         III. Standard of Review

         The standard of review pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56 is well established and will not be repeated here. For a full discussion of the standard, the court refers the parties to its decision in Wagner v. Swarts, 827 F.Supp.2d 85, 92 (N.D.N.Y. 2011), aff'd sub nom. Wagner v. Sprague, 489 F. App'x 500 (2d Cir. 2012).

         IV. Discussion

         A. First ...


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