United States District Court, D. Massachusetts
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER REGARDING PARTIES’ CROSS-MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (Dkt. Nos. 14, 19)
MARK G. MASTROIANNI United States District Judge
Scott Muir (“Plaintiff”) brings this action against the Town of Stockbridge (the “Town” or “Defendant”) pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The claims arise out of Plaintiff’s dismissal as an employee of Defendant. Plaintiff was employed by Defendant in 2012 when he was arrested for sexual assaults alleged to have occurred several years earlier. Defendant placed Plaintiff on suspension, pursuant to Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 268A (“Chapter 268A”) § 25, for the duration of his criminal proceedings. Plaintiff was acquitted in a jury trial in January 2014 and sought reinstatement to his previous position. Plaintiff was not returned to his job-the parties contest whether he was reinstated and then put on a separate paid administrative leave in February 2014, or whether his original suspension remained in place. Plaintiff was formally dismissed in March 2014.
In Count I, Plaintiff alleges Defendant deprived him of his 14th Amendment property rights by denying his right to be reinstated to his employment with Defendant following his acquittal pursuant to Chapter 268A. In Count II, Plaintiff alleges Defendant deprived him of his 14th Amendment liberty interest in obtaining future employment by disseminating a false and defamatory impression about him and failing to provide him with a post-termination hearing. Plaintiff and Defendant have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, the court allows Defendant’s motion for summary judgment and denies Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment.
II. Standard of Review
The entry of summary judgment is warranted when the evidence produced in a case shows that “there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.” Pina v. Children’s Place, 740 F.3d 785, 795 (1st Cir. 2014) (quoting Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986)). In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the court must “draw all reasonable inferences in the nonmovant’s favor, ” but the court must not “draw unreasonable inferences or credit bald assertions, empty conclusions, rank conjecture, or vitriolic invective.” Id. “If a nonmovant bears the ultimate burden of proof on a given issue, she must present ‘definite, competent evidence’ sufficient to establish the elements of her claim in order to survive a motion for summary judgment.” Id. at 795-96 (quoting Mesnick v. Gen. Elec. Co., 950 F.2d 816, 822 (1st Cir. 1991)). When the parties file cross-motions for summary judgment, the court must “employ the same standard of review, but view each motion separately, drawing all inferences in favor of the nonmoving party.” Fadili v. Deutsche Bank Nat’l Tr. Co., 772 F.3d 951, 953 (1st Cir. 2014).
This case involves a lengthy factual and procedural background that is well known to the parties, which the court briefly summarizes. From 2002 until 2007, Plaintiff worked for the Berkshire Hills Regional School District (the “School District”) as a Student Center Support Coordinator. His job entailed working with behaviorally challenged elementary school children. (Dkt. No. 15-1, Pl. Statement of Facts (“SOF”) ¶ 5.) In June 2007, due to a loss of funding, Plaintiff’s position at the School District was eliminated. (Id. ¶ 7.) In September 2007, Plaintiff was hired by Defendant as its Facilities Director, and he was hired to an additional position as Defendant’s Emergency Management Director in January 2008. (Id. ¶¶ 8-9.)
On April 5, 2012, Plaintiff was arrested by the Massachusetts State Police and charged with 20 counts of sexual assault, which were alleged to have occurred between 2003 and 2006 while he was an employee of the School District. (Id. ¶ 14; Dkt. No. 21, Def. SOF ¶ 1.) No criminal charges were based on the timeframe when Plaintiff was employed by Defendant. (Pl. SOF ¶ 18.) On May 19, 2012, Defendant suspended Plaintiff without pay (see Pl. SOF ¶ 15; Def. SOF ¶ 5) pursuant to Chapter 268A § 25, which states that a town may suspend an employee without pay during any period when such employee is under indictment for misconduct.
On January 28, 2014, Plaintiff was acquitted by a jury of all criminal charges after 94 minutes of deliberation. (Pl. SOF ¶ 21; Def. SOF ¶ 6.) Chapter 268A § 25 states that, if a suspended employee is acquitted of the charges against him, “his suspension shall be forthwith removed, and he shall receive all compensation or salary due him for the period of his suspension.” On February 19, 2014, Defendant sent Plaintiff a letter enclosing a check for all back pay owed to him between May 19, 2012 (the day his suspension began) and February 6, 2014. The letter stated “[a]dditional payments will be made to you for the remaining period of the suspension when the effective date of the removal of your suspension has been determined. This payment shall not be construed as an admission of your right to reinstatement, a determination which is presently being considered.” (Pl. SOF ¶¶ 23-24; Dkt. No. 16, “Pl. SOF Exhibits, ” Ex. 2; Def. SOF ¶ 7.) On February 20, 2014, Plaintiff’s attorney William Rota (who is not representing Plaintiff in this matter) sent a letter to inform Defendant that Plaintiff was awaiting his reinstatement. (Pl. SOF ¶ 25; Pl. SOF Exhibits, Ex. 3; Def. SOF ¶ 9.)
On February 21, 2014, Defendant sent another letter to Plaintiff, which stated that he was “being placed on indefinite administrative leave with pay.” (Pl. SOF ¶ 26; Pl. SOF Exhibits, Ex. 4; Def. SOF ¶ 10.) The letter also informed Plaintiff that the Town’s Board of Selectmen (the “Board”) would go into executive session on March 11, 2014 “to discuss [Plaintiff’s] discipline or dismissal” with respect to his two employment positions. (Pl. SOF ¶¶ 26-27, 29; Pl. SOF Exhibits, Ex. 4; Def. SOF ¶¶ 10-11.) The letter did not indicate why Plaintiff was being placed on administrative leave. (Pl. SOF ¶ 27.) Stephen Shatz, the Chairman of the Board, testified that he viewed the letter as a notice of hearing and believed it would be inappropriate to inform Plaintiff of the possible reasons for dismissal or discipline in the letter. (Id. ¶ 28; Dkt. No. 23, Def. Reply SOF ¶ 28.) While Mr. Shatz asserts no decision to dismiss Plaintiff had been made prior to the executive session, (see Pl. SOF ¶ 33), Mr. Shatz personally believed Plaintiff would be dismissed following the meeting, “but subject to . . . hearing from [Plaintiff] and his representative.” (Id. ¶ 38; Def. Reply SOF ¶ 38.)
On March 11, 2014, the executive session took place. (Pl. SOF ¶ 35; Def. SOF ¶ 12.) The Board followed a script that had been prepared ahead of time. (Pl. SOF ¶¶ 37, 39.) During the executive session, Mr. Shatz said, “[t]he decision to reinstate is, in effect, a decision to hire.” (Pl. SOF Exhibits, Ex. 5.) After Plaintiff and his counsel spoke in his defense at the executive session, the Board voted unanimously to dismiss Plaintiff both with cause and without cause. (Pl. SOF ¶ 41; Def. SOF ¶¶ 16-18; Dkt. No. 25, Pl. Reply SOF ¶¶ 16-17.) In support of the decision to dismiss Plaintiff with cause, Mr. Shatz cited Plaintiff’s testimony from his criminal trial that he allowed children to sit on his lap despite being warned not to do so, alleged complaints from other tenants in the town hall over Plaintiff’s presence, and a forensic analysis of Plaintiff’s work computer showing that he had viewed the Facebook profiles of several of the young women who ended up being his accusers. (Pl. SOF ¶¶ 46, 56, 59; Def. SOF ¶ 19.)
On March 12, 2014, the Berkshire Eagle published an article regarding Plaintiff’s dismissal. (Pl. SOF ¶ 70; Def. SOF ¶ 21; id., Ex. J.) In the article, Mr. Shatz disclosed Plaintiff’s dismissal, declined to discuss the reasons for the dismissal, and is quoted as saying, “[w]e believe we were well within our rights” to dismiss Plaintiff. (Def. SOF, Ex. J.) Plaintiff’s attorney at the time, Mr. Rota, was also quoted in the article. Mr. Rota stated, “[t]he town reinstated [Plaintiff] after he was acquitted and then placed him on administrative leave with pay.” (Id. ¶ 25; id., Ex. J.) Plaintiff concedes that Mr. Rota said this, but argues that “all evidence is to the contrary.” (Pl. Reply SOF ¶ 25.) Following Plaintiff’s dismissal and the publication of the article, Plaintiff ...